From galaxy to grassroots

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Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (M.S. astronomy and astrophysics ’05)

Between exploring the mysteries of a vast, unexplored cosmos and confronting injustices still faced across our own earthbound country, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (M.S. astronomy and astrophysics ’05) works as both an Assistant Professor of Physics and Core Faculty Member in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Though the two areas of study may seem unrelated at a surface level, for Prescod-Weinstein, the two are undoubtedly connected. 

It was, in fact, her scientific curiosity that drew her to confront the issues of unfairness and representation in academia. Inspired by Stephen Hawking and a desire to write the world’s next A Brief History of Time, Prescod-Weinstein entered the field of astronomy with an excitement for the sciences and a dream of forging the future of her field.

“I responded to [the problems of education, physics and astronomy] like I had a test. I wanted to understand: What is the bigger story here? Why are these things happening? What are the patterns? I just naturally look for patterns, like the demographics of who's in the room and who wasn't in the room. For me, part of it was my scientific curiosity about it, and the other piece was feeling angry and frustrated, wanting to do something about it. And so that led me to doing my own reading to do my own self education.”

Yet, when Prescod-Weinstein originally planned to write her latest book, The Disordered Cosmos; she found herself writing a collection of essays primarily concerning the problems of the astronomy community. The book she wrote was defined by stories of sexual harrassment and the fight to protect Hawaiian sacred land on Mauna Kea—the location of a national observatory, and the construction site of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Prescod-Weinsten later realized that only one or two chapters about her knowledge of cosmology and relativity had made it into the book – a realization that truly showed her how much of her passion had been suppressed by the hostile environment she worked in. 

“As I sat down to write, it became clear that I couldn't, it couldn't allow that to be the totality of the book. I needed the book to reflect the things that I dream and the parts of those dreams that I got to live.”

When Prescod-Weinstein graduated from high school, she dreamed that her first book would be the next A Brief History of Time, but in her writing, she found herself talking not of the beauty of cosmology, but of her own disappointment in the field’s reality. It was in this disappointment that she realized that just as her scientific passion led her to exploring the dark side of the sciences, her need to illuminate the shortcomings of cosmology needed the context of her own excitement for the field. Her book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, creates a holistic look at the field of cosmology, both in its wonder and in its failures – with its very subtitle highlighting how her hopes of writing a book on exclusively cosmology where forced away by the injustice in her field. 

“In many ways, the book represents a dream deferred for me,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “Nobody grows up thinking, ‘I really want to fight racism in science,’ or ‘I really want to be the only Black woman in the room.’”

When Prescod-Weinstein chose to attend UCSC her choice was inspired by the happy academic environment of the Astronomy department, and of the natural environment surrounding the university. While at UCSC, Prescod-Weinstein was one of only ten Black graduate students on campus, but she said the robust academics of the astronomy and astrophysics department kept her motivated to attend.

“When I visited Santa Cruz, the graduate students in the Astronomy Department were happy compared to the other places that I was looking at, Prescod-Weinstein said. “After four years leave, I wanted to come home [to California] andI wanted to be around people that felt like home for me.I had a good impression of the department–the astronomy department at UC Santa Cruz is world class! It's the kind of program that if you go there, it rewrites your ticket in a way.” 

In addition to the academic environment at UCSC, Prescod-Weinstein found a nontraditional teacher–the very trees that dominate the campus.. Growing up in East L.A.,Prescod-Weinstein recalls not having regular access to nature like she did at UCSC, and of the lasting impact that living and learning amidst nature had on her as a scientist, a citizen, and a thinker. 

“The way that we talk about the redwood tree, we tend not to think of them as teachers or professors, but I think I learned a lot from being in that environment,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “There's things that you learn from looking around, like how the pine needles are on the ground, and they just stay there. You learn about resilience, equilibrium with your ecosystem, and all of these things that, unfortunately, are not well transmitted in American culture.”

Prescod-Weinstein’s appreciation for UCSC goes beyond just the sum of its parts as well–she’s an ardent believer in the power of public education. As a professor at the University of New Hampshire, she continues her mission to support public education in return for how it benefited her own life,and wants to give the same opportunities to the students of the future.

“When I was choosing a faculty position, I proactively chose a position at a public university,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “I believe in the mission of public education, that all the way through Ph.D., I think that public education is powerful, it is essential, and it should be free. And I decided that's a place where I could fight for public education, as a professor at a public university.”

After years as a professor, Prescod-Weinstein still knows that students can understand the impact they’re capable of – even if they aren’t always told about it. 

“My favorite thing about UC Santa Cruz and the people that go there, is that the students are always so passionate about the community,” Prescod-Weinstien said. “I would say student voices are essential to transforming our world into one where we all survive and thrive.”

“We're the species that found the mass of the Higgs Boson–whenever we want to accomplish something, we can.”