Where Are The Black Physicists?

12:17 minutes

Blackboard inscribed with scientific formulas.
Blackboard inscribed with scientific formulas. Credit: Shutterstock

Black scientists make up less than one percent of physics PhDs in the U.S. And since 1999, most physics departments in the country have failed to graduate more than one or two Black undergraduates. Furthermore, the share of Black students in physics is declining: If the number receiving a bachelor’s degree in physics had kept pace with the rising popularity of the major, there would be 350 Black physicists graduating every year. Instead, in 2020, that number was 262.

But why is this number so small? A comprehensive investigative series in Science Magazine this week examines those statistics, the academic climate of physics departments, and how academia may be limiting the achievement of Black students. The series also highlights some success stories about proposed solutions, with mixed results.

But why is physics a uniquely white, male discipline—and how can institutions make the climate more friendly to students from marginalized backgrounds? Ira talks to Apriel Hodari, one of 150 Black women to receive a PhD in physics in the U.S., who now researches the culture of higher education in STEM fields.

Further Reading

  • Read Apriel Hodari and colleague Beth Hufnagel in 1999, responding to remarks about the state of physics education then.
  • Explore Hodari’s work on solutions that institutions can invest in here.  

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Segment Guests

Apriel Hodari

Apriel K Hodari, PhD, is a physicist, and an expert in STEM education research, equity and workforce diversity, and the culture of STEM disciplines. She is a principal investigator at Eureka Scientific in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about what meteorites from Mars can and can’t tell us about the red planet, but first why are there so few Black physicists? It’s well known that science, technology, engineering, and math, STEM, has been grappling for decades about the paucity of people of color in science. Reporter Jeffrey Mervis at Science Magazine surveyed the field and found the problem to be the worst in a particular area, physics. Black scientists make up less than 1% of physics PhDs.

The wider picture is not much better. Thirty percent of physics department in the country have not graduated a single Black student since 1999. Another 30% have only graduated one or two. The irony is there are actually more undergraduates getting physics degrees these days, and if the number of Black students getting a physics degree had kept pace with the rising popularity of the major, there would be 350 Black physicists graduating every year. Instead in 2020, that number was 262.

Even so many of those physicists are graduating from historically Black colleges and universities. So why are physics departments so bad at graduating Black students, and what can be done differently to increase that number? Joining me is one physicist who studies this problem, Dr. Apriel Hodari, a physicist turned social scientist and principal investigator for Eureka Scientific. She joins us from Washington, DC. Welcome to Science Friday.

APRIEL HODARI: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. The articles I just mentioned talks about your investigations into the culture of STEM education and physics departments, and one of your recent studies asked white faculty how they perceived this bias against Black students and scientists. What was the results? What happened?

APRIEL HODARI: Well we interviewed or we hired white male researchers to interview white men actually, and what we learned is they have some very interesting ideas about race and gender, often problematic ideas. So the important thing to say is that these are all men who volunteered to talk about race and gender. You can assume they’re the more liberal ones within the field who volunteered to have this conversation.

Yet they don’t know a whole lot about it. They tend to know a lot more about gender than race. They don’t have a deep understanding of what discrimination is and what it looks like, for example, but even if they tell stories of women close to them who’ve experienced discrimination, when we ask them more broadly is discrimination or sexism happening in physics, across the board they say no. They’ve never seen it.

And so for a lot of them the big takeaway was, well, even if this is happening across physics, it’s not happening here. It’s not in this department. It’s not on this campus. It’s not in this region of the country, which then absolves them from the responsibility for doing anything because it’s outside of their sphere of control.

IRA FLATOW: How many other departments around the country do you think is happening and they don’t know it either?

APRIEL HODARI: Most, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: And as the story in science this week notes, you are one of 150 Black women to have received a degree in physics overall.

APRIEL HODARI: Yes, in US history.

IRA FLATOW: And total US history. Why is that number is so small?

APRIEL HODARI: I think lots of reasons. I know that there are people who are interested in the discipline, but similar to most people, as a working class city kid, I grew up in Chicago, I was encouraged to consider more practical fields. In fact, my undergraduate degree is electrical engineering. So most people don’t have a sense of what physicists do.

Another big factor is as compared to a field like engineering where you’re considered a professional at the bachelor’s level, you really aren’t considered a physicist unless you have a PhD. So the bar is really quite high.

As my dad used to say, well, I appreciate all these fancy degrees you have, but you still can’t fix my TV. It doesn’t translate to everyday people. Most people think of big bombs or some esoteric thing like I’m going to sit around and think about an atom all day and why would you do that. So in a lot of ways, it’s painted as something that’s not practical that people don’t understand, or one of the elements of culture is physicists really, we believe we’re the smartest people on the planet. And what that translates to when you’re communicating to others is you have to have some overwhelmingly genius level innate ability to fit into our club.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I remember when I was studying engineering many, many years ago, there was only one female engineering student in the whole class. We’ve talked about the struggles of women specifically trying to participate in science. So what happens when someone has multiple identities that are marginalized like Black women?

APRIEL HODARI: Right. But it’s interesting though that there are other things. Like I’ve studied women of color specifically and a lot of Black women for over two decades. And I specifically study women who are successful in these fields where they are vastly underrepresented. And what you find is these women are not only in love with their science, but they have been their whole lives. I fell in love with math at seven.

They have extremely high amounts of internal motivation, but there’s also a not thoroughly studied phenomenon that for whatever reason in engineering, a lot of Black women go into electrical engineering. No one knows why, but it seems to attract a lot of Black women. So it’s not that there’s not interest or even talent. The cultures of these disciplines are not encouraging or supportive generally.

I was pretty lucky. I went to undergrad at Purdue in a context where the percentage of women was a bit above the national average, and the support structures were amazing both for Black engineering students and women engineering students. But most students are not educated in that kind of context, especially outside the HBCUs.

IRA FLATOW: That is close to what I heard from Dr. David Satcher, former surgeon general now at Morehouse School of Medicine, about health care issues among underserved Black communities. And he said that in changing the system, there was a need to encourage and grow more leadership among new Black physicians. Do you think that is true in science leadership and particularly in physics?

APRIEL HODARI: I think leadership is needed, but I think that people can be leaders who have lots of different identities. For example, my colleague Angela Johnson and I have studied institutions and the departments in which women of color thrive, and they are uniformly are almost all the ones we studied predominantly white institutions, predominantly white, predominantly male faculty.

The difference is that they really personally and collectively invest in their students and in all of their students. They see all of their students as precious and worth their time and energy. They make it their job to ensure the students learn. They backed that up with policy. They provide space for students to collaborate. They provide all kinds of support. They innovate both in their learning about people’s experience across boundaries of identity.

And students tell us their students tell us they interrupt sexism, racism all kinds of things in the moment. Even as one student put it, even if he’s uncomfortable, geeky physicist and he looks like this is the last thing he wants to do, the fact that he does it anyway means I can trust him. So I think there are people who do do this and that it’s not only the job of the few faculty of color or women of color faculty, but it’s everybody’s job to invest in these students.

IRA FLATOW: And you say that one of the problems with physics education is how they perceive their students, this thing called the deficit model.

APRIEL HODARI: Yeah, it really is– if you’ve ever heard faculty members or teachers of any kind say things like, oh, we just got a bad batch of students this year. That’s the deficit model. And so what I know from the work I’ve done in places where everybody thrives is those faculty think it’s their job to do everything they can to ensure all their students thrive. So they’re not thinking differently about the talent of any of their students, especially their students of color or women. They really are focused on how do I do a better job ensuring that all of my students can be successful, learn deeply, and move into successful careers after they leave.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any policy or incentive that we can give these professors or universities to think more along those lines?

APRIEL HODARI: Certainly. I mean, we could take teaching and scholarship around learning and DEI issues more seriously. We can treat this with the same level of professionalism we treat our science. That’s a rarity.

We certainly can incentivize it. For example, the UK is not perfect but included in the way they evaluate the quality of a school is how do their graduates fare after they leave, what do they earn, how many of them get jobs, things like that. In the US, we rate schools by how hard they are to get into, essentially how many people they reject. That doesn’t measure what happens to them as they learn or after they leave.

IRA FLATOW: Why are other people of color having more success than Black physics majors to graduate?

APRIEL HODARI: I think unlike part of the belief of what happens in physics culture is what Sharon Traweek calls the culture of no culture, where physicists believe that because our science is not about objects that are raced or gendered that we can ignore societal influence. But the people who populate people are just physics, and in the US those people live in a racist, sexist, classist culture, national culture. So those things translate.

And as I heard early in my career, one leader in physics say, well, part of the problem is we look at women and minorities and we don’t see diamonds in the rough that can be cleaned and cut and polished and will grow up to look like us. And that’s what I mean when I say those people who do this well do see them as equally deserving as potentially diamonds in the rough or as my colleague Beth Hufnagel and I suggested in a response to these comments that perhaps those physics leaders who don’t see them that way should learn to appreciate other precious gems. There are rubies and sapphires and other things that can be equally as precious.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I don’t think I could end the conversation on a better note than that. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Dr. Apriel Hodari, physicist social scientist and principal investigator for Eureka Scientific. You can find a link to Science Magazine’s full series on our website sciencefriday.com/physics.

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