#BlackInAstro Experiences: Bryné Hadnott

It’s #BlackInAstroWeek2021 June 20th to June 26th! Find out more and follow along at blackinastro.com and @BlackInAstro on Twitter. This post is also part of our ongoing series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here.

While growing up, Bryné Hadnott had a variety of interests, such as writing, fine arts, and environmental justice. As an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), she thought about combining an art major with pre-med and becoming a medical illustrator. Interestingly, it was through the Pathfinder Fellowship Program (for students interested in environmental leadership) at WashU that Hadnott ended up taking a remote sensing class and where she first fell in love with planetary science and astronomy. Her remote sensing professor “showed us these pictures of Mars taken on the Martian surface, and I had never seen anything like that before! My mind was completely blown!”

She ended up switching majors from art to earth and planetary science, and in her junior year got into a SURF program at Caltech. Her adviser there was working on the Mars Science Lab which was due to land on Mars that year, and Hadnott ended up learning spectroscopy and many other geochemistry techniques. She discovered that she loved planetary science, and encouraged and supported by her advisers at WashU, Hadnott decided to go to grad school at Cornell. She dived into planetary science research early on as a grad student, and also collaborated with the Planetary Ices Lab at NASA JPL, working on spectroscopy for a probe planned for measuring the composition of lakes on Titan. 

“It was just a terrible environment”

Profile picture of Bryné Hadnott, a Black female planetary scientist and science educator being featured in today's profile
Bryné Hadnott – science writer, STEM educator, planetary scientist

However, it was at Cornell that her path in astronomy started getting extremely difficult. “It was a terrible, hostile environment … [there was] a lot of belittling and harassment,” she recounts of her experience in that department. As a Black female graduate student, she encountered racism, misogyny, and a complete lack of support. This ranged from people touching her hair without consent, to her adviser being extremely controlling, to another student casually remarking that she only got a fellowship because she was a Black applicant. Hadnott also speaks on huge, systemic problems where many of the female department members, including herself, had faced some kind of sexual harassment or violence. It got so bad that she thought, “I’m done – I don’t want to be at Cornell anymore; I hate it here.

In 2017, she made the difficult decision to leave her degree program at Cornell, and ended up applying to the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). The obstacles she faced did not ease up in this new department either – her adviser there ended up not being a good fit for her either. Once again, she experienced alienation and a lack of support from the planetary science and astronomy communities at JHU, and she decided to leave after getting her Masters degree in 2019. One good thing came out of her time there, however. It was where she first met Ashley Walker (who was an undergrad interning there, and would go on to found #BlackInAstro), leading to her eventual role as co-organiser for BlackInAstro. 

Thinking back to her experiences, Hadnott highlights the differences between WashU and Cornell/JHU that made her feel supported as an undergrad but not as a grad student. She mentions how at both Cornell and JHU, there was always a “strict academic hierarchy – from professor to postdoc to student”. It felt like whatever those in power could do to enforce that hierarchy, they did – by being racist, sexist, and constantly trying to put students in their place. “Maybe it was because I was undergrad, but at WashU the structure was way less hierarchical; I would hang out with grads and postdocs and have casual conversations with my professors and it wasn’t a big deal – it was like we were all adults and equals. I didn’t realise how rare this was [in academia] until I left WashU.”

#BlackInAstro: “Find your tribe!”

When asked about her thoughts on having to leave academia, Hadnott describes feeling absolutely heartbroken. “. . . [planetary science research] was my dream, but it felt like all of academia was not interested in having me there. I didn’t feel safe or supported or encouraged; it felt like it was never going to get any better.” She highlights just how many talented Black female astronomers end up leaving the field because they were treated poorly, and emphasises how both individuals and departments absolutely have to do better in supporting Black scientists. 

The first thing that departments can do: those talented Black women who are doing amazing work in astronomy – hire them and promote them and do it fast! Because you have a lot of ground to make up for,” she implores stakeholders in the astronomy community. “If you need a list of African American women in physics – there’s literally a website for that; hire those people!!!,” she urges, while discussing how having Black women professors when she was in grad school would have had such a huge positive impact on her. Her other recommendation for departments is particularly apt given the ongoing debate in astronomy on repercussions for sexual harassers: “… another thing departments can do is have actual consequences when people commit gender or race based or sexual harassment – don’t just give them a slap on the wrist and let them continue in the department; kick them out of the field!

Hadnott also has advice for young Black students looking to succeed in astronomy and planetary science: “Find your tribe, and find people who will build you up,” she says. She talks about how she had a tribe at WashU – other women who were taking the same classes whom she could rely on – and her inability to find one at either Cornell or JHU. “It wasn’t until I met Ashley that I slowly started to build that tribe back up; I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start my own business now if it weren’t for her and other #BlackInAstro people.

SciComm dreams and charting her own path

After leaving JHU in 2019 and a brief stint as a programmer with a Seattle-based Cubesat company, Hadnott is now working on her own science education endeavour called Space Out STEM. Although she had always been passionate about writing, she found herself thinking about it more after the Covid-19 pandemic began. Hadnott’s goal is to give back to the community through science outreach and education efforts, and she’s starting by developing science curricula for Black students. “When I got to college I thought ‘how come no one came to my school to talk about physics or engineering?’ and so I want to write curricula and make sure Black girls get to learn about STEM too,” she enthuses.

Hadnott is currently partnering with STEMCore, LLC, and creating curricula for classes with All Star Code, a non-profit teaching young Black/Latinx students how to code. She is also working as an astronomical software developer at Carnegie Science’s Earth and Planets Laboratory, and claims the community there has been really supportive so far. Through my discussions with her, it is abundantly clear just how excited Hadnott is to be working on these efforts, and just as importantly, how much fun she’s having. Describing her future goals, she mentions how an immediate one is making her science curriculum business more viable and sustainable. Looking further ahead, she talks about how one of her ultimate dreams is to have a Black-led research lab that would be open to anyone interested in working with them. Hadnott hopes that such a lab could perhaps operate in conjunction with the Black-run planetarium that a number of #BlackInAstro organisers have been dreaming of eventually founding.

To learn more about Bryné Hadnott, check out her website and her Twitter!

Astrobite edited by Catherine Manea
Featured image credit: Astrobites collaboration

About Pratik Gandhi

I'm a 3rd year astrophysics PhD student at UC Davis, originally from Mumbai, India. I study galaxy formation and evolution, and am really excited about the use of both simulations and observations in the study of galaxies. I am interested in science communication, teaching, and social issues in academia. Also a huge fan of Star Trek, with Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation being my favourites!

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