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24/06/2015 05:48 BST | Updated 07/12/2017 03:20 GMT

Meet The 63rd Black Woman In American History With A Physics Ph.D.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a 32-year-old theoretical astrophysicist. Her academic home is arguably the nation's most elite physics department, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In one sense, she is among a dying breed. Prescod-Weinstein is a pen-and-paper theorist. "Basically I do calculus all day, on paper," she told HuffPost. "I'm a little bit of a hold-out. There are things I could be doing by computer that I just like to do by hand."

But she is also part of a vanguard, a small but growing number of African-American women with doctorates in physics.

Just 83 Black women have received a Ph.D. in physics-related fields in American history, according to a database maintained by physicists Dr. Jami Valentine and Jessica Tucker that was updated last week.

By comparison, the physics programs at MIT and UC Berkeley alone grant nearly as many Ph.D.'s each year. In total, U.S. universities awarded over 1,700 physics Ph.D.'s in 2013. The number of African-American faculty at U.S. physics departments remains similarly low; only two percent are Black, according to a report issued last year by the American Institute of Physics, and half of those faculty members are employed by historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Yet more than a third of all African-American women with physics doctorates earned them in the last 10 years, according to the database. In February, Prescod-Weinstein (citing subsequently-revised figures) posted a celebratory message on Twitter:

"How did I feel when I posted that?" she said during a recent interview. "You know, whenever I think about these numbers—and I guess this makes me some white supremacist stereotype or whatever—I feel angry. I feel really, really angry. When I started as a physics major, I understood that I would be some kind of barrier-breaker, but I didn't really understand what that was going to feel like, or how hard it would be and how upsetting it would be, and how difficult it would be to watch other people go through the same process. So I think I felt angry; I felt like people need to hear this. People need to know this."

Prescod-Weinstein recounts teaching herself calculus and physics when her high school ran out of classes at her level; she grew up reading the New York Times each morning on the school bus, and spent a year carrying around the complete works of William Shakespeare. She identifies as queer/agender, and has written about the collapse of her first marriage "under the pressure of many things, including my wife's family's homophobia."

Prescod-Weinstein's parents were both political activists, and she has followed their path. Most of her public social media posts focus on social justice, in the world of science and beyond. She has highlighted the professional challenges of investing her time in activism:

For my part, as a Black woman, I would ask my white (and male) peers to remember that many of us (though not all) experience our differences as a negative in this environment. Where I see it as a Black cultural tradition to lend a helping hand even as I continue to achieve my own dreams, others see my commitment to [the National Society of Black Physicists] as a signal that I am wasting my time not doing science. Do my friends who play music in their spare time get this same signal? Moreover, many of us who are women or people of color or both are often involved in efforts to change the face of science. When we are challenged about that by our peers, not only are they standing in our way, but they are also failing to recognize that for many of us, this investment in the community is necessary to our survival, much like someone else might say playing music is for theirs.

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We spoke to Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein for Sophia, a HuffPost project to collect life lessons from fascinating people. She shared insights about her early life and influences, the challenges faced by marginalized communities in science, how she finds personal fulfillment and what she'd do differently if she had the chance.

How did your early life experiences lead you to this point?

The first thing that comes to mind: I was raised by a single mom. That had a really big impact on how I see myself in relation to the community. I do a lot of activism in terms of creating equal opportunities in the scientific community and more broadly. My mom was singlehandedly the strongest influence in terms of understanding the sacrifices people make for those that they love and for the communities that they cherish.

My mom—to be honest, she couldn't really help me with my homework after maybe the fourth grade. A lot of that had to do with her own experience of getting an education as a new immigrant to the United States. As a Black Caribbean immigrant, she was treated pretty badly at her school when she first came to the U.S., and I think came out of it educated to believe that she couldn't really do math.

She likes to joke about it now—and she's clearly one of the smartest people that I've ever met. But she did not let that stop her from recognizing that I had a strong interest in math at a very young age. When that translated into an interest in science, when I was about ten years old, she didn't feel threatened by it, and instead encouraged it.

That's played a huge role in how I think about mentoring now, even as a post-doctoral fellow, because I'm the only Black woman in the physics department at MIT. Black students come and talk to me because there just aren't faculty for them to talk to.

I got exposed to science in a serious way for the first time when I was 10 at school in fifth grade. It became obvious really quickly that I was really excited about it. My mom read in the newspaper that a documentary about Stephen Hawking was going to be showing. She thought it was interesting, and she really thought I should see it. I complained the whole way because it was a Saturday morning and independent movies seem really ridiculous to 10-year-olds. I thought it was super uncool. What was this "A Brief History of Time"? I didn't want to see some ridiculous thing about time.

My mom, being the strong-willed person that she is, dragged me into the theater, and halfway through the documentary they were talking about singularities and black holes, and how the singularity probably wasn't a physical thing but was in fact a breakdown of Einstein's General Relativity, just a point at which we did not have a theory for this science.

I was like, "Whoa. There's something that Einstein didn't understand? There's something Einstein didn't figure out?" I couldn't believe it. I said, "I want to work on that problem. I want to understand where that came from." So I came out of the movie theater begging my mom to buy me a copy of the book.

I was like, "Buy me 'A Brief History of Time'; I want to read it." My mom was really anxious that I wouldn't understand it, and would get discouraged because of that, so she wouldn't buy it for me. We didn't have a lot of money, so for her actually buying a book like that would have been a major expense. So my uncle—my mom's older brother—bought it for me behind her back for my eleventh birthday.

I walked out of that movie theater and I was like, "I'm going to be whatever that guy is." I looked up Stephen Hawking and sent an email to his address. Presumably one of his graduate students responded to me and explained to me how you become a theoretical physicist. So I began planning. I'm going to go to Harvard for college. I'm going to go to Cal Tech—those were my top two choices—and I'm going to get a Ph.D., and I'm going to become a theoretical physicist. And that's basically how it played out.

Every time I stumbled academically from then on, my mom kind of gave me a little shove and said, "This is what you want to do, so keep going."

It's fairly rare for people to identify their passion so early in life. Why do you think that happened in your case?

I think there's almost certainly an element of genetics involved. I tend to be someone who runs on passion. I think people who run on passion often find things they're passionate about early on. So for example, I was not the valedictorian of my high school class because I couldn't be bothered to take AP courses that I didn't care about. I either care, or I don't care.

I was also lucky. I was born to a parent who speaks English, who has a college degree. She was able to fight for me at my school at various points. She understood the school system well enough to navigate getting me into magnet schools, so I was entirely educated in the LA Unified School District Magnet System.

All of those things add up to me getting the opportunity to be exposed in the first place at an early age, which is something that I think about a lot. And since my parent spoke English, she had access to a lot of the media resources that people can get locked out of in a society that focuses on English as a primary language of discourse. So I think that some of it is personality, and some of it is just sheer luck of being born to the right mom.

On my mom's side of the family, for generations people have been teachers. My uncle was a teacher, and thought about things in terms of encouraging me and pedagogy. I think that's why he bought me the book. I do also think that that's part of it. If a kid never has the opportunity to get exposed to science, how are they going to get excited about it, right?

It's also the case that I was a good test-taker. I scored high on my standardized tests from first grade onward, and that meant I eventually got marked as highly gifted. It means that I got treated better at school. I had a couple instances of where I got thrown out of class by teachers. I never saw it happen to any white students, but it did happen to me a few times. But I didn't get sent to the principal's office, I got sent to the library. I think that's because I was a good test-taker, and overall was considered well-behaved.

I was also plugged into school. I liked going to school. That meant that my mind was open to the things I was being exposed to at school. I went to school briefly in London and got treated terribly by the teacher. I think part of that was because my reputation as a high performing student didn't follow me there. So the teacher just took me for whatever ideas she had about Americans or about kids who look like me or whatever. She treated me terribly, and I've never been so unplugged from school in my life as I was during that period in England. I do think that being treated well at school also helped create that opportunity for me to find what I was passionate about.

It may seem like I just keep posting stuff that says the same thing over and over because I'm looking for stuff that...

Posted by Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein on Friday, March 27, 2015

I want to ask about your experience in higher education. You've studied and researched at a variety of schools. Looking back, would you have handled your own education differently in any way?

My husband likes to ask me this question periodically. [Laughter] I think because I have a tendency to be very critical of how higher education is delivered, particularly in STEM, and particularly to people from marginalized communities. This is something that I think about a lot. I think if I had to go back in time, I would maybe have younger Chanda apply to some HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities).

In particular, Spelman does a phenomenal job producing Black women who go on to Ph.D.'s in STEM. They're not given a lot of credit for that. They don't get awards for it. You don't hear President Obama coming and giving commencement speeches and thanking them for their service to the country—which it really is a service they provide—but they're one of the top three producers of Blacks who go on to Ph.D.'s in STEM.

Going to an HBCU can be a different experience for Black students. What I've read is that Black students come out of HBCUs with higher levels of self-confidence than ones who go to predominately white institutions. So when I'm talking to Black high school students who are interested in going on to do STEM, that is something that I tell them about, that there are some significant advantages to going to HBCUs. I believe one third of the physics majors in the United States who are Black are produced by HBCUs. That's actually fairly recent, it used to be over half of them were. That's actually a change that's just happened in the last 10 years.

So they really are providing a service to the country that I think goes unrecognized. I needed a full ride to college, so when I was applying to college, I applied to twelve schools. I got into all of them. Five of them were University of California campuses. I couldn't afford any of the public universities that I got into. I could only afford Harvard College, the California Institute of Technology, and Carlton College. Of the three, Harvard seemed like the best choice for a Black student in terms of access, being part of Black student community and being in an urban area. So that ended up being the major determining factor for me.

Graduates of Spelman College's class of 2015. (Photo: Spelman College)

Harvard is among the most prestigious schools in the country. How did you find your experience there?

When I got into Harvard and was making my commitment, my college counselor Elaine Berman—who I'm still good friends with—she said to me, "I don't think that you have the ego for it." I was really mad at her when she said it. I was like, "What do you mean I don't have the ego?" I was confident I was going to get into Harvard, so that seems pretty egotistical. [Laughter]

It took me until years after I graduated to really realize what she meant, which is that I'm not a very competitive person. I'm competitive with myself, but I don't mind other people doing well. I actually really want everybody to do well. I want everybody to have the chance to do well.

For me, I experienced Harvard as a very competitive environment. I was shocked by the number of legacies that were in my class, the number of people who had been recruited primarily as athletes and didn't have the same kind of academic credentials that I felt I had to have in order to get in. So in that sense, for me, it was a major disappointment because I thought it was going to be this community of people who were just really nerdy and really passionate about intellectual stuff. It was a lot more complicated than that.

There were people there like that, but there were also a lot of people there who were far less interesting than people I went to high school with who didn't get in, but who had parents who were both doctors and had been able to buy them the best possible education in the best possible school, and also send them to repeated SAT tutorials. I trained myself for the SAT, right? So I think there was some element of disappointment when I realized how much of intelligence can be bought.

In particular, the physics department was not a fun place. I think it was especially not a fun place to be a Black woman. It was not a fun place to be someone who had gone to a public school that was good, but didn't have preparation for the level that Harvard expected physics majors to come in with. If you hadn't had a really good AP physics class, the physics program wasn't really for you—that was kind of the ethos. I had taken AP physics independent study. I'd only gotten through about half the material because I was teaching myself. I think it was a challenge for me, and I noticed that a lot of people who were like me ended up dropping out of the physics major even though they had been excited to major in physics when they arrived.

That said, I had an office mate my first year of graduate school who was completely the opposite of me in a lot of demographic ways. She came from an upper middle class household, had gone to a very nice public school in a rich neighborhood in the Bay Area, had had all of the preparation, and she still found the physics department to be an unhappy place.

I didn't know if the thing that we had in common there, the running current, was that we were both women. I did know that the physics department has made changes, and I think is working on becoming a more welcoming place. But now that I'm at MIT where 50 percent of our undergraduate majors are female. I think that at Harvard it's still about 25 percent in the physics department.

For me that raises a red flag; what's going on over there? That said, some of my best friends are Harvard physics professors. I have one coming to my house on Friday. He was also not on the faculty when I was an undergraduate, and I think someone like him could have been a game changer for me. So some of it is the point in time when you land there.

When I got to Harvard, there were only two women faculty in the physics department. I think there are something like eight now. They're going through some culture change, but I think for me, it was a pretty unpleasant culture. And I should say that the astronomy department at Harvard was the complete opposite. I had a very, very different experience in astronomy. I was a double major, and it was just like night and day.

And you should be allowed to attend pool parties, peacefully. <3

Posted by Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein on Sunday, June 7, 2015

What was running through your head when you tweeted about the number of Black American women with physics Ph.D.'s? What do you feel about that statistic?

How did I feel when I posted that? You know, whenever I think about these numbers—and I guess this makes me some white supremacist stereotype or whatever—I feel angry. I feel really, really angry. When I started as a physics major, I understood that I would be some kind of barrier-breaker, but I didn't really understand what that was going to feel like, or how hard it would be and how upsetting it would be, and how difficult it would be to watch other people go through the same process. So I think I felt angry; I felt like people need to hear this. People need to know this.

In particular, in the astronomy community. I have two degrees in physics and two degrees in astronomy. There's a lot of discussion about women in astronomy. For decades, this discussion about women in astronomy has centered essentially on white women. They don't say white women, but when the statistics are trotted out, they don't disaggregate for race. The trends for underrepresented minority women, Asian-American women, and white women are different. Because white women are a much larger number, they dominate overall trends for the word "women".

I have struggled to get people within the astronomy community to understand that. It has involved some really ugly discussions sometimes. I remember when I was planning with a delegation of women in astronomy to go to the White House to talk to Tina Tchen, who at that point was the head of the White House Council on Women and Girls. I said, "We should really make a point of saying something about the experiences of women of color and people who live in the double binds. A white woman who is a well-known advocate for women in astronomy turn to me and said, "I know that that stuff is really important to you, but we need to focus on things that matter to everybody else."

Now, this is someone who's known for being supportive in the community. Another example was: I'm trying to get people who do collect the data—like the American Institute of Physics, they have a statistics team—and we wanted to talk about the importance on surveys of women about asking about their race. In one conversation, an advisor who was a scientist at one of the top five institutions in the country, she said, "Well, I don’t really see what my race has to do with anything."

It was like, "Of course you don’t, which is kind of the point." We need to ask about race because there are lots of women who do feel that way about it. So, it's very hard to have people regularly and repeatedly remind you that your experiences are invisible, that they don't matter, that nobody has noticed in any serious way until recently when diversity has become kind of en vogue, that there are no Black women—like anywhere. We're a rarity and that also means that we're incredibly precious, in my opinion.

The United States, the federal government, has spent an extraordinary sum of money educating me. The Pell Grant, I was an NSF research fellow, which is prestigious and expensive. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on me and I am a rarity. I'm the only Black woman in theoretical physics.

I say this about me because I can talk about it for myself. But it applies to every single Black woman who gets her foot into the door and gets that far—gets a master's degree, gets a Ph.D. Part of what I wanted to say to people with that tweet is: Each of us is special right now. We are barrier breakers, and I do think that the community has a responsibility to promote our success in a very particular way because it is hard to produce one of us.

Let's help this Black woman (a real one!) to Fisk-Vanderbilt to start graduate school in physics this fall!

Posted by Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein on Monday, June 15, 2015