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Meet Black in Astro, Honoring Contributions of Black People to Astronomy & Space Science

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Black Girl METAS

Ashley L. Walker, a PhD candidate in atmospheric science at Howard University, founded Black in Astro (BIA) to give Black astronomers a sense of community, support, and financial aid.

“Additionally, we want to rekindle our relationship with our ancestors, who relied on the stars for guidance, freedom, farming, and storytelling,” she said.

In addition to recognizing published scientists, Walker and the other organizers aim to honor junior scientists, data scientists, telescope operators, administrators, organizers, and janitors.

BIA leaders wrote about their experiences in BIA and space science in a Nature article about the group. Walker talks about her motivations for founding BIA as well as her mentors, Nia Imara and Jedidah Isler. Walker attributes her continued career in astronomy to Black astronomers.

“Dr. Imara motivates me to speak up for underrepresented groups, while Drs. Jarita Holbrook and Lynnae Quick push me to be the best planetary and astrochemistry researcher I can be,” Walker shared.

She draws attention to the dearth of Black PhDs in astronomy and planetary science, particularly among females and non-binary individuals. There are only 23 Black women with PhDs in astronomy and 15 with PhDs in planetary science in the US. Due to the exclusion of Black people from academia, astronomy, and space research, BIA was founded to assist and network Black astronomers and space scientists and to recognize their accomplishments.

An authentic celebration of Black astronomers from all across the world

Bryné Hadnott, MSc, Data Curator and STEM Storyteller at Stanford University describes the doctoral defense of Dr. Jamila Pegues, a historic occasion for Black representation in astronomy. With her success, Dr. Pegues became the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard's astronomy department in its nearly 200-year history.

Hadnott draws attention to the contemporary drive for Black scientists to discuss alienation and isolation in academia, particularly in the fields of physics and astronomy. The open letter written by Lauren Chambers about the moral chasm between astronomy and the rest of the world, as well as the treatment of her Black and Brown colleagues, served as the impetus for this campaign.

Hadnott draws attention to the work of the American Institute of Physics Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP), which made recommendations and reported on five key factors that affect the retention (or lack thereof) of Black astronomers and physicists in graduate programs. She describes BIA Week 2021 in her final statement: “A commemoration of Black astronomers from around the diaspora was created by BIA. Additionally, it gave us a chance to be our authentic, astronomy-loving selves."

It gave me encouragement that I belonged here

At her undergraduate and first graduate schools, Caprice Phillips, MSc, an astronomy PhD candidate at The Ohio State University (OSU), reports encountering racism, microaggressions, and isolation while being rejected by mentors and the community. "Because I didn't see individuals who looked like me doing the things I liked, I frequently felt alone. Before 2016, I had not encountered another Black astronomer.

According to Phillips, it encouraged her sense of belonging. "For me, BIA arrived at the perfect time because I needed a community and support. It is essential to have places and groups to learn from.” Later, Phillips examines BIA's prospects. She talks about a grant proposal she co-wrote with Dr. Laura Lopez to support and celebrate Black astronomers at OSU through events, scholarships, and research competitions.

Data scientist Cheyenne Polius, MSc, astrophysicist, president, and co-founder of the St. Lucia National Astronomy Association, talks about the loneliness she had as the only Black student in her year and the value of BIA in giving her a sense of community. Some perceived a straightforward Twitter hashtag as the beginning of a movement to prove our existence and support our neighborhood.

“Seeing others who resemble you in the environments you frequent may give you more confidence. I was aided by the BIA community."

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