“You don’t expect a Black South African woman born during apartheid to have a very straightforward path into academia. [This] is what makes my journey unexpected,” says Dr. Tana Joseph. The astronomical community in South Africa is small, with astronomers from all of Africa comprising roughly 2% of the International Astronomical Union’s membership; as of now there are no clear statistics on the number of Black African astronomers. South Africa in particular has a long history of racial tension and violence, beginning with its colonization by the Dutch and British between the 1600s and 1700s and continuing with the governing system of apartheid, which was a system of political domination and economic segregation by the minority white population over Black Africans and other non-white populations enacted from the 1940s to the 1990s. Today, many of the effects of this history remain, including within academic spaces, bringing those who work within these spaces on a variety of paths. Since starting her career as a physics undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, Dr. Joseph has led a multifaceted career at the intersection of astrophysical science, outreach, and social justice work.
Dr. Joseph attributes her decision to pursue astronomy to a combination of her upbringing and reading about science in the local news. As the child of two high school science teachers, “science was very much a part of our everyday life.” When she was 11, her local newspaper printed the famous “Pillars of Creation” image from Hubble. Upon learning that these images were actual scientific datasets, she knew astronomy was where her interests lay. Dr. Joseph then made her way through the academic ranks, obtaining her Bachelor’s and Master’s at University of Cape Town, and attending University of Southampton in the United Kingdom for her PhD. (Fun fact: Astrobites covered Dr. Joseph’s first lead author paper during her PhD in 2011.)
Throughout her career, Dr. Joseph has been consistently involved in outreach, but her involvement hasn’t always been on her own terms. “You can imagine, think back to when I was a student in the early 2000s, I was really good for optics, and I was tokenized as a result of that.” Dr. Joseph later remarks that she was “literally the face of South African astronomy” for a time. Although outreach is now a central focus of her career, Dr. Joseph was actively expected to participate in and organize outreach programs, from presenting at schools to being the co-founder of the University of Cape Town’s astronomy Open Days. “Outreach was made part of my job, even though I was not paid extra for it,” says Dr. Joseph. It wasn’t until her second postdoctoral position at the University of Manchester, where she had an official role as an outreach astronomer, that she was compensated for her outreach work.
Now a research fellow at the University of Amsterdam, Dr. Joseph is setting her sights beyond academia. Over the years, Dr. Joseph has shifted her focus from outreach in astronomy to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and decolonization work in the natural sciences, and she now plans to make this her full-time job. Dr. Joseph started AstroComms, a communications and consulting company with a focus on training STEM practitioners both within and outside academia. Speaking about her outreach and DEI work prior to AstroComms, Dr. Joseph says, “in academia you are taught to undervalue yourself. Starting my company was me taking that power back and saying what I do and say has value.”
Dr. Joseph has countless projects lined up, and is particularly excited to collaborate with social scientists who specialize in DEI and decolonization to effectively implement positive change in STEM work spaces and evaluate long-term initiatives to support minoritized scientists. “We’re hitting a critical mass where [problematic practices] are starting to backfire on academia; … [I hope to] not just scold [STEM organizations and departments] but actually help them … put DEI into their curriculum and department processes.”
To students and early-career scientists, especially minoritized folks, Dr. Joseph remarks that identifying allies both within and outside your workplace is essential. In particular, when searching for an advisor or mentor, Dr. Joseph notes that advisors who both speak up on social justice issues within academia and put in the work to address these issues typically attract diverse students. When looking for an advisor who will support you, seek guidance from current and former students – they are often the most honest and helpful resource. In closing, Dr. Joseph says, “my PhD was some of the best years of my life… [that was] largely due to my advisor.”
“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: Kate Storey-Fisher
Featured image credit: Astrobites collaboration