In Search of Diversity in the World of Physics

Dr. Ximena CidWhile Ximena Cid was growing up, her family marched alongside Cesar Chavez and farm workers advocating for Chicano civil rights.

“My parents raised us in a very social-activist family,” says Cid, whose mother is Chicana and Native-American Yaqui, and her father was born in Mexico. When Cid embarked on an education in the sciences, she was keenly aware of her ethnic difference; there were not many people of color pursuing physics, and there were certainly very few women of color in her classes. She was the first person of Latin-American or Native-American decent to graduate with a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas, Arlington.

In the decade since, Cid, an assistant professor of physics at CSUDH, has shaped a career that melds both her love of science and her desire to ensure that everyone has a place at the table in the academic world of physics, and one of her research specialties is understanding the different populations in physics.

“I think that when a lot of people think about physics, you have this idea of an old, white guy with crazy hair,” she says. “It’s an ingrained image of what it means or what it looks like to be a physicist.” An extensive informal poll she conducted revealed that there are likely only about a dozen or so Native-American physicists and astronomers in the nation.

“Physics is one of the least diverse of the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields, and this influences who is prepared to join the field” says Cid, a member of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists. “There is a problem with thinking of who can be a physicist, because if you don’t see someone who looks like you, or you’ve never had exposure to the field, then it reinforces these ideas.”

To ensure that physicists of color have opportunities to support each other, Cid co-organizes Día de la Física (Day of Physics) for students attending the national conference of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. The multi-day conference draws 4,000 science professionals from around the world annually. This past October was the second year for Día de la Física and Cid hopes it becomes regular part of the conference.

“Even at a huge, diversity-focused gathering, it’s still hard to find the physics community. We’re a very small group of people of color. Día de la Física is a preconference event for students to find mentors and to network among themselves so that when they go to the national conference they have some sense of community already built in,” she says. At the October 2016 Día de la Física students, including those from CSUDH, were hosted at University of California, Irvine for the day and visited labs, lectures and social events.

Cid’s other area of research is physics education. “I study the teaching and learning of physics, and I’m interested in how we understand the abstract nature of the discipline,” she says. Her particular specialty is 3-D simulations to support the comprehension of systems that cannot be touched or seen, like gravitational fields, electric fields and magnetic fields. “I’m looking into why students have difficulty grasping certain concepts, and I use a lot of cognitive psychology to understand the difficulties that people have with learning.”

This focus on physics education led to her involvement with a partnership between the American Association of Physics Teachers and NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium. The five-year, NASA-funded project kicks off this year with Cid and other science professors collaborating to create a higher-education curriculum focused on the August 2017 total solar eclipse over the United States.

The NASA project aligns very well with her mission to ensure that all students have the tools to understand and pursue a career in the sciences.

Cid joined the CSUDH faculty a year ago, and she intentionally chose to teach at Dominguez Hills because she saw in her students many similarities to her own experience growing up as both a Native American and a Chicana in California.

“When you have a space where your culture and identity are valued, you thrive and you do good work,” she says. “You have the freedom to be successful.”

Written by Laurie McLaughlin. This story first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of the university magazine, Dominguez Today.

Comments

  1. Congratulations Ximena, you are tomorrows future today. I’m filled with pride as a Chicaindio, like you and hope that your influence ripples as waves of a lake.