Celebrating Physics and Professor Barbara Whitten at Physics Homecoming
By Alana Aamodt ’18
Faculty, students, and alumni of the Physics Department came together last block for a weekend of talks, reconnections, and celebration in honor of a Physics Homecoming and the retirement of longtime professor Barbara Whitten.
The festivities began with two talks by world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne, who spoke on his personal role in the discovery of gravitational waves in a more intimate physics talk and prior to his broader lecture to campus and community members. One of the most influential living physicists, Thorne also served as the graduate advisor to Patricia Purdue, associate professor of physics and department chair, who introduced each of his talks. The evening concluded with an opening reception and time for alumni, faculty, and students to socialize with one another and with Thorne.
The following day was full of various alumni speakers and current professors giving talks such as “The Secret Life of Stellar Interactions” by Natalie Gosnell ’08, a new tenure-track CC professor, and “Household Energy and Health in Developing Countries” by Michael Johnson ’99. The day’s festivities concluded with a dinner in celebration of Whitten’s retirement, where friends, colleagues, and students spoke about her character and career.
Whitten received her B.A. from Carleton College in 1968 and went on to receive her Ph.D. in Computational Atomic Physics from University of Rochester. She was the first female faculty member in the Physics Department at Colorado College, where she explored her passion for diversifying physics and played a major role in shaping the department to become what it is today. Over the course of the last few decades, she has expanded beyond the realm of physics, exploring environmental science, feminist and gender studies, history, and sociology in conjunction with her love of physics. She’s played a pioneering role in encouraging inclusivity in the physics community, publishing papers covering topics like “What Works for Women in Undergraduate Physics? What We Can Learn from Women’s Colleges,” and she is part of a team to receive over $700,000 in grant money to develop a mentoring network for isolated female physicists.
After many years working as a professor, leaving CC is not easy for Whitten. When asked what she’ll miss the most about working at the college, she replied, the “sense I have of a community where we support each other. With all the things I’ve done here, I’ve had a sense that you were all behind me.” Even more so, she goes on to say she’ll miss “teaching and working with students. I love working with undergraduates, when you have something exciting you want to do, helping you figure out how best to do it. Helping you figure out the next step in your lives. And of course, helping you learn physics.”
Of her favorite part of the event, Whitten says “the most wonderful and memorable moment was when [the] women physics majors stood up together. [They] were behind me, so I turned around and saw them all standing there together—I still can’t talk about it without getting choked up.” She goes on to explain, “When I was an undergraduate many years ago, I was the only woman, not only in my class but in the five years around me,” accentuating the pride she has in her students.
In honor of Whitten and her contributions to CC, the college created the Barbara Whitten Prize for Women in the Natural Sciences this year; it will be given to “a woman student in the natural sciences who exemplifies Whitten’s model of achieving personal scientific excellence while helping others do the same. Personal scientific excellence is a combination of an excellent academic record in the natural sciences, and/or exceptional research in a scientific field. The recipient should also demonstrate a significant commitment to the advancement of women or underrepresented groups in the sciences through scholarly, community, pedagogical, or other work.”
This year’s recipient is Zoe Pierrat ’17, an environmental physics major and chemistry minor. A crowdfunding campaign is also underway to increase the dollar amount of the award.
Pierrat shares, “Barbara taught my first ‘real’ physics class, Modern Physics, and she didn’t hold back in terms of making the course difficult, but every step of the way she was encouraging and helpful with anything we needed as students. She has the ability to see people’s potential and always pushes them there.” After receiving the award at the Honors Convocation, Pierrat says, “I can’t even begin to say what it means to receive the Whitten Award, but overall I’m just incredibly grateful to have gotten so much support from fellow students and faculty.”
Whitten says after she retires, she’s planning plenty of travel, including trips to Iceland, Hawaii, and L’Anse aux Meadows (a Viking settlement in Newfoundland). She also has several in-progress research projects that she intends to complete in the next couple of years, and will spend more time with her children and take some time to relax.
Whitten also says that she’ll continue to study physics. “Even after 50 years as a physicist, there is so much I don’t know and would like to: Astrophysics, cosmology, and general relativity are at the top of my list.” While Whitten moves on from teaching at CC, her impact on the CC community will remain.