The Return of the Physics Graduate Organization
Experienced graduate students of the Physics Department today can remember a time in their PhDs when there was no such thing as a physics graduate organization. There had been one prior to their arrival, but participation had waned to such a degree that the endeavor was abandoned. Although grad students could not see at the time, they were missing a beneficial resource. However, two years ago, two enterprising graduate students, Elizabeth Lawson-Keister and Patrick Miles, resuscitated the Physics Graduate Organization. This time they took steps to ensure it would carry on enriching the lives and careers of the graduate student body long after they were gone.
Lawson-Keister was the one who crafted a large portion of the constitution, declared a mission statement, and put together a group of peers who could share the load of running such an organization in service to the graduate students. Although she was not the only one involved in bringing back the Physics Graduate Organization (PhyGO), Lawson-Keister was certainly the driving force behind it.
“I wanted to improve the cohesion and community among the physics graduate students,” says Lawson-Keister after being asked about her motivation for reviving the organization. “One big problem that graduate students face is the isolation after the end of first year. Everyone distributes into their own research groups, and it gets harder to stay in touch with other people.”
PhyGO began as an organization mostly devoted to community building. It is stated goals were in-line with Lawson-Keister’s remarks about community cohesion. PhyGO was structured as most student governing bodies are, with a President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, and an Event Coordinator. An additional position, Public Relations Officer, was added to interface with Syracuse University’s Graduate Student Organization (GSO), which works for graduate students across the entire university.
Under the leadership of Lawson-Keister as President and Miles as Vice President, PhyGO began work to improve the community connections amongst graduate students. The group’s initial events reflected this, as they facilitated social events such as movie nights, video game tournaments, and more.
One of the major social events that came in the year after PhyGO’s inception was a trip of more than two dozen students to Professor Jen Schwarz’s farm in Ithaca. Students explored apple orchards which had different types of apples, from sour to sweet and from tiny to large. Professor Schwarz provided students with a bag for apple picking and a tractor ride. Later students also explored the field that brussel sprouts and jalapeños were grown in and took some home with them. She also runs a shop which sells delicious donuts, which were given to students free of cost. After leaving the farm, graduate students either went on a hike or visited the Ithaca brewery.
Along with PhyGO’s goal of building community cohesion, some events were geared towards another objective, assisting the professional lives of the graduate students. Lawson-Keister remarks, “We [PhyGO] provide a bridge between the students and department. We have held town halls to discuss current problems the students are facing and distill this into information to the chair which has helped fix some issues.”
PhyGO also has two recurring events, one for incoming students and the second to help graduate students think about what comes after earning their degree. The first event is held in the middle of first year orientation. It is a closed-door conversation between new students and a panel of current graduate students of the department. Here the new students can ask anything to the old students that they might be too shy or embarrassed to ask to faculty or staff. “Even though I’ve been here four years now I still always learn something new at this event. This is also one of the first big opportunities to sit down and talk with all of the new incoming class,” Lawson-Keister says about the event.
The second event is the Industry Speaker Seminar Series. A couple times a semester, PhyGO members contact past physics graduate students who are now working in an industry or non-academic setting. These speakers will talk for about 45 minutes about their careers. After their talk, the speaker will have a discussion with the graduate students about any questions or topics the students wish to discuss. Tianna Aspen McBroom, the current PhyGO event coordinator, had this to say about the seminars, “My favorite events that we hosted were the talks for the Industry Speaker Seminar. Liz, the President of PhyGO, did the majority of work to bring these events together, and I thought it was a great idea to showcase industry speakers because we often focus heavily on showcasing academics when we host speakers.”
It was near the end of PhyGO’s first year that the Covid-19 pandemic began. Suddenly, every future event had to be virtual or canceled. Although they could no longer meet in person, PhyGO members still worked online to come up with ways to bring the student body together. Online communities were built around video games played by graduate students. Daily lunch meetings were organized online so that grads could still share lunch, a virtual replacement for the large groups that used to eat together in the department lounge. There was even a semi-weekly virtual happy hour every Friday after work. All of this to fight the isolation the students were experiencing.
Additionally, professional virtual events were organized during this time. The Industry Speaker series began during the pandemic; virtual environments enabled speakers to sit anywhere in the world while talking about their careers. PhyGO, in conjunction with the Equity Inclusivity and Diversity group (EID), screened Picture A Scientist, a documentary detailing the ubiquitous nature of sexism in the sciences. “It is a very well-done documentary with a compelling and important message, and we had a good department-wide discussion [including faculty and staff] after watching it together,” says Julia Giannini, PhyGO secretary for the past two years.
Vito Iaia, PhyGO Public Relations Officer, felt particularly called to action when the pandemic began, “In order to help graduate students cope with the pandemic I personally wanted to start a committee in GSO that tried to address any issues that grad students might be going through.” He started the Graduate Pandemic Committee, which became the largest committee in the GSO. This committee served as both a voice, advocating on behalf of the challenges graduate students faced, and a source of information on the pandemic such as running a virtual classroom, testing sites, where to seek medical help. More information about the plethora of work done by Iaia and the Pandemic committee can be found at gradorg.syr.edu/graduate-pandemic-committee.
With the pandemic winding down, the current PhyGO members are looking to build on the work of the last two years. Future events include a trip to the Syracuse Zoo and a virtual baking class led by Iaia, both free of charge to the graduate students. Additionally, PhyGO is in the middle of an election, and the new members will begin shadowing their predecessors at the end of July. By September, the responsibility of cultivating a strong and welcoming community will fall to the newly elected board.
It cannot be denied that in the two years since its inception, the many events and activities organized by PhyGO have built a more close-knit graduate community in the Physics Department. Newer graduate students do not know a Physics Department without PhyGO, and soon it will be their responsibility to carry the torch for the newer generations. Under the leadership of the newly elected officials, PhyGO will continue to enrich the experiences of graduate students for years to come as envisioned by the founders.