Advocating for Women in STEM

A first generation Mexican American and University of Central Florida student seeks to give voice to an underrepresented population.

UCF physics doctoral student Brian Zamarripa just won a National Science Foundation to fund his proposed research on gender disparity in the field of physics.

With parents hailing from Mexico, Zamarripa is part of a minority population himself. He believes that this can help him advocate for fellow underrepresented individuals, like women. Even though he is part of an underrepresented population, he says he does observe some privileges that he receives because of his gender.

“Some microagressions against women include not recognizing or including women in the workplace, sexist language and jokes, and restrictive gender roles,” he said. “These are all forms of sexism that I am less likely to be a target of due to being a man.”

Zamarripa found his way to UCF by participating in the American Physical Society’s Bridge Program, which is a program designed to aid people of underrepresented minorities in their pursuit of physics graduate degrees.  He started the doctoral program in the UCF Department of Physics in summer of 2016.

He’s part of the physics education research program, a research group that centers on studying physics in higher education. His work focuses specifically on the differences across gender.

Some of the most significant differences are in the numbers. According to the American Physical Society, less than 20 percent of undergraduate and doctoral students that earned degrees in physics in 2013 were women.

Zamarripa hopes to change that. He wants his work to support women’s interest in physics and their continued advancement. His research now has the monetary support from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program.

Zamarripa applied to the fellowship because of its requirements. Any proposed research has to benefit the scientific community as a whole – something he confidently saw in his work.

“When I first received the fellowship, it was unbelievable,” Zamarripa said. “I kind of just stared at the computer for ten minutes in disbelief.”

Zamarripa’s proposed research will study the differences in students’ attitudes toward physics. He said that studies show undergraduate men and women differ in the way that they think about physics.

An example is women underperforming academically. There is research that suggests underperformance is linked to confidence, interactions with other students and discouragement from the lack of equal representation within a class.

These differences are not as apparent with physicists working in the field. He wants to figure why and when exactly that shift in thinking happens.

An eventual goal of his is to discover what keeps women in physics and to promote it through workshops or other initiatives.

“Being able to positively change something for other people is my dream. I love this work and want it to make an impact,” Zamarripa said.

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