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Commentary: Celebrating and supporting African American women in physics

29 May 2019

Fewer than 100 African American women have received PhDs in physics. AAWIP lists their names and provides resources for students, job seekers, and departments.

AAWIP group photo
Jami Valentine Miller (standing, second from right) gathers with other African American women physicists. Credit: Jami Valentine Miller

In 1876 Edward Bouchet earned a PhD in physics from Yale, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate in any field from an American university. It would be nearly a century before an African American woman obtained a physics PhD; Willie Hobbs Moore earned that distinction at the University of Michigan in 1972.

Since then, there has been a slow, steady increase in the number of African American women earning PhDs in physics. Before the year 2000 there were approximately 25 who held doctoral degrees in physics or applied physics. (That does not include those who received PhDs in astronomy and other related physical sciences.) Another 67 have been added to that tally since. For comparison, nearly 1900 PhDs in physics were awarded at US universities in 2017 alone.

African American Women in Physics (AAWIP) was founded to honor those pioneering women, to inspire future physicists, and to connect with allies interested in promoting diversity in physics and other STEM fields. By maintaining a list of all of the African American women with PhDs who identify as physicists, the organization highlights the wide variety of academic backgrounds and career options for physics students and professionals. With the expected awarding later this year of the 100th physics PhD to an African American woman, AAWIP is both celebrating the trailblazing accomplishments of those who earned their degrees and emphasizing the progress that will be necessary to make the list grow far more quickly.

59 894
PhDs in physics awarded at US universities, 1972–2017

PhDs in physics awarded to African American women, 1972–2017

Data sources: AIP Statistical Research Center; AAWIP

The catalyst for the inception of AAWIP was a conference I attended in 2005, when I was a graduate student in condensed-matter physics at Johns Hopkins University. The Second International Conference on Women in Physics, sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, had an 18-member US delegation, five of them African Americans. After the excitement of that meeting, I felt especially isolated when I returned to my department as the only African American. I wanted to know that there were other black women who had done this before me. So I began to keep track of all of the African American women physicists whom I had met, and then I scoured the internet for others. Most of the entries in the resulting Black Women in Physics database were the result of personal networking, searching websites, and calling departments. Once the website was live, people started contacting me to offer names I had missed.

The database was hosted on the website of the National Society of Black Physicists for some time, but eventually I made the site independent and incorporated a nonprofit organization, AAWIP. In 2014 graduate student Jessica Tucker joined me to help maintain and analyze the collected information.

Pioneer: Carolyn Beatrice Parker

Carolyn Beatrice Parker

Parker (1917–66) was a true hidden figure. Raised in a family of scientists, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1937 and a master’s in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1941. From 1943 to 1947, Parker worked on research and development for nuclear weapons as part of the Dayton Project, a division of the Manhattan Project. After the war, she earned a master’s degree in physics from MIT and completed her coursework for her PhD. But before she could complete her doctoral program, she died at age 48 from leukemia, an occupational hazard for Dayton Project workers. Parker is the first African American woman known to have gained a postgraduate degree in physics.

AAWIP celebrates the presence of African American women who have PhDs in physics, astronomy, astrophysics, and related fields, as well as graduate students working toward those degrees. The list also includes those who work professionally in physics and astronomy but have terminal degrees in related fields like atmospheric science, biophysics, geophysics, and nanotechnology. AAWIP is working to include people who do research on increasing the number of African American women with PhDs in physics and astronomy.

The database contains the names of notables such as Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Evelynn Hammonds, the former dean at Harvard College; and Claudia Alexander, the late NASA project manager of the Rosetta mission to study the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Women in physics-related fields include Nneka Williams, a geophysicist with Chevron; Andrea Sealy, an atmospheric scientist with the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology; K. Renee Horton, the lead weld engineer for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and the author of the children’s science book series Dr. H Explores; and Mareena Robinson Snowden, who recently became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

There are numerous benefits of having information about so many accomplished researchers in a central location. Students across the country can find other students with whom they may share common interests. An undergraduate who is evaluating graduate programs can quickly determine if she will be the first or only African American woman at an institution, so she can make an informed decision about what that might mean to her. Job seekers can find someone to contact to learn about the workplace climate at a company or laboratory. Jessica and I routinely field and share requests for information on postdoctoral openings, faculty searches, and summer internships. Departments that are conducting faculty searches have an additional resource to help them find women candidates who are also underrepresented minorities. Too often, when asked why a department has no minority or women faculty, the response is “We can’t find any.” AAWIP aims to make that answer unacceptable.

Recent graduate: Erin Cox

Erin Cox
Credit: Northwestern University

Cox received her PhD in astronomy last year from the University of Illinois. She uses radio telescopes to study infant solar systems and observes polarization signatures to further our understanding of planetary formation. Cox is currently a postdoctoral associate at Northwestern University at the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics. She was recently awarded the 2018 Robert L. Brown Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award for her thesis. She is very active in public outreach, most recently serving as a programming committee lead for the 2019 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Northwestern.

Additionally, AAWIP hosts a private social media forum where physical scientists can discuss their educational and career circumstances in a safe space. Most of the graduate students in the group are the only African American women or the only African Americans in their programs. A lot of informal mentoring takes place.

The full database on the AAWIP website includes more than 150 African American women, approximately 92 of whom have PhDs in physics and applied physics. Jessica and I have also identified around 30 current graduate students. We are optimistic that this year someone will become the 100th African American woman to receive a doctoral degree in physics.

The fact that in 2019 this milestone hasn’t yet occurred underscores how far we still have to go. Recent data show that the number of African American women receiving bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy has remained relatively stagnant over the past 20 years or so. A new report on women in physics and astronomy, produced by the American Institute of Physics (which publishes Physics Today), found that the number of African American women faculty members in PhD-granting physics departments has shown little or no growth since 2008, and that they account for only 2% of all women in those departments. Half of the five-line paragraph about African American women with doctoral degrees in physics states that the numbers are too small to report.

I’m optimistic that the day will come when there is no longer a need for organizations like AAWIP, when having African American women in the student body and on the faculty of the physics department won’t be such a rarity.

Jami Valentine Miller is a primary patent examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia. She received a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 2007.

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