At the entrance to my lab’s clean room, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror: I look like a clown. I’m drowning in a disposable coverall that hangs off of me in droopy folds, and my size 7½ feet are swallowed up by the smallest rubber boots the lab had on hand—a men’s size 12. The thick mass of curls framing my face only accentuates the caricature.
Reaching for the box of hairnets perched on a nearby counter, I fish out a thin, papery cap with a sigh. How the hell is this going to fit over my fro? I flatten my roots and tie my hair into the tightest bun I can muscle. Stretched as far as it’ll go, the hairnet only covers the back of my head. I position another over my forehead and a third to straddle the middle. Has no physicist here ever been a woman or had to contend with hair like mine? With effort, I tug the hood of my coverall over the hairnets. The taut fabric rustles loudly in my ears as I open the door to join my peers.
I am here, in a basement lab at the University of Chicago, to work on a small-scale particle detector that might help in the search for dark matter, the invisible glue that physicists believe holds the universe together. Dark matter emits no light and, as far as anyone can tell, doesn’t interact with ordinary matter in any familiar ways. But we know it exists from the way it influences the motions of the stars. The allure of dark matter is what inspired me to pursue a PhD in physics. But in more ways than one, I keep feeling like I just don’t fit.
I had stumbled into physics as an undergrad at Duke University, my curiosity piqued after watching characters in Marvel’sThor zip across the cosmos using something the film called an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Intent on knowing what that was, I went back to my dorm room to do some digging, ultimately signing up for an introductory astronomy elective. In that class I discovered, to my amazement, that studying the universe was like time travel. On the chilly night in Duke Forest when I learned how to set up a telescope, I felt myself catapulting into the past as I peered up at starlight that had been emitted decades, if not centuries, earlier. I returned to campus a few hours before sunrise, exhausted but energized—because I knew I wanted to learn this stuff for real. Years later, when I told a mentor I’d gotten into grad school, he was elated. “You’ve worked very hard and deserve this,” he wrote in an email. “Never doubt your ability.”
I rode high on those words when, in 2016, I arrived at UChicago, one of the top physics departments in the country. I was one of two Black women in a department of about 200 grad students. It quickly became clear that she and I were novelties. “I’ve dated a mulatto like you before,” a peer told me in an attempt to make conversation. When I showed up at a weekly meeting that discussed articles in scientific journals, a professor handed me an abandoned backpack near his seat—as if the only reason I could be in that room was to collect a forgotten bag. (He blushed when I shook my head and sat down.) Another time, my adviser asked me to pose for a picture for his grant application. “Of course, I have other photos,” he said as he tossed me a wrench. “But it looks better if it’s a woman.”
One day, worn out by always feeling like an alien, I opened my laptop and poked around the department website. I was searching for signs of Black women who had come before me—to reassure myself that someone had once done what I was trying to do. No luck. So I turned to Google, where I stumbled on a database simply titled The Physicists, maintained by an organization called African American Women in Physics.