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Space has a diversity problem — and big institutions like universities can do something about it

Astronomy and physics have a lot to learn when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Astronomy and physics have a lot to learn when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
(Image: © X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L. Townsley et al; UKIRT; JPL-Caltech)

Astronomy and physics have struggled with diversity and inclusion for as long as those fields have existed. But, as a recent report explained in depth, institutions have the power to improve. 

The report, which was published in late 2019 by the American Institute of Physics' (AIP) National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP), pointed out inequalities in the two fields and outlined changes that institutions like universities can make in order to increase support for and participation by African American students in physics and astronomy. 

So, why this report and this work is so important? "We never know where our next great idea is coming from," TEAM-UP Task Force member Tabbetha Dobbins, an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Rowan University, told Space.com.

Racism in science

To encapsulate the complex obstacles that African American students face in these fields and develop comprehensive solutions, TEAM-UP spent two years investigating the reasons African American students are underrepresented in physics. The report was motivated by findings showing that, according to the study, "the number and percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to African Americans in these fields has been appallingly low." 

As the report states, "the number and percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in these fields," dropped "from about 5% in the late 1990s to less than 4% in recent years." The report added that over the past 20 years, while the number of bachelor's degrees in physics in the U.S. has dramatically increased overall, African American representation has not grown past levels observed in 1995. 

The report found that the underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy is caused by two main factors: the lack of a supportive environment and financial challenges. "Solving these problems requires addressing systemic and cultural issues, and creating a large-scale change management framework," the report read.

The overall goal of the TEAM-UP report is to "at least double the number of bachelor's degrees in physics and astronomy awarded to African Americans by 2030," according to the report. Among the many key findings in the report is that fostering a sense of belonging in African American students in these fields is crucial for their success, and interactions with both faculty and peers can impact this sense of belonging. 

The report's findings highlighted three major factors that are critical in supporting African American students, Dobbins told Space.com. First, students have to "feel a sense of belonging at the institution level and in the department," she said. 

Second, the task force found that in order to persist in their chosen fields, African American students "must perceive themselves, and be perceived by others, as future physicists and astronomers," according to the report. Having that identify and being able to see themselves in that role is critical, Dobbins said. 

"The third factor is effective teaching and mentoring students," Dobbins continued, adding that this will require inclusive approaches. Additionally, institutions can't just have "lone mentors," or individual faculty members who alone try to take on "all of the mentoring of students from diverse groups in the department," she said. "That's not sustainable." 

The report analyzes systemic issues that persist for African American students and provides specific, detailed solutions that institutions can implement. 

"Leaders in every institution of higher education, and every professional society representing a STEM discipline, should study this report and determine which recommendations make the most sense in their context," Edmund Bertschinger, a professor of physics at MIT who serves as a co-chair with TEAM-UP,  told Space.com in an email. 

However, Bertschinger added, predominantly white universities often have more resources to implement these recommended actions than Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). "This is compensated somewhat by the fact that many of the recommendations are already implemented at HBCUs," he said.

How do people feel? 

So, what is it really like for people who are part of marginalized groups working in these fields? Space.com spoke to a handful of researchers about their experiences in physics and astronomy and how being a part of a marginalized population has affected them both personally and professionally.

Naia Butler-Craig, a NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Fellow at Georgia Tech's High-Power Electric Propulsion Lab who was not involved in this report, shared her experiences and thoughts about these issues.

"It's definitely affected my comfort," she told Space.com. "It's not that I ever wanted to leave, it's more so that I was worried about people coming after me that would have to experience that."

Butler-Craig added that she didn't want those who have perpetrated harassment "to perpetuate that behavior to someone younger than me and push them out of a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field."

Sian Proctor, a STEM communicator, analog astronaut and geology, sustainability and planetary science professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona who was not involved in this report, reflected on the continued lack of diversity in speakers at space and science events, she told Space.com in an email. 

"The biggest issue I face when I point out a lack of diversity for conference keynotes to my already included Caucasian friends is that they always say, 'You should say something.' Which makes me laugh," Proctor said. "You are at the table already so why aren't you saying something? We need white males to speak up and call out any lack of diversity and/or inclusion. They should have a list of people of color readily available to share when they do raise concerns so that they are part of the solution."

Lauren Chambers, a technology fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts who was not involved in this report, agreed with the findings from the report shared her thoughts with Space.com in an email.

"The report's findings agree with not only my own experiences in astronomy, but also with previous reading I've done on the culture of the field," Chambers told Space.com. "Systemic racism is wholly pervasive in astrophysics — as it is in every academic field."

In 2019, Chambers submitted her 2017 undergraduate African American studies thesis as a white paper, called "A Different Kind of Dark Energy: Evidence for Placing Race and Gender in Physics," to the Astro2020 Decadal Survey. She also recently published a public letter on the topic of diversity and inclusion in astronomy titled "A Break-up Letter with Astronomy, From a Young Black Woman."

"Any individual experiences I've had brushing up against issues of discrimination are but symptoms of these larger problems," Chambers said. "In order to create a truly inclusive space for non-white students, astronomy must reimagine their systems, not just play whack-a-mole with the symptoms."

Isabel Rodriguez, an astrophysics graduate student at Oregon State University who also serves as vice president of the Black Graduate Student Association who was not involved in the report, also shared her experiences in the field. 

"I graduated with my bachelors in physics in 2018, the only Black woman in my cohort. In my graduate institution, I am currently the only Black woman in my department," Rodriguez told Space.com in an email. "When I struggled during my first year of graduate school, I had professors who felt that I either wasn’t studying hard enough or simply wasn’t good enough to do physics."

Rodriguez ended up actually changing the course of her career because of these experiences. She shared this decision in a piece published July 2019 titled "Reclaiming my state of mind: Why I'm leaving my PhD program."

"In reality," she continued, "I felt isolated, unsupported, and lacked a sense of belonging. I had actually started at Oregon State as a Ph.D. student, but by the end of the year decided to switch tracks and Master out," Rodriguez said. 

The American Institute of Physics' (AIP) National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP) published this report in 2019. 

Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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