Growing up completely immersed in the world of performing arts, Simone had no idea how one physics class would change the course of her life. During her junior year in high school Simone really connected with her physics teacher, an ex-military engineer with a dry sense of humor, and suddenly physics was all she wanted to do. “I’ve always been the type of person to ask questions about the world and life, like really abstract things that my mom would get annoyed with me for asking. I went to physics and I was like ‘This is answering every question I’ve ever had about the world, I’m going to go to school for physics.’”
Simone went on to get a B.S. in physics at Hampton University in Virginia. During all four years at Hampton Simone was engaged in research, frequenting many different labs, including working with NASA. All told, Simone worked on six different research projects, but not until her final project with NASA’s LEARNprogram did Simone feel truly passionate about research. LEARN supports secondary school teachers conducting their own atmospheric research projects with the aim of encouraging research in the classroom. With LEARN, Simone worked directly with teachers, helping them access and analyze data from NASA’s satellites. “I realized that I enjoyed [education research] much more than all of the other research I was doing, so I was trying to figure out if I should go into education.”
Simone soon discovered the field of Physics Education Research (PER), and she eagerly searched for graduate schools with PER groups. Through PER faculty Simone connected with at CU, she learned about a PhD program offered through the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society (ATLAS), in which self-directed students pursue highly interdisciplinary research. Although the physics doctorate program and the ATLAS doctorate program would both allow Simone to conduct PER, deciding between the two programs was extremely difficult. “If I had gotten [a physics PhD] I would have been within the first 100 black women to ever get one. So I wanted to do that.” Despite this desire, Simone knew that the interdisciplinary nature of the ATLAS program would give her the flexibility and the tools to better explore her research interests, specifically the effect of identity on learning.
Now in her first year at ATLAS, Simone is researching how students of color negotiate their identities as “physics doers.” The ATLAS program is much different than a traditional science program in that students create their own course of study and must convince a committee that their courses and research direction will meet the requirements for a doctoral degree. Still early on in the process, Simone is exploring ideas about identity proposed by many disparate fields, such as physics education, psychology, and dance. “I’m really interested in what the identity negotiation looks like and what prevents students from finding an interest in [physics], and why no one had that spark in their high school physics class.” Constantly focused on this question, Simone is beginning to find answers. From the field of psychology, she learned that a person in an environment in which he or she is a minority can feel stripped of his or her identity. This can result in behavioral changes, such as disengagement from the learning process. So how can Simone prevent this from happening to minority students as they enter STEM fields? She is bringing in an unexpected part of her past – performing arts.
After years of concentrating on her “technical brain,” as Simone puts it, she craved more creativity in her life and had an intuition that performing arts somehow belongs in her research. As this idea took hold, Simone met Dr. Donna Mejia, a Dance professor at CU, who studies identity. Dr. Mejia has found that people in careers where they are the cultural minority often take on a second identity as a performer to help them cope with the identity-stripping that occurs in their work environment. With the hope that performing arts can help students of color to negotiate their identity in the physics classroom, Simone is now planning an outreach program in which students will build electrostatic gloves that can levitate soap bubbles and then use them in a performance. Simone is still tailoring this program to carefully address her questions about identity negotiation, but the challenge of uniting two different worlds in the context of personal identity only motivates Simone to work harder.
In her career, Simone hopes to develop and implement a framework for informal outreach programs for students of color that can teach them how to negotiate their identities, bringing more diverse students into STEM fields. In her free time, Simone is an organizer for CU Prime, a group within the physics department that aims to increase inclusion in physics and STEM fields through classes, a mentorship program, and seminars. When she isn’t forging her own academic path, Simone loves to travel, and writes and performs spoken word poetry, reconnecting with her identity as a performer.
By Amanda Grennell