Science Meets Social Justice: Physics Major Dmitri LaBelle is Working Toward Equity
by Evan Tonrey
July 25, 2023
Starting college during a pandemic wasn’t easy for anyone, but Dmitri LaBelle '24 decided to make the most of it — both in and outside of the classroom. As a physics major, LaBelle is passionate about advancing science, but also about working toward social change in our community.
LaBelle plans to pursue a career in physics — after completing their BS, their goal is to earn a PhD in condensed matter theory — but noticed a lack of diversity among physicists. Rather than become discouraged, LaBelle has strived to excel academically in physics while contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the field and even encouraging the next generation of scientists.
LaBelle began working closely with Assistant Professor of Physics Jörn Venderbos, PhD, and his Quantum Condensed Matter Theory group, learning difficult scientific concepts that would benefit them as they followed their degree track. “I did all my work with the condensed matter group before I had my proper quantum mechanics sequence as a pre-junior,” said LaBelle. “There was always a big emphasis on pure geometry as it relates to physics, which I really enjoyed.”
During their time with the group, LaBelle also joined the physics department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “The DEI committee is dedicated to equitable and inclusive practices that allow our students, faculty and professional staff to excel and thrive,” LaBelle explained. “The specific achievements of the committee include improved transparency in graduate admissions, faculty trainings on the unique issues faced by African American physicists and the establishment of a gender-neutral restroom environment in Disque Hall.”
In addition to serving on the DEI committee, LaBelle also joined Drexel’s chapter of the Women in Physics Society (WiPS), a branch of the American Physical Society. Here, LaBelle worked toward a better understanding of both scientific and social topics. “WiPS is dedicated to creating inclusive and welcoming spaces for women and other gender minorities in physics,” said LaBelle, who is now the organization’s president.
Since joining WiPS, LaBelle has tackled social topics such as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and the rights of minorities. While social justice is the goal, WiPS looks to spread the message by offering a plethora of outreach events. “We host some fun community events like pumpkin painting and tie dye nights, but we also work professionally to set up lectures and Q&A panels.”
LaBelle has remained a committed member of these programs since their first year at Drexel. “My dedication to social causes has really defined my time at Drexel. Being a part of these organizations has provided a strong moral and social foundation for me to work with, which has been super fulfilling.” LaBelle feels these groups are a necessity to bring about change by beginning tough discussions and serving as a place for people to voice their beliefs and feelings.
LaBelle has also used their activist background to work closely with some of Philadelphia’s underserved schools. They help run an annual collaboration between Drexel and the Philadelphia School District that serves as an opportunity for high school students in the city to learn and experiment with physics in ways they never have before. “The goal of the collaboration is to expose students to all the cool wonders of science and what physics specifically has to offer,” LaBelle explained. “We achieved this through a really cool series of demos on electricity and magnetism.”
LaBelle hopes that other Drexel students will get involved in making their community a better place. WiPs is always looking for new members to share stories and ideas and is an environment where all are welcome to do so. They plan to continue hosting events that allow an opportunity to discuss systemic issues and solutions that bring equity to all.
There are valuable lessons to take away from these experiences, according to LaBelle. “For a historically homogeneous field, it's easy to get trapped into a limited perspective,” they explained. “Keeping an open mind to the true variety of human experience should come just as naturally as keeping an open mind to quantum weirdness or all the other mental gymnastics we put ourselves through as physicists. It's ultimately with added complexity or with a different perspective that we make new discoveries about ourselves and the nature around us.”