|Brianna Thomas (Howard '17)|
Recipient of the 2016 Chambliss Award
Meet Brianna Thomas, recipient of the 2016 Chambliss Student Achievement Award, granted every year by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students. Brianna is currently a junior at Howard University. She won this award for her work entitled “Investigating the Orbital Period Valley of Giant Planets in Kepler Data”. She conducted this research last summer as part of the SAO-Harvard REU program, under the supervision of Dr. Jayne Birkby. She was an affiliate of the Harvard Banneker Institute. She is particularly excited to figure out whether there is life on other worlds. After graduation, she plans to get a PhD in astronomy. While her field of choice is currently exoplanets, she intends to try working in other fields of astrophysics before graduation, to get additional experience and a more complete overview of our field.
This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing achievements by outstanding astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (jorgemoreno AT cpp.edu) if you know any other person of color in astronomy who has recently won an award or made any other accomplishment.
Moreno: What was your reaction when you first learned that you won the 2016 Chambliss Prize?
Brianna: I was so happy! It felt amazing to have acknowledgement for a project that I’ve worked hard on.
Moreno: Please tell me more about yourself. What’s your story?
Brianna: I grew up in Queens, NY, one of the best places to live as a kid. There was always so much to do! I learned a lot with each passing day, and having such a supportive, loving family in my corner made life that much easier for me. I have lived on the same block, with the same neighbors, and I attended the same, small primary school for 8 years, with the same students. From that, I know first hand what it means when people say that it “takes a village to raise a child”, and it is one of my go-to mottos. Like many other teens, once I arrived at a new high school, I struggled with ways to fit in with other students around me. I realized that I needed a lot more knowledge about my history and myself in order to prosper, so I decided to attend Howard University, a historically black university, for my undergraduate career. It was one of the best decisions that I have made!
Moreno: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?
Brianna: Astronomy keeps me grounded, ironically :). It helps me put my “earthly” problems in perspective, and it reminds me that it is a blessing that I am able to be here to experience everything around me. I can’t think of any other field that would make me happier.
Moreno: In your opinion, what qualities make your work so unique and compelling?
Brianna: One of the coolest skills I learned from high school was how to turn on my creativity whenever I wanted. It was a humanities school, so I found myself having to participate in music, art, theater, and film even when I didn’t feel like it all of the time. What I didn’t realize was how useful this skill would be in scientific research! Understanding all of the basic topics of physics and astronomy for my research only got me but so far. Finding an answer required thinking from different points of view and piecing together various aspects of what I knew to see if a correlation could be made. It also takes a bit of creativity to imagine what I’m working on, so I really like that I’ll be able to keep that side of my thinking active along with my logical side.
Moreno: As a woman of color, what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?
Brianna: Again, I had a safe bubble to grow up in throughout my childhood. It was safe, not only because it was familiar, but also because everyone in it looked like me and followed my culture. High school was where I first realized that I could be very different. It was exhilarating, at first. By my last year, however, I realized that there were so many negative stereotypes, and rarely any positive opinions, that people had about my race and my culture. Not knowing how to respond, I subconsciously took them to heart. This trampled my belief in my ability to be good enough, especially in academics. It took some time, but I was eventually able to learn how false these stereotypes really were. They were just statements and not a true depiction of myself and what I was capable of.
Moreno: People of color, especially women of color, are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to 1 or 2 factors (specific programs, mentoring etc.) that helped you succeed? Can you also share 1 or 2 ideas for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? For dismantling racism and sexism in general?
Brianna: I believe that mentorship is what will guide us forward. While we can try to influence the astronomers/physicists who act on their prejudices to do otherwise, it will take a lot of time. Only those who are willing to listen are worth talking to about change. However, we should definitely focus on encouraging underrepresented groups and providing them pathways to success, since we know what we are capable of changing. Excellent examples of this are the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC) and Banneker Institute programs, ones that I am grateful to have been affiliated with. They took the initiative to support youth in underrepresented groups who wanted to pursue astronomy. It was great to have allies, but most importantly, we had each other.
I’m not sure if we can ever dismantle racism and sexism completely. However, I do believe that we can overpower its effects by making sure that there are strong mentorship communities available for underrepresented groups. Therefore, even when the rest of the world is slowly changing, we’ll still be as strong as ever.
Moreno: What advice would you give to other young women of color interested in following your path?
Brianna: Besides studying hard (super important!), find an environment that helps you flourish! If that means attending a university in a buzzing city that’s completely different from your quiet neighborhood, then do that. Or maybe it means that you need to seek out others who can mentor you if the people around you doubt your abilities. This might be random, but think about taking the initiative to email that scientist that you aspire to be—ask if you can do research with them.
I understand how hard it can be to not see other scientists that look like you in the media, and in turn, feel discouraged. I also know what it feels like to have people doubt you. The minute those feelings begin to affect your work or, most importantly, you, it’s time to change your environment. Because, trust me, there are places out there where people want nothing more than to see you succeed. You just need to find them.
Moreno: Any final words?
Brianna: Follow your gut! It’s usually right ;).