Canadian astrophysicist Louise Edwards is used to answering a number of the universe’s hardest questions. However in the intervening time she’s attempting to reply this one: What number of Canadian Black astronomers does she know?

Edwards, an affiliate professor in California Polytechnic State College’s physics division, is on a Zoom name with CBC whereas sitting in a pal’s brightly lit shed close to her residence in Berkeley, Calif. 

Mulling the query, she turns her head to the best, going through white wood-panelled partitions. She’s pondering arduous.

“Ummm,” she says, wanting off into the gap. “There are undoubtedly a couple of new grad college students that I do know of.”

She pauses and smiles. “I do know some physicists. And a few schooling astronomy of us.”

It is clear she’s struggling. 

“Yeah, there’s only a few,” Edwards lastly says. “I do not know if there’s some other of us who’re at present working not as college students [but] as astronomers who’re Canadian. I do not know. I’d think about I’d know them.”

Canadian Louise Edwards is an affiliate professor in California Polytechnic State College’s physics division. (Ruby Wallau)

Canada has a number of the world’s most gifted astronomers, astrophysicists and physicists. There’s Victoria Kaspi, whose work on pulsars and neutron stars earned her the Gerhard Herzberg Canada gold medal for science and engineering; Sara Seager, a world-renowned astronomer and planetary scientist at MIT who earned a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013 and is a pacesetter in exoplanet analysis; and James Peebles, who won the 2019 Nobel Prize in physics.

One factor they’ve in widespread? They’re all white.

Black astronomers are few and much between in North America, however particularly in Canada. Contained in the group, members share tales of discrimination, micro-aggressions and emotions of isolation, which might in the end dissuade others from pursuing careers within the sciences.


Monday marked the start of Black in Astro Week, which was created in June 2020 by Ashley Walker, a Black astrochemist from Chicago. Its objective? To make use of social media and hashtags to raise the voices of Black scientists working in numerous astronomical fields.

The annual occasion was born from an incident in Could 2020 in New York’s Central Park. Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, requested a girl — who was white — to leash her canine. As a substitute, she called police, falsely accusing Cooper of harassing her. It was the identical day George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis

Quickly after the Central Park incident, a social media motion began on Twitter with #Blackbirders. The objective was to extend recognition of Black individuals who like birding and to name consideration to the harassment they usually obtain. Quickly, a broader motion started with #BlackinX, the place Black scientists from different fields have been equally elevated.

Final week, Walker co-authored an article within the journal Nature Astronomy entitled, “The representation of Blackness in astronomy.” 

An analogous article was revealed in Wired journal on June 7 entitled, “The unwritten laws of physics for Black women,” which examined the expertise of Black girls in physics academia.

The thread that weaves by way of these scientists’ tales is considered one of isolation. They wrestle with being the one Black individual in a given program or classroom; their concepts aren’t valued; and there are not any — or few — Black mentors. 

In keeping with the American Physical Society, Black folks make up roughly 15 per cent of the U.S. inhabitants aged 20-24, however solely about three per cent of those that obtain a bachelor’s diploma in physics. Relating to PhDs, that quantity falls to little greater than two per cent.

In Canada, the ratio is comparable. 

Kevin Hewitt, a professor within the division of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie College in Halifax, led a survey for the Canadian Association of Physicists (which incorporates these within the fields of astronomy and astrophysics) in 2020. It found only one per cent of respondents aged 18-34 identified as Black. Within the broader Canadian inhabitants, six per cent of individuals 18-34 establish as Black.

“Black Canadian physicists, we’re fairly a small quantity,” mentioned Hewitt. “I do know personally about 10 others, together with college students and college.”

Highschool challenges

Hewitt is energetic in bringing STEM to Black youth. He co-founded Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, a STEM outreach program in Nova Scotia for Black college students. His applications embrace the Young, Gifted and Black Future Physicists Initiative, a summer season camp at Dalhousie. 

Kevin Hewitt, a professor within the division of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie College in Halifax, poses in his lab on June 17, 2022. (Darren Calabrese/CBC)

Why are there so few Black Canadian scientists basically, however particularly, those that hunt down a profession in astronomical science? 

One of many issues could also be discovered within the schooling system.

Take the province of Ontario, for instance. Till lately, excessive colleges there had a “streaming” program, which directed college students into totally different post-secondary routes. “Educational” programs have been more difficult and required for college; “utilized” programs ready college students for faculty and trades; and “necessities” supplied assist for college kids in assembly the necessities to graduate.

In 2017, a report led by Carl James, a professor within the college of schooling at York College in Toronto, discovered that solely 53 per cent of Black college students within the Toronto District College Board have been put in tutorial applications, in comparison with 81 per cent of white college students and 80 per cent of different racialized college students. 

Conversely, 39 per cent of Black college students have been enrolled in utilized applications, in comparison with 16 per cent of white college students and 18 per cent of different racialized college students.

(CBC Information)

“What we present in that research was most of the [Black] dad and mom have been speaking about how their kids have been streamed into vocational or important or low-level programs,” James mentioned. Some dad and mom would attempt to “intervene,” he mentioned, however their considerations fell on deaf ears.

A necessity for early assist

James says one other facet is that some cultural teams are likely to need their kids to enter explicit high-end professions, akin to regulation or medication. If a toddler expresses a want to pursue a program of research exterior of what their dad and mom need or know, they will not be supported.

“[Parents] would possibly know a instructor, they could know legal professionals, however they may not know a lot about engineers. They won’t know a lot about science,” James mentioned. “The query for some dad and mom is perhaps, how do I assist my little one in these areas if [I’m not familiar] with it?”

Hakeem Oluseyi, an astrophysicist and STEM educator within the U.S. who’s prolific within the astronomical group, believes that science literacy and an curiosity in science begins at residence.

“The purpose I at all times make is you may’t educate the youngsters with out educating the adults,” he mentioned. And fogeys who go as far as to show their kids math and science at residence have a good higher benefit.

However James would not suppose that is sufficient.

“We simply cannot have a look at the why, and what we ought to be doing as solely the dad and mom — as a result of I, as a guardian, might do every little thing attainable,” he mentioned. Even so, he acknowledged many Black children do not make it in science as a result of “someone … didn’t allow and assist them.”

An absence of Black mentors

That is a giant a part of the issue. A report by the U.S. Education Advisory Board (EAS) discovered that 40 per cent of Black college students drop out of STEM-related applications throughout the nation. Whereas there isn’t any definitive purpose, the research urged it could possibly be associated to discrimination inside academia and that recurring sense of isolation. (Though there may be some data on race in Canadian universities, there is no such thing as a equal information on those that go away STEM-related research.)

This does not shock James.

“You may have the talents and talent. However on the identical time, when you’re in that place, you are undermined in each method attainable,” James mentioned. “How lengthy are you going to dwell in that scenario?”

Margaret Ikape, a PhD candidate on the College of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, says she’s largely had a constructive expertise in her subject. However, she too, has a way of being alone in her group.

“You are feeling that you just’re breaking new floor,” mentioned Ikape, who initially hails from Nigeria. “You do not see anyone such as you that has executed it earlier than you, and so it is actually scary.”

She needs there have been extra mentors. “Typically I really feel like I’d moderately communicate to somebody that might most likely perceive the place I am coming from.”

Margaret Ikape, a PhD candidate within the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics on the College of Toronto, is seen inside her workplace on June 15, 2022. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC)

The truth that there may be discrimination — implicit or express — or perhaps a feeling of alienation should not come as a shock, says Oluseyi.

“, there’s this customary framing of, ‘Oh, [astrophysics is] so racist,’ and yadda, yadda, yadda. And I am gonna make the declare that in fact it’s, as a result of we’re embedded in a society,” he mentioned. “And that greater society undoubtedly comes into our subject, and who we’re in our subject is a subset of society.”

Again in sunny California, Edwards displays on her personal expertise, saying she was lucky in some methods. Rising up in Victoria, B.C., a really white metropolis, she had already handled a sense of isolation, so it wasn’t something new to her as soon as she obtained into astrophysics. However she admits it took her a while to satisfy one other Black astrophysicist.

Edwards says Black in Astro Week is an efficient approach to elevate Black voices and present Black kids that not solely are there Black astronomers and physicists, there’s a place for them in science. 

Edwards expressed gratitude to Black in Astro Week founder Ashley Walker, in addition to the Vanguard STEM, an identical initiative. “[It] provides great house to quite a lot of physicists and scientists and astronomers in order that totally different of us can see that, you already know, they do not have to suit one explicit mould so as to do it.”

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