An Astrobiologist’s Search for Life in Space—and Meaning on Earth

I discovered over the past several years that I’m not as rare as I once thought I was. There are many people out there who have a science and arts interest and aren’t quite sure how to combine them. I wrote this for people who have more than one interest, maybe more than two, and they’re not sure what to do about that. I wrote it for people who think that it’s too late to have that life or career they wanted to have because of personal, financial, logistical challenges. As an older returning student, I had thought, “It’s too late to get a PhD. I’ll be 40 when I graduate.” Then I realized that—hopefully—I’ll be 40 either way, so if I wanted a PhD I might as well get it.

And I wrote it for people of color who inhabit primarily white spaces, so that they know that they are not alone and there are ways to navigate and thrive within these spaces, and to be their own role models.

Even in 2023, astronomy in the US remains overwhelmingly white, and women of color are still rare in the field. Can you talk a little about how you reflect in your book on your experience as a Black woman in astronomy?

It certainly has been easy for me to feel different, because in many ways, I am. And certainly having those three different issues—being a Black woman in a predominantly white space, being an older returning student, being a classically trained actor—I had all of the ingredients for impostor syndrome. But I also have found allies across color lines. It’s that looking for the communities, both Black communities and other communities of color, and being open to finding allies in the majority communities, that has allowed me to see myself, rather than as someone at the effect of a systemic problem, to see myself as an agent of change. By simply existing in the space I exist in, I am effecting change.

It’s also empowered me to take care of myself in ways that I may not have otherwise. Women of color in these predominantly white spaces, we get asked to do a lot, we get invited to serve on committees and to be the diversity whatever, and it has pulled at my sense of responsibility: I have to be that person for the next generation. But what I understand is, simply by taking care of myself, physically, mentally, emotionally—that is change. That is allowing myself to do what I need to do to be an example, to be in this field long enough so that I can effect even more change. If I’m giving so much of myself that I don’t have anything left, that can harm the whole environment and the whole landscape with which I hope to positively change. It’s a balancing act.

In your experience, have things changed much for Black women—or people of color in general—over the course of your career?

The statistics are different for different communities of color. In physics and astronomy, we see a much larger improvement for Latinx women compared to African American women. Unfortunately, for African American women in physics and astronomy, the numbers are pretty static dating back to the early 1990s.

And that’s for bachelor degrees. As you get to PhDs, the numbers are still rather low. We have a website that was started by Jami Valentine and other physicists and astronomers, and I’m one of 26 Black women, ever, who got a PhD in an astro-related discipline. So there is still a long way to go.

But what I am seeing in these last several years, especially since the Black Lives Matter movement surfaced in a new way, is that there’s more support than there once was. So we have Black in Astro, communities on Facebook, organizations and programs in the American Astronomical Society, the American Institute of Physics. We have mandates that are being supported by our national organizations, our professional organizations, to devote resources to support participation of historically marginalized communities in astronomy. And more support networks. There are programs that didn’t exist when I was a PhD student that first time around, in 1997, and they do now. So that leads me to feel hopeful about the increasing participation of women of color, and Black women in particular, in this field.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *