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An illustration of a physicist in costume as Shuri from Wakanda
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova

Channeling Shuri as a physicist at Wakandacon

Fermilab scientist Jessica Esquivel donned a superhero costume to celebrate diversity in STEM, nerdiness and science at Wakandacon in Chicago.

One Saturday morning in July, Jessica Esquivel and her wife, Emily Esquivel, took a glue gun, strips of fabric fastener and extra elastic to a pair of almost complete superhero costumes. 

It was day two of Chicago’s second annual Wakandacon, an Afrofuturistic celebration described as “an inclusive place where you can be a nerd about anything—art, community, tech, self-expression, or your own beautiful Blackness,” and the Esquivels were preparing to make their debuts dressed as Black Panther and Ant-Man.

Named after a secretive, highly technologically advanced African kingdom from Marvel’s Black Panther comics, Wakandacon included a cosplay competition, videogame tournaments, coding workshops, panels on topics such as artificial intelligence, and a marketplace full of Black-owned businesses selling books, jewelry, art and more.

Once Jessica and Emily had finished turning foam, bottle caps, lights and other materials into the superhero suits they would wear as cosplayers, Jessica focused on her other role at the convention: physicist and representative of the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. 

Jessica, who works on the Muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab, was the main driver behind Fermilab’s formal sponsorship of Wakandacon. She spearheaded the organization of a panel made up of Black Fermilab scientists, organized materials and volunteers for the booth that Fermilab set up for the duration of the convention, and personally took shifts there speaking with convention-goers.

“Fermilab folds and jells very well with the Wakandacon mission,” said DanaSimone Stovall-Savage, a Wakandacon attendee. “It is not just about Black Panther, but it's about the things behind it—the technology, the innovation, the creativity, the opportunity to explore and to connect with other people and to learn more.”

The wise build bridges

Wakandacon is one of the few places where being Black in STEM is normalized, says Fermilab scientist Brian Nord, who participated in the panel with Jessica. 

“This event and similar ones, like [the annual meeting of] the National Society of Black Physicists, are some of the rare events where scientists who are underrepresented in STEM actually have a chance to come together,” he says. “We don't always have that chance because we're so separated in different locations, where there aren't critical masses of us in each of our institutions. And so these opportunities to get together and appreciate both our nerdiness and our Blackness are rare and special.”

This was Jessica’s second Wakandacon. As an Afro-Latinx woman who was raised in a Mexican household, Jessica says she initially expected to feel out-of-place at an event focused on a single part of her multifaceted identity. But she was impressed with the inclusive community she found.

“The fact that it was a Black-centered space meant that I didn't have to worry about being Black,” she says. “That [part of me] could fall to the background and let other aspects of my identity come up to the forefront, like me being a super nerd and enjoying cosplay and loving STEM and being queer.”

At this year’s panel, Jessica and other speakers shared struggles they had faced in pursuing STEM careers: Colleagues and professors have assumed they were incompetent; falsely accused them of plagiarism; spoken over them during classes and meetings; and made sexist, racist or microaggressive statements. The panelists discussed how such incidents were exacerbated by the fact that they didn’t have mentors well-equipped to guide them through the particular challenges they faced. They emphasized the importance of seeking supportive groups to work with. 

“It’s inspiring seeing so many Black women and men in a field that historically has been underrepresented for us,” said Ayanna Jones, a chemistry doctoral student, after attending the panel. “And for me it is inspiring because I think we all have similar stories and times where it got really hard.”

Panelists also shared moments of triumph and relief. Jessica said she often felt ostracized as just the second Black woman to graduate in physics from Syracuse University, but she noticed a difference once she began working at Fermilab. “It was a weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said during the panel. “There was diversity. And Fermilab as an institution really cares about equity, diversity and inclusion. And it wasn't lip service. They value my input and value my work when it comes to helping increase diversity in STEM.”

“That was one of the first times I have ever seen a Black woman on screen being an engineer and being a scientist, so that was moving. The first time I saw it, I cried.”

A physicist queen

For her costume, Jessica dressed as Shuri, the genius younger sister of T’Challa, who in the recent Black Panther movie serves as king and protects Wakanda as the superhero Black Panther. Jessica’s inspiration came from a storyline in the Black Panther comics, in which Shuri becomes queen and takes on the superhero mantle of the Black Panther from her brother.

“One of the things that really struck me about the movie Black Panther was Shuri as a young Black woman, leading the tech in Wakanda,” Jessica says. “That was one of the first times I have ever seen a Black woman on screen being an engineer and being a scientist, so that was moving. The first time I saw it, I cried. And then I cried again when Black Panther and Shuri went to Oakland [at the end of the movie] and were bringing the tech to an underserved community.”

Jessica says her favorite part of the convention this year was watching the faces of both Fermilab representatives and attendees light up at demonstrations at the Fermilab booth. 

In one, a paperclip tied to the end of a string hovered in the air, straining to reach a magnet. Children were encouraged to hook more paperclips onto the string to test how many of them the magnetic force could support. At one point, Jessica lowered the setup to show it to a little girl who could barely reach the booth’s table. When the girl saw the paperclip hovering, it took her only a second to identify the cause, but that didn’t end the fun.

“I played with that setup and her for like 10 minutes,” Jessica says. “We were counting the amount of paper clips [the magnet could support], and then she realized that if she bridged the gap between the magnet and the paperclip with another paperclip and made that force stronger, then she could add more paperclips... To see that she was thinking like a scientist at that young age was really cool.”

Wakanda forever

After the morning performing outreach, Jessica and Emily donned their costumes for the cosplay competition. Emily competed in the beginner event, whereas Jessica competed as a veteran. The pair stood to the side of the crowded room waiting to hear the results from the established cosplayer judges.

The judges declared Emily first runner-up in the beginners’ competition. A drumroll of stamping feet built up the announcement of the winner of the veterans’ competition, who would have the honor of leading a parade of fellow cosplayers through the convention.

“Jessica Esquivel!” came the announcement from the judges’ table. Her costume had earned the convention’s top prize. “And it lights up, y’all!”

Jessica says that, to be honest, she found the attention uncomfortable, but she appreciated the recognition of the work that went into her costume. 

After the excitement and requests for photographs died down, Jessica changed back to her regular clothes and returned to speaking to people at the Fermilab booth. 

While she liked showing fellow convention attendees that scientists can be “weird and geeky and nerdy,” in ways they could connect with, she prioritized being there as a scientist. “There's not a lot of people in this space—in STEM, in physics, in science—that look like me, that are Afro-Latinx, that are Black, that are women, that are lesbian,” she says. “Representation is super important in recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in STEM, and in physics specifically.”

Jessica may not have super powers, but at Wakandacon she continued her quest to make physics a better community for all—and she even got to wear a cape. 

“I'm not saving the world or anything like that,” she says. “But with a PhD in physics comes privilege. With education comes privilege. And if I can make that more accessible for black and brown kids, if we can have more people from the communities that I come from at the table, I’ll feel like I've done something.”

Editor's note: This article is an expansion of an article originally published by Fermilab.