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Credit: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
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Interview of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein by David Zierler on November 10, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45004
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Core Faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire, and Research Affiliate in the Science and Technology Studies program at MIT. Prescod-Weinstein recounts her childhood in Los Angeles and her family heritage consisting of her mother from Barbados and her father who is Ashkenazi-Jewish. She discusses her family’s work in civil rights and activism and she explains how she became interested in science in high school. Prescod-Weinstein describes some of the cultural dislocations she felt as an undergraduate at Harvard, where she pursued undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy and where Lene Hau played a formative role in her studies. She discusses her graduate career at UC Santa Cruz where she worked with Anthony Aguirre, and she explains how her interests in loop quantum gravity compelled to transfer to the University of Waterloo to work with Lee Smolin. Prescod-Weinstein explains how Niayesh Afshordi became her graduate advisor, which brought her interests more fully involved in cosmology and quantum gravity phenomenology. She discusses her postdoctoral work at NASA, where she learned a great deal about telescopes, and she describes her subsequent work as a MLK Fellow at MIT where she worked closely with Ed Bertschinger. Prescod-Weinstein describes her service work for the National Society of Black Physicists, and she discusses her increasing involvement in promoting diversity and inclusivity in STEM. She describes the opportunities leading to her appointment at UNH, and she explains some of the challenges and opportunities teaching in a largely white environment. Prescod-Weinstein describes her involvement in science communication beyond her academic specialty, and she surveys some of the major research endeavors in cosmology she is currently involved in, particularly in the search for dark matter. At the end of the interview, Prescod-Weinstein explains what the STEM community needs to do to further champion racial justice.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is November 10, 2020. I’m so happy to be here with Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Chanda, it’s so nice to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Hi. Good to talk to you.
Okay. So to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliations? I put an S at the end there because I know you have more than one affiliation.
Yeah. So I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Core Faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire, and I am also a Research Affiliate in the program in Science and Technology Studies at MIT.
Now when you came to New Hampshire, was the dual appointment there from the beginning, or you took one first and then another one later on?
Yeah. So it’s an unusual situation. I was hired completely by the Department of Physics and Astronomy. They’re 100% my tenure home, and it was always planned that I would have some kind of affiliation with what was at the time the program in Women’s Studies. When I applied for affiliate status with the program, the faculty looked at my CV and concluded that I should really be offered Core Faculty status and so then they offered me Core Faculty status. So it’s a situation where they… Like they don’t vote on my tenure or anything like that, but we’re currently sorting out that they will somehow play a role basically in evaluating my feminist science, technology, and society studies work as part of the tenure process. So that’s kind of… And as being Core Faculty, one, I have a right to ask for that, and I also have a right to teach in the program. [Laughs] We work on a responsibility-centered model of finance at the University of New Hampshire, so actually it’s not clear that I will ever be allowed to for financial reasons, but we’re trying to see what will happen with that.
In terms of your teaching, do you spend an equal amount of time teaching in both programs?
No. Because my appointment is 100% in the physics department, which is part of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, my responsibilities to teach are entirely within that department and that college. Women’s and Gender Studies, which is now a department, is in the College of Liberal Arts, so they’re administratively and financially separate. So it would require some money to change hands or someone to be generous in order for me to be allowed to teach a course directly through WGS. The hope in the physics department is that I will teach some classes that have STS aspects to it, or entirely STS but from the point of view of what is valuable to offer through a physics department, and certainly one of the things I’m thinking about is how can those classes be cross-offered to Women’s and Gender Studies? So if their undergraduate courses count for the WGS major, and if it’s a graduate course, how it can count for the Feminist Studies Certificate, which we don’t offer graduate programs in WGS, but we have a certificate that any graduate student can complete.
When did your affiliation with MIT begin?
So actually, I’m trying to think about… I have to think about that for a second. It may be that that came through before I actually started at UNH. So I was hired at UNH in spring of 2018, but I didn’t start until January of 2019. Yes. Okay. I have to think about the years for a second. Yes, that’s correct. [Laughing]
With 2020, anything before 2020 feels like a long time ago. [Laughing]
That’s exactly-- Like I’m pretty sure 2018 and 2019 have kind of merged in my brain, but that is the timeline. So once I knew I was going to be at UNH, I asked David Kaiser if he would be willing to sponsor me for affiliate status in STS at MIT. I think that came through in like July of 2018, so officially, it’s possible I’ve been… Officially I’ve been at MIT longer. Certainly if you count my time as a post-doc at MIT…
…MIT is the place where I spent more time than any other institution in my career so far.
Well, Chanda, we’ll work up to the current narrative, but first I’d like to go all the way back to the beginning, starting with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
Yeah, okay. So my mom… [Laughs] My mom would probably, if she was here, describe herself as a country bumpkin. My mom was born in a small village in Barbados, so she always refers to herself as a village girl. She was born in a chattel house, which… Chattel house has various meanings, but basically she was born when Barbados was still part of the British Empire, so at the time that she was born, it was the Barbados Colony. Her parents were both teachers, so they were a little bit better off than the rest of the people in the village, but pretty much everybody was sort of living in the aftermath of slavery in Barbados, like anybody who was black like my mom’s family. But my mom’s family was the only one in the village that had a radio, so when, for example, Hurricane Janet came through, my grandfather was the one who had to warn the rest of the village that the hurricane was coming.
I didn’t know a ton about my mom’s childhood until fairly recently. My mom is being interviewed because HBO is developing a TV series about her. One of the things that I… I would hear occasionally that they were so poor that my grandfather had to go to the big house, the owner of the land that they were on, and occasionally ask for like a deferral of rent or ask for money so that they could buy food. So that was something I sort of had an awareness of as a kid. More recently I’ve come to understand that prostitution was not uncommon, just women in the village who needed money…needed food from the general store would sometimes trade sex just to have basic supplies. Another thing that I’ve learned recently is that my mom used to dress up in her Sunday best occasionally and go down to the docks where white British tourists were arriving for their vacations and busk and ask for money, basically.
Then when my mom was… A week before she turned 13, her family moved to the United States, and so my mother’s grandmother had been in the United States since the ’20s. She had my grandmother out of wedlock and needed… She wanted to marry my great-grandfather, but his family was basically against it, and when she got pregnant, they shipped him to England. So she went to New York and left my grandmother behind. She went and worked as a domestic servant in New York City, and my grandmother was raised mostly by her aunts and basically didn’t see her mother until they moved to the United States on my grandmother’s birthday. She was either in her late thirties or early forties when they moved to the United States. They were sponsored I think by my grandmother’s father, actually.
So my mom had this whole transition, and for this reason, when I was growing up, what I heard was my mother had an American accent as far as I was concerned. My mom had two aunts, my grandmother’s half sisters who were American-born who were very involved in civil rights activism. They arrived in 1961, and so things were really taking off in New York. They were taking off in the United States, and so my mom was immediately steeped in black American civil rights organizing pretty much as soon as she stepped off the plane from Barbados and has been an activist ever since then.
So my entire concept of like identity until I went to college as a result is kind of this trajectory that my mom took was that we were black Americans, that slavery was our story, that I didn’t see kind of the same borders that I think some… We’re hearing more and more like on social media that people articulate some of these borders. So actually, one of my middle names is Sojourner after Sojourner Truth, so it’s like very much embedded. So that’s my mom.
My dad has his own immigration story and is unusual in a very different way. So my dad is a white Ashkenazi Jew. I guess I should say their names. My mom is Margaret Prescod. My dad is Sam Weinstein. People often assume that Weinstein is my married name and that I’m married to a white Jew. I’m actually married to a Taiwanese-American Jew. [Laughter]
Just mix it up even more!
That never occurs to people. Yeah. That’s one that never, ever occurs to people. So my dad’s family, for the most part, are all people… His ancestors are people who came over in the early 20th century escaping pogroms and… I guess at the time it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but was really like the Polish area of what is now the Ukraine and also areas that were or maybe still are part of Russia. We’re actually not super sure about that.
So my dad’s parents… I like to tell people that I’m Brooklyn on both sides because my mom’s family was in Brooklyn and then my dad’s parents were both in some ways very much stereotypical like born in Brooklyn, loud New York Jews. My grandmother Selma is definitely still, I think by all accounts, a very loud and outspoken Jew. I think that usually people don’t make the Brooklyn connection because she’s been living in England for so long that she has sort of an English accent now, but she’s like extremely Brooklyn. That’s my take on her.
Where did your parents meet?
Yeah. So this involves my grandmother. My dad’s parents moved to Los Angeles after they got together, and so my dad was born in Los Angeles. Then his parents divorced and my grandmother married C. L. R. James, who is now well-known and researched in black studies circles. He wrote what is considered one of the definitive histories of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. They got married during the McCarthy era, and so he ended up being incarcerated in Ellis Island for overstaying his visa because he was a black Trinidadian Marxist, which like that was not the time to be a black Trinidadian Marxist wandering around the United States. So as a result of this, my dad left the United States when he was about five and didn’t come back for any serious period of time until he was in his twenties after he had gone to university. So he grew up in Trinidad and the UK mostly.
My grandmother, Selma James, stayed in the UK in the long term. She’s never left, and she, during that time period, was doing lots of organizing. In the early ’70s she founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign along with, I think, Silvia Federici is better known for her associations with Wages for Housework, but actually, it was Selma who started the organization. She wrote this pamphlet, “Sex, Race, and Class,” which was really like an early articulation of what a lot of people would refer to these days as intersectionality theory. My mom read it in New York in the early ’70s—this is right after my mom had graduated from Long Island University—and my mom was convinced that a black woman had written it because she just like couldn’t imagine.
So at some point, I guess my mom and her friend Wilmette Brown borrowed some money or something like that to go to England to see Selma. They just really wanted to meet her, and my dad happened to be visiting his mother from the United States at the time, and that’s how my parents got together.
I tend to think of it as like… I think it was sort of… I think Selma encouraged them. I never talked to anybody about this, but I kind of think that Selma was like, “This is a smart idea.” [Laughs]
Did they immediately start to date?
So I never asked them any detailed questions about this, but the timeline makes sense. At the time, my dad was living in Los Angeles; he had already gotten a job as a gas man with the Southern California Gas Company. He was in the Hollywood division, and seriously I should probably interview him about that at some point because he always tells these really bizarre stories. You can imagine Hollywood in the ’70s, the sorts of things that gas men must have seen in people’s houses.
Yeah, yeah. Chanda, did either of your parents’ families express any concerns about the nature of their relationship?
No. I mean, my dad had grown up raised by a white mother and a black stepfather, right? So my dad didn’t see his father a lot when he was a kid because my biological grandfather was in Los Angeles. He was a machine worker. So it wasn’t…and nobody in the family… Like my dad basically grew up on welfare. That’s what happens when your family are Marxists, right? [Laughs] So nobody had a lot of money. I think my dad saw his father like maybe twice after he left the United States, so actually, him moving to Los Angeles I think was quite a big deal because that’s when he and his father were actually able to develop a real relationship.
There was some concern after I was born that my paternal great grandfather would be unhappy about there being what they… I guess the way this was related to me is that there were concerns he would be upset about having a “nigger baby” in the family. But I have photos of when he met me, and he looked quite happy, so it ended up not… And he was an immigrant from Poland, so he was old school, but he was also a union man. My great-grandfather was a founder of the Teamsters in New York City. Everybody in the family, I think, was an activist.
On my mom’s side of the family, I think people mostly just thought it was strange that my mom had married a white guy. [Laughs] He was actually my mom’s second husband, so my mom had been previously married to a fellow teacher and…yeah. It was never an issue that I was aware of. I would say like my two grandmothers were quite close. Whenever my mom and my grandmother… Whenever my mom and my dad’s mother Selma were doing like activist stuff that involved spending time at the United Nations in New York, my mom’s mother, Elsa, always hosted everybody like sleeping on her floor, sleeping on the couch. It was often like a huge group of like white lesbians, and that was like… It was like never an issue. I think everybody was on the same page about like civil rights and justice. So I grew up in a very, I would say, racially integrated family and but not assimilated. It’s important to make that distinction very, very clear.
My parents separated when I was five. My dad remarried. He married my stepmother who is Mexican-American, so when I say and I grew up in El Sereno in east Los Angeles, which is a Mexican-American, Mexican immigrant neighborhood, but where we had white, Black, and Asian American neighbors. So for me it was very normal to see lots of people of different backgrounds who were all working together.
Chanda, did you spend more time in your mom’s household or your dad’s growing up?
I was primarily raised by my mother. Even before my parents separated, my dad was often gone, and I try not to ask a lot of questions about this, but my dad was often not around. There’s an article that anyone can find from the Los Angeles Times in 1986. There was a profile of my mother where my mom openly discusses the difficulties that they were having in finding time to spend with each other, and also the difficulties that they were finding in spending time with me. They made some comments like it seemed like I was well-adjusted anyway, but I was like four, so it’s kind of hard to know at that point, I think.
Chanda, what was your school environment like in elementary school and in middle school?
So I went to one school for both elementary and middle school. I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District magnet system for grades one through seven. So again, for people who aren’t familiar with LAUSD’s magnet system, it was originally developed in response to a federal integration mandate, so the school reflected that. I was always in classrooms that were very racially mixed, and even though I grew up in East LA, the school I was attending, the 32nd Street LAUSD USC Performing and Visual Arts Magnet, was basically on USC’s campus. It’s like literally right across the street from the main entrance to USC. So it was in what at the time we would have called South Central LA; it’s now South LA. The students came from all over the city, although disproportionately from the area immediately around the school. It was fairly socioeconomically mixed.
My closest friend at school for most of the time that I was at 32nd Street was Samantha Anderson, whose mother is Conchata Ferrell, who was an actress. Conchata actually just died a couple of weeks ago. She’s like best known, I guess, for her role on Two and a Half Men as Berta. So I grew up doing drama lessons with Chatty—that’s what we called Conchata—who would write these amazing plays that would basically be based-- Like we did one that was based on the child’s book Strega Nona, but she integrated like Macbeth’s witches into it, so I played a witch. I can still recite my lines from Macbeth from that. I was also trained in modern dance, and I picked up both the flute and the saxophone at school, and I picked up the piano at a Saturday school at Cal State LA for poor kids. So I was very much into the arts for that time period.
Chanda, growing up, what were some of the cultural practices in your household from any number of levels: ethnic, religious, national, you know, all of those things. What were some of the things you felt a connection to in terms of all of the different ways that your heritage and lineage traced?
Until I was ten, I thought being a Jew meant you were a labor organizer. Like I’m very serious. [Laughter] That was like my understanding. I knew we were Jewish, but I thought we were Jewish because everybody in the family was like a Marxist or a labor organizer.
That’s great! [Laughs]
Which is definitely a stereotype that’s not so off for certain like… So I had an understanding. My dad’s biological father, Norman, I was very, very close with him. He had grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household, and he had cousins who lived in Bel Air whose house we used to go to for Passover. So for me, Passover continues to be the most important point in the calendar in the year on a personal cultural level because of that early association. Like for me, my sense of myself as a Jew was organized around Passover, and I think part of that actually had to do… It took me a really long time to figure this out, but growing up as a black kid with a strong sense of understanding about slavery and American history, for me Passover wasn’t just like, “Oh, this is a thing that maybe didn’t happen, but it’s kind of like this biblical mythology.” But this was like a very real story for me as a black person. It took me a really long time to realize that actually like white Jews didn’t experience the holiday in the same way that I did, but I think that that was like very set in that time period.
I would say like I also… Norman was a gadget geek, and I would say that this is almost like a cultural thing. He believed that computers were the future, and he saved all of his money and bought an Apple II and made sure that I had one. So I was around computers from like age two or three years old. He also had… People never believe me, but Atari at one point made computers. We had an Atari computer as well.
Yeah, and that was something that my dad also became something of a gadget geek and took classes on how to code. So that was something that after my grandfather died, I was around it a lot less, but I understood technology as kind of like a family culture thing. So that was certainly one thing.
Chanda, do you see technology as sort of your entrée to science?
Yeah. This is an interesting question because during that entire time period… Okay. So one, I wanted to… Our other big cultural thing… My grandfather grew up in Brooklyn, right, so he was a Dodgers fan.
A Brooklyn Dodgers fan.
He actually bought a house that we could actually see Dodger Stadium from the porch of his house, and this house is like his pride and joy, right, because he had grown up poor. He had to leave high school early because his sister showed a talent for opera singing, so he left high school to go get a job so he could pay for her lessons, and she actually went off and became like a relatively successful opera singer, married an Italian, and settled down in Italy. So he hadn’t… He had wanted to be an engineer and hadn’t had that opportunity, and so I definitely think there was an element that he was priming me for it. But the first job that I wanted was baseball player. [Laughter] And I guess like cultural context growing up in the kind of family that I did, I would always ask, “Why are there only boys on the field?” This is like the conversation that Norman and I were always having, and Norman would always say, “By the time you’re old enough to play, they will let you play,” which he turned out to like mostly be wrong about that, but it was a very early lesson that he was making sure that just because I saw only men doing this thing, that I should not walk away with the impression that that meant I could not. That was like a very early memorable lesson.
The next thing I wanted to be—my stepmother is a labor lawyer by training, and so I really wanted to be just like her for like several years. [Laughs] So I really wanted to be a lawyer. I understood I had to have a job, right? Like there was no point at which I thought like I was going to coast on any like family finances or anything like that.
It wasn’t until a few years after Norman died… When I was like ten, I found out that Norman had died from cancer, and so I had a brief period where I was like, “Well, obviously the thing I have to do with the rest of my life is solve cancer.” But then I got introduced to physics. [Laughs] That was kind of… But I would say I was definitely primed for it. I also… Like Norman made sure I saw all the Star Wars movies, so it was kind of like the typical geek stuff. I was raised in geek culture, but not… And I also knew that Norman really wanted me to go to Caltech. That was the other thing I knew.
What was your high school like?
I went to a magnet school for high school. I went to the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, which I feel compelled to mention has a unicorn as its mascot. [Laughs] It was challenging. LACES, as it’s called, is a grade six through twelve school, and so when I arrived in ninth grade, most of the students had been at the school together since they were in sixth grade, and so I actually had a pretty difficult time finding a place for myself socially when I first got there. I also arrived a month late. I started high school twice.
I started high school in 1995, which is the year that the UN Conference on the Status of Women happened in Beijing, so my mom was in China when I was supposed to be starting in high school in, so I started high school in Maryland first while living with my dad and my stepmother. That was tough. It was overall tough, and the other thing is I skipped eighth grade and so I was also just a year younger than everyone and I looked like maybe two or three years younger than everyone. So it was a pretty challenging transition into high school.
Again, it was a very integrated environment. My closest friend was Black but my social group included someone who was Vietnamese and Chinese American and a recent Armenian immigrant. There were lots of Korean Americans, one of whom introduced me to K-pop around 1997. At that time, a lot of people were arriving from the former Soviet Union, so there were a lot of former Soviet bloc Jews in my high school who had only been there for a couple of years. I would actually say my high school, which was like definitely disproportionately Jewish—I think Jews definitely outnumbered WASPs among the white students. There was another Black Jew in my class. [Chuckles] That was my first time having contact with a large number of Jews, and in particular with Ashkenazim. I think for me that was… High school was definitely when I started to think about like what is my identity as a Jew? That’s part of what I recall from it.
I was also very aware that I was at a disadvantage because my high school ran out of math classes for me after tenth grade. I took AP calculus AB in tenth grade and then basically had to do independent study for calc BC, and I had to do independent study for AP physics. So I felt held back in some ways by the resources. Even though LACES was one of the most highly-resourced schools in Los Angeles Unified School District, I was aware that because I was in a large like working-class dominated school district that I had disadvantages.
That said, I’d say the Mighty Unicorns, as we sometimes jokingly call ourselves, the people I went to high school with are some of my most amazing cheerleaders, and they’re all trying to get their kids into LACES. [Laughs] Actually, someone was texting me last week and was like, “I finally just transferred my son into the elementary school that feeds directly into LACES because my kids have to go to LACES.” So I would say like we all feel strongly… Certainly if I was having kids and I was in Los Angeles, I would want them to go to LACES.
Did you take college classes while you were in high school at all?
That wasn’t an option for me. I spent three hours roundtrip on the school bus every day to get to school, and there was no way… So one, because I was a year younger, I was at a disadvantage in terms of being able to drive myself places even if we could have had a car, but me having a car-- for the first two years of my time in high school my mom had a car that like the driver’s side door didn’t open, right? We could barely manage one car, much less two. So I couldn’t have taken classes at West LA College and then driven home or anything like that. I was dependent on the school bus, and so I was sort of dependent on that schedule. So taking classes at community college ended up not really being an option for me.
What kind of advice did you get, either from teachers, mentors, family members, about what kind of colleges you should apply to?
So by the time I started high school, I had already decided I was going to Harvard or Caltech for college. This was because when I was 11, I looked up Stephen Hawking’s email address and sent him an email asking how to become a theoretical physicist.
Wow! Wow. Did he write back?
One of his graduate students wrote back, which like now as a professor, I’m like that’s not what graduate students are supposed to be doing. [Laughter] Yeah. So one of his graduate students wrote back and said, “You need to go to a top university, and then after you’ve gotten your first degree, you go and you get a PhD and after you get a PhD you become a professor.” It’s obviously a little bit more complicated than that.
But I knew well enough to plan… So at that point I started researching what top colleges were. I knew of Caltech because I grew up 20 minutes away from Caltech, and I was aware that my family couldn’t pay for college. So I also looked up what the financial aid policies were and figured out that schools like Harvard and Caltech could offer me full packages if I needed one. So I went into high school already like very clear that those were my top two choices.
Chanda, did you have a sense in high school that physics in particular, STEM in general, and just higher education across the board, that there were structural problems that women faced in pursuing degrees?
Yes. I mean, this is like an interesting-- I think about this question a lot, actually, because my mom is primarily like a feminist women’s rights organizer, and so like I was aware that women face challenges in the world. But I think because my mom and my grandmother’s organizing primarily focused on the challenges that poor and working-class women faced that I didn’t… And I didn’t have a lot of upper middle class women in my life. I didn’t have like a concept at all that these problems, while different, were not as bad for women who are middle class or professional, were still there. So I think I didn’t really have a strong concept. I knew that there weren’t as many women in physics as men.
I had already experienced some sexism in the classroom, but I largely conceived of that as a problem of the specific individuals involved. I took algebra in seventh grade, and the guys would call me like a flat-chested wench when I got like higher grades than them on the test, which was like pretty much all the time. So I understood that those comments were like inappropriate. I didn’t have like a conception of them as like, you know, that’s actually sexual harassment, that kind of language. I think people of my…the Xennials, I think we didn’t have that kind of socialization in school that this is gender discrimination or whatever. And…yeah. So for example, when I went to Harvard, I knew that Melissa Franklin was the first woman to earn tenure in the department of physics.
Not that long ago.
Yeah, and at the time that I got there, I think it was only like five years before, maybe four years before because the top quark was 1994, and I’m pretty sure it was after the top quark. So to me that seemed like a really long time, right, because I was 17 when I started college. [Chuckles] But in context, right, it hadn’t been that long before, and then Mara Prentiss was the only other woman in the department when I got there. Lene Hau arrived halfway through my time at Harvard. So I knew that there was something that wasn’t right, but I didn’t have any concept of exactly what the problem was.
What were your impressions of Harvard when you first got there? Did it feel like a totally different world for you?
Yeah. So actually, honestly… You know, the funny thing is that by the time I became a junior in high school, I had done well on the PSAT and I had also… I went to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth one summer, and so I had taken the SAT in seventh grade. So I was one of these kids who got like a ton of mail from colleges that were like, you know… I had gotten it into my head that maybe I wanted to go somewhere like Williams College, like one of these small liberal arts colleges, and my stepmother was asking me… The summer before I was going to apply to college, she was like, “Where are you thinking about applying for college?” and I was like, “Here are the array of small liberal arts colleges I’m thinking about.” She said, “So you’re not applying to Harvard in the end?” So my stepmother Maria I think gets a lot of credit for changing my mind about that.
For my sixteenth birthday, my dad and my stepmother put me on a plane from Washington, D.C. to Boston by myself and sent me up to Boston for a day to go look at Harvard by myself, which is like-- This was just like an extremely typical thing for people in my family to do. I had been flying back and forth… Like I think I flew by myself to England for the first time when I was like seven years old, so I was used to being on planes for long periods of time by myself and being sort of like…I guess I would say like often shipped off to different parts of the family for caretaking at various points. So they were like, “She’s 16. She’s fine. We’ll just send her to Boston. We bought her a guidebook. She’ll figure out how to ride the T and get herself to Harvard.”
So I went to the Admissions Office to take one of the tours, and I was just dressed that the way a kid from East LA would dress, and everybody stopped and stared at me when I walked into the admissions meeting. Everybody else… It became very clear that I was dressed wrong. Like all the kids were in khakis, and as if the people in the Admissions Office were going to remember who the fuck they were. I went on a tour and I was like these people and this place seem truly terrible. [Laughs] So that was really like my first impression of Harvard was like they are god awful and I don’t want to go to school with any of these people.
After the tour ended, I walked myself up to what was at the time called the Harvard Center for Astrophysics and fell in love with Cambridge and saw the CfA and was like, “That’s a building filled with 300 astrophysicists. That’s amazing. I could go to college here.” So my very first impression of Harvard was astronomy good, everything else bad, and I would say that that’s like mostly the impression that I hold to this day like over 20 years later. [Laughing]
Was the plan for you originally to pursue astronomy and astrophysics, or did you want to do physics, all of them together?
So I wanted to do…yeah. This is a great question. I think it’s one… I worry a lot about students because I think this can be confusing.
It’s confusing to everybody because it’s different at every school.
Right, and like what’s the difference? For example, there are black holes in physics and then there are black holes in astronomy and they’re really… Like I actually wrote a column about this for my monthly column in New Scientist last year. They’re really like almost two different objects.
There are places where they meet, right, but they’re not… And the other thing--
And then throw cosmology and particle physics in there and it just gets more confusing.
Right. So I was going to say like that’s the other thing, is that if you grew up on A Brief History of Time, which I did, then you think black holes and cosmology…like that black holes are part of cosmology, and actually they’re not, really. The place where they meet… Well, okay. So maybe primordial black holes are the dark matter. That’s a popular topic of conversation, right?
But like five years ago, people would have been like, “Black holes don’t really have much to do with cosmology unless you’re thinking about how do active galactic nuclei fit into our picture of structure formation,” or something like that. It’s not evidently clear that those are all the same topic once you have the training in physics, but before you have the training in physics, you think that they’re all the same topic. So I think I spent most of college confused about that. I really wanted to major in physics and math, but became very quickly convinced by my interactions with the math department that I was too stupid to do math.
Even though you yourself knew that even in high school there was only so much that they could do for you with regard to your talents in math.
Yeah. I mean I would say…and if you’ve read any of my writing, you know that this is something that I think about quite a bit.
My high school—I had one math teacher all through high school, Warren Buckner, and he wrote in my letter of recommendation for college, which I guess he decided I should see, that I was the most talented mathematician that he had taught in 30 years of teaching. Even knowing that he said that, I think that when confronted with how Harvard was, and being confronted particularly by white men who in one case had gone to like Phillips Andover Academy; in another case, his parents were faculty at Princeton and he had done most of an undergraduate math major basically at Princeton…that I was unable to interpret the information I was receiving as “These guys have just had opportunities that I didn’t have.” I understood that, but I didn’t understand… I think I was too emotionally and intellectually immature to understand the extent to which those advantages work for people in ways that have nothing to do with your capacity to learn or make contributions. I was like, “Sure they know some things that are better than me,” but they seemed faster than me, and I didn’t have an understanding that sometimes speed comes with experience, right? I think for me that was a missing piece of information. So I thought my slowness or incapacity was innate. I definitely didn’t have flexibility mindset.
One of the things that we were told during orientation is “Sure, you used to be the smartest person in your class. You’re at Harvard now; you probably won’t be.” I think they don’t think about how that sounds to like the working-class kids of color who arrive on campus. They think about like the white dudes who have had everything handed to them on a silver platter who need to hear that, but like here’s the thing. Jared Kushner was in my graduating class, and I don’t think it calculated in his brain that maybe he should have some humility because otherwise he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing in the Trump administration right now. Like the guy clearly has like no sense of humility.
I would say at the time… It’s less true now, although the stories I hear from students make me think it hasn’t changed enough. Harvard is completely incompetent at supporting students like me. I just like had zero support. Like nobody was like, “Have you considered…” Nobody was trying to figure out that I was having these thoughts and then forcing me to reframe them or saying like, “Actually, maybe you’re drawing wrong conclusions about what the situation is.” That was definitely… I feel a lot of regret on my own behalf, I guess, that there was nobody there to kind of say that to me.
Even though my parents both went to university, they both went in a very different context. Like my mom went to Long Island University. My dad went to Sussex in the UK right after it opened. He had turned down a spot at Cambridge because he wanted to like be a hippie. Both of them like barely graduated from college. For them it was like not a priority to like do well. They didn’t have aspirations that involved what they would do with their degree afterwards, and they weren’t in environments that were anything like Harvard. So even though I wasn’t first generation, I think there are a lot of ways in which my experience mapped onto what first generation people experience.
You were certainly first generation in the context of Harvard, in terms of you had little cultural vocabulary to understand your environment.
Exactly. I didn’t have a good cultural vocabulary. I remember like getting there and being like, “Why does everybody dress like they’re going somewhere nice every day?” [Laughs] Like the clothing that people wore is like their everyday clothing. It was like clothing that I would only wear if I was going somewhere nice. I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t afford it, right?
But Chanda, Harvard is not… I mean, it’s hard to quantify these things, but in some ways it’s a little less preppy than a place like Princeton, for example. Did you find a peer group that you felt comfortable with?
No. I guess yes and no. I found the Living Wage Campaign and Students Against Sweatshops pretty much instantly, and outside of realizing that I was queer and getting involved in some of the queer student groups, my primary extracurricular was like student labor organizing. So I think I found an ideological home in some ways, and so I was very heavily involved in the 2001 student sit-in where we took over the president’s office for 21 days. I think it continues to be the case that the AFL-CIO legal office has like a photo of me up on the wall from that time period. But I never found a social group that I felt like, “This is my home. These are my…” I think a lot about why that is, and I think part of it had to do with being a black woman and a physics major at the same time. So I ended up being physics and astronomy. I guess that’s where this started. I ended up being joint in physics and astronomy.
Were both departments sort of coequal intellectual homes for you?
[Laughs] You know, honestly I don’t know anyone who has fond memories of being a physics concentrator at Harvard. [Laughter] Like nobody! Even like people who did really well in the department are like… My first year in graduate school at Santa Cruz I was officemates with someone who had graduated the year before me, and she had graduated like top honors, had done like really, really well. She was like, “Never, never again. I will never tell anyone to go there to study physics.” [Laughing] And actually because of that, I guess the answer has to be no because I applied to graduate programs in astronomy because I thought physicists were assholes. That was like kind of… By the end of my time at Harvard, I was like, “I don’t even want to mess with you guys.”
So this is to say that at least in the physics department there were no mentors who exerted a positive influence on you.
It’s complicated. I had an amazing time in Lene Hau’s Quantum Mechanics II class. It had like a lasting intellectual impact. At the time, she had just become really famous for her slow light experiments. She actually won the MacArthur in the middle of that semester, and we all showed up to class that day assuming that she wouldn’t. Then she showed up to class and we were like, “What are you doing here? You just won a MacArthur,” and she was like, “It’s still my responsibility to teach the class.”
Yeah. Right, right.
I got the highest grade in the class. The first class I ever got an A in was Quantum Mechanics II. [Laughs] The class, she basically designed it so that by the end of the class we understood Bose-Einstein condensates. So when I say this had a lasting impact, right, like the thing I’m best known for in the physics community right now is Bose-Einstein condensate axion dark matter.
Mm-hmm [yes], mm-hmm [yes].
I definitely think the seed was planted at that point. I fell in love with lasers. I still think lasers are like one of the coolest things. I love telling people about masers in the Orion Nebula.
And Lene is a super genius who can explain clearly her work.
She was… So my classmates disagreed. I thought she was a brilliant teacher. Part of what was brilliant about her class was that that was the first class where we were put in a position where we had to make choices about, for example, what textbook we would learn from, and that gave me a freedom… Like I just needed someone to tell me, “It’s okay to go to the library and look at a different book. You can hate the textbook that your professor chose.” And I teach like that now. I tell my students, “Please go to the library. You don’t have to like the book I chose. I just want you to learn the material. I don’t care how you learn it.” So I would say she had a lasting impact in that sense. Because of how I performed in the class, I was invited to join her lab for the summer afterwards, and then unfortunately that was kind of a not-great experience. [Laughs] It’s complicated, but I would identify that class as a really important turning point for me both in my self-understanding and--
Chanda, what about among other faculty, graduate students, post-docs, were there any people of color in your orbit that were people that you could look up to as an undergraduate?
Yes. So around the same time that I took that class, I was introduced to Nadya Mason, who if you haven’t interviewed her is someone else who should be archived.
You can look her up right now. I talked to her two months ago.
Okay, yeah. So Nadya had just graduated from Stanford with her PhD and was starting as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, which like I didn’t really have any concept of what any of that was. And I don’t even think I knew at the time that she had been an undergraduate at Harvard. And I didn’t have a lot of contact with her, but I do have like a very clear memory of going out to coffee with her. She was the first black woman with a PhD in physics that I ever met.
Also half Jewish.
Yeah. So all of the different ways of…yeah. And even like you know, surprisingly someone who sort of looked like me for better or for worse. I think the fact that there are so many visible light-skinned black women in physics for me is in some ways troubling, but I definitely personally benefited from that connection. We didn’t necessarily have like a ton of contact over the next like two decades, but she was always someone that I could look to just to ask how I was when she ran into me. Then when I became faculty, she has been probably the most important mentor that I’ve had in the last two years. I’ve also learned from the fact that she picked “This is the moment when I can have an impact in Chanda’s life, and so this is when I will make myself into an active mentor for her.” Even though we’re in very different research fields, right, there are just a lot of things about being faculty at an R1 that like have nothing to do with research field and everything to do with like [overlapping voices].
Navigating the waters.
Yes. So she’s been very important. So Nadya was one person. So my early interactions with more senior people who were black were actually kind of mixed and that continued to be as my career went on, in a way that seems very gendered. There were black students who were in the physics major with me. There were no women. Of the three men who were in my year, only one of them graduated on time with me, and the other two ended up delaying for various reasons and graduating in later years. Nathan Moore, who was the one who was in my classes with me, he’s probably the reason that my graduate applications got turned in. Like I was feeling pretty like, “I’m not going to get into graduate school.” This was kind of like the messaging that I was getting in the physics department was that like I wasn’t going to make it as a physicist, and Nate just like sat me down one night and was like, “We’re doing our graduate applications right now.”
At what point did you know that you wanted to go on to graduate school for the purpose of ultimately going into academia professionally?
I mean when I was 11. [Laughter] At what point did I understand what that meant at all?
I’m not sure I even understood what that meant until like I was a post-doc, honestly.
In other words, I mean you can apply to graduate school on purely intellectual terms because you want to continue in your studies and/or you can apply because that’s what you need to do if ultimately you want to become a university professor.
I knew I needed a career. I think for me the big moment was when I was ten, my mom took me to see A Brief History of Time, the Errol Morris documentary. I didn’t want to go because like what ten-year-old wants to go see some documentary that’s made for adults? [Laughs]
Perhaps one that writes to Stephen Hawking as an eleven-year-old.
[Laughs] Right! And this is the seed of why I did that. Halfway through the movie, they were talking, like Stephen Hawking… You know, the whole thing is like, “This is a good job. This is the career that Stephen Hawking has.” That’s how I heard the documentary was like, “This is a job.” At some point, he was like, “I’m really thinking about what’s the physics of the singularity because Einstein’s theory of general relativity breaks down at this point.” In that moment, I was like, “Wait. So you can have a whole job figuring out things that Einstein didn’t figure out, and it involves doing math all day and people will pay you for this?” At that point I knew. I always loved math. Like I thought the time… I still think times tables… I have this bizarre fascination with times tables. [Laughs] So I was primed for it, but my take on it was that I could get paid to do math that explained the world, and that that was a real job. So I came out of the documentary like begging my mom for a copy of the book, and my mom was like, “I’m not buying that for you. It will be too hard for you to read. You’ll be intimidated.” So my mom’s older brother bought it for me for my eleventh birthday, and then that’s how I ended up writing the email is after I was reading the book a little bit. I was like, “I need to understand more about how I make this into my job.” But I think for me it was always a career path.
Chanda, the graduate schools you applied to because of your negative experience in physics were specifically astronomy and astrophysics programs?
So I did apply to some physics programs. I very distinctly remember that I applied to like the Princeton physics program, which in hindsight I had no chance of getting into, and thank god is kind of my feeling about that.
Why? Why did you have no chance of getting in?
I think if I’m being generous, my GPA was like a B- and I did terribly on the physics GRE, as it turns out nearly every black student does. I had a perfect score on the GRE general, and I’ve actually been really surprised by the data that shows that that’s actually pretty unusual for someone of my demographic. But… And you know, it had already been-- I think I applied saying I wanted to do theoretical physics, and like it’s virtually impossible to get into a program to do theoretical physics even if you have very high scores on everything because it’s so competitive. But I don’t understand that an application like mine, particularly in that time period when people could not give like even the veneer of a flying fuck about black women in physics, there was no way. My application probably didn’t even get read in any serious way is my suspicion.
I was very lucky that in the astronomy department I had John Huchra. He was my undergraduate advisor, and one of the reasons I was lucky to have John as my undergraduate advisor is because John grew up working class, and he used this to effect with me. He would tell me about his summers as a truck driver with his Teamster uncle, and that was a language I understood since my dad and stepmother were both union folks. John told me which astronomy programs someone with an application like mine could get into, and he said, “Apply to Santa Cruz. Apply to Maryland.” Those were the two astronomy programs I ended up choosing between.
Why Santa Cruz besides, obviously, it’s California and it’s Santa Cruz?
Why did I choose Santa Cruz?
Yeah. One, my high school best friend was still finishing her undergraduate degree at Santa Cruz, and I had like missed her miserably while I was in college. So I had this idea that if I went to Santa Cruz, maybe my life could go back to what it felt like before I had gone to college. I definitely had this feeling of like, “I want to get away from Harvard.” So I think actually part of it is that I just wanted to get away from Harvard, and Maryland was closer. [Laughter] The other thing was when I went to visit Maryland, the graduate student offices were all in the basement, and graduate students were like, “When we’re bored, we do these races in our roll-ey chairs around in the basement,” and I was like, “That sounds terrible.” At Santa Cruz, the graduate students all had offices that like looked at redwood groves. [Laughs] So that was definitely a big piece of it.
Did you go in with the intention of pursuing a PhD and you stopped at the master’s?
Yeah. So I actually I guess did whatever you… I don’t know if… So I didn’t advance to candidacy because I didn’t do a topic defense, but I passed the preliminary exam. It was typical at Santa Cruz that people, once they passed the preliminary exam, would ask for a master’s degree and so I did and I stayed another year after that and then decided to leave. And actually, they were--
Where were your research interests at this point? Where were you sort of headed?
So I thought when I started… When I accepted Santa Cruz in spring of 2003, I thought I was going to work with Doug Lin on extrasolar planet theory.
So you were set on theory at this point.
Yeah. I still really wanted to do theory. I was lucky. At the Center for Astrophysics, I had gotten to work with data quite a bit, and actually, my work-study job for most of college was doing Hubble supernova image reduction in Robert Kirshner’s group. So I kind of knew what the deal was with data, and I was like not as excited about it as I was about doing math all day. Like that was still kind of what my main jam was. I had done my junior thesis with Dimitar Sasselov on extrasolar planetary composition—basically follow-up to Sara Seager’s PhD thesis, actually. She had just graduated like a couple of years before. So I thought extrasolar planets were cool. It seemed like a field that was about to take off. I had no idea how true that was. [Laughs] Then spring of my senior year, like while all of this was happening, I took general relativity, the graduate GR class at MIT that usually Ed Bertschinger teaches.
That year Ed didn’t teach it because they had a visiting professor from Duke University, Arlie Petters, who is a black mathematician and physicist. I would say taking that class was probably the most important physics class I took in college. I loved it. We took it… So he taught the class from Bob Wald’s book, which is considered like the hard GR book. I loved it. I loved manifolds. I thought differential geometry was the coolest thing ever, and it took me back to what I really liked. So when I actually got to Santa Cruz, I walked into Anthony Aguirre’s office in the physics department, during what turned out to be like his second week on the job as a professor, and said, “I think I should be your student.” [Laughs]
What was he working on at that point? What was your connection to his research?
So Anthony is a theoretical cosmologist. He had just finished a post-doc at the IAS doing cosmology theory, and he had been, before that, a graduate student in the area that’s now I guess the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard. So one, I think I liked the trajectory that he had taken. I was like, “This is a guy who has done well for himself,” and… Oh, what was he thinking about at the time? So I started working on a project… I guess at the time…
So the defining sort of scientific question that was kind of in the air at that time was the cosmic acceleration problem, right? Cosmic acceleration had been identified as a phenomenon and as a problem a couple months before I applied to college, and so I had written about it in my college applications. It was the thing that was kind of dominant in the press, and our understanding of what are cosmologists doing right now? They’re trying to solve the dark…what came to be known as the dark energy problem. So I think at the time Anthony was probably doing a lot of work on dark energy models and modified gravity models in relation to dark energy, so lots of things with scalar fields, which I’ve come to understand is basically all of cosmology is like… Theoretical cosmology is just like people pushing scalar fields around on potentials. [Laughs]
What did you want to do that was relevant to his research?
Yeah. So I think I didn’t have a good concept of what… I mean, I wanted to solve the cosmic acceleration problem. [Laughs] I still want to! I just like now accept that I probably won’t. [Laughs] But that was a problem that kept me up at night, and still does if I start to think about it. It’s actually like a problem. It really stresses me out. Yeah. I’m like getting stressed out just thinking about it right now.
Why the switch in graduate school? Why not stay on for the PhD at Santa Cruz?
The astronomy department was really hostile to the number of physics classes I was taking. There’s a weird cultural thing at Santa Cruz. The astronomy department is considered like a top five program. The physics department is considered like a second tier program. This was actually articulated in an email the chair sent to the department once, which is… One of the only classes they all take together is general relativity, which Anthony… That was the first class he ever taught. I wasn’t in it because I had taken it already. The astronomy students were so upset by how hard the class was that they petitioned the department chair to ask Anthony to make the class easier.
And the physics students were like, “Finally, a breath of fresh air. This class is so much easier than all of our other classes.” [Laughter] The chair sent an email saying, “Look, you guys. You all went to Ivy League, and the physics department students are just public university graduates, so you should be fine,” which there was, for me, immediately this feeling of “Shit. I can’t escape Harvard.” Like no matter what, I’m still kind of like in this… I wrote him an email and said, “Look, I’m taking classes with both groups, and the physics students work harder,” which was true.
When I went to take my preliminary exam, the week before the exam I figured out that none of my physics professors in what were my electives had been asked to write questions for me. The exam was half your core courses like stellar astrophysics or galactic astrophysics sequences, and half your electives. When I went to talk to the chair of the exam committee about it, he said, “Well, you shouldn’t have been taking those physics classes.” I had to go and ask the physics professors to write problems for me because it became clear to me that this guy was trying to fail me by default, and I think it left a bad taste in my mouth about like the support I had in the department.
I also hadn’t landed on a project with Anthony that seemed like it was going to turn into something, and I should say I don’t blame Anthony for any of that. [Laughs] I think I would say if I had to offer a critique to Anthony, Anthony is like the nicest man on the planet, and I think I was aware that I needed someone to kind of… I think he was aware that I needed support that I had not gotten, and his understanding of how to do that was to not tell me no or to try and corral me, and in fact someone needed to, right?
But I also understand why he didn’t. One of the problems we have in the physics community is that there’s no training in how to mentor anybody, much less a student who had been through what I had been through.
So I kind of came to the conclusion that I actually really wanted to do quantum gravity, but I read the room and was like, “I will never make it as a string theorist socially.” String theory was the only option at Santa Cruz, and so I started looking around for options and decided I was interested in loop quantum gravity and got someone to introduce me to Lee Smolin.
Aha. Hence the Waterloo connection.
Yes, and at that point I had an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which made leaving Santa Cruz easier.
Yeah. What was Smolin working on when you met?
What wasn’t he working on? I mean, that’s a guy who always… The thing about Lee is that Lee can like write a paper overnight. I don’t know why I keep ending up-- Like Dave Kaiser is also like this. It’s sort of infuriating like how fast they are. [Laughs] At the time, Lee was thinking a lot about nonlocal links, and spin foams was really just starting to take off. He was interested in kind of the big picture questions that were being raised by what was coming out of some of the numerical simulations that people were doing with spin foams. So they were finding that instead of having sort of an ordered like quantum grid of some kind that there were these grids where there were nonlocal connections on the quantum gravity level, that this was what was coming out in spin foams. A lot of this was based on work that Fotini Markopoulou Kalamara was doing at the time, so that was… What ended up happening was I went… Lee came to visit one of his friends in Berkeley, and I drove up to Berkeley to go meet them and then ended up having to stay the night because there was a nasty storm. So one of my first memories of Lee is him playing guitar at like 2:00 in the morning and like sitting there strumming the guitar and saying, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you only can be interested in physics. You’re allowed to be interested in other things.” [Laughter] Which as you can see, the career that I’ve had…
…that that was a piece of advice that really…
That really stuck for you.
It really… And I think being who I was and an outsider in the way that I was, I think I needed to be told that the things that made me an outsider were actually okay to still attend to as identity features, right? So Lee invited me to visit him at Perimeter Institute for a week, and he said, “If you can get a research project going, you can stay for your PhD.” So no one had ever challenged me to get a research project going, to like be independent in that way before. I got a project going. I ended up extending my stay for three weeks, and then we arranged for me to be admitted to the PhD program at Waterloo and I told Santa Cruz that I was leaving.
What were your impressions of Waterloo when you got there?
It’s a very different place from that it is now. Like right now—I don’t know if you’ve ever been there—it feels super urban, but at the time, Waterloo was a tiny town surrounded by farmland and RIM buildings, which RIM became BlackBerry and I have no idea what’s left of it now. But at the time, I had never heard of Waterloo before outside of the context of Perimeter Institute. I was kind of a Perimeter Institute fan girl, so I was really excited by this invitation. It had only been around for seven years at that point, so it was still young. The building was brand new. I loved the building. I think the addition completely ruined it, but it used to be a very beautiful building. [Laughs] I found… Yeah. I guess I was very aware early on that Waterloo was kind of a boring place. There was not a lot happening.
But perhaps a good place to concentrate on theoretical physics.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. I mean like definitely the way that Perimeter used to run—it’s very different now, but they really set it up so that you would never feel like you wanted to leave the building. There was an endless supply of like free coffee and snacks and there were games and there were squash courts. They really made it so that it could be your playground and your workspace, and there are positives and negatives to that. But I loved the idea of being in an environment that was designed to encourage me to think, which I actually didn’t feel like I had ever been in before. Like when I went to Harvard, I kind of thought when I got to Harvard that it would feel that way, and then it didn’t seem like that at all. Culturally it was like very much organized around power, right? And Perimeter seemed like, “We don’t care where you came from or how you got here, but now we want…” This was the impression that I had as a visitor.
How did you go about putting your dissertation topic together, both in terms of where there were gaps in the field, what you were good at, what you wanted to do with the dissertation long-term? How did you sort of put all that together?
Yeah. I would say there was no like method. [Laughs] I mean, I think that that happens a lot in theoretical physics. We often talk about stapled-together theses, right, which is like you work on three to five projects and then you staple the papers together and voila and write an introduction that somehow invents a through line as if that was the plan the entire time, and then that’s your dissertation. I would say in some sense that that’s what happened with me.
I would say the one sort of through line of my entire trajectory as a physicist is how many of the decisions that I made that were ostensibly scientific were social of do I think that I fit into this lab? Do I think I fit into this research group? Soon after I actually transferred to Waterloo, I ran into some pretty awful racism from the post-docs in the loop quantum gravity group, and so after a year in that group, I basically ended up switching to the cosmology group, and Niayesh Afshordi became my primary PhD advisor.
So in a funny way, we were talking about like how do we distinguish between quantum gravity and cosmology and all of these sort of subdisciplines that I ended up bringing them together in a particular way because my social circumstances forced me to bring them together in a particular way. I would say that that’s the through line for my dissertation in some sense scientifically was what were the projects I could get my hands on without having people making nasty comments to me about slavery or having people ask if like I was harassing someone because I thought I deserved an apology because of the comments about slavery, that that was all kind of…
So I would say one of the mistakes that I think we make in physics [is] we don’t talk a lot about informing students about what they’re doing well and what they’re good at. I think even when I graduated from graduate school, I had no concept of what is the unique thing that I have to offer? What are the skills that I have picked up, and what is the unique array of skills that I have that make me an interesting candidate? It’s actually a problem because if you don’t know that stuff, it’s very hard to sell yourself on the job market because all you can sell is, “These are the things that I’ve worked on.” That’s kind of what we’re told we’re supposed to do, but actually you need to understand yourself as like, “These are the things I bring to the table,” not my past papers, but the things that I know because of them, including my toolkit. I don’t really have like any concept of that at all.
What were some of the central conclusions of your dissertation, and either at the time or looking back, how did those conclusions respond to some of the larger issues in astrophysics and cosmology at the time?
Right. So my dissertation was cosmic acceleration as quantum gravity phenomenology, so even though I just spent a bunch of time telling you that it was very social in some sense, you can definitely hear in that title that these problems that I was very concerned with became like an overarching theme for me.
I think one of the conclusions is that it is possible to explain what we call the cosmological constant using these ideas of nonlocal connections from spin foams. So spin foam phenomenology I think can have something to say about cosmic acceleration. I think that that’s… I was not mature enough to frame it exactly that way when I was writing the dissertation up, but that’s what I would say about it now. I would say sort of secondarily that I was also thinking about how can we understand… What are the different ways we can solve the cosmic acceleration problem without defaulting to something that requires anthropic explanations? I think that’s another framing of what I was grappling with. And then how can we get at better understanding and characterizing those particular models using structure formation, which was the third piece.
Chanda, given your longstanding interest and talents in astronomy, were there advances in the world of observation that were relevant for this research?
Yeah. So I guess like the final project in my dissertation was one that looked at structure formation, and specifically I wrote a code that simulated different timelines of structure formation depending on when spherical clocks would have happened in a cosmically accelerating model. That part of the dissertation actually never got past peer review, and I think that part of that actually is that I didn’t get particularly good mentoring about how to like fight when a referee said no at first. But part of what I ran into was that that was the point at which N-body simulations really started to become a very central tool in astronomy and astrophysics, and so the reviewers kept saying, “Well, why not just do an N-body simulation and redo this whole project?” [Laughs] So I would actually say maybe I was a little bit hindered by pulling away from the astronomy community in some sense. I had to go off into the world and become a post-doc before I saw what I had missed in the four years while I was at Perimeter.
What were the opportunities available to you after you defended? What did you want to do next?
I was the first student to graduate from the cosmology group, so I was kind of an experiment, and I was one of the first people to graduate from PI with a PhD. I must have been within like the first ten or something like that. Everybody else had been in the loop quantum gravity group, I think, and so they had all gone to post-docs either at Penn State or somewhere in Europe because that’s where you could do loop quantum gravity. So I applied, I think to 100 post-docs that year.
Yes. Yeah. It was… And I don’t think I got good mentoring on how to do it. Luckily, I got recruited to apply for this NASA Post-doctoral Program fellowship. Again, another social thing. I went to the Women in Astronomy conference in fall of 2009 and made a scene about how they kept saying that things were better for women in astronomy, and I kept pointing out to them, “You mean white women.” That got the attention of Jonathan Gardner, who is still the head of the Observational Cosmology Lab at Goddard, and he said, “Are you applying for post-docs?” and I said, “Yes.” He was like, “Are you applying for the NPP?” and I said, “No, I find your website very confusing.” [Laughs] He said, “Okay. Well, I think that you would work with Gary Hinshaw,” and Gary and I met up in a café in Greenbelt while I was still in Maryland. Then I locked myself in my sister’s bedroom at my stepmother’s house for four days because the deadline was in four days for the fellowship…
…and wrote a 15-page proposal, which I had never done before, about using what was at the time called WFIRST (which is now the Roman telescope) to constrain modified gravities in weak gravitational lensing, which I knew almost nothing about at that point. So the first day and a half was just like me reading everything I could find about weak gravitational lensing. [Laughs] I knew modified gravity, right, so that was something that I brought to the table [overlapping voices] dissertation work.
You probably got a sense pretty early on that this was a very exciting field, though.
Yes. Yes. That was clear, and you know, for context, Gary Hinshaw was basically like the theory guy for WMAP, so I knew I could also trust the direction he was pointing in. So I ended up being offered a post-doc at SISSA in Trieste, Italy to basically continue doing like quantum gravity type work, modified gravity, and being offered this NPP at Goddard. At the time, I had a Canadian boyfriend that I kind of thought I was going to marry, and I was tired of being a black person abroad and kind of wanted to go home. Then David Spergel told me that I should go to NASA. David Spergel is my academic grandfather, right? He was Niayesh’s PhD advisor.
He was like, “You have been in kind of a theoretical physics bubble for four years. You need to go back out into the world and see what data is like, so you should go to NASA.”
Mm-hmm [yes]. Good advice.
Yeah. In theory it was good advice. In practice, it turned out to be kind of like a mix because Gary took a faculty position at the University of British Columbia and left right as I arrived. So I ended up spending a year hanging out with Jeff Kruk who is great. I love Jeff. I actually saw him virtually last week and was really happy to see him.
But Jeff is an instrument scientist for Hubble, so pretty far outside of… By the metrics of what we consider to be important for success economically in physics—let’s say in economic terms—it was a bad year. No publications came out of it. Nothing that pointed me in the direction of publications came out of it, and that’s all you’re supposed to care about. There are so many problems that occur because of our obsession with these metrics that basically translate into dollars. Yeah. So it was a bad year in that sense.
It was a good year in the sense that I learned a ton about telescopes, and that actually served me really well later when the debate about the Thirty-Meter Telescope took off. I found myself in a situation where I was talking to Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian protectors) who didn’t understand why astronomers felt so passionate about the project, and I was able to explain things to them in detail because I had this understanding of telescopes.
Yeah. [Laughs] Not the expected use of the skills. I do think in some sort of larger sense, as if you looked at my CV before we talked, I am doing things that involve observational astronomy now.
I do think that that time set me up for being able to draw this connection.
That’s why I asked that question about the dissertation research, because I was curious if that…
But it sounds like that really came later on.
Yeah. I mean it’s… I guess the way that I have often conceptualized it in my mind—and I don’t know if this is accurate in some, whatever objectivity is, sense. I think that I have often sort of bounced back and forth trying to find my place between astrophysics and physics, like thinking, “Okay, this is a little too physics. Maybe I’ll try some of the astronomy stuff,” and then being like, “All right. I went too far.” So I don’t know. It’s a little bit of like a dithering process. [Laughs] I feel like now I think I have found my place. I mean, you can hear where the STS brain comes in, which is that I’ve been analyzing the social science aspects of this for you at every step of the way. I do think part of it goes back to the attitude of that professor at Santa Cruz who was heading the preliminary exam committee. There is this attitude that you have to choose one, and I think it very heavily shapes what kind of training people are even allowed to have. I think even though I had like a very nonlinear…I did not have the perfect trajectory as we call it, right, through college and graduate school, but I ended up benefiting enormously from these sort of non-traditional steps that I took because now I’m in a position to synthesize in ways that other people can’t, and I didn’t see that about myself. I speak astronomy language in a way that other particle theorists simply do not, and I speak particle language in a way that astronomers don’t, and I can communicate to both audiences in ways that a lot of people can’t. There are other people who do have this skillset, so it’s not like I’m the only one on the planet, but I think I’m one of the few.
And you’ve been thinking about this because there are sociological underpinnings to these things.
Certainly. I mean, like one, the fact that I even ended up like this is partly because of all the ways I experienced exclusion and was trying to find my way through…
…and that at various points that way through was physics and then astronomy. I got involved in neutron star stuff because Anna Watts, who I basically I think met through Twitter, who is a professor at the University of Amsterdam, became friendly, became interested in how I was doing professionally, saw that I could use support, and sort of like vacuumed me up into “Well, do you want to do neutron star and dark matter stuff?” and I was like, “Sure.” Then she went to the STROBE-X team and said, “I think you all need a dark matter theorist,” and now STROBE-X has like a whole dark matter research component which I head up. That was really like Anna deciding, “Well, what if I just put Chanda into this conversation?”
Chanda, was STS baked into the appointment as a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow in physics at MIT?
That was separate.
No, and the funny thing is that people always assume, you know, because David Kaiser is one of my letter writers, that like somehow Dave had anything to do with it. To this day, Dave and I have never sat down and had like a serious conversation about STS outside of like… The program in STS at MIT has, during normal times, these monthly lunches for affiliates and we’ll chitchat during those lunches. I think we have a shared passion for the story of Oppenheimer and how fascinating it is. But that was something that was completely disconnected.
So the fellowship at MIT, was it pretty much open-ended in terms of the kinds of things you would be able to pursue?
That’s a good question. [Laughs] In all honesty… So the way that those MLKs work is that you don’t even apply for it; the person who wants to host you applies to host you. So Ed Bertschinger, who I had applied to do an NSF astronomy and astrophysics post-doc with him and had not gotten that award-- Ironically, I got negative comments about my Broader Impacts proposal, which now I’ve since learned that Broader-- There are all sorts of problems with applying to NSF with Broader Impacts as a black person applying. [Laughs]
Mm-hmm [yes], mm-hmm [yes].
I also had gotten myself nominated for the Pappalardo, although frankly I remember when I asked Lee to nominate me for it and for the Harvard Society Fellows, he was like, “You won’t get these fellowships, but I’ll nominate you if you really want me to.” [Laughs] So I really wanted to go to MIT. I had actually wanted to go to MIT for graduate school. That was one of the programs that… I specifically applied to MIT to work with Ed for graduate school and wrote to Ed in that process, and Ed was the one who told me that Arlie Petters was going to be visiting as an MLK and made sure that I met Arlie Petters.
Was it known to you, or at the time was it known publicly that Ed was becoming increasingly involved in and concerned with gender studies?
So your connection to him was strictly on an astrophysical, intellectual basis.
Yep. The reason I ended up on his radar first is that I wrote to him and said, “I’m applying to MIT’s graduate program because I would like to work with you.” On the off chance that maybe he would be concerned with this, I think I mentioned in my email that I was black, of Afro-Caribbean descent, and he said, “Oh, we’re going to have this visiting professor. You should meet him.” Then I met Arlie and Arlie said, “You’re taking my GR class,” and that’s actually how I ended up in the GR class.
Then from 2005 until basically last year, I was the chair of the Cosmology and Gravitation Committee for the National Society of Black Physicists, and so then I ended up having contact with Ed multiple times because he started coming to the meetings, and my sessions were his natural home for giving talks. So I don’t know if he at all at the time remembered me writing to him as a prospective graduate student, but he definitely got to know me because I was the one who decided whether he got a talk and how long it was. Yeah.
In what ways did your involvement with STS sort of shape your professional identity beyond being a scientist? In other words, like that formative advice you got about it’s okay to look at other textbooks, right, that’s sort of an interesting intellectual milestone because you can sort of break out of these molds that you’re put in, but it’s still in a scientific context, right? So I’m curious in what ways STS may or may not have given you the creative bandwidth or the intellectual freedom to think of yourself as a scholar who has interests besides these narrowly constrained astrophysics cosmological concepts.
I think I should say that I was primed for that self-conception. One of the reasons that I was interested in the liberal arts colleges when I was in high school is that I was very concerned with being classically trained as a complete scholar. I really wanted to be… I was super obsessed with the Renaissance in high school. Like I took AP European history just because I wanted to learn about the Renaissance. So I was really into the idea of the Renaissance man and wanted to…and felt it was somehow like objectively important to approximate that as much as I could.
So even though I was a gadget geek and I really liked science, I was reading Jane Austen when I was ten. One of the only two electives I took in college—I took almost no electives, but one of them was Jane Austen’s England. I was definitely a literary nerd. Throughout college I read books for pleasure, and they were always like classical. Like I read through everything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which actually helped me a lot because he was very critical of the exact milieu I was in, and it made me feel like not crazy. I was like, “Okay. F. Scott Fitzgerald saw what I saw.” When I was in graduate school-- When I got to Santa Cruz, I was like, “Okay, I’ve been reading classical literature. I should probably read some stuff that’s come out in the last ten years,” and so then I started going through what were the books that were award-winning over the last decade.
So I was always that person who was reading history books, and some of that is family culture. My dad and my stepmother are both very widely read people. My dad’s stepfather, C. L. R. James, was sort of known for being a polymath. He was interested in everything, and so that was kind of the bar that was set, was like it wasn’t enough to be… I don’t know. This is like super Caribbean parenting shit, I guess. [Laughs] It wasn’t enough to be good at one thing. If you’re going to be good at one thing, why not be good at five things?
So I think I was primed for that, and I think the other piece of it, right, is that like I had grown up with this awareness of my grandfather as the scholar who had done this important historical and social work, right? I took a French Revolution class in college and wrote my final paper on why the Haitian Revolution was successful while the French Revolution failed and explained that I wanted to do it so that I could read The Black Jacobins. My professor came up to me in the middle of the final exam and said, “I hear you’re C. L. R. James’s granddaughter,” and he put out his hand and shook my hand and said, “Congratulations.” I think he couldn’t think of anything to say about it except like I had nothing to do with it. [Laughing] So I think I was primed for it.
My grandmother Selma is also really widely read. She’s the one who got me into Jane Austen. You go to her house and she has opinions about everything. Like C. L. R., Nello as we call him in the family, was an art nerd and introduced me to art when I was younger, so I had this idea… Like they made sure that I knew Matisse and Picasso and that I could look at a painting and know which one was which. So I was really culturally primed for it.
With the STS stuff, I have to say that a lot of credit also goes to my husband. [Laughs] My husband did ethnic studies and political science as an undergrad and then went to law school and trained as a civil rights lawyer and then got a master’s in public health. So when I started becoming interested in figuring out my gaps in relation to these ideas, he was one of the people who helped me fill them.
Chanda, the question of being primed to respond to societal issues, I want to ask, you know, obviously your interest in social justice matters… It goes right back to the beginning. It’s part of your origin story. It’s very clear and powerfully articulated. In what ways was your activism with AAS in 2016 with Black Lives Matter—in what way did you see that as sort of a natural progression and continuation of things that you had been feeling and working on for a long time, and in what ways was it a departure in terms of both your own status and stature in the field and the fact that these were issues that there really wasn’t much of a leadership position and it was an opportunity for you to assume that leadership position?
Yeah. You know, I don’t ever think about… I know this is going to sound weird coming from a Harvard graduate because it’s like our thing. I have very rarely thought, “Hey, there’s a leadership position that’s unfulfilled. I would like to fill it.” Honestly, I think the last time I had that active thought was when I decided to become president of the environmental club in high school, and that was because I knew I needed some… I mean, one, I was trying to find something that was like aligned with my social justice interests, and also I knew I needed shit like that for my college applications. [Laughs] Yeah.
I guess I mean as an example of this, like Ben Wikler, who is now the head of the Wisconsin Dems, so you might have seen his name floating around recently—in college, Ben asked me if I would run his campaign to be vice president of the Undergraduate Council and I told him no because I didn’t fuck with electoral politics. [Laughter]
I would say that that’s pretty typical of like when people try and put me in positions of leadership, I’m like, “But do I need to be in that position of leadership?” So I would say it’s much more the case that I stumble into them rather than I actively seek them out. Even with chairing the CGR committee at NSBP, I had to be roped into that, and then I just was kind of stuck with it and in some ways liked it and saw that it was professionally valuable for me. But it’s not something that I ever would have thought to sign myself up for.
Chanda, given in 2020 how intensified these issues have become, at least for the broader physics community, not for black scientists, right, but in the broader physics community—Particles for Justice, Shut Down STEM—there’s no argument that these issues, while they’ve been there for a long time, of course, are felt much more intensively. With that in mind, in what ways does the response you received in AAS or even beyond—in what ways does that seem long ago, like 2016 is a long-ago kind of feeling, and in what ways is it really the same issue and the same response that we’re dealing with now?
You know, the funny thing for me is that the marker, in my mind, is before Particles of Justice and after Particles for Justice.
But 2016 is so far ahead of the curve.
Yeah. I think I’m just noting for you that I’m not necessarily in disagreement with you about that; I’m just realizing how I’ve organized it in my mind of like things that happened before…
Yeah. Well, that’s useful. That’s what I’m asking. How do you organize it? Why is Particles for Justice that marker for you intellectually?
I think it became that marker for me because in 2018 our letter against sexism in particle physics was the first time I was ever involved in galvanizing large parts of any aspect of the physics community in a way that seemed to shift the conversation. Then we were able to… I think actually, I guess part of it is… Part of the reason that I mark it in that way is because the group that came together to do that letter ended up becoming a very tightknit social group—social and intellectual group. I would say that we talk to each other almost every day, and they’ve become important friendships and intellectual partnerships for me that it became a community for me that I never thought I would have in particle physics. So I think for me it was an emotionally important moment, which was, one, to have a group of particle physicists who were listening to me, like who specifically said, “I think we need Chanda to be involved because she has an expertise that she brings to the table,” that that was fresh to see the impact that it had on the community and then to see the ways in which we have all learned from each other and learned to work together, that it was very much… Yeah. I would say when I think about like 2016… I guess the timeline markers for me are different from the ones that you identify, and so actually I’m kind of like… My STS brain is interested in why 2016 stands out to the outsider.
Well, it was a prominent letter that gained a lot of traction long before a lot of people were thinking about these things. I don’t think that’s a controversial observation.
No, no, no, no, it’s not. I think it’s interesting to me that I don’t mark it partly because I would say APS and AAS were both so fucking unresponsive that to me, I experienced that as like, “Well, we tried that and it failed again.”
But that’s the point. In 2016, when you’re saying how this is unresponsive, the nature of my question is that makes it sound like 2016 is a long time ago, right? So in an alternate universe where you write this in 2020, I think it’s also not controversial to assert that you’re probably going to get a much more positive or minimally swift response than just sort of getting nowhere and ignoring it.
So I guess in some sense I don’t feel like actually that much has changed in APS because honestly, the messaging that Particles for Justice has gotten from people in leadership positions, both in 2018 and in 2020 about the Strike for Black Lives, was not particularly positive. I know that they have definitely changed their public messaging, and I think that that has a lot to do with people see the writing on the wall now that everybody has to have public messaging that seems favorable. I actually think that some of that has to do… I have to give most credit for that to the people who have put their lives at risk out in the streets, honestly. I mean I think we’ve played a role in priming them and training people in the language and even giving them much more radical language than they would like so that they can figure out how to water it down for their own stuff.
Chanda, to what extent is generational politics part of this as well, particularly among African American physicists who are in their sixties and seventies and have a much different perspective on the way to deal with these problems?
I definitely think some of it is generational. I don’t think it can entirely be chalked up to generational stuff. To give an example, Philip Phillips and Jim Gates are not exactly the same generation, right, just to pick two examples because Philip Phillips is in the news right now because he’s finally gotten APS to take police violence into account when they’re picking meeting locations, right?
Philip, like I think he was a full professor by the time I was in graduate school, or maybe he was associate already, but he was already fairly well-established. Philip has had no problem sort of being like, “These are my views on things.” I do think that it is hard to work within APS… I mean, and actually I would say like Nadya should be asked about this because she was chair of the committee on minorities and had her own… Maybe this is in her interview; I need to go look at it. APS is structurally hostile and AAS is structurally hostile to anything that upsets what Martin Luther King called “the white moderate,” and I don’t think that that has changed. I think part of… What’s important is that we have these elected officers, but we also have staff who remain a constant, whoever the elected officers are. In the case of AAS, Kevin Marvel wields an unreasonable, in my opinion, amount of power over what AAS does as an organization.
So actually, what I was going to say before is that I think for me, the turning point years are 2015 and 2018. 2015 is the year that the Inclusive Astronomy Conference happened, and I think that that was an important conference. The other thing that happened in 2015 is that that is the year when the fight at Mauna Kea became very public in the astronomy community, and that’s the year when I turned in the STS direction. I am not impressed by the fact that in the middle of all of these protests about Black Lives Matter that APS is going to replace their white woman executive director with a white man executive director… I guess I don’t see the turning point that other people see, and I think one of the reasons I don’t see the turning point that other people see is that even though National Society of Black Physicists is a lot less prominent discursively now than it was maybe 20 years ago, there was a time that NSBP formed specifically because people wanted to break away from having APS be the only venue. So I see myself as kind of part of the lineage as well.
Mm-hmm [yes]. Mm-hmm [yes].
Maybe not necessarily… Like I think Jim Gates and I are often on different pages about things, but like Sekazi Mtingwa, who was one of the founding members of NSBP, who has also always been a cheerleader for me, I see myself as being in Sekazi’s line of, you know, “We need our own spaces, and we need spaces where we can do things that APS won’t do for us.” You know, I think it’s like telling them that Sekazi also became the first black physicist to win a research prize from APS.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I can barely contain my smile because Sekazi is one of my favorite people in the whole world.
I love Sekazi.
Yeah. Yeah. Chanda, let’s talk about New Hampshire. How did the opportunity for the faculty position come up?
Elena Long, who is also an interesting person to think about for an interview, she and I at the same time in 2010 became really heavily involved in organizing formal structures for queer people in physics and astronomy. So Elena around that time became a founder of LGBT+ Physicists, which is the driving force behind the LGBT climate assessment that APS facilitated. At the very same time, I became a founding member of what at the time was called the Working Group for LGBTQ Equality in AAS and is now the Committee on the Status of Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy, which like SGMA is-- Actually, I came up with that name. So we crossed paths because of that and kept in touch. Elena came to UNH as a post-doc after she finished her PhD, and after three years as a post-doc and a competitive search was hired as junior faculty in nuclear experiments. During her first year, Elena got a big grant from DOE and so they… This is my understanding of the story. She should definitely be interviewed about this. They sat her down and said, “What would make you happy to stay at UNH?” and Elena said, “Hire Chanda.” So she…
Was there an open line for you, or one was created for this?
So they were doing… Physics has been prolific in its hiring, much to the chagrin of other departments in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. [Laughs] So there are currently like five junior faculty, and when I arrived there were seven junior faculty. Like I was the seventh. So they did a few different searches that year, and actually, Regina Caputo, who I now work with on AMEGO, who is now at Goddard, turned down an offer from UNH. So they tried to hire several women that year, and I was told Regina-- I’m so happy she turned them down because I got her startup money. So I think officially I… After they decided to make me an offer, I had to like formally submit some paperwork.
Were you on the market generally? Were you considering other opportunities?
Yes. So actually, by the time UNH made me an offer, I had an offer somewhere else. I had another place where I knew I was a top choice going into the interview, and I made the decision to cancel that interview in order to come back to UNH because I was fairly certain UNH was going to give me an offer.
Chanda, I want to ask the role of-- I mean, obviously being at UNH is-- It’s a very white environment. It’s a bit remote from population centers. In what way does social media… I mean, with the pandemic now, we all live on Zoom, of course, but in thinking about UNH as the best place for you to have your first faculty position, in what ways was social media for you a connecting point that would allow you to continue doing the things that you wanted to do beyond the confines of the campus in New Hampshire?
You know, if you’re a theoretical physicist and you’re not used to being in super white environments, you’re probably not from this continent, right?
Mm-hmm [yes], mm-hmm [yes]. In other words, teaching at a Historically Black College or University, was that ever something that you seriously considered?
Oh, yeah. I tried to get HBCU jobs. If you look at the demographics of HBCU faculty, I think you’re more likely to get hired as a white man than as a black woman if you look at the physics departments. I don’t know how gender plays into it, right, because I’ve never been at an HBCU, so I can only comment on patterns that seem present as an outsider. The other thing is that high energy theory and cosmology are not well-supported at HBCUs.
I do think this has to do with the role the Department of Defense has played in maintaining HBCU physics departments, that things that are industrial and military related are simply more likely to get supported in those environments, which really is unfortunate for the students because they don’t get those opportunities. Coming to UNH… So really honestly, like a big piece of it was Elena. So Elena invited me for a colloquium but made sure that the date of my colloquium was the day that the chair of the department and various deans could be at my talk, and then she made sure that all of those people were in the room, with the understanding that she wanted them to think about hiring me. Elena is a force of nature. Like I would just say like never fuck with her. [Laughter] You know, I think she and I have a real affinity as fellow physicists who respect each other because we are both minorities in one way or another. She’s a white trans woman. Both being queer people that like… Even though we have had different types of minoritizations that we’ve had to contend with, we have a deep respect for the need to understand what other people are going through, and neither of us thinks that we can afford to gain social capital and not share it. So I think that that’s like a shared core value and that that was what she was enacting in that moment.
For me, that was actually a big draw that, one, she had found a way to be generally happy in the department. She had spent the previous four years training the department on EDI, diversity and inclusion issues, and so the department’s general IQ was maybe a little bit higher than another department…that they were the kind of department that would, one, let someone so junior do that, but then also say, “Oh, you think we should hire this person? Yeah, let’s have a serious conversation about that.” There’s a level of egalitarian thinking to that that is unusual in academia, particularly in physics, which I think has a tendency to be intensely hierarchical. Even today, being an insider to the department and knowing what some of its problems are, I would say comparatively, it’s a unicorn department.
Chanda, I want to ask, particularly in light of both the negative aspects and the positive aspects of how you’ve been mentored from an undergraduate through graduate school, what are some of the styles that you’ve adopted as what’s most effective and meaningful to you, both in your capacity as a professor to undergraduates and a mentor to graduate students?
I think I have driving ideas that are maybe useful, which is one—and this is particularly true with minoritized students. Whatever thing that I couldn’t do, whatever barrier seemed insurmountable for me, I don’t know if the person I’m talking to is the person that maybe won’t have that problem or will maybe be better at overcoming it than I was, and so I try to go into every conversation with that open mind. I feel like a mistake that I saw a lot is that we often…even with the best of intentions, and I think this happened a lot between me and Melissa Franklin at Harvard. Melissa said like a series of things to me over the years that were like totally not the thing to say in the end, but I understand that Melissa was doing her best to protect me. I understand the impulse. Someone like me, with my grades and demographic background, doesn’t usually get through the door in theoretical physics, so to believe that theorists were going to make it difficult for me to access their world was right. She knew it would be a struggle and wanted to protect me from it, while pointing me to a path she thought was more of a sure thing, in experiment. But the way I heard it as an undergrad was incredibly discouraging. So I think a lot about what it would have been helpful for both of us to know in those conversations, if we could do them all over again.
When I’m thinking about mentoring, I’m thinking about what does the person in front of me want to do? What information do they need to know that I can provide them that will maximize the possibility that they can get there? I think for me, that has to be the mindset, and for that reason, I think also those of us who are minoritized in some way or are marginalized in some way are more likely (though not guaranteed) to bring trauma to the table, and we have to be really careful about working, mentoring from that trauma. I think it can be really dangerous, and that’s not something we say out loud very often.
I think that bringing trauma to the table is a problem, and on the flip side, I think for people who didn’t experience trauma, recognizing that people we are mentoring are often bringing trauma to the table, and interpreting what we are witnessing through that lens is an important thing that often isn’t done, which is like sometimes we have a student who seems like they’re totally checked out and uninterested, but maybe it’s not that they’re uninterested. Maybe it’s that they don’t feel like they’re interest matters anymore because they’re not going to make it. And that’s a hard thing to deal with because like also, we’re not therapists. [Laughs] So I think sometimes it’s also knowing like, look, there’s a limit to what I can do in the situation.
So I think the other thing is always like managing your Jesus complex. We are not saviors. And managing other people’s Jesus complexes about you, which is I do think that there is this mindset—and I understand it because I think I had it—that when you cross the magical finish line into faculty positions, that somehow there would be all of this power that would suddenly be at your disposal to change things. Being junior faculty I would say is in some ways one of the most disempowered positions I’ve been in in the last decade.
Well, the tenure consideration is always… It’s always hanging out there.
When I talk to students now about doing activism, I point out to them that undergraduates are some of the most powerful people on campus. They don’t see themselves that way because as individuals, they are individually disempowered. I think that our individualist society really gets in the way of people recognizing the collective power that is available to them, but as undergraduates, you can do all sorts of shit that like if you do it later, it’s on your permanent record in a way that it’s not on your permanent record as an undergraduate, right? Like I got a C in my first quantum mechanics class, and like nobody cares about that now. [Laughs] Right? Like I passed a qualifying exam in astronomy and a qualifying exam in physics. We’re good, right?
As a graduate student, you have to make your advisor happy and you have to make enough people happy to get four letters if you want to go on to a post-doc. As a post-doc, unless you’re a fellow, you have to make the person who literally holds the purse strings happy, right, or you can just sort of be fired at will. You still need to have like three other people happy to write letters.
As junior faculty, you need to make probably 75-90% of your department happy, plus your dean, plus the provost, plus any number of anonymous people in the field who are going to write a letter about you, and you have no idea who those people are and no way to kind of control who will be asked. You may, under a department’s circumstances, have some power to like say, “Not this person,” or “These are people I would prefer,” but at the end of the day, there’s a lot of power… You have to make so many more people happy.
Chanda, one thing I’d like to ask about we haven’t talked about yet is your leadership position for The Offing. How did that come about?
Yeah. [Laughs] That’s like a really funny story. I was like an Offing fan girl. I feel like being a fan girl gets me into a lot of trouble. [Laughter]
It also solidified your position in astrophysics all the way back when you were an 18-year-old at Harvard.
That’s true. Yeah, that’s true. I was a big fan of The Offing when it took off. I thought it was like a really neat idea, and when I… I’m sure you’ve heard about these binders groups on Facebook that started as like binders full of women writers as a rip-off of the Mitt Romney comment. So I had gotten to know some people purely through Facebook, like not people I had met in person or ever talk to on the phone, and one of them was Airea Matthews, who is a poet and a professor. She’s at Bryn Mawr College in the English department.
One day, Airea called me through Facebook Messenger, and on a whim-- Like usually I would be like, “This is weird. I don’t know who you are. I’m a Millennial, so I don’t answer the phone.” [Laughter] But I was like, “Airea’s calling me. Let’s see. Maybe it’s a butt dial.” So I just answered, and this was like a Friday afternoon. I was like, “What’s up?” and Airea was like, “I was wondering if you would be interested in being editor-in-chief of The Offing,” and I was like, “This is a really weird Friday afternoon joke. Like what’s your point?” [Laughing] And she’s like, “No, I’m not kidding. Are you interested?” That was how…
Like I was not an editor somewhere. The few times I applied for creative writing classes at Harvard I had been rejected. My high school college counselor said, “It’s really good that you want to be a physicist because you would never make it as a writer,” because I was a garbage can writer until I was in graduate school. I will say that because I am kind of a reading snob that I think I have long had a good eye, but yeah. It turned out that the founding editor-in-chief of The Offing had done something like basically wildly racist in public to one of the black editors, and things were kind of falling apart. When I asked Airea why she asked me, Airea said, “Well, they need a ball buster and you’re a ball buster.” [Laughter] So that was, again, not something I applied for, but was kind of like hand-selected for.
Well, Chanda, for the last part of our talk, let’s return to the science. Let’s go back to that. What are the things that you’re working on now? What are the areas in astrophysics and cosmology that are most intellectually compelling for you and are most exciting as you look to the future and where the field is headed?
So I’m currently a topical convener for the Snowmass 2021 process. I am a topical convener within the Cosmic Frontier, and I have so many thoughts. I hate saying the word frontier. It’s such a terrible idea. I just… Like I have to say that. I am co-convener along with Haibo Yu and Alex Drlica-Wagner for cosmic probes of dark matter. So the Snowmass 2021 process is part of like… It doesn’t happen with a regular frequency, but like basically every seven years, particle physicists in the United States get together and say, “This is the science that we think is exciting and doable over the next decade.” I feel optimistic that what’s going to come out of Snowmass 2021 is that dark matter is the thing that we should be doing in the 2020s.
So if you ask me what I’m most excited about, I think it’s like dark matter in all of the ways. I know that one of the narratives that’s out there is because we haven’t detected WIMPs that dark matter is in like a bad situation, or because we didn’t…because the minimally supersymmetric model was ruled out by the Large Hadron Collider that we’ve lost a lot of our low-hanging fruit WIMP models. But the dark matter problem is out there. It remains, and actually one of the reasons I’m excited about doing cosmic probes is because you’re not just… Gosh, I don’t want to say something that upsets the experimentalists. You’re not just sitting around waiting for some dark matter particle to fly through your detector or build a detector for the correct dark matter particle, but we can use so many different techniques from across astrophysics to characterize the properties of what the dark matter can be.
I personally have been kind of-- Like in the talks I’ve been giving recently, I think high energy astrophysics is partly the future of high energy physics, so I’m very excited about future x-ray experiments, future gamma ray experiments. I think that there is… You know, just to tie it back to what I said about being at exactly the right point to have those—like I don’t know, I guess synergistic is one of those buzz words now—like synergistic conversations between physics and astronomy. I thought it was really funny. I went to this early career workshop that was supposed to train early career researchers in how to participate in the Astro2020 Decadal, and I learned during that workshop that dark matter is considered to be an interdisciplinary topic. [Laughs] It was really like the astronomers just don’t want to deal with the fact that astronomy is a subfield of physics. It just is. I know that that’s not how it started historically, but that’s where we are now today. I think dark matter really is the thing that brings our communities together, and that’s really exciting.
One of the things that’s so fun about dark matter right now is that there’s a real sense that the community is really on the cusp of something big right now, and it’s interesting because there are so many different kinds of subfields that are involved in understanding what dark matter is. So on that basis, in terms of your skillset, your intellectual heritage, your interests, what are the things that you feel you bring to the table that are going to make dark matter understood?
Hmm. So when I was in graduate school, Lee was always trying to convince me that statistical mechanics is the most important area of physics, and at the time, I was like, “This is some weird old school shit.” [Laughter] Particularly because there was so much stuff happening with stat mech in the ’70s like on renormalization group theory and renormalization group flows, and Lee got his PhD in the early ’80s. He’s definitely of that generation that grew up kind of in the aftermath of that milieu. But I really think now that what we are doing when we use astrophysical cosmic probes of dark matter is trying to characterize what is the statistical mechanics of dark matter, and can we reverse engineer properties in the sense of like write down Lagrangian terms for a specific particle using information that we gain through understanding the statistical mechanics of dark matter.
So I think one of the things that I bring to the table is really having that perspective on it that we’re trying to figure out what are these deep connections between the microphysics of the dark matter particle and the macrophysics of large-scale structure. So I think that that’s part of it, and I think that would be… That’s one thing I bring to the table maybe as a theorist and as someone who has some astrophysics training is that I look at every astrophysical system as like in what way is this a laboratory for dark matter, which leads to some interesting things.
Like I got into a back-and-forth with a historian of space recently about different uses of the word space because as a cosmologist, space is not what’s immediately outside the Earth’s atmosphere. [Laughs] So we were sort of discussing like what parts of space are like already a capitalist dumpster fire, and I was like, “Yeah, but they haven’t gotten all the way to Neptune yet. So I think that we’re still pretty far out from like the entire solar system being a mess,” and she was like, “Okay. Well, we’ve only gotten to Mars,” right? I think I do bring this kind of big picture perspective, but I’m always thinking about what are the ways in which our astrophysical systems are particle physics laboratories?
Chanda, I want to ask for my last question looking forward if you see…how well defined you see progress generally in racial justice in STEM. Are there specific markers or feedback mechanisms? To go back to this comment about, you know, is 2020 really so different from 2016, right, where do you see breaks in that narrative so that if we circle back in 2024, hopefully you don’t say, “Actually, 2024 isn’t so different from 2020.” What are the things that you might formulate in terms of assessing progress, in terms of assessing where things are headed where you would be able to say, “The field really is making strides in a positive direction as I understand it”?
I think the interesting thing about this question is that my ideas of what constitutes an intersection of racial justice and like physics have evolved. It’s kind of--
You mean for you personally they’ve evolved.
Yeah, for me personally they’ve evolved, and I think some of this came out in the piece I simultaneously published in Physics World and Physics Today a couple of weeks ago about the ethics of being black in physics. That really… Probably almost nobody picked up on this, but there was an Adrienne Rich reference in it, which I would say, by the way, like Adrienne Rich is in many ways one of my guiding ethical forces in my life. I can’t quote this, so I’m not even going to try, but when Adrienne Rich turned down the National Endowment for the Arts award, right, she basically said that she couldn’t allow her name and her words to be used as a way to kind of wash the American empire clean of its crimes. So she couldn’t take the award.
I think we have to be really careful when we talk about racial justice in science to not think that integrating—we say the word integrating, but we really mean assimilating—that coloring in the physics establishment will not produce racial justice. It will feel like justice for those of us who are here doing the coloring in maybe, because maybe justice feels like, you know, like I’m a homeowner now. I never thought that I would own a home in Cambridge. That wasn’t even a dream I thought to have, but I own a home in between Harvard and MIT, right? That actually really has nothing to do with my professional success. That has more to do with my husband’s parents. But there are many ways that I lived this incredible life. Like I have been invited to give talks in Taiwan. I get to go to Korea every year that there isn’t a pandemic and spend a week looking at art in museums, and all of these amazing things. That might feel like justice because I’m living a good life, but it does not transform the conditions in the community where I grew up, where ICE is kidnapping people off the street.
And we need to learn to know the difference between personal success and justice. I think the conditions are in some ways getting better, I think particularly in astronomy, and in a sense astronomy is not a subfield of physics. The demographics are changing. Exoplanets is clearly leading the way. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a younger field and so there is less gatekeeping oriented towards what is the tradition in our fields. But I would say exoplanets, planetary science in general, are leading the way. I don’t know if that will change anything on the ground, and so like if you go and you look at what did Particles for Justice say in our Strike for Black Lives call, we specifically, at least once but maybe multiple times, talk about the material conditions under which people live. For me that is a key thing, and I don’t see that being a major part of the conversation yet, which is what is our responsibility as scientists? And I don’t… People immediately are like, “Oh. Well yes, we think a lot about climate change.” But what does it mean to take money from the Department of Defense? People I know and love… Vinny Manoharan, for example, is someone… He’s one of my best friends. He signed my ketubah at my wedding. He also has taken money from the DOD and he knows how I feel about it. He’s also been one of the fiercest advocates for black women in the Harvard physics department, right, partly because I have given him a hard time about all of the things I saw when I was there. It’s to the point where he’s fought so hard he has at times made himself sick.
But I do think that at some point whatever we are doing will not be enough unless we have conversations about what are the power structures that we are plugging into and upholding, unless we have conversations about how our land-grant universities came to exist, what indigenous people aren’t in the room.
You know, one of the things I like about the UNH physics department is that I came and gave two talks that day that Elena invited me. I gave a seminar about my physics, and I gave a talk about ostensibly like an equity, diversity, and inclusion seminar. One of the things that I said was I looked up numbers, and the chances that there is an Abenaki person in the room right now are basically zero, and they were not frightened by that, right? I need the entire community to not only not be frightened by that, but to have a sense of urgency around it, and we’re not there yet. That is the transition that I would like to see, which is asking what are the material conditions under which people live, and to understand that a black physicist plucked out of their community and given better material conditions is not better material conditions for black people.
Black people generally and black people in STEM specifically.
Yeah. I mean I guess like look. My better material conditions don’t un-break my heart. [Laughs] My heart literally… There were police shootings that didn’t get attention this summer.
Of course. Of course.
You know, one of the things that I’ve been… I’ve been going around giving talks that are entitled “The Problem with Diversity and Inclusion.” That’s slide one, and slide two is “What will it do for Jacob Blake’s children?” which is like, you know, I wrote this piece “What’s the Diversity and Inclusion Plan for Tamir Rice?” I think that that’s what it was called. I tried to finish that piece and never could and so finally just sort of published it as it was. Until that’s the conversation, I think we’re not having the right conversation, so I would like people to say it’s not enough to have some outreach program that Jacob Blake’s kids can go to. What is required is that Jacob… The children who are like Jacob Blake’s children never have to witness and experience the trauma that his children experienced because there is no way that your childhood continues after you see something like that. So until black and indigenous and brown children are no longer being robbed of their childhoods, we’re not doing enough.
Well, Chanda, I want to thank you for spending this time with me today. It’s been really powerful to hear your perspectives on so many different areas, and I’m just thrilled that we connected through Ed. I hope to have the opportunity to stay in touch and to continue capturing stories of many of the people you suggested that I interview as well as I continue to build this program. So really, truly, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really do appreciate it.