Schmittmann's work helps drive policy changes, enhance colleagues' success

Physicist charts new territory leading department and promoting change to resolve gender inequities

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.


Researchers inspect fruits in a grocery story. Mary Whitlock (left) and Janet Walberg Rankin are researching the inflammation-reducing effects of raisins.

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. 

The challenges

At Virginia Tech since 1990, Schmittmann has lead changes that enable all faculty — both women and men — to be successful at Virginia Tech.


Brenda Winkel in the lab. Professor Brenda Winkel is involved in research on visible light-induced interactions with DNA.

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.

Fostering Policy Changes (PDF | 15KB)

"I look at everything we do for women on campus as ultimately benefiting everybody," Schmittmann says.

Physics at Virginia Tech

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.


Abigail Turpyn in the lab. Abigail Turpyn measures the amount of inflammation markers in blood samples.

"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:

  • a top-quality undergraduate program that prepares students for admission into physics programs at some of the most prestigious graduate schools in the country;
  • a program that consistently produces student-winners of competitive awards, such as Goldwater scholarships and NSF fellowships;
  • a nationally and internationally visible neutrino research group; and Neutrino Research Group (PDF | 449KB)
  • active outreach programs that take physics to local high school students and bring astronomy to the public at the university's Martin Observatory.

"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's search for the unpredictable

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."

For more information on this topic, contact Catherine Doss at, or (540) 231-5035.

From the homepage

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.

Studying the unpredictable

    A space-time plot of a traffic-jam formation

The diagram (above) shows a space-time plot of what's known as a traffic-jam formation.

Physics research

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.

Gender equity FYI...

On average, female physics professors represent about:

  • 12 percent of physics faculty at U.S. universities; but
  • 17 percent of physics faculty at Virginia Tech.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study indicated that when compared with their male colleagues, successful women faculty members on average had:

  • less space;
  • lower salaries; and
  • fewer resources.

Research has also shown that unconscious biases often exist in both men and women when performing such duties as:

  • reviewing resumes;
  • interviewing job candidates; and
  • conducting performance evaluations.

Did you know?

One of the world's earliest scientists was a woman.

Theano, an ancient Greek

  • philosopher,
  • mathematician, and
  • astronomer,

is credited with writing the treatise on the Golden Mean, which is still described today in algebra textbooks.

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