Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM Series: Meet Jessica
“Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM” is a series on The Adler ’Scope that highlights the awesome women of Chicago who are doing amazing things in science, technology, engineering, art, and math fields here in our own community. Meet women of varying ages, backgrounds, and interests and learn their unique stories.
Jessica Nicole Esquivel
Particle Physicist, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Fermilab
What first sparked your interest in physics?
When I was 11 my mom and aunts took the family to NASA in Houston. While there, we took the VIP tour and got to see firsthand the astrophysicists at work. Needless to say, I was completely bored—not one person yelled, “Houston we have a problem!” There were no computer screens of astronauts floating in space, no aliens, or spaceships blowing up! My mom was pretty disappointed that I wasn’t impressed, but she knew I had a knack for math and science, so she continued to foster that interest.
As an 8th grader, my mom and aunts persuaded me to apply for a STEM camp meant for high-schoolers. I applied and was accepted. This was the first time that I was doing basic physics problems dealing with Newton’s laws. Looking back, those problems were easy, but for an 8th grader I struggled with them, and I think that’s why I thought it was so intriguing. I had to work at these problems to crack the code—it didn’t come easy to me. Not to mention I could then predict what would happen to a ball I threw up in the air, that was pretty cool! Once I got to college and took my first college-level course, I knew that physics was what I wanted to study. I learned about quantum superposition and *Schrodinger’s cat. It blew my mind, and as they say, the rest is history!
*Schrodinger’s cat: a thought experiment that presents the scenario of a hypothetical cat that is simultaneously both dead and alive, a state known as quantum superposition.
You are one of about 150 Black women (IN HISTORY) to obtain their PhD in Physics, and the second Black female to receive a PhD in Physics from Syracuse University. What was it like to be among the first to achieve such a task? What were some of the obstacles you faced in being a minority in Physics?
That number is still so jarring to me. I found out that there were only about 150 black women with a PhD in physics while in graduate school. I was on the verge of quitting. I was having such a hard time keeping up with my studies and just belonging. I was the only black, Latina, and lesbian in my classes. I stood out like a sore thumb, and I felt isolated. I also didn’t feel a sense of belonging at the university or city level. The micro-aggressions I encountered, not only in the classroom but going to the mall or getting groceries, were so exhausting!
Coming from Texas where it is always sunny, to a place that is grey most of the year was a lot. I spent most nights staying up (struggling) to do my homework and calling both my wife (then girlfriend) and mom just crying because I couldn’t figure it out while my peers were working as a group to complete assignments. Imposter syndrome set in hard! I knew my peers were working as a group to do the homework assignments. I didn’t feel smart enough to join them, and I was scared I was going to be found out as a fraud. I was there as a fellow which meant I didn’t have to TA for my stipend and I feared my peers were going to think I was a “diversity quota” if I started studying with them and they found out I wasn’t smart. I knew I was good at research, I had done internships during undergrad in particle physics, working on the MicroBooNE collaboration, and optical radiation physics, working as a Software Development Analyst for Northrop Grumman, but I was struggling. I had failed my qualifying exam and was on the verge of quitting.
It was then that the head of my STEM fellowship told me about the number of black women with PhDs in physics. I was shaken. I had no idea that there were so few of us. It was eye-opening to learn and for some reason that gave me the fuel I needed to finish my courses. I also was lucky to have an amazing advisor who believed I could be a physicist, Mitch Soderberg, and two mentors, Duncan Brown and Jedidah Isler who were committed to my success. I’m close to a year into my postdoc and still can’t believe that I’m a Dr.
Can you tell us more about the work you did in graduate school—what exactly are neutrinos?!
Oh, neutrinos are so interesting and fun! They are subatomic particles which means they’re much smaller than atoms. Neutrinos also don’t interact much with their surroundings and that’s what makes them so difficult to study, and also so darn interesting! About 100 trillion pass through our bodies every second unperturbed, so we need massive detectors and a very large neutrino source to see one of them in action. Neutrinos have been coined ghost particles because of their ghostly properties and neutrino physicists are ghost hunters! I’ve been working on getting that last one to stick, no luck as of yet.
During my graduate research, I used really innovative machine learning techniques, similar to those used in Facebook’s facial recognition software, to detect interesting neutrino collisions. The experiment I worked on, MicroBooNE, is built to be able to take really high-resolution snapshots of what happens when a neutrino collides with an atom in our detector. I simulated large amounts of these neutrino collision images and used these to train a computer to recognize different types of neutrino interactions. By using machine learning, I was able to probe interesting interactions of low energy neutrinos, something that hadn’t been possible before.
In the past, you have described physics and outreach as having a symbiotic relationship for you. Can you expand on that for us?
I have been interested in physics outreach for as long as I’ve been interested in physics! To me, they go hand in hand. The importance of community outreach and inspiring the public to understand the benefits of science was instilled early on in my scientific career. I began doing physics outreach as a sophomore in college organizing “Fiesta Physics”—a festival that was hosted by the physics department every semester that invited under-represented minorities from surrounding elementary schools to the university to learn and interact with a multitude of science experiments.
To me, community outreach has two major benefits: to promote scientific literacy and the importance of physics research, and to foster a curiosity and passion for physics. One of the many barriers I’ve encountered in my decades worth of outreach experience is the lack of trust society has towards physicists. This in part has to do with the lack of diversity in physics. There have been many instances in history where scientists have used a biased view of science as a tool of oppression, racism, and sexism. By including a more diverse cross-section of the population in physics studies, the public interest and trust in physics and physicists will increase as well.
That’s why I believe community outreach and increasing diversity in physics are symbiotic. By focusing efforts on outreach, especially to underrepresented minorities, you foster excitement in physics that leads to a future of diverse physicists that can then better encompass the interests of society as a whole, which in turn makes community outreach more accessible to a diverse population.
In what ways do you feel STEAM can be made more accessible to minorities?
I think a lot of times organizations view equity, diversity, and inclusion (ED&I) as buzz words. They use these in recruiting pamphlets and during recruitment events. They then talk about how that organization can benefit from a more diverse workforce, essentially cashing in on the diversity hire. While to a certain extent, I do agree that organizations will thrive with a more diverse workforce due to the difference in experience and the ways in which we all think, we not only have to focus efforts on recruitment but also retention, and to do the latter, there needs to be a cultural shift at the organizational level. I only applied to postdoc positions at Fermilab specifically because of this reason. Being at Fermilab for 3 years as a graduate student I got to see firsthand that their ED&I efforts weren’t just surface level.
Not only is Fermilab actively working towards a more equitable and diverse workforce, but they also are working tirelessly to make sure the culture at the lab is an inclusive one. An example of this are the signs in conference rooms discussing best practices when it comes to working collaboratively like allowing everyone to voice opinions, to not be aggressive or dismissive towards peers and to share the space. Another example of inclusiveness hangs in Fermilab’s Atrium. There are an array of country flags hanging in the atrium to show how many countries Fermilab collaborates with and hanging there among those flags is also a Pride Flag. As a lesbian, seeing Fermilab make such a visible and intentional stand for LGBTQIA+ physicists, technicians, and engineers at the lab is just another way of fostering an inclusive work environment.
What advice would you give to young girls of color who are interested in pursuing careers in STEAM?
Be stubborn! There will be so many people telling you that you don’t belong, you’re not smart enough, you can’t hack it, but all of that is noise, try and tune it out! I’m not special or a genius, I have a passion for physics and don’t like when people try to tell me what I can’t do. If I can do it, so can anyone! There’s this sense that only wicked smart people can hack it into STEAM or that there’s a STEAM gene people are born with. I think that’s crazy talk! You learn as you go, and I think the most important thing to remember is that you are not your failures. That was a hard pill for me to swallow and something I’m still working through but the scientific process is built on failing! We have a theory, we test it, and a lot of the times that theory is wrong. That doesn’t mean you aren’t smart or you shouldn’t continue testing other theories! Scientific exploration would come to a screeching halt if at every failed theory a scientist would quit.
Where do you hope to be professionally in ten years?
I’m not sure! I’m always going back and forth about whether to stay in academia or go into industry. I really enjoyed using machine learning in my graduate work and I think that I would have a lot of fun using these tools as a data scientist. The draw of new physics is also really really compelling! The only constant I know for sure is that wherever I land, I need to have an outlet to do STEM outreach. If that means that I need to build that infrastructure from scratch then so be it because, for me, physics isn’t physics without outreach.
Just for fun, tell us your favorite mind-blowing fact or “a-ha!” moment you encountered during your research and work as a Fermilab Postdoctoral Research Associate.
I’m still relatively new on the Muon g-2 collaboration so I’m inundated with “a-ha” moments literally every day! One thought that really stood out to me was when I attended the U.S. Particle Accelerator School a couple of months ago (yes school! we never stop learning!). It was here that I started being able to picture the physics that happens before particles even reach a detector! Being able to imagine a particle beam like a living breathing organism, and the amount of work, skill, and engineering it takes to wrangle the beam to do what we want— it’s fascinating! Being apart of a precision experiment like Muon g-2 where we need to understand all the intricacies at play is really very difficult and exciting. We need to be able to make a measurement at 140 parts per million precision which is like around 7,000 puzzles with each puzzle being 1,000 pieces and only having 1 missing piece! That level of precision is mind-blowing in and of itself and that’s not even talking about the awesome potential new physics we are probing!