Meet The African American Woman Who Holds The 63rd Physics Ph.D In US History
Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a physicist, one of the most challenging academic professions. Furthermore, she is an African American, a member of a group that historically has had problems gaining access to higher education. Last, but not least, as an African American woman, Prescod-Weinstein is one of less than 90 of this demographic to ever have gained a doctorate in Physics. It goes without saying that this woman has achieved a lot in her lifetime and remains poised to do even more.
Born in El Sereno, an East Los Angeles, California, community, Prescod-Weinstein performed well academically, earning a spot as an undergraduate at Harvard. There, she demonstrated a talent for science, majoring in Physics, Astronomy and Astrophysics. Wanting to return to California and continue working in the sciences, she did both, by entering the graduate program in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This institution, blessed with an outstanding faculty and scenic campus environment, nonetheless was not the best fit for the young scientist.
As academics know, graduate students must conduct research under someone who is an expert in a field closely related to their own. Prescod-Weinstein, demonstrating maturity, left Santa Cruz with a Masters degree, and began the pursuit of a doctorate at the Premier Institute for Theoretical Physics and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. She studied under the tutelage of Dr. Lee Smolin and Professor Niayesh Afshordi, graduating in September 2010.
Her dissertation, Cosmic Acceleration as Quantum Gravity Phenomenology, is a theoretical approach to the subject, putting her in league with the likes of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, using mathematical calculations to search for answers to the mysteries of the universe. For someone who had to teach herself calculus and physics, because her high school did not have comprehensive programs, this achievement is even more impressive than it appears to the casual observer.
Having overcome many odds, Prescod-Weinstein, now a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), remains committed to helping other minority and underprivileged youth achieve their dreams of becoming scientists. The task is not simple by any means. First, is the difficulty that such students face accessing quality math and science programs. Second, is the problem that Prescod-Weinstein experiences as a busy teacher, researcher and role-model.
Prescod-Weinstein sees herself as an “African-American” physicist, meaning she actively mentors students, hoping to increase the number of minority science majors. Yet, colleagues often see such commitments as unrelated to the mission of the scholar. Nevertheless, Prescod-Weinstein remains undeterred, often pointing out that few academics make such comments about what others do in their free-time.
Physics is an elite academic field. Many prestigious university departments award more doctorates in a few years than the all-time total of African-American women degree holders. Fortunately, at M.I.T., one of the most elite institutions of them all, African American students now have a female physicists whom they can witness climbing the professional ladder of success.
Yet, some do wonder whether it is necessary, in a so-called post-racial America, to still celebrate the presence of minority scholars. The future will only tell whether one day there will be African American women physicists at all universities.