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Meet the organizers of #BlackInPhysics Week

26 October 2020

The group has planned a series of events to celebrate and bring together Black physicists and allies.

#BlackInPhysics organizers.
Clockwise from top left: #BlackInPhysics Week organizers Jessica Esquivel, Charles D. Brown II, Cheyenne Polius, Vanessa Sanders, Xandria Quichocho, Ciara Sivels, Bryan Ramson, Eileen Gonzales, Ashley Walker, LaNell Williams, Jessica Tucker, and Marika Edwards. Credits: Photos courtesy of the organizers

Throughout the week of 25 October, Black physicists, their allies, and the general public are invited to participate in #BlackInPhysics Week, a social media–based event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like. Programming includes professional panels, a job fair, and an open mic night. If you are interested in learning more and registering for the events, check out or @BlackInPhysics on Twitter.

The lead organizers of #BlackInPhysics Week are Charles D. Brown II, an atomic and condensed-matter physicist; Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist; and Eileen Gonzales, an astronomer studying brown dwarfs and exoplanets. Co-organizers include Jessica Tucker, a quantum information scientist; LaNell Williams, a biophysicist; Vanessa Sanders, a radiochemist; Bryan Ramson, a particle physicist; Xandria Quichocho, a physics education researcher; Marika Edwards, an astrophysicist and engineer; Ashley Walker, an astrochemist; Cheyenne Polius, an astrophysicist; and Ciara Sivels, a nuclear engineer.

Brown, Esquivel, Gonzales, Quichocho, and Polius answered questions about #BlackInPhysics Week and described how physics became their passion.

Charles D. Brown II

Charles D. Brown II
Photo courtesy of Charles D. Brown II

Charles D. Brown II is a postdoctoral scholar and Ford fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a passionate science communicator and a champion for Black Americans in STEM. His research focuses on the effects of geometric frustration on the behavior of ultracold atoms trapped in an optical kagome lattice.

How did you get interested in physics?

My interest in science was initiated by my mother, an avid fan of science fiction and anything related to space and astronomy. Although she never was a scientist, she often spoke to me about science when I was a child and took me to a lot of science museums, which sparked a deep curiosity about how different aspects of the universe work. I enrolled in college as an engineering major but quickly realized that I was most deeply fascinated by my physics courses and by the engineering course content that described at a fundamental level why different physical systems behave the way they do.

Jessica Esquivel

Jessica Esquivel.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Esquivel

Jessica Esquivel is a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab working on the Muon g–2 experiment. She is an AAAS If/Then Ambassador, a member of the Change-Now Collective, a science communicator, and a vocal advocate for increasing equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM.

Esquivel was interviewed for Physics Today’s “Black voices in physics” series.

How did you get interested in physics?

When I was around 5 or 6, I used to watch a lot of sci-fi shows with my aunt who babysat us. In one of those shows there was an astronaut in space who fought aliens and fixed his space shuttle and was guided by an astrophysicist at NASA. I was too scared to be an astronaut, but the astrophysicist was quirky and funny, so I started walking around saying, “I’m gonna be an astrophysicist when I grow up!” Obviously, I had no idea what I was saying, but my family continued to fuel that spark.

I think the first time I knew for sure that I loved physics was when I was at a college-prep STEM summer camp for high schoolers. I ignored the application instructions stating “for ninth graders” and applied anyway as an eighth grader. I got in and remember having to solve really hard kinematics problems. With furrowed brow and a slew of questions (I was always the loudmouth in class asking way too many questions that would stump even the teacher), I started figuring them out. I was just so proud of myself for pushing through something I thought at the time was so hard. I wanted to continue to feel that sense of accomplishment.

What are some of the most pressing barriers facing Black physicists?

I always go back to the three Rs: recruitment, retention, and representation. These need to be done in parallel. The culture of physics makes it so that it has become increasingly difficult to accomplish the three Rs. The issue that stood out for me in the recent TEAM-UP report from the American Institute of Physics was a sense of belonging. Although many organizations will put effort into recruitment or representation, there is no internal introspection of why Black excellence isn’t being retained, and this is problematic. There are many societal cues that we as Black physicists deal with on the regular: questioning of our intelligence, questions regarding whether we are allowed to be at the lab, subtle (or not so subtle) remarks about switching fields.

I know many physicists suffer from impostor syndrome due to the rigor of the field, but Black physicists are combating not only internal feelings of not belonging but also external factors telling us we don’t belong. I have been stunted in my growth as a physicist due in part to not having a sense of belonging. I’ve had to actively push to allow myself to be vulnerable among peers and to ask questions that would highlight that I don’t know something. Our field is predicated on asking questions to push the boundaries of our knowledge, but I was so scared to do so. Add to that the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and the civil unrest happening in the US—it’s exhausting. Many of us are just surviving toxic environments. Many of us are stubborn and won’t be pushed out. But what I hope for the future is that we don’t need to survive or be stubborn. We can just be, just thrive.

What do you hope to achieve in the long term, after the week is over?

We came into this process knowing that we wanted to build out this momentum and this social movement into something that has staying power. In that vein, we stepped back and spent time writing a mission and a vision statement to help steer and focus our efforts. Our main goal is to build community. Every single event we have planned for #BlackInPhysics Week stems from that goal. Our long-term goal is to build this into an organization that removes barriers of access; that focuses on the recruitment, representation, and retention of Black physicists with an intersectional lens; and that removes the feelings of isolation—so that even if you are “the only” in your department/institution/organization, you know that you are #BlackInPhysics and you are not alone.

In these really hard times of not only a pandemic but also civil unrest and the continual police brutality hurled against Black people, I know I have been feeling hopeless. On top of it all, I lost my dad in June, and I know of so many of us who have lost loved ones. It’s been the community of Black physicists in so many sectors of my life—at work, here in #BlackInPhysics, and in my amazing “Badass Bosses” crew of Black women physicists—that has continued to bring #BlackJoy and to find hope. We lift each other up when the world continually tries to take the wind from our sails. #BlackInPhysics is tapping into our collective power and strength and elevating our voices to push for change in the physics ecosystem. We are multifaceted, intersectional humans who can’t leave our Blackness at home when we go to work.

Eileen Gonzales

Eileen Gonzeles.
Photo courtesy of Eileen Gonzales

Eileen Gonzales is a 51 Pegasi b fellow at Cornell University. Her postdoctoral research focuses on understanding the atmospheres of brown dwarfs and directly imaged exoplanets.

How did you get interested in physics?

As a child I was fascinated just looking up at the stars. I was curious about what they were composed of and how they worked. As an undergraduate, we briefly discussed brown dwarfs in an upper-level astronomy course. I became fascinated by these objects that were too massive to be planets but too small to be stars. They seemed like the middle child and were always just touched on but never in detail. The curiosity to learn more about these strange degenerate worlds led me to my current research on brown dwarf atmospheres.

Why did you split up #BlackInPhysics Week in terms of different areas of physics?

Physics has so many distinct subfields. Due to a variety of factors, some Black physicists can be isolated from others in their subfield. Although we may interact with each other in places like the National Society of Black Physicists’ annual meeting, young physicists may not be aware of these meetings or may be unable to attend. We wanted to provide a way for Black physicists to easily connect with others in their subfield by creating hashtags such as #BlackInPER (physics education research), so that people in that subfield could easily spot one another.

By splitting the week by subfield, we also showcase the excellent work being done by Black physicists to employers and admissions committees looking for talent. There’s an often-used phrase “There are no excellent Black applicants doing X type of research.” We can show people in power that we do exist and we do great science.

Xandria Quichocho

Xandria Quichocho.
Photo courtesy of Xandria Quichocho

Xandria Quichocho is a physics graduate student at Michigan State University. She studies the physics identity development of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color in physics.

How did you get interested in physics?

I was mad into time travel when I was young. I drew myself a poster for my door that labeled it the “Time Machine Room.” Then I discovered the Discovery program The Universe and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and I finally sat down with my dad to watch Star Trek. We only watched the original series growing up, and I stand by the fact that it is still the best Star Trek.

I’ve always been interested in the magic of it all, the magic of science. If I wasn’t consuming science content, I was reading fantasy novels and learning how other worlds worked, their mythos and their universes. I eventually figured out there was a field where I could learn about the legitimate magic I saw every day, and it was called physics. And so my mom put me in a free advanced-math program one summer and sent me off to go learn some magic.

Why did you and your co-organizers set up this week yourselves rather than go through an existing organization?

Activism and change begin at the grassroots level. It takes a group of individuals who come together with a dream, a vision, and a goal to create something great. Seeing the initiatives that started earlier this summer that were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement—namely Black Birders Week and #ShutDownSTEM—was a massive inspiration to me. So when the call came out to help organize #BlackInPhysics, I knew I wanted to contribute in any way I could.

The beauty of having a group of individuals comes through in our mission statement. We are each unique in our experiences, our history, and our connections. On the organizing team we have physicists in academia and in industry, some who are graduate students, and even an astrochemist. We’re able to create programming inspired by our experiences, varied physics fields, and personal interests.

In addition, we’re able to partner with multiple organizations that support Black physicists and build connections and community between support structures. Our reach is bound only by our own imaginations. And have you met a Black physicist? Our imaginations are like the universe—ever expanding and beautiful.

What are the criteria to evaluate whether the week has been a success and had an impact?

For me, a successful #BlackInPhysics Week centers on community building among Black physicists, an exploration of the depth of the Black physicist experience, and engaging with the public and increasing scientific literacy.

Many of us on the organizing team have had the experience of being the only Black person in the physics lab. As a graduate student early in her academic career, I’ve been lucky enough to find communities of people who share aspects of my identities online, so I know I’m never truly the only one in the room. Success after this year’s #BlackInPhysics Week is the beginning of a greater community made of Black senior physicists, graduate students, undergraduate students, and anyone who is interested in becoming a physicist.

#BlackInPhysics Week is also dedicated to highlighting the richness and depth of our intersectional experiences as Black physicists. Physicists—Black physicists especially—are not a monolithic entity staring down at impossible quantum mechanics problems for hours on end. Some of us are Indigenous, Latinx, disabled, queer, nonbinary, transgender. We’re musicians and poets, gamers and actors. #BlackInPhysics is a time to honor our multidimensionality as well as our science.

Success can also be measured by how we engage with the broader public. One of our goals is to engage with those who don’t think of themselves as traditional or trained scientists and physicists. Being able to do these events on Twitter gives us the opportunity to invite the public to learn about the science we do in our everyday lives and engage with us on a personal level. Folks can connect with us directly through the @BlackInPhysics page or by using the #BlackInPhysics hashtag, thereby increasing scientific literacy and opening the doors to a world usually closed.

Cheyenne Polius

Cheyenne Polius.
Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Polius

Cheyenne Polius is an astrophysicist and science communicator. She serves as the National Point of Contact for Saint Lucia on the Space Generation Advisory Council and is the cofounder of the Saint Lucia National Astronomy Association.

How did you get interested in physics?

Growing up, I was always curious about how the world around me worked. That natural inquisitiveness was fueled by science documentaries and books until I started learning science at school. Physics quickly became my favorite science because I also loved math, so using equations to explain how things worked was extremely fulfilling. My love for physics grew when I realized that the same concepts I enjoyed were used to explain the wonders of outer space. Once I discovered that astrophysics was a thing, I had no doubt it was the career for me.

Do you think the #BlackInPhysics Week initiative will be mirrored in or extended to other countries?

Definitely. Because an integral part of this movement is social media activity and all events are online, there are virtually no restrictions to who can get involved and therefore help expand this initiative as time goes on. This is all about being #BlackInPhysics regardless of where we are in the world. Our organizers also have networks spanning various countries and cultures, increasing the potential for global engagement and partnerships during #BlackInPhysics Week and as the movement continues in the future.

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