The Sounds of Science

Published: February 20, 2020

Women in physics need to be heard and seen to grow the field

Acoustical engineer and computational physicist, Dr. Kim Riegel, doesn’t just make physics sound cool; she makes it cool. Bah-BOOM!

The Queensborough Community College Assistant Professor of Physics and former music student researches supersonic aircraft and the excessive noise they produce (Bah-BOOM!), which prevents commercial planes – like the Concorde, grounded in 2003 – from flying over land and between major cities, such as Los Angeles to New York.

“I was a violin performance major, but I got tendonitis in my wrist which was not good. I was good at math, however, and I loved music. So, acoustics made sense. So I did that,” Dr. Riegel explains.

For months at a time, as a PhD student at Penn State, the physics nerd – her description – worked with NASA and US Air Force scientists measuring sonic booms. While at Edwards Air Force Base, she was able to capture important measurements of the Space Shuttle Discovery upon re-entry at almost Mach 25 or nearly 17,500 miles per hour.

“Because it’s a glider on re-entry there was no engine noise, so the boom acoustics were really good,” Riegel recalls; it was September 12 2009, Discovery’s last desert landing.

Riegel-Kimberly.jpgIn the years since the Space Shuttle program finished and the Concorde fleet ceased operations, the scientific community may have figured out how to suppress sonic booms by changing the cross-sectional shape of aircraft, possibly making commercial overland flights viable in the near future.

She untangles the science: “We think we’re there. By reshaping, we have rounded the sound out and it’s not as sharp. We call it the sonic puff.  It’s like a rumble of distant thunder.”

Congress has just approved funding for robust testing of an experimental overland supersonic plane. According to space.com, NASA's X-59 QueSST is on a fast track to ultra-quiet flight following a critical design review of the plane last year. The first demonstration flight could be in 2021.

“All of this, plus the work of my Queensborough colleagues Drs. Jillian Bellovary and Chantale Damas on Black Holes and Space Weather, excites students,” says Riegel, Faculty Adviser to the College’s Women in Science campus club.

“We’re excited, in turn, when young women can picture themselves as physicists. We need more young women, of all abilities, in the field,” she adds, noting a 9% participation rate in Engineering Science among female students at Queensborough compared to a national average that is closer to 20%.

The mission of Women in Science is to further promote equality for women and create an environment at Queensborough where women feel supported, especially in nontraditional, under-represented fields of study.

Starting in March, Women’s History Month, Riegel and her colleagues will host a month long Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) program for women featuring numerous on-campus events and programs (the astronomy observatory event was particularly popular when it debuted last year), including significant mentored-research opportunities for undergraduates. Hundreds of students, including Queensborough alumni, will attend.

“Physics, engineering, mathematics and computer science are dominated by men. There are great opportunities for women; we just need to steer them to these programs,” declares the advocate and crusader for math and science.

“By the time women get to college they have a strong position on physics based on very little information and limited exposure at high school. Physics is perceived as hard. It’s math based and some feel they can’t do it. We have to change that mindset,” explains Riegel, as she prepares to teach Physics of Sound to music production students.

“When I teach this class, I teach it from the perspective of the musician. I reframe everything and put physics into a context that changes my students’ perceptions of science. They are doing, and know, so much about physics already. They just don’t think of it that way.”

Riegel’s campaign to recruit women to the sciences stretches beyond Queensborough to her local community as chair of Pelham’s Junior League of Scientists program, an activity through the Junior League of Pelham, a member of the global Association of Junior Leagues International, an educational and charitable organization of women committed to developing the potential of women.

“We lose the majority of girls by 6th grade. By that I mean they lose their interest in science. So, we go into local preschools in Pelham, The Bronx and Mount Vernon and we do community projects to normalize women as scientists to girls, and boys, at a really young age,” Riegel explains.

“And we educate teachers about the implicit bias against women in science that exists. So many teachers are women who are uncomfortable with science themselves, and sometimes that can come through, which has an impact on children.”

At Queensborough, the Physics Department has developed a new introductory class that prepares students to conduct hands-on research, covering ethics in scientific research, managing data and large data sets, how to keep lab notebooks and more.

“We talk about contacting mentors, how to ask the right questions and communicating research results through papers, presentations and posters,” Riegel explains. “My theory is that students, young women, are not going to be blown away by physics or become engineering majors unless or until they feel comfortable and start to identify as a physicist or an engineer right away.”

Queensborough Community College offers more than 40 physics courses, covering subject areas such as fiber and laser/electro-optics, thermodynamics, meteorology, astronomy and more.

NOTE: Queensborough’s Women’s History Month STEAM program begins on March 4th with a discussion about The Radium Girls, about women factory workers who painted watch dials with luminous – and deadly -- radium paint in the 1920s and their fight for justice, which would change United States labor laws forever.  A full program will be available soon at: www.qcc.cuny.edu/steam

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Contact:  Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle

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