SPS Interns – Where are They Now? Part 1

SPS Interns – Where are They Now? Part 1

Celebrating 10 years of Teaching Guides

This year marks the tenth anniversary of one of the major educational endeavors at the Center for History of Physics (CHP). The Teaching Guides on History of the Physical Sciences (previously called the Teaching Guides on Women and Minorities in Physics, but we’ll just call them the “Teaching Guides”) first began in 2013 in an effort to diversify representation in the physics classroom. Now, ten years later, over 50 teaching guides are available online for K-12 classrooms, college professors, and anyone else who wants to learn about the diverse historical community of physical scientists.

The collection has expanded little by little every summer as it has been added to and worked on by graduate research assistants and interns from the Society of Physics Students (SPS). At CHP we have been delighted to welcome 14 SPS interns in total so far to work on the teaching guides, many of whom also spent time working with the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. We say it every year, but every summer our corner of AIP feels reinvigorated with the infectious energy our new coworkers bring and we’re always sad to see them leave. To mark the tenth anniversary of the teaching guides, I reconnected with some of our former interns to talk about their experiences and see where they are now.

Excerpts of these responses were featured in the Fall 2023 issue of the AIP History Newsletter. Below is Part 1 of the full responses from Cate Ryan, Brean Prefontaine, Emma Goulet, Maura Shapiro, MJ Keller, Samantha Spytek, and Simon Patané. Some of the responses were edited for clarity.

two women at computers

Graduate research assistant Emily Margolis and SPS intern Fiona Muir created the first teaching guides in 2013. Image credit: Greg Good.

Why did you decide to do an SPS internship?

Simon Patané (2014 SPS Intern): I was working with my undergraduate major advisor to understand some possible summer opportunities and she pointed me towards the SPS Internship. I was immediately drawn to not only the diverse set of experiences offered through the internship, but the opportunity to live in the DC area for a few months with a great group of people.

Brean Prefontaine (2015 SPS Intern): During my sophomore year, I was trying to figure out my place in physics. After completing a summer research project in astrophysics following my freshman year, I found that I wasn't genuinely engaged in the work. I started looking for ways to try out alternative paths I could take with my physics degree. This led me to explore the idea of teaching physics or working in physics education. When I heard about the SPS internship program, I thought it would be a great opportunity to work on a physics education project and explore different opportunities within physics.

Samantha Spytek (2016 SPS Intern): The SPS program was immediately attractive to me for several reasons. First, it was a paid internship at the headquarters for the American Institute of Physics, which not only is situated in DC, but also meant I would get to interact and network with people from more than just my subdivision and see how the structure of the institute functioned from the inside. Second, I was intrigued by the opportunity to do an internship in a very small cross-discipline that isn’t offered anywhere else – science history and education. The multidisciplinary aspect to the work coupled with the tours of NASA, NSTA and the Capital created a program that was perfectly designed to fit my needs.

Two women sit in a plane in a museum.

Maria McQuillan and Samantha Spytek sit in a plane at the College Park Aviation Museum. Courtesy Samantha Spytek

Catherine Ryan (2019 SPS Intern): I was looking for a science policy or history of science focused internship, so the options in the SPS internship were perfect for me. The semester before I applied to the SPS internship, I had taken a history of science/math class, which was very interesting and set me up well for the Niels Bohr Library and Archives internship and the work on the teaching guides.

Maura Shapiro (2021 SPS Intern): I knew I wanted to bridge the gap between physics and the humanities but wasn’t sure where to start. I thought the SPS internship offered a lot of interdisciplinary options that could lead to careers I was interested in – and was right!

Emma Goulet (2022 SPS Intern): I chose to pursue a Society of Physics Students (SPS) internship for a variety of reasons. First, I have always been deeply appreciative of the vibrant physics community that SPS fosters. It has been instrumental in keeping me in the physics field, shaping my passion for physics, and providing numerous opportunities for my personal and academic growth. I was very involved with my college’s SPS chapter (I was the president for three years), and got incredible opportunities to make friends, network, travel, and learn leadership/communication skills. SPS was a pivotal element of my college experience, and it was a no-brainer that I wanted to be more involved with and take advantage of the opportunities that it offered! With the SPS internship, I saw a chance not only to give back to this community but also to contribute to the larger mission (that I am very passionate about) of promoting science education and diversity in physics.

Moreover, the internship promised incredible physics career opportunities that I knew would be invaluable for my future. The Center for History of Physics / Niels Bohr Library & Archives / Society of Physics Students / American Institute of Physics has been very involved in physics research, education, and in the mission of diversifying the field. These efforts have been shown through multiple projects including the creation of the teaching guides focused on marginalized groups. This effort personally means a lot to me, fostering my passion for both physics and inclusion efforts in STEM. The opportunity also was an excellent way to gain hands-on experience in science communication and diversity/equity/inclusion outreach (it is SO important and I am always looking to learn more)!

materials on a long desk.

Brean Prefontaine and Connor Day put together an exhibit as part of their internship. Credit Brean Prefontaine.

The internship's location in the heart of Washington, D.C. was yet another appealing aspect. It offered a dynamic environment where I could engage with the political culture of D.C., attend (and help run!) science-related events, and experience the intersection of science and society.  The prospect of collaborating and living with fellow interns was equally exciting. Meeting other like-minded interns from diverse backgrounds seemed like an exciting chance to form lasting connections within the field; it turns out that I massively underestimated how close we would all become and how bonded we truly would be for the summer. The supportive social draw of the internship FAR exceeded my expectations as we quickly ended up doing something quite literally every single day, and still talk with hopes of getting the group together a year later.

In summary, my decision to pursue an SPS internship was driven by a combination of factors: my deep appreciation for the SPS/physics community, the promising career prospects, the vibrant D.C. location, and the opportunity to connect with other exceptional interns. It was an enriching experience that allowed me to give back, learn, and contribute to diversifying the field.

MJ Keller (2023 SPS Intern): As an SPS member at my university, I first heard about the internship program through my department. The program interested me primarily because it provided a counterbalance to the pure astrophysics research I conduct during the school year. The position at NBLA and CHP gave me an opportunity to work on scientific topics from a new perspective, which seemed an incredible and unique opportunity.

What aspect of the teaching guides did you work on?

Simon Patané (2014): We created a number of lesson plans and other teaching materials related to African Americans in physics and in other scientific fields.

Brean Prefontaine (2015): When I was working on the teaching guides, the project was still in its infancy. The guides we developed were focused specifically on women and Black physicists.

Samantha Spytek (2016): We were taking previously created guides and updating them to follow a format known in Physics Education Research as 5E, consolidating all guides and corresponding resources into one large database, identified NGSS standards for each lesson, and then we worked with the website division to update the page and make it accessible and easy to use. We also each made a few lessons of our own.

Catherine Ryan (2019): I worked on updating outdated language, added more details, and edited some of the questions on the Alan Turing teaching guide, and wrote all of the Black Holes and Telescopes: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar teaching guide.

Maura Shapiro (2021): I made four new teaching guides (three for Eunice Foote and one for Laura Bassi) and implemented a teaching guide in the classroom (but later, not during my internship)

Emma Goulet (2022): My involvement in crafting the teaching guides allowed me to delve into the captivating stories of two remarkable women physicists: Émilie du Châtelet and Katherine Clerk Maxwell. As an intern, I was tasked with choosing teaching guide topics (I chose Émilie du Châtelet and Katherine Clerk Maxwell), performing extensive research on the women, and creating teaching guides for an age group of my choice about them (I chose grades K-2). I made the teaching guides including their supplementary materials and did outreach for the women including conference presentations (American Association of Physics Teachers, Physics Congress, and a colloquium so far), Ex Libris Universum NBL&A Blog posts, the AIP History Newsletter, AIPHistory Twitter/Facebook posts, and edits on the women’s Wikipedia pages. I LOVED doing the historical research and the content creation, making their stories come alive for the students.

I embarked on an adventure of online research, mining every available resource to uncover their lives and scientific contributions. Particularly in the case of Katherine Clerk Maxwell, there was so little available information on her (even after reading through a lot of her husband’s personal letters/postcards/autobiographies) that I also connected with other professionals and authors in the field that had mentioned her name. Their insights and perspectives added layers of depth to the narratives I was constructing.

The Niels Bohr Library & Archives held tedious amounts of unearthed hidden gems from historical records on the women, including items like personal correspondences and documents that provided a firsthand glimpse into the worlds these physicists inhabited. It was like piecing together a puzzle of history, science, and personal stories.

My task was to celebrate their scientific achievements, highlighting that throughout history women and marginalized groups have shaped the world of physics. It was an honor to bring the stories of Émilie du Châtelet and Katherine Clerk Maxwell to life, allowing students to journey through time and learn of these genius contributors to modern physics education.

MJ Keller (2023): I created two new teaching guides from concept to completion. My first was about meteorology in WWII, specifically Charles E. Anderson, and taught middle- and high-school students the basics of forecasting and reading weather maps. My second covered the evolution of modern atomic theory, and was designed to aid students in creating a timeline of the great discoveries of the 20th century.

What are one or two good memories you had from that summer?

Simon Patané (2014): It’s very hard to point to one specific thing, every week that summer was incredible. One time that jumps out was when our intern group went to Capitol Hill for the 4th of July celebrations, it was an awesome time and we had an equally fun adventure getting home that evening.

Brean Prefontaine (2015): A couple of standout memories from that summer were the days when each pair of interns hosted the rest of the SPS intern group at their respective workplaces. For instance, we were able to visit capitol hill and got to eat in the basement cafeteria. We also visited NIST and saw a laboratory where they were testing bulletproof material. When it was our turn as the AIP interns, we worked with the archive staff to pull some interesting physics materials to curate an exhibit for the other interns. Oh, also all the interns went to the Congressional Baseball Game!

Samantha Spytek (2016): I had a great summer, and it’s hard to pick out only a few memories to share. I would say that the camaraderie I had with my fellow teammates made working a lot of fun, and we functioned so smoothly together it was easy to get our work done and stay on course for completing the project. There were several times I would go into the library and just go through, looking for interesting books to read. I made friends with people all around the building and would go chat with them when work was slow.

Catherine Ryan (2019): My favorite work memories all took place in the archives. I loved having access to so much knowledge and science history. I read through a copy of the Royal Society’s publication from 1784, which contains the first published thought about black holes. It is hard to pick just one more fantastic memory from my summer as an intern. I had so much fun with my cohort. We all became very close friends. I think back often to our shared family dinners and all the birthdays we celebrated together. It brought me so much joy to be with a group of people who just got me. That can be hard to find as a physics kid. I was just recently in my fellow 2019 SPS intern’s wedding as a bridesmaid. That is my favorite SPS related memory since the summer of 2019.

A room. It looks like the interior of a retro video game room.

The Niels Bohr Library & Archives Gather room. Corinne, the blog editor, is the only occupant at the time of this screenshot, but she is not lonely, thanks to the dog on fire, the ham on the couch, the seal, and the venus fly trap warming itself by a trashcan fire. The library and history teams enjoy using this room for informal virtual meetups and often play Pictionary.

Maura Shapiro (2021): It’s tough to choose! I really loved meeting everyone and hanging out on Gather (https://app.gather.town/app). NBLA and CHP is such an incredible team with some of the most wonderful people I’ve met. The energy which group gatherings have is  always fun, even when they’re online. I guess that’s not a specific memory, but I am having trouble separating memories from the summer with stuff that happened while working on the podcast. I remember writing the Physics Today article about Eunice Foote and interviewing some of the people who helped publicize her. I was so nervous and was far out of my comfort zone, but they both reassured me and encouraged me. It made me feel that I was part of the science history community and that we were all working together to share the stories that have been overlooked. It felt really special to be part of a team working to correct history.

Emma Goulet (2022): It is overwhelming to consider the number of amazing memories that were made from last summer! I genuinely consider last summer to be one of the best times of my life and I have been feeling INCREDIBLY grateful to have experienced it with such amazing other interns and mentors. All of the interns have continued to keep in touch (we are hoping to get ourselves together at some point, though everyone lives far and wide) and I am both thankful to have experienced it and sad that my time is passed.

There are limitless great memories—we made an effort to get together at the local happy hour location every week for their $5 totchos (delectable tater-tot-nachos), had multiple delicious potlucks (the interns were incredible cooks), and took full advantage of the city’s free events (free movies, free food, free kayak paddles, and free events of any kind). My room with Janessa ended up being one of the main locations to hang out in called the ‘consignment,’ with our door full of objects/pictures/memories that we amassed over the summer, and every single night some combination of interns could be found in our living room. Looking back, I am so impressed and overwhelmingly proud of all the interns for being so unimaginably kind and willing to spend every second with each other.

The summer was an absolute dream full of game nights, weekly farmers market empanadas, new adventures for many of us that have never experienced in city life, amazing food, occasions to celebrate, and spontaneity of events in the city. I really cannot put into words how much of a joy it was and just how much value I place on my time and memories. It was more than an internship; it was an adventure, a journey of learning, giving back, and finding new passions.

MJ Keller (2023): My first great memory was when the CHP/NBLA staff digressed in a meeting and spent time trying to find the location of a photograph of Jane Dewey based solely on the background. It was both amusing hearing all of our ideas as we bounced them off of one another, and incredibly exhilarating to finally pin down the exact location of the photo. Another good memory was my last memory. As I finished my final presentation, both hearing from Joanna, my mentor, how well I’d done and feeling it myself was a boost of confidence in myself, my work, and my skills as a librarian and physicist that I hadn’t expected to feel this summer.

Here is Part 2!


About the Author

Joanna Behrman

Joanna Behrman

Joanna Behrman was the Assistant Public Historian at the Center for History of Physics (CHP). She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and specializes in the history of women in physics. At CHP she was in charge of education and outreach projects. One of her favorite works in the collection is Dorothy Weeks’s unpublished memoir.

Caption: Madalyn Avery, Household Physics Laboratory Manual (New York: Macmillan Company, 1940), page 8

See all articles by Joanna Behrman

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