Black women scientists need unreasonable levels of resilience

Physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (PhD '11) combats racism and sexism in science and society

Resilience and persistence are closely related, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (PhD ’11). She knows a lot about both qualities as a queer Black woman and a physicist.

“I think in order to be persistent you have to be resilient. You have to be someone who gets up again after being knocked down,” says Prescod-Weinstein, who was recently named one of Nature’s 10 people who helped shape science in 2020.

“Unfortunately, those of us from underrepresented and marginalized groups, including visible minorities and gender minorities, need unreasonable levels of resilience ... because we get knocked down more frequently.”

Unfortunately, those of us from underrepresented and marginalized groups, including visible minorities and gender minorities, need unreasonable levels of resilience ... because we get knocked down more frequently.

Prescod-Weinstein was a graduate student at Perimeter Institute and received her PhD in physics at the University of Waterloo in 2011. Today, she is an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire specializing in the nature of dark matter, a mysterious something (physicists don’t yet know what it is) that helps explain how galaxies and clusters of galaxies are held together in the cosmos. She is also a faculty member in the Women’s and Gender Studies department there.

Dark matter and dreams deferred

By virtue of being a Black woman in physics, Prescod-Weinstein has taken a dual role as a cosmologist and an activist fighting racism and sexism. In her recent book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, she gives people “a holistic view of what it means to be a scientist and what it means to do science. Science is not just facts. It’s also a social phenomenon.”

Prescod-Weinstein was deeply affected by the story of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin left partially paralyzed after a police officer shot him seven times in the back while his children watched.

“Black children are being robbed of their childhoods,” Prescod-Weinstein says. “For me, this is also about giving children the freedom to think about science. It’s hard to focus on science when you’re worried about being hurt by people who claim to be there to protect you.”

Using her anger to transform science

Her own experiences of racism and sexism in academia were sometimes obvious and often systemic and subtle. Even witnessing incidents, such as seeing a Muslim woman being criticized for wearing a hijab, had an impact on her. “Witnessing incidents of bias can actually be more damaging to someone’s long-term interest in staying in a field than experiencing incidence of bias,” she says.

The incidents stirred up angry energy. “I could use that energy to jettison away from the field, and leave. Or, I could use that energy to try and transform the conditions I found myself in.” She took the latter approach: “If I saw an opening, I went through it ... I tried. I think part of resilience is not doing things alone and being part of a community that supports you.”

Physicists support Black Lives Matter

Prescod-Weinstein co-founded Particles for Justice, a group of physicists who became active in 2018 after Alessandro Strumia, a well-known scientist, gave a talk in which he argued women are inherently less capable as particle physicists. Particles for Justice put out a statement expressing outrage.

Then, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in a blatantly racist incident during America’s summer of racial reckoning last year, Particles for Justice put out a call for a day-long academic strike in support of Black Lives Matter.

More than 5,000 scientists, as well as societies, universities and publishers, joined in the call to “Strike for Black Lives,” halting their usual work to learn about systemic racism and craft ways to address cultural bias and inequalities. The strike and activities were discussed on social media under hashtags such as #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia.

“We wanted it to be more than just diversity and inclusion seminars, because there have been enough of those and those aren’t cutting it,” she says.

Meanwhile, at Waterloo, the President’s Anti-Racism Taskforce (PART) was launched, led by members of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities on campus. “It was clear from the beginning that it had to be bottom-up driven,” says Charmaine Dean (MMath ‘84, PhD ‘88), Vice-President, Research and International, who is stewarding the ongoing taskforce process.

The taskforce is making recommendations in a wide range of areas: cultural awareness in language, teaching and curriculum approaches, training opportunities, health and mental health support, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, and the expansion of race, culture and ethnicity awareness initiatives.

Dean says the taskforce members felt it was important to start right away with recommendations and actions. “Systemic racism is prevalent across Canada,” Dean says. “We have our lived experiences and understanding of what needs to be addressed.”

The importance of race-based data in academia

Prescod-Weinstein says data is also important. She often wonders if she was the first Black woman to get a PhD in physics from Waterloo. The Graduate Students Association identified three other Black women PhD graduates in physics but there is no way to confirm the numbers. If Prescod-Weinstein was the first, it was unmarked and uncelebrated.

“We’re scientists and collecting data is our thing,” Prescod-Weinstein says. “We collect data about all kinds of things we want data about. To not collect data is an active decision as well, so at some point, you have to wonder, ‘Does anybody care how many Black people there are in physics at Waterloo?'”

Dean says that is part of Waterloo’s race-based data strategy. “There are legal issues that we need to consider, of course, and will likely be voluntary, but we are working on trying to understand the composition of our campus.”

Dean says anti-racism work, along with addressing the recommendations of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the wrongs done to Indigenous communities, is important to Canada as a whole, but also to the University as an employer and educational institution.

Resilience and persistence are important qualities for anyone who wants to pursue a life in physics, Prescod-Weinstein adds. Even someone like Albert Einstein, who is portrayed as a genius, needed these qualities to succeed, she says. “Sometimes we get too focused on the genius narrative, which is that you are either born with genius or you are not.”

“Sometimes we get too focused on the genius narrative, which is that you are either born with genius or you are not.”

But she looks forward to the day when people from marginalized groups won’t need to be extra-resilient simply because of race or gender. “Science doesn’t exist outside of society. If it matters for society, it matters for science too.”