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KITP Munger Residence.

Family Physics

Claudia and Alec Webster help early-career scientists balance work and life

An associate professor earns an opportunity that could change the course of her research, and possibly her career: an invitation to participate for months in a program at KITP. Here, she’ll have time to collaborate and share ideas with leaders in her field, connect with colleagues and gain exposure, all without the pressing responsibilities of her home institution. There’s no question that KITP will accelerate her career. There’s just one catch: how can she afford to bring her two small children?

Early-career scientists, especially women, can be held back when the formative years of their family and scientific career coincide. In a field where only 14% of faculty members are female, KITP is committed to supporting the whole scientist, including their families. UC Santa Barbara Foundation Trustee Claudia Webster and her husband, Alec, support the KITP Family Fund to encourage scientists to stay at the institute for as long as possible by offsetting child care and travel costs. Resources are also available for those caring for an elderly parent and additional family needs. This is essential for program success.

“Having support for key expenses like child care ensures KITP can bring the very best to participate in programs without financial barriers,” said Claudia.

This holistic support means that women are more represented at KITP than in the wider field of physics. In the 2018-19 academic year, over 20% of KITP program participants were women, 30% of whom were funded by the Family Fund. Thanks in part to support from the Websters, 40 scientists — both men and women — received an average grant of $2,500 to make their transition to the institute easier. The youngest child to visit KITP last year was just eight weeks old!

Families find a welcoming home in the furnished apartments of the Charles T. Munger Physics Residence, where a children’s playroom, game room, barbecues, communal spaces and ample chalkboards foster a neighborly environment. New mothers can access a private nursing room while working in Kohn Hall, a resource open to others on campus. Along with these measures, the Family Fund is part of KITP’s commitment to alleviating the financial hardship that may prevent early-career scientists like Dr. Agnese Seminara (pictured far right) from participating in the institute’s world-class programs.

Dr. Seminara visited KITP from the University of Nice, France, in August 2018 to join an institute program called “Neural computations for sensory navigation: mechanisms, models, and biomimetic applications sensory navigation” (SNAV18). SNAV18 brought scientists in different disciplines together to study how animals interpret environmental cues to travel. Visual, olfactory, thermal and mechanosensory cues change with space and time. Mapping neural circuits critical for sensory navigation in different sensory modalities and organisms informs development of models for the computations these circuits may perform. The models in turn suggest experiments to test how these circuits direct elementary behavioral responses that form robust orientation strategies.

Dr. Seminara first came to UC Santa Barbara when she presented a study on olfactory navigation in mice at a 2015 KITP conference. By returning for a month-long stay, she bonded with colleagues and got a “crash course” in advising students in KITP’s UC Santa Barbara Advanced School of Quantitative Biology Summer Research Course, a quantitative biology school that is held yearly.

“This would not have been possible without the Family Fund,” said Dr. Seminara, who struggled to cover the mounting costs of travel and daycare for her spouse and two-year-old child. “We could not afford it, and I could not have come the entire time without it. This kind of experience is crucial for people’s career and for building community.”

The Websters are determined to aid great women scientists. Claudia and Alec met at UC Santa Barbara, where they earned bachelor’s degrees in 1975 and 1976, respectively. Alec earned a second bachelor’s degree from the UC Santa Cruz environmental college formerly known as “College 8.” In 2016, he and Claudia made a generous gift that renamed the college for Rachel Carson, the writer and conservationist whose 1962 book “Silent Spring” launched the modern environmental movement. Together, the Websters hope to support scientists who advance biomimicry, energy science, geophysics and sustainability.

“We need to support curiosity-driven science and the inquisitive minds who move knowledge forward,” said Claudia. “It’s exciting to support the KITP Family Fund. We love the emphasis on diversity and ensuring that all viewpoints are represented in the room — especially women.”