Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM Series: Meet Katrina
“Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM” is a new 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.
University of Chicago, Physics PhD candidate
What first sparked your interest in astrophysics and cosmology?
When asked this question, I usually recount the astronomy elective I took freshman year of college, which was the first time I had been exposed to physics in a classroom. That was more of a pivot point for me, though—when I realized I wanted to turn this into a career—but the spark was lit way before that. I’ve been fascinated about the inner workings of the Universe since I was six years old. I distinctly remember the astronomy unit we did in my first grade class, learning about all the different objects making up our solar system. So the curiosity has always been there; it was just waiting to be cultivated.
In the United States (and beyond) few women are earning degrees in STEM, and the percentage is even smaller for women of color. How have you made sense of this inequality? Have you encountered obstacles that have challenged you from pursuing a career in astrophysics? How have you overcome them?
The racial and gender inequalities are something I’m still grappling with and probably will for the rest of my career. The further I go, the less representation I see. Realizing that I am positioning myself to be one of the first to ever navigate these spaces is a lot to process—it can feel very exciting but also comes with a huge weight of responsibility.
I have encountered obstacles from sources both internal and external. And overcoming them isn’t a linear trajectory—it’s something I work on everyday. Believing in myself and developing a positive relationship with failure are just two of many lessons I’ve learned since becoming a physicist. Surrounding myself with mentors who see my potential or have been in my shoes has been integral to my success.
You’re the co-founder of #IAm Project, an initiative dedicated to empowering women of color in STEM. What inspired you to start this organization?
I am forever indebted to the mentors I have had who believed in me and encouraged me to heighten my aspirations for myself. I felt like the best way to thank them was to pay it forward and do the same for others.
The #IAm Project creates a space for us to celebrate everything we already are and all that we will become. Self-empowerment is a skill necessary for women of color to thrive in environments that weren’t created with them in mind. My favorite affirmation since starting graduate school is #IAm Enough—a reminder that I am a good scientist and my work makes a difference. This is the lesson we hope to pass down: I think, therefore #IAm. What I believe, I can achieve.
How is the #IAm Project making it easier for young girls to pursue their STEM aspirations?
Another reason we founded The #IAm Project was because we saw a need for outreach initiatives focusing less on recruiting young girls into STEM and more on creating an environment that will keep them there. I think improving retention rates will organically encourage recruitment. Representation is a powerful tool. Growing up, I didn’t know black girls could be scientists. Seeing someone who looks like you, doing what you want to do, can mean all the difference in when and how you discover your passion.
What advice would you give to young girls of color who are interested in pursuing careers in STEM?
Speak your dreams into existence! Vocalize your interests to your family, friends, teachers, and yourself too. Take advantage of every opportunity you come across to explore that curiosity. Finally, find someone who looks like you—we exist! The first time I met another black woman in physics wasn’t until my senior year of college. I want young girls to have that moment much sooner.
Where do you hope to be professionally in ten years?
I’m not sure! I know I want to teach physics and be a mentor, but those ambitions can be realized in several different career paths. I think about pursuing tenure as a physics professor, working in science communication or public engagement, or maybe even teaching at an HBCU.
Just for fun, tell us your favorite mind-blowing fact or “a-ha!” moment you encountered during your research and work with electron neutrino interactions.
Neutrinos come in three different flavors—electron, muon, and tau—and they will change flavor (or oscillate) as they travel through space. As tiny as they are, this implies that they must have a nonzero mass. This is common knowledge in physics, but I never understood why one of these ideas implied the other.
I transitioned into the world of neutrinos last summer, and finally had an opportunity to sit down and work through the mathematics behind flavor oscillations. All of the relativity, quantum mechanics, and linear algebra I have struggled through over the years came together into this huge “a-ha!” to derive the result that neutrinos must, in fact, have mass. A quantitative understanding of the world around me always feels so sweetly satisfying.
Meet Katrina for yourself at Pop-Up Programs from 12:00-1:00 pm at the Adler on President’s Day (February 18) where she will be leading a conversation on neutrinos!