Pursuing joy in an alien world

This article is the fourth in a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics Today as part of #BlackInPhysics week 2022, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community, and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like. This year’s theme is “joy in the diverse Black community”.

Larissa Palethorpe: “Rotating the sources of your joy means that when one area of your life feels like it’s caving in, there are other activities and people you can turn to.” (Courtesy: Larissa Palethorpe)

As an astrophysicist who specializes in exoplanets and the idea of habitable worlds, I believe that life can thrive in even the most hostile conditions, so it would make sense that joy can thrive there too. Being from a diverse background in a not-so-diverse place or field can sometimes seem like setting foot on one of these hostile worlds, but I believe that if we choose to thrive in these areas we will.

While sending astronauts to other planets is something we hope will happen in the not-too-distant future, it has been decades in the making, with generations of people contributing. In this way I believe that we can take a page out of the space industry’s handbook: the likelihood of success in an environment that was not designed for you can be greatly increased by allowing a team to help you along the way. Allies, organizations and role models make all the difference, and if it were not for those who reached out to me at times when I felt like I was failing, then it’s unlikely I ever would have pursued a PhD. With neither of my parents having gone to university at all, the idea of academia as a job sometimes felt alien in itself, so having people to guide me through this was crucial. I have been lucky enough to have several amazing supervisors on my journey thus far who have taken time and effort out of their day to champion applications, send e-mails on my behalf, answer my many questions, and generally just be beacons of support.

Organizational support

I appreciate that not everyone is so fortunate to have had mentors who have been advocates for their triumph, which is why organizations can also be a source of support. When I first moved to PhD level, I found the lack of diversity as a Black physicist particularly isolating, which is where the department’s BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) group made a big difference. Meeting up with this group once a month was not only an opportunity to vent and laugh, but also a way to see myself visually represented within my own field. It is from the seminars run by this group that I have also discovered similar, more national organizations such as the Blackett Lab Family, which in its own words aims to “represent, connect, and inspire”.

Inspiration, in my opinion, is severely underrated. There are EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) initiatives around the world that have been trying to change the face of physics for decades, but there is no comparison to seeing someone who actually looks like you, in a position such as professor, to make a goal seem more attainable. I attended a summer school run by the Blackett Lab Family recently that featured seminars from Black physicists in prominent positions giving their advice. Forming community bonds like this is especially important as under-representation can mean that on top of research assignments, conferences, teaching and the stresses of academia in general, you feel a pressure from both those in and outside the field to do more to level the playing field.

Finding space to be yourself

Trying to increase diversity within physics is something that we all strive for, but it can seem like a never-ending task that slowly saps your love of the field if you let it consume you. Simply finding a space in which you are able to be yourself while also combining your passion for the research can be hard, but it’s so worth it. Being part of a smaller community that acknowledges and supports your own experiences can be its own source of joy. Recently, at a conference, a Black female professor turned around in her seat to speak to me simply to say, “Stay in the field, we need and want you in the field.” This small act made all the difference to me: sitting in what was already an intimidating room as a brand-new PhD student had put me on edge, but this act of solidarity allowed me some comfort to relax and actually enjoy the experience.

I firmly believe that you can still find pockets of joy in what can seem like overall exhausting experiences

I was once told that those from under-represented backgrounds in physics need to find other sources of community to feel supported, and my experience thus far has validated that. Those we work with simply have not lived the experience of being a minority and the generations of trauma that come with that, so while I’m very appreciative of those who make an effort to bridge that gap, constantly keeping an extra ear to the ground can be exhausting and all consuming. Despite this, I firmly believe that you can still find pockets of joy in what can seem like overall exhausting experiences. Choosing to laugh when some code crashes for the millionth time; when you get called by your other minority co-worker’s name; or when marking a paper and a student chooses a, let’s say, “mysterious” way to solve a problem, is sometimes all you can do – and choosing joy in these moments is an act of rebellion that should make you feel good about yourself.

Let joy be in your journey, not some distant goal. Research can be an extremely frustrating and isolating field, especially when combined with the aspects of being part of a marginalized group, so aim to seek out the joy where you can. You may find it not only in your work or your teaching, but also in your community, in finally fixing the bugs in a code, in helping a student understand a question, in someone finally pronouncing your name correctly. Rotating the sources of your joy means that when one area of your life feels like it’s caving in, there are other activities and people you can turn to. It can be a struggle to thrive as a Black physicist, but find a support network and seek out happiness in the smaller moments, and you ultimately will – but in simple terms, pursue joy!

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