It’s #BlackInPhysics week Oct. 25th to Oct. 31st, 2020! Find out more and follow along at blackinphysics.org and @BlackInPhysics on Twitter. This post is also part of our ongoing series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here.
In this installment, we are publishing an interview with Dr. Greg Mosby, a scientist working on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly known as WFIRST) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Dr. Greg Mosby got into astronomy by “chance mixed with a whole lot of guidance of keener folks around me that saw something inside me I hadn’t recognized yet.” Although in some ways his career trajectory sounds like a fairly typical academic path, there’s another important factor: he’s Black. As Mosby describes, “I think it’s very hard to think of a way being Black has not affected my path. From birth I grew up in an America that’s fundamentally different than my white counterparts.”
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he was a kid who was interested in science, but didn’t really know it was an option to choose a career as a scientist. (As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.) Thanks to the nurturing and advocacy of his middle school English teacher, Mrs. Currie, he ended up in a high school program that exposed him to Advanced Placement, lab science classes, college prep, and even a chemistry summer program at the University of Memphis.
Mosby was then admitted to Yale University for his undergraduate degree, where he began to explore physics and astronomy. Mosby originally found his appreciation for physics in high-school calculus and on television in places like PBS’s NOVA & the Discovery Channel. Though astrophysics didn’t seem like a viable career for him when he was younger, things changed in college when he took his first physics class. The calculus was familiar to him even if he felt behind in other aspects, and he “enjoyed how physics could be used to make sense of the world.” His first research experience (and the revelation that research could be a career capable of supporting himself and his family) came through a summer internship through Yale’s STARS (Science, Technology, and Research Scholars) Program, under the supervision of “magnanimous Black chemist Dr. Iona Black.” He later pivoted to astronomy as a junior, working with Dr. Lori Allen in Harvard-SAO’s Summer REU on “classifying young stellar objects in a molecular cloud in Orion.” Dr. Allen introduced him to astronomical instrumentation to combine his interests of hands-on physics work and observational astronomy and helped guide him in grad school applications. Mosby then chose to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for his PhD in Astronomy, where he also earned the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
Transitioning to graduate school was, of course, a big adjustment, and practicing work-life balance was a struggle (as most graduate students are aware). Mosby says, as a graduate student, he was lucky to have his “triumvirate of advisors (Tremonti, Wolf, and Hooper) that provided thoughtful counsel, support, and guidance in the early stages of [his] career.” He also remembers graduate school as a time of isolation, as “one of only a few hundred Black graduate and professional students in all of UW Madison.” Mosby recounts an awareness of this lack of representation at all stages of his career. “The lack of representation along the astronomy and physics path makes the path that much harder to find for students that may grow up from similar backgrounds as myself. I didn’t see [astrophysics] as an option for myself, so I stumbled into it perhaps later than I would have otherwise. Further along the path now, the lack of representation can still lead to pressure on marginalized scientists like myself—whether it’s trying to balance mentoring the younger generation and pressure to be more productive, or just trying to do science while being Black in America.”
Along with other members of his school’s Multicultural Student Network, particularly Dr. Karla Hall and Grey Batie, Mosby also restarted the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association (BGPSA) at UW Madison to “connect Black students across the campus…creating a space for Black students to be [their] full selves together on campus.” This was one step towards his vision of an ideal version of astrophysics for Black folks. When asked what his ideal version of would look like, Mosby first said “Wakanda” then elaborated, “…really it would mean there being space and a climate where Black folks can show up as their full selves. The reality is that it’s hard for Black folks to show up as themselves in a lot of spaces in the U.S. as long as there isn’t a reckoning of the very different lived experiences and opportunities of people in our country that can be traced to the history of racist violence and exclusion from power.”
For his thesis, Mosby worked on the star formation history of galaxies with quasars (actively accreting supermassive black holes). The trick with quasar host galaxies is that the bright central quasar makes it hard to get spectra from the rest of the galactic disk; Mosby developed an algorithm using machine learning to help separate the quasar spectra from the galaxy spectra to get a better look at the galaxy’s stellar population. He also worked on developing and characterizing near-infrared detectors for the Robert Stobie Spectrograph on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT).
Post-graduate school, he moved on to a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Towards the end of that fellowship, he applied to be a permanent civil servant in Goddard’s Astrophysics Science Division, and got the job. He is currently working on observational astronomy and near-infrared instrumentation—in particular, the Wide Field Instrument on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope Mission (formerly known as WFIRST). As a detector scientist, he is responsible for working with the mission’s science teams to “ensure we can achieve the ambitious science goals of the mission.” He hasn’t left his galaxy evolution work behind either—Mosby is still expanding his modeling technique from grad school so it can be used for both star formation histories and galactic chemical evolution, and is extending it to also use photometry and lower resolution spectra. His dual interests of galactic histories and infrared instrumentation tie together quite well with the next generation of space telescopes. “I think we’re all anticipating the launch of Webb, and later Roman as they’ll start to provide a new view into an interesting time in the Universe, at cosmic noon.”
As Mosby says, “I enjoy working at Goddard and being in the DMV [D.C., Maryland, Virginia] area, but still faces like mine are few and far between in the science divisions, so we all still have work to do. Laid out like this my path in astronomy and physics seems straightforward, but I recognize it was a tenuous thing, not even a possibility to me 20 or so years ago. It’s humbling to think that I might not be where I am today if not for someone else’s actions, concern, or support along the way. And so I’m committed to showing gratitude along the way and lending that same support and action for those that may follow anytime I can.”
If you’re a non-Black person in astronomy, Dr. Mosby’s message to you is: “Show up, speak up, be brave. The thoughtful, intentional actions of a few can have an out-sized impact. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them, and don’t let anyone make you feel afraid to stand up for human rights. Fear can stifle progress.”
To his Black colleagues and future Black astronomers and physicists: “I see you. I love seeing all the young colorful faces emerging in astronomy and physics. No one does this alone. Find your people, live a full life. Make sure you take care of yourselves—mentally and physically. We may do science for a living, but we can’t do science without living.”
You can find more info about Dr. Greg Mosby and his research on his NASA Goddard webpage.
“Beyond astro-ph” articles are not necessarily intended to be representative of the views of the entire Astrobites collaboration, nor do they represent the views of the AAS or all astronomers. While AAS supports Astrobites, Astrobites is editorially independent and content that appears on Astrobites is not reviewed or approved by the AAS.
Astrobite edited by: Huei Sears
Featured image credit: Astrobites collaboration