#BlackinPhysics Week Builds Community, Increases Visibility

by Scott Hershberger, Fermilab, info@symmetrymagazine.com

Reprinted with permission from symmetry magazine.

Walking to his lab one afternoon last year, physicist Charles Brown found his way blocked by a white student who refused to let him into the physics building and demanded to see his ID. A postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, studying ultracold atoms, Brown says the incident reflects the barriers—both visible and invisible—faced by Black physicists like himself around the world. “We need to be clear that Black people are physicists,” Brown says. “We need to show people that we are out here and that we are great scientists.”

Since the murder of George Floyd brought conversations about societal inequities to the fore, Black academics have shared their stories on Twitter with the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory and organized events to highlight Black scientists in various disciplines. Now it is physicists’ time to shine. #BlackInPhysics week started on Sunday, October 25, and is running through Saturday, October 31.

The overarching goal for the week is to build community among Black physicists at all stages of their careers in the United States and internationally. “It can be hard because our numbers are low, but it’s an important part of professional success,” says Brown, one of the lead organizers. “It’s also an important part of being human—we need community.”

Professional development webinars include panels on how to be a successful student, finding work-life balance as a researcher, managing imposter syndrome and navigating careers outside academia. At social mixers—including an interactive Halloween murder mystery—attendees have fun getting to know each other. “What we’ve planned is to make sure we address a Black physicist both as a professional and also as a social human being,” says Eileen Gonzales, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University and a lead organizer of the week.

The organizers want non-Black physicists and non-scientists to participate in the week’s events, too. Each day, the @BlackInPhysics Twitter account focuses on a different subfield—Monday was high-energy physics—posting an equation of the day, highlighting the work of Black physicists, sharing fun facts and encouraging people to ask questions about physics. In the same vein, an “Ask-a-Scientist” webinar provided an open discussion between physicists and the general public on Thursday.

In Wednesday’s “Three-Minute Thesis Competition,” PhD students vied to give the most compelling elevator pitch about their research to an audience of peers and potential employers. On Friday, a virtual job fair will connect Black physicists with employers in academia and industry.