Beate Schmittmann is part of a minority in academia. She is a woman and she is a scientist.
But, these two facts appear to have not held her back in her career. In fact, Schmittmann became the first woman to lead a department in Virginia Tech's College of Science when she was named head of the Department of Physics in 2006.
She is an internationally renowned scholar in the field of theoretical condensed matter physics, and she has made significant contributions to the understanding of non-equilibrium phenomena.
At first glance, Schmittmann's achievements may seem like a natural progression of talent, intellect, hard work, creativity, and personal ambition. But along the way, she has become keenly aware of the challenges women face at research universities, particularly in the areas of science and engineering.
Consequently, her advocacy on behalf of women faculty members has brought far-reaching policy changes to the university.
At Virginia Tech since 1990, Schmittmann has lead changes that enable all faculty — both women and men — to be successful at Virginia Tech.
Walk onto any college campus, and it's plain to see that female faculty are underrepresented in the physical sciences and engineering. Schmittmann says this presents a number of challenges for women faculty.
For the past three years, Schmittmann has played a key role in Advance VT, a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Advance VT is fostering policy changes in institutions of higher learning to promote leadership among women in science and engineering across the nation.
"I look at everything we do for women on campus as ultimately benefiting everybody," Schmittmann says.
Schmittmann says she is excited about the future of her department, nearly half of which is comprised of faculty members who have been hired within the last four years.
"Their first major research grants are coming in," she says.
"They are setting up their labs and are establishing themselves. This department is poised to really take off over the next five years."
Schmittmann, who is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, is quick to point out other areas of excellence within the department, including:
"We are particularly pleased that she is the first woman to assume this leadership in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and that as such she will be an example for others to follow in taking up the challenge of eliminating gender inequities in these areas," says Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science and former head of the physics department.
Schmittmann calls it "mind-boggling" that physics uses abstract mathematical language to describe observations of everyday events, and that this mathematical language can be used to make testable predictions.
"We are always searching for something completely new that nobody has ever thought of before, so we are always looking for the unpredictable," says Schmittmann.
This simple, yet extremely complex concept is what she says drew her into physics.
Schmittmann says quantum mechanics, especially, has challenged people's thinking about how the natural world works in fundamental ways.
"These are things that do not necessarily translate into a better cell phone today, but eventually may translate into the next generation of nanotechnology that may change the lives of our children and grandchildren," says Schmittmann.
“We have to be a bit patient, and we may discover things we never ever dreamed of."
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The equation that Schmittmann is holding is part of a translation procedure.
The translation procedure is needed in instances where theoretical physics relate the properties of a material on one scale (say 100 nanometers) to its properties on a very different scale (say a few centimeters).
The mathematical framework, called renormalization, is used in other areas of physics, as well.
The diagram (above) shows a space-time plot of what's known as a traffic-jam formation.
For a look at some of the latest research being carried out in the physics department, read:
Find out more about other fields of physics research.
On average, female physics professors represent about:
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study indicated that when compared with their male colleagues, successful women faculty members on average had:
Research has also shown that unconscious biases often exist in both men and women when performing such duties as:
One of the world's earliest scientists was a woman.
Theano, an ancient Greek
is credited with writing the treatise on the Golden Mean, which is still described today in algebra textbooks.
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