This interview is part of our ongoing #BlackInAstro series. For our cornerstone post, see here. This week, we will be posting a #BlackInAstro story every day for #BlackInAstroWeek. Today’s post is part of the #AstroWorld day dedicated to exoplanets, atmospheres, planet formation, and planetary sciences.
Football, Fatherhood, and Physics: A Look into Dakotah’s Unique Journey
Dakotah Tyler is a rising second-year astrophysics graduate student studying exoplanets at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is studying exoplanet demographics and the escaping atmosphere of hot Jupiters, and is developing software as part of the data reduction pipeline team for the Keck Planet Finder (KPF). However, his non-traditional path to where he is now started in the unlikeliest of places: Kroger Field, the football stadium of University of Kentucky (UK).
Although growing up Dakotah was always curious about the sky, he was never encouraged to pursue academics. “School was just a means to be able to play football,” Dakotah mentioned, explaining that the sport was what people knew him for. Dakotah ended up as a strong safety for UK’s team with a full scholarship while pursuing a degree in Community and Leadership Development. During his time at UK, he injured his knee which forced him to end his football career early. Up until that point, everything in Dakotah’s life revolved around football. Losing his core identity, Dakotah recalls that he was in a dark and depressing place, not knowing what the future would hold.
What, besides football, would spark the same fire in him?
Dakotah contemplated settling for an office job with a stable salary because he had not just himself, but his two daughters, Janiyah and Audrie, to provide for. He found himself torn between stability and passion. “I would have been better off financially just settling for a job…but I wanted to show [my daughters] that they should never settle for anything in life that is less than what their soul desires. I want that drive to be what they take from me as a parent.”
When exploring his interests outside of athletics, he went back to his early childhood curiosity: the Universe. He was hesitant, however, because he had no math or science background. “I was always a football player, I didn’t get pushed in academics. I just finished the minimum requirement to graduate high school, which was Algebra 2. When I looked into astrophysics, I saw subjects I couldn’t recognize. I had no idea what differential equations were and I hadn’t even touched calculus.”
Following his own advice to always shoot for the stars, Dakotah decided that he was going to pursue physics and “start from square one” by enrolling in at his local community college. Though Dakotah “did not know if [he] was capable,” he forged on, needing to immerse himself into his passion. He successfully fulfilled the prerequisites to pursue a physics degree and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, all while working full-time. This time around, he did not have a football scholarship to support him: there was so much more on the line.
Never having had the encouragement or support to focus on academics, Dakotah “had no feel for how to succeed in academia, let alone how he could become an astronomer.” All he knew was he wanted to do it, “so [he] was going to.” Dakotah’s drive pushed him to go to every possible physics event at his campus. “I literally just showed up, talked to people, and injected myself into the scene.” However, he was always the only Black person in any meeting he was at. “[People] told me that they thought I was lost when I entered the physics building.”
This was jarring coming from a football locker room where “60% of the people [he] was with were like [him].” Dakotah recalls, “I was always with people who looked like me and had similar upbringings whose lives revolved around the sport.” Suddenly he was trying to figure out the ropes in a field he had no background in, in a place where he saw no one like him. The mental toughness that was honed by being an athlete helped Dakotah develop the resilience he needed as a Black man in academia. However, resilience has a limit and the constant microaggressions that came with being the only Black student in his everyday spaces frustrated him.
Graduating as a non-traditional student also was no easy feat: Dakotah spoke to how difficult it was to go back to school, especially in a field like physics. “It was a huge sacrifice. It took a ton of time, money, working full-time in jobs [I] didn’t love. I was motivated by the need to be fully engaged and passionate about what I do with my life. I also wanted to show my kids that we have no limitations beyond the ones we accept for ourselves. I had to find a way to make ends meet but still accomplish the things that I want. It was hard. Even if you come with a determined attitude, you need to know the right things to do. I’m lucky I had the mentors and guidance I did have.”
After graduating, Dakotah worked at both NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA HQ. At Goddard he developed a pipeline to analyze Submillimeter Array observations of Mars to characterize the atmosphere’s changing temperature profile during a global dust storm. At HQ, Dakotah compiled the current knowledge boundary of and how JWST will advance the exoplanetary field. He then started at UCLA in September 2020, where he’s working on a transmission spectroscopy project to characterize atmospheric loss of giant gas exoplanets, orbiting close to their stars. Dakotah is also on a team where he optimizes the data reduction process for KPF, a precision radial velocity instrument that goes beyond current detection limits, which goes live in 2022.
Beyond astrophysics, Dakotah channeled his energy to be impactful in a positive way, organizing with #BlackInAstro and being more visible for younger people, both undergraduates and kids like his own. He is grateful for the community that has resulted from #BlackInAstro. “Shout out to Ashley [Walker] for having the insight, motivation, and courage to start this because it is so important for us to not just have a support network, but an active community where Black astronomers can come together and be themselves without worrying about what we say.” Dakotah focuses on being a “rod of positivity,” to show young Black students that it is possible, even when the cards are stacked against them. He is going to be one of the outreach coordinators for UCLA’s astronomy department starting the Fall 2021 semester, and is working on starting a state-wide California National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) chapter covering the University of California schools and Caltech. He is “fueled by a desire to be a positive actor in recruitment and retention for young Black kids.”
When asked what advice he would give to budding Black astronomers and non-traditional students, he came up with an extensive list:
- Try and get in contact with other Black astronomers at any level. They will be there to help you out with the things that they wish they knew.
- If you have the determination, keep that fire burning. Don’t let people take that away from you. Let that passion drive you and push you—people will respond to and respect you.
- Believe in yourself. Believe that you can do it.
- You will have to go through some experiences that might not be pleasant, but find that community like #BlackInAstro, and push through. “You can even feel free to reach out to me!”
- If you feel that other people are “leaving you behind,” that is a completely wrong way to look at it. We all have our own path and only you know what’s going to make you happy. If you want to go back to school, follow that gut feeling. Follow that passion.
Dakotah also mentioned what he thinks non-Black folks can do to help Black astro/physicists (and Black people for that matter) feel supported:
- Make an effort to understand them. The way we need support varies from person to person—there is no blanket answer. But invest the time to build a connection and get to know the person. “We feel supported when we know that someone has our back. That can’t be faked.”
- In undergrad, Dakotah sought out advice and devised a plan to become an appealing graduate school applicant, but none of that information was obvious or readily available. It is unfair and unrealistic to assume that people coming from marginalized and underprivileged backgrounds innately know how to navigate the academic hierarchy; in your effort to be supportive and connect, you can easily make this information accessible these students.
When asked about his journey thus far, Dakotah expressed how glad he was to have his football experience along with the challenges and obstacles that got him to where he is today. “It’s become a positive thing. I love this newfound community of Black astro/physicists. It’s very empowering to know how far I’ve come, and I never wish that my path were different.” From scoring touchdowns to shooting for the stars, Dakotah is changing the way success is defined for Black children everywhere.
Astrobite edited by Briley Lewis and Ellis Avallone
Featured image credit: Astrobites collaboration