African-American women are making more and more extraordinary strides in a variety of different fields everyday, and the accomplishment of a woman by the name of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has added yet another note-worthy achievement to the pile.
Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is a 32-year-old theoretical astrophysicist who made history back in 2010 when she became the 69th Black American woman to obtain physics Ph.D. Before becoming one of a handful of poster girls for African-American academic achievement, Chanda taught herself calculus and physics while still in high school. She later went on to study physics at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The Huffington Post recently sat down with Chanda to get a closer look at her backstory and where she is today.
How did your early life experiences lead you to this point?
The first thing that comes to mind: I was raised by a single mom. That had a really big impact on how I see myself in relation to the community. I do a lot of activism in terms of creating equal opportunities in the scientific community and more broadly. My mom was singlehandedly the strongest influence in terms of understanding the sacrifices people make for those that they love and for the communities that they cherish.
My mom—to be honest, she couldn’t really help me with my homework after maybe the fourth grade. A lot of that had to do with her own experience of getting an education as a new immigrant to the United States. As a Black Caribbean immigrant, she was treated pretty badly at her school when she first came to the U.S., and I think came out of it educated to believe that she couldn’t really do math.
I want to ask about your experience in higher education. You’ve studied and researched at a variety of schools. Looking back, would you have handled your own education differently in any way?
My husband likes to ask me this question periodically. [Laughter] I think because I have a tendency to be very critical of how higher education is delivered, particularly in STEM, and particularly to people from marginalized communities. This is something that I think about a lot. I think if I had to go back in time, I would maybe have younger Chanda apply to some HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities).
In particular, Spelman does a phenomenal job producing Black women who go on to Ph.D.’s in STEM. They’re not given a lot of credit for that. They don’t get awards for it. You don’t hear President Obama coming and giving commencement speeches and thanking them for their service to the country—which it really is a service they provide—but they’re one of the top three producers of Blacks who go on to Ph.D.’s in STEM.
Going to an HBCU can be a different experience for Black students. What I’ve read is that Black students come out of HBCUs with higher levels of self-confidence than ones who go to predominately white institutions. So when I’m talking to Black high school students who are interested in going on to do STEM, that is something that I tell them about, that there are some significant advantages to going to HBCUs. I believe one third of the physics majors in the United States who are Black are produced by HBCUs. That’s actually fairly recent, it used to be over half of them were.
What was running through your head when you tweeted about the number of Black American women with physics Ph.D.’s? What do you feel about that statistic?
How did I feel when I posted that? You know, whenever I think about these numbers—and I guess this makes me some white supremacist stereotype or whatever—I feel angry. I feel really, really angry. When I started as a physics major, I understood that I would be some kind of barrier-breaker, but I didn’t really understand what that was going to feel like, or how hard it would be and how upsetting it would be, and how difficult it would be to watch other people go through the same process. So I think I felt angry; I felt like people need to hear this. People need to know this.
As of today, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is one of 83 Black women to have earned the physics doctorate and according to recent studies, the numbers are still increasing. She’s certainly a living testament to the importance of education and an extremely positive role model for young black women.
Check out her full interview with the Huffington Post HERE. You’ll be glad you did!