The Five Black Women PhDs of Theoretical High Energy Physics
Edit: At the time of writing, I did not know a sixth had been awarded her PhD just a few months before.
Indeed, there have only been five Black* women PhDs in theoretical high energy/nuclear/quantum gravity physics. I was the last one back in 2010. Below you will find links to our dissertations. But first a discussion of why sharing these dissertations matters.
It can be hard to enjoy physics when one is constantly being bombarded by the noise of an outside world that was explicitly designed to lock people like you out of what constitutes “success” in this society. When I say that the world was explicitly designed to lock people out, I am not being hyperbolic. I am descended on one side from a people who were never supposed to learn to read but rather were supposed to keep picking sugar cane in the fields until forever. On the other, I am descended from a people who were supposed to shed all ethno-religious markers or accept legally-entrenched discrimination until forever. When I was born, my parents’ marriage had only been legal in the entire U.S.A. for 15 years. I was never supposed to happen outside of the context of slavery and rape, much less learn to read, get an education, go to Harvard or get a PhD in theoretical physics. The world was not designed for me.
To survive and even thrive in such a world is an exercise in endurance, creativity, love and determination. I was reminded of this recently during a conversation with Hampton University Assistant Provost for Technology Dr. Trina Coleman, who was the second Black woman in U.S. — and probably world — history to earn a PhD in theoretical high energy (and/or nuclear) physics, which is one of the areas that my research falls into. After talking with her, I thought more about how to shut out the noise, about having the right to shut it out. So, I tried an experiment. I looked up her PhD dissertation and started reading.
I had never in my life experienced such perfect intellectual peace and equilibrium reading a technical physics document as I did while I was reading her dissertation. Part of this is due to her incredible facility with the material, which she explains with a rare clarity. But part of it also, I recognized almost immediately, was because there were no questions hanging in the air of whether someone like me could do this. Someone like me had done this, and I was reading the glorious product.
I wish I had seen this dissertation as an undergraduate. I wish I had been able to seek solace in the physics of women who had climbed barriers like the ones I was facing. In between the words of these dissertations there is a message that yes, Black girls are magic, and they are cheering us on. thus, without further ado, I present the five PhDs on particle theory, nuclear theory, quantum gravity and cosmology by Black women.
- Shirley Ann Jackson, M.I.T., 1973. The Study of a Multiperipheral Model with Continued Cross Channel Unitarity. Dr. Jackson’s dissertation is at the interface of particle and nuclear physics. In it she derives and studies solutions to an equation that can be used to study the interactions of a composite particle, the pion, with the particles making up atomic nuclei, nucleons. Dr. Jackson is now the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private university in Troy, NY. She is the highest paid university president in the United States.
- Trina Christian Coleman, Hampton University, 2001. Study and Applications of Proportionally Off-Mass-Shell Equation. Dr. Coleman’s dissertation is primarily nuclear theory, although it has potential applications in particle theory. Her dissertation studies the application of what was at the time a new formalism for studying two-particle collisions in nuclear experiments. Dr. Coleman is now a Provost and physics mentor at her three time alma mater of Hampton University, one of the few Historically Black Colleges and Universities that offers a doctoral program in physics. (My little cousin Jolie will be a freshman there in the fall! So exciting!)
- Aziza Baccouche, University of Maryland at College Park, 2002. Phenomenology of Isoscalar Heavy Baryons. Dr. Baccouche’s dissertation falls in the category of nuclear theory, although it may have applications in particle theory. In her dissertation, Dr. Z (as she likes to be known) studies the quantum chromodynamics of baryons containing a single heavy quark and shows that in a particular limit, the theory displays a new symmetry. Dr. Z is legally blind and used recordings of textbooks and physics papers to complete her work. Some of the papers based on her dissertation received upwards of 40 citations. She is now a science media producer who focuses primarily on filmmaking. Her most recent project is “Seeking Vision,” a documentary about the public’s perceptions of and attitude towards the abilities of blind people.
- Lisa Dyson, M.I.T., 2004. Three Lessons in Causality: What String Theory Has to Say About Naked Singularities, Time Travel, and Horizon Complementarity. Dr. Dyson’s dissertation falls in the category of quantum gravity with a focus on string theory, a particle-physics based extension of the Standard Model and General Relativity. Her dissertation presents multiple new solutions to geometric questions in string theory and considers applications to black holes and time travel. As a first year postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Dyson published multiple single-author papers. Dr. Dyson has since helped lead construction of the social networking platform for a national political campaign and is founding CEO of a clean energy consulting business.
- Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Perimeter Institute/University of Waterloo, 2010. Cosmic Acceleration as Quantum Gravity Phenomenology. My dissertation falls into the categories of cosmology, quantum gravity, and astrophysics, and it uses concepts from particle physics. In it, I presented prospective solutions to the cosmic acceleration problem, their potential astrophysical phenomenology, and an improved approach to testing these ideas. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow in Alan Guth’s group at M.I.T. with a focus on particle cosmology, studying axion dark matter and the era immediately after inflation, reheating. When I become faculty, I will be the first Black woman professor of theoretical or observational cosmology and the only Black American woman faculty currently doing active research in high energy theory.
Next up: the three Black women PhDs in theoretical astrophysics, Dr. Reva K. Williams and Dr. Tonia Venters; I am the third.
*All statistics with the help of Dr. Jami Valentine and Ms. Jessica Tucker, M.Sc., who maintain the list of African American Women with PhDs in physics and related fields. This list focuses on people who self-identify as Black in the way it is usually used by North Americans of Black African descent. There is a fairly complicated discourse about how this Blackness connects with how people in the African diaspora outside of North America, the Caribbean and UK use the term “Black.” Here we mean “people of African diaspora descent” but in my experience, many people from the continent of Africa mean something different when they say “Black.” (For example, I often don’t count, and Trevor Noah talks in a documentary about how complicated things are for him in terms of identity in South Africa.) I might later expand to include people of African descent more globally but gathering names for that will include a lot more legwork and will probably fall under a different moniker for the reasons discussed above. And of course, in Australia, Aboriginal people use “Black” to self-identify and are not of African descent.