In this installment, we are publishing an interview with Ashley Walker, who is an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Ashley is also the creative driving force behind #BlackInAstroWeek!
Ashley Walker is on a mission. Walker, the first ever astrochemist to graduate with a B.S. from Chicago State University, has studied everything from planet formation to the atmospheric chemistry of Saturn’s moon Titan. On top of all the research she’s done, Walker has never stopped working to uplift other Black people in astronomy.
“I’ve always done it,” she laughs. “People have always asked me, ‘why you always bragging about so-and-so?’ I’ve always been that type of person.” This drive has led Walker to not only become the most junior member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee of the Status on Minorities in Astronomy, but also to lead initiatives like her Black History Month (BHM) highlights—a series of Twitter posts featuring Black astro students every day for a full month.
“For the BHM highlights, I got tired of seeing the same names every Black History Month,” Walker says, so she made it a point to specifically feature Black students. She now has big plans to keep it going in the future. “I’m now dedicating everything to it. I’m thinking of a mini-cartoon series. I’m highlighting everybody, all the Black STEM students and postdocs. […] I’m really really excited. I’ve been trying to figure out innovative ways to get the message out there: that we are here.”
Walker is especially passionate about promoting Black women in astronomy. At a conference, she once talked with a student who was the only Black woman at her entire department. “I was in tears,” Walker says. “So when I did my Black History Month highlights, I thought about her.” Today, only 22 Black women have ever been awarded doctoral degrees in astronomy and astro-adjacent fields in the US.
Walker explains that highlighting Black astronomers is important because Black people fundamentally experience a very different world than non-Black folks do. “I could be a Breonna Taylor,” she points out. “I could get hit with a stray bullet. I could be a Sandra Bland. And on top of that trauma, Black people have trauma […] encoded in their DNA, from slavery, from [the] civil rights [movement]. It’s literally passed down from generation to generation to generation… and it’s not our fault. It’s not our fault that we have so much trauma, and the only thing we ask for in return is to be treated as equal.”
“At one point in time we were treated as if we were inhuman,” Walker continues. “We were put in zoos. We were beaten, raped, killed, hung, hosed down, bit by dogs—so many different things that have happened. And I’m in a space where I want to showcase who these Black students are because we could have had thousands of Black astronomers, but we will never know” because so many Black people have been murdered, enslaved, or otherwise prevented from studying the cosmos.
In addition to the difficulties of being Black in our society, Black folks in astronomy and physics face obstacles specific to academia. These obstacles, Walker emphasizes, are often more insidious than overt bigotry. “You don’t have to call me the n-word to be a racist,” she says. “You can do things that will be economically and systematically oppressive that will hold up the values of white supremacy.” She is well aware of these behaviors: several non-Black astronomers have done these kinds of things to Black students she knows. “And then they wonder, ‘Oh, there’s less than 100 Black women in physics, wow!’” She scoffs. “Well, you played a part in it.”
Walker is particularly frustrated with non-Black scientists who talk a lot about “diversity” efforts but don’t actually work to support Black students. “They consistently say they care about Black students, but in reality they really don’t […] it’s performative. They only want us when there’s funding involved or tenure involved, but when they’re done with us, it’s ‘oh, okay, whatever.’ […] They’ve never said anything before, but all of a sudden, ‘Black Lives Matter’” to them.
In spite of all these barriers, Walker has hope for the future. Seven more Black women will receive astronomy PhDs in the US within the next year—an increase of >30% compared to the current number. Even specific subfields within astronomy are improving: Walker points out that the first six Black women astrochemists will all be in graduate school by 2021.
When asked what she would say to the other Black astronomers whom she’s worked to highlight, Walker thinks for a moment before declaring: “Be yourself. Don’t stop speaking up. Fight for what you believe in.”
To learn more about Ashley Walker’s research, check out astro[sound]bites’ latest episode! You can also find her featured in this Adler Planetarium video, this profile on 1 Million Women in Science, this video with her mentor Lucianne Walkowicz, and this Astronomy in Color blog post.