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Q&A series: Black voices in physics

22 October 2020

The stories of these physicists show the barriers to Black people’s participation in physics and suggest changes to make the field more welcoming.

Collage of the physicists interviewed
Clockwise from top left: Physicists Sylvester James “Jim” Gates Jr, Delilah Elizabeth Abney Gates, Chima McGruder, Charles McGruder, Carl Fields, Quinton Williams, Farrah Simpson, Marcelle Soares-Santos, Kétévi Assamagan, Sekazi Mtingwa, Elaine Lalanne, Alvine Kamaha, Clifford Johnson, Philip Phillips, Jessica Esquivel, and James Stith. (Jim Gates and Delilah Gates were not interviewed for this series.) See below for photo credits.

How many Black physicists are in your department? Are they welcomed into study groups? Are they given the same respect as their peers, and are they expected to perform at the same level?

Black physicists at every career stage say that they encounter racism, both overt and subtle, that they are not taken seriously, and that they have to prove themselves over and over. They watch as their white peers are promoted before them. People assume they’re in the wrong place as they head toward a physics laboratory or enter a conference room to give a talk. And they deal day-to-day with racism as they are stopped by police or followed in stores.

In January the American Institute of Physics unveiled a 200-page report that examines why there are so few African Americans in physics. (AIP also publishes Physics Today.) For decades, as the number of Black students earning bachelor’s degrees across all fields has gone up in the US, and as the number of people earning bachelor’s degrees in physics has skyrocketed, the proportion of those physics degrees earned by Black students has stagnated at around 4%. Two key reasons for that stagnation, according to the AIP report, are the lack of a supportive environment and the financial challenges that many Black students face (see Physics Today, February 2020, page 20).

Following are interviews with 14 Black physicists. They are graduate students. They are professors. They work in industry. They are theorists. They are experimentalists. Their areas of research include studying the nature of dark energy, analyzing exoplanet atmospheres, and building lasers for NASA. One is Jessica Esquivel, a postdoc at Fermilab and one of the organizers of #BlackInPhysics Week, which from 25–31 October will offer a series of activities to celebrate and bring together Black physicists and allies.

Carl Fields is pursuing his PhD in astronomy and astrophysics at Michigan State University.

Marcelle Soares-Santos is an astrophysicist at the University of Michigan.

Sekazi Mtingwa is a retired physicist and a cofounder of the National Society of Black Physicists.

Quinton Williams is chair of the physics department at Howard University.

Farrah Simpson is pursuing her PhD in physics at Brown University.

Kétévi Assamagan is a staff scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Jessica Esquivel is a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab who works on the Muon g–2 particle-physics experiment.

James Stith is a retired physicist and former vice president of the American Institute of Physics.

Alvine Kamaha is a calibration operations coordinator for the LZ dark-matter experiment at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota.

Philip Phillips is a theoretical high-energy and condensed-matter physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Charles McGruder and Chima McGruder are astrophysicists. Charles is a professor at Western Kentucky University. His son Chima is a graduate student at Harvard University.

Clifford Johnson is a theoretical physicist at the University of Southern California.

Elaine Lalanne is an optical physicist and NASA contractor who is building a tunable laser system for radiometric calibration.

Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Charles McGruder, Neulyn Moss, Aisiriuwa Archield/Howard University, Idalina Alarcon, Fermilab, Kétévi Assamagan, NSF, Elaine Lalanne, Nishat Parveen/SUNY, USC Dornsife/Mike Glier, L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Jessica Esquivel, James Stith

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