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Black women’s experiences in STEM inspire an annual workshop

10 May 2021

The Women+ of Color Project aims to increase representation in STEM PhD programs in the face of a lack of support from academia.

When LaNell Williams arrived at Harvard University in 2017 to begin a graduate program in physics, several of her peers told her she had been admitted only because she was a Black woman—her 3.9 GPA, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and two coauthored scientific papers notwithstanding. During an open house for the incoming class, she asked her fellow students why they thought no other underrepresented racial minority woman had been admitted to the physics department that year. “We [women of color] hear many different things in those conversations, one of them being that we’re not interested in physics, which isn’t true,” Williams says. “Or that some of us don’t have the pedigree, which is also not true. And then the last thing is that we don’t apply—and in some cases that is true.”

Photo courtesy of LaNell Williams

In Williams’s experience, however, many women of color had both the grades and the aptitude for physics, but they were discouraged from applying to graduate programs by their professors, advisers, and classmates. “I wanted to prove them wrong,” she says of her peers at Harvard. She was determined to show just how many talented candidates there really are. “I wanted to say to those women that you are as good as, if not better than, some of the people who might be applying to graduate school,” Williams explains.

In 2019 Williams founded the Women+ of Color (WOC+) Project, an annual three-day workshop that encourages women and gender-nonconforming people of color to pursue advanced STEM degrees and provides resources on how to apply for and succeed in graduate school. The WOC+ Project has gone on to win the Materials Today Agent of Change Award. Now, Williams, graduate students L. Miché Aaron and Ayanna Jones, and several other graduate student volunteers are working to expand the workshop’s scope to support women of color throughout their academic careers.

Trying Times

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams felt empowered by her peers and family to achieve any goal she chose. “I was lucky to grow up in an environment that never saw me as ‘less than,’” she says. “But when I got to white environments like Wesleyan University and beyond, it was hard for me because I had to reject the notion that I was somehow ‘less than’ because I was Black.” Williams mentions that her adviser at Wesleyan suggested she try “less challenging” subjects like Earth science, which had field trips, or African American studies, because she must have already been an expert in that field. She remembers trying to join a physics study group, but the other students refused to let her in. Undeterred, she pulled up a chair and studied right next to them.

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After graduating from Wesleyan, Williams continued her education at Fisk University and discovered a passion for soft-matter physics research. “I’ll never forget when I was first trying to take courses,” she recalls. “It was implied to me that, because the other Black students hadn’t done well, I shouldn’t be taking those courses.” Williams enrolled anyway and earned a 3.9 GPA.

After she was awarded the NSF fellowship, Williams expressed an interest in pursuing her PhD at Harvard, but her advisers discouraged her from even applying. Despite their opposition, Williams moved ahead, met with professors in the physics department, and was invited to attend a semester early as a visiting student. The following year, she was accepted into the physics graduate program. “If you tell me I can’t do something, I will bend over backwards to prove you wrong,” she says. “My advisers should have been encouraging me to apply to the best schools in my field. It makes me really sad to think there are other Black women like me who are being discouraged in favor of another white or Asian man or a white woman.”

Photo courtesy of L. Miché Aaron

Other members of the WOC+ Project shared similar experiences of discouragement, estrangement, and hostile environments. Aaron, now a planetary science graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, recalls a celebration of Holi—a Hindu festival in which celebrators tag one another with colorful pigments—at Wesleyan University in 2012. During the festivities, a student posted a sign that read “No Colored People” on the door of the campus’s student center.

Early in her undergraduate studies, Aaron was also told to change her major from astronomy to geology. In Earth sciences, Aaron found a new mentor, Wesleyan professor of geology Martha Gilmore, one of the first Black women to earn a PhD in geological sciences at Brown University. Gilmore introduced Aaron to research opportunities, encouraged her to attend conferences, and provided a safe space for Aaron and other students of color to talk about their experiences. “I am forever grateful that I was able to cross paths with someone as empowering as she is,” Aaron says. “It was like a bubble or island that we were just so lucky to be a part of.”

After an unsuccessful application to graduate school, Aaron retook the graduate record examination (GRE) and completed additional physics course work at a community college in Houston, Texas. When she applied to Johns Hopkins in 2017, she relied on the advice and support of her mentors to network with professors within the Earth and planetary sciences department. One of those professors, Sabine Stanley, helped Aaron determine what classes she should take before applying. When Aaron was admitted to Johns Hopkins the following year, Stanley became Aaron’s adviser and “continues to provide the best feedback,” says Aaron.

Photo courtesy of Ayanna Jones

Jones, now a chemistry graduate student at Emory University, describes a similar sense of mentorship during her undergraduate studies at Clark Atlanta University, an HBCU (historically Black college or university). “I had Black professors, Black students, and colleagues that I worked with,” says Jones. “They showed me that there are people of color, Black people in STEM, which was really reassuring.”

That feeling of belonging eroded when Jones entered graduate school at Georgia Tech. “I remember feeling isolated,” she says. “Coming from an HBCU . . . there’s camaraderie among your peers.” Fortunately, her strong connections to previous mentors from Clark Atlanta University and from several undergraduate internships helped her find a new doctoral program at Emory University, where she is currently the president of the Black Graduate Student Association.

At the margins

In STEM programs, women of color are often the only representatives of their race and gender, and they experience social isolation throughout their studies. According to the American Institute of Physics’ report Women in Physics and Astronomy, in 2017 alone, women in the US earned nearly 200 PhDs in physics and almost 80 PhDs in astronomy. But fewer than 100 Black women have ever earned a PhD in physics, and only 22 Black women have earned PhDs in astronomy in the US. Although the number of women in physics and astronomy doctorate programs in the US has increased in the past decade, Black, Latina, and Indigenous women continue to make up less than 10% of their ranks.

Hispanic and Black people comprise around 18% and 13% of the US population, respectively. Yet in 2016, Latinas made up only 7% of all women earning physics bachelor’s degrees and 13% of women earning astronomy bachelor’s degrees, a twofold increase since the 2000s. Black women comprised only 4% of physics and 3% of astronomy bachelor’s degrees earned by women, a drop from 5% in 1995. And women as a whole earned only 21% of physics and 33% of astronomy bachelors’ degrees in 2016.

The number of physics bachelor’s degrees earned each year by Black and Hispanic women. Credit: AIP Statistical Research Center

The American Institute of Physics (publisher of Physics Today) created the Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy, or TEAM-UP, to research the systemic factors affecting Black underrepresentation. The task force determined five key elements essential to Black students’ success in physics: a sense of belonging; academic support in the form of effective teaching and mentorship; personal financial support; academic leadership that prioritizes supportive environments and policies; and physics identity, or the students’ perception of themselves as physicists.

The findings of the task force’s two-year study, published in a 2020 report, indicate that although Black students are just as capable as any other students, a significant fraction reported unsupportive or hostile environments that eroded their sense of inclusion in the physics community (see Physics Today, February 2020, page 20). Students interviewed by TEAM-UP researchers described experiencing daily microaggressions, social isolation, discouragement from students and faculty, a lack of Black role models, and identity-based harassment.

The intersecting identities of race and gender highlight the experiences of women of color in physics and astronomy. A 2017 study that focused on women across career levels in astronomy and space sciences revealed that women of color face a “double jeopardy” of racial and gender discrimination in the form of verbal and physical harassment. Among the women of color surveyed, 40% reported feeling unsafe at work due to their gender, 28% reported feeling unsafe in their current roles due to their race, and 18% reported skipping professional development events out of concern for their safety.

Making a move

To support women of color applying to physics graduate programs, Williams founded the WOC+ Project with help from Harvard physics professor Jenny Hoffman, Hoffman’s faculty assistant Erica Mantone, and funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation. The WOC+ Project provides women of color a safe space to meet, conducts sessions on getting into and succeeding in graduate school, and offers an open platform with resources on navigating academia.

Williams tapped Aaron and Jones to serve on the organizing committee after learning of their work creating online platforms with resources on graduate school. While attending the 2019 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Aaron shared a list with detailed information on fellowships, vouchers for GRE fees, and requirements for graduate programs. Aaron’s list was shared on Twitter more than 2000 times and is now hosted on Space Interns, a centralized site created by Caroline Juang for students interested in the space industry. During Jones’s first year as a PhD student at Emory, she created STEM in Color, a platform that connects students of color from high school through graduate studies with information on fellowships, financial resources, and scholarships.

LaNell Williams (right) with a volunteer (left), astronomy graduate student Juliana Garcia-Mejia, at the 2019 workshop. Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard University 

The WOC+ team organized an intensive three-day workshop, and in the first two weeks of advertising the event, they received more than 100 applications from women of color. In October 2019, 20 Black, Latina, and Indigenous women were flown to Harvard to learn how to craft a successful graduate school application and succeed in academia. They participated in a mixer hosted by scientists of color and one-on-one application reviews with student or faculty volunteers. Workshop sessions covered topics ranging from the difference between a statement of purpose and a personal statement to how to get recommendation letters that showcase an applicant’s skills—the sort of guidance that is lacking for many women of color.

Despite the global pandemic, in 2020 the WOC+ Project hosted 50 participants in a virtual exhibition hall and live-streamed workshops, sponsored by the Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund and the Elsevier Agents of Change Award. The workshops are now available on YouTube. Nearly a dozen physics and astronomy departments across the country, from Harvard to the University of California, Berkeley, partnered with the WOC+ Project to provide graduate application fee waivers for participating students.

The work of the WOC+ Project “sounds fantastic!” says Tabbetha Dobbins, a physics professor at Rowan University and TEAM-UP task force member. She points out that the project touches on all five factors identified in the TEAM-UP report: “The leadership has to go out and get funding, so that goes back into leadership and structures. They have to have institutional support to know where to start with approaching funders. [There’s] personal support in the amount it would cost the students to go to the workshops. It definitely increases the students’ sense of belonging and their physics identity. And then [there’s] academic support. When we’re talking about advising, we can think about academic advising, but we also have to think about mentoring.”

Williams hopes to build up the WOC+ Project to support women of color at every stage of their academic careers. Ultimately, she wants to create a foundation that offers fellowships to women of color interested in pursuing PhDs in any field. “The whole point is to help students who may not know what I knew or what people on our team knew when we were applying,” she says. “If anything, I want them to be greater than me.”

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