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Illustration of a woman of color with galaxies in her hair
Illustration by Lauren Jackson

A call to cite Black women and gender minorities

Theoretical astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein recently unveiled the Cite Black Women+ in Physics and Astronomy Bibliography.

As a graduate student, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein knew she was on track to become the first Black woman, at least as far as she is aware, to earn tenure in either theoretical cosmology or particle physics theory.

She accomplished that goal this month. In that moment, she says she felt waves of emotion—not of pride, but of grief. “I should have been the 150th, not the first,” she says.   

A theoretical astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, Prescod-Weinstein spends her time digging into some of the most fundamental mysteries of our universe, including the nature of dark matter and the aftermath of cosmic inflation. She has also been deeply engaged in an understanding of her own place, and that of other marginalized scholars, in studying the cosmos.

Her latest addition to this work is the compilation of every paper ever published by Black women and gender minorities with physics or astronomy PhDs in the United States. Last December, Prescod-Weinstein celebrated the 50th anniversary of the year Willie Hobbs Moore became the first to accomplish this feat by presenting the Cite Black Women+ in Physics and Astronomy Bibliography—a free database intended to change the narrative of whose work gets recognized.

That’s paramount in an academic system where the number of times a person’s work is cited is often used as a metric for success. Citations traditionally play a role in who gets hired, who wins fellowships, and who gets awarded research grants.

Prescod-Weinstein intends for scientists to use the bibliography to discover new research directions, to proactively cite papers in their own work, and simply to learn about Black women and gender minorities in their field. She has written that a person’s identity influences the journey they take to make sense of the world—so ensuring that Black women and gender minorities are cited helps protect their unique contributions to physics and astronomy.

The bibliography could also be a useful resource for hiring committees looking to diversify their departments, as well as for the next generation of Black students, as they develop their own physics identity.

One of Prescod-Weinstein’s inspirations for pursuing this work is a long-held hypothesis that social phenomena shape scientific outcomes. People feel certain pressures to stay in a room—or to leave it—and as a result, the directions Black women and gender minorities choose to take their research in likely aren’t random. The creation of the bibliography was, in part, about beginning to quantify those contribution patterns, and Prescod-Weinstein hopes it can be used as a resource for physics education researchers interested in analyzing such trends.   

“This database shows what we have done without enough resources, without the right circumstances, and without the right levels of support,” she says. “So just imagine how much bigger it would be if Black women and gender minorities weren’t running into all of the walls that we are.”

Starting from isolation

Prescod-Weinstein says she was greatly inspired by the Cite Black Women Collective, an organization that aims to amplify the work of Black women in academia. Its founder, Christen Smith, describes the collective as “a group of women and femme-identifying folks who are trying to encourage people to think about the politics of race, gender and citation.”

Smith, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, coined the phrase “Cite Black Women” in 2017 after her work was plagiarized at a conference. “It’s an awareness campaign that has become a call to action—a movement,” she says. “And it has changed the way people approach citations globally.”

At the time, Prescod-Weinstein took notice. Hashtags like #CiteBlackWomenSundays and #CiteASista would populate her Twitter feed, and she saw how these efforts drove activity beyond social media—influencing actual citation patterns for papers in the humanities and social sciences. “And I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a similar practice in the sciences?” Prescod-Weinstein says.

That idea took flight in 2019, when she won a grant from the Foundational Questions Institute to fund the bibliography. Prescod-Weinstein hired two undergraduate research assistants: Sabrina Brown, a digital media studies major who had experience with library and archival work, and Tessa Cole, a bioengineering major who had some familiarity with scientific jargon.

Their starting point was an invaluable resource for many Black women in the field: the African American Women in Physics website, which curates a list begun by Jami Valentine Miller when she was the only Black woman graduate student in her department at Johns Hopkins University.

The isolation she experienced made Miller want to catalogue the few other Black women she had come across during her physics journey. “Because if we don’t keep track of our history, no one will,” Miller says.

Today, that list has expanded into a non-profit organization that documents the ever-growing number of Black women earning PhDs in physics and related fields, raises scholarships for graduate students, and fosters community-building initiatives across the nation.

Brown and Cole began by sorting the AAWIP list by field, focusing first on people who had earned degrees in particle physics, astrophysics or cosmology, the core subjects funded by the Foundational Questions Institute. “But we worked quickly, so that we were able to start picking up more and more fields—and eventually, we had gone through the entire list,” Brown says.

For each name, they verified the scientist’s institutional affiliation, then got to work scouring publication archives, university libraries and employer websites. They read abstract after abstract for about six months, tagging each paper by subfield and topic.

Hosted on the reference manager Zotero, the completed bibliography contains over 4,000 papers, organized into nearly 300 folders named for each Black woman or gender non-conforming physicist on the AAWIP list. These are sorted chronologically by year, including papers from the first Black women to earn PhDs in physics (Hobbs Moore in 1972) and astronomy (Barbara A. Williams in 1981), to publications as recent as ones written by the eight Black scientists who graduated in 2022. A few pioneers who did not earn doctorates but advanced knowledge in their field are also listed—perhaps most notably Katherine G. Johnson, whose contributions to the space race in the 1960s were highlighted in the film Hidden Figures.

Pride and loss

There were many challenges in compiling such an extensive database of papers, Brown says. For one, the AAWIP is always expanding—meaning that the bibliography was constantly going out of date. And tracking down publications from earlier entries often took twice as much time as the more recent names, simply because record-keeping wasn’t as meticulous in the past. There was also a lot of back-and-forth about what should or shouldn’t be included in the bibliography: Conference proceedings and white papers, for example, hold different significance in different subfields.

Still, Brown says, there was joy to be found in the work. Organizing articles by date was like mapping out a timeline of each person’s career. “It was so enriching for me to learn about these women and their successes, where life had taken them, and everything that they had accomplished,” she says.

Not every story ended in triumph. Occasionally, Brown and Cole would stumble across someone who had only one paper, or a series of publications on the same topic that inexplicably stopped short.

Black women and gender minorities in physics may find academia to be intellectually nourishing, but at the same time socially starving, Prescod-Weinstein says—“and that is the balancing act people are engaging in. Everybody has their own initial conditions for solving this equation. So everybody is going to land on a different answer.”

She says she hopes that people who use the bibliography will read between the lines, peering past the listed accomplishments to think about what is not seen or said. Prescod-Weinstein likens it to when cosmologists study the large-scale structure of our universe: They find galaxies, but they also see voids. “And studying those voids can be just as physically informative as studying the stuff we can see,” she says. “I want people to do that same kind of work—I was looking for the empty spaces, and what they might tell us.”

One trend that jumped out, for example, was that many of the physicists and astronomers listed in the database had, at some point, published about diversity in science. What compelled them to engage in this type of work? Prescod-Weinstein wondered. Did they want to—or did their experience make them feel like they needed to?

“And I’m one of the people you could ask that question about the most,” she says.

In addition to astrophysics, Prescod-Weinstein often theorizes about systemic issues in society that pervade science, including the culture of settler colonialism in astronomy and how the exclusion of Black women in physics hinders scientific progress. As a result of that work, she was appointed a core faculty member of the University of New Hampshire’s women’s and gender studies department.

“For me, those publications are things I am proud of,” she says. “But they also represent dreams deferred.”

It’s a reference to the subtitle of her first book, The Disordered Cosmos, which delves into the inner workings of our universe alongside an account of her own career as an astrophysicist—including the marginalization that has shaped it.

An inspiration to others

Prescod-Weinstein is still waiting to see exactly what impact the bibliography might have. Some of the more interesting responses she’s received so far are emails from Black women in other fields, asking if something like this exists in their own discipline. “I think it touched that part of people who are feeling isolated, and feeling like their history has not been made available to them, who are like ‘Yes, I want to see my history on these terms, too.’”

Brown and Cole have since graduated, and the grant to produce the bibliography has run out. So for now, it spans only the first 50 years since Hobbs Moore earned her PhD. Prescod-Weinstein hopes to eventually have the resources to regularly update it—not only as more hidden figures are uncovered, but also as the rate of Black women and gender minorities in physics and astronomy continues to grow.

“I remember when we used to be excited about one a year,” Miller says.

Over the past three years, she’s added over 20 new names of doctorate-holders to the AAWIP website. Thirty-nine PhD students are also listed (at least two of which have recently graduated).

“It is the product of extraordinary hard work that people can come in pairs, threes, or fours today,” Prescod-Weinstein says.

She says much of that labor is invisible—and antithetical to the competitive nature of academia that can often pit scientists against each other. In intentional opposition to that, Prescod-Weinstein says she makes sure to emphasize how the work of the Cite Black Women Collective and AAWIP—which, in 2022, inspired a similar list for the geosciences—laid the foundation for this project to be realized.

“This bibliography is an extension of the work people have been doing for decades,” she says. “It is a politics of community: We go together. We do not go alone.”