This post is part of our series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here. This week, we’ve been posting a #BlackInAstro story every day for #BlackInAstroWeek. In this final installment, we are publishing an interview with Ayanna Jones, a Chemistry Ph.D. student studying astrochemistry and astrobiology at Emory University, US.
Ayanna Jones was an undergraduate student at Clark Atlanta University (a Historically Black College or University, or HBCU) when she did a research internship that changed her life. She worked at the University of Chicago on astrophysics, a field that seemed totally disparate from her undergraduate field of polymer chemistry. “It was really transformative for me, applying chemistry to those [astrophysical] concepts,” Jones says. “I knew [from then on] that I was really passionate about astrochemistry.”
Jones is now a PhD student at Emory University. On top of her work in laboratory astrochemistry, she is the president of the Emory Black Graduate Students Association. To Jones, supporting other Black students is just as important as her research. “What keeps me going is just knowing that another little Black girl who’s also interested in this field […] might see me and think that she can do what she wants,” she says. “We do this for everyone else who comes after us.”
Throughout her career, Jones has dealt with difficulties that come with being Black in science. Although “going to an HBCU did help,” she says, she’s spent a lot of time in environments where Black women are disproportionately underrepresented. “Not seeing as many people who looked like me, any women—and in particular Black women [was hard]”, Jones explains. “Because there’s so few of us, there’s pressure to be perfect. It feels like there’s people coming after you, so you don’t want to mess it up.”
Along with this pressure, she has personally dealt with racial microaggressions. As one example, Jones describes how non-Black scientists often make assumptions about Black students’ capabilities. “When we come into certain spaces, we have to over-prove ourselves,” she says. “We just want a fair chance.” This type of microaggressions is what Sue et al. (2007) refer to as “ascription of intelligence.”
“I have had to leave certain environments because it was not healthy for me,” Jones continues. In her case, these experiences “encouraged me to push beyond and really prove them wrong,” but she emphasizes that not all Black experiences are the same. “I know it’s different for every person […] Oftentimes with Black students who have to do this, it puts more work on the student.”
To make science and astronomy more welcoming to Black students, Jones says that it’s important for non-Black scientists to “provide us more opportunities to be in the room and more opportunities to speak our truths.” It’s not enough to just “bring people of color and Black people into these spaces,” she adds. Black students should be given the opportunity to “not just be in the room, but [also] to lead discussions and propose new projects.” Non-Black scientists could support this by providing resources and holding people accountable.
“Science is not just for a set group of people but is open to everyone,” Jones says. “A scientist […] can look like anyone.”