ARC Interview with Professor Sophia Suarez (Physics Department)

In our first interview focused on anti-racist pedagogy,  Professor Lawrence Johnson (LJ) in Sociology, and PRLS major Daniel Vazquez (DV) sat down with Professor Sophia Suarez (SS) from the Physics department. In this brief interview Dr. Suarez explains the first unspoken principle of physics and how it relates to race, gender, and other factors. We cover some of her experiences, how physics can better reflect information, and even the notion of time travel.

(If you wish to read the interview on a different format, you can access this interview transcription on a Google Docs File here)

LJ: Can you tell us about your research, in technical terms but also break it down to us in lay terms so we can wrap our minds around the importance of your work?

SS: I guess in layman’s terms I study materials that are used in electrochemical devices like batteries. So if you think about what happens when you use a battery, your battery is basically completing a circuit, an electric circuit and based on the chemicals in the battery and the chemical state that they’re in, you can get your electricity. Now, those chemicals are what I study. And they have to have very specific properties in order for you to get the electricity you need from your battery. So that’s it in laymen’s terms. 

In more scientific jargon I use various types of techniques; the main one is nuclear magnetic resonance and these techniques allow me to study how the ions and the molecules are moving at very microscopic levels inside these chemicals and the information about their motion is what determines how well the chemical will perform in the battery and as a result how the battery will perform. 

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LJ: I followed that! I know there is overlap between the disciplines. How do you distinguish your field and what you study from chemistry?

SS: Well in terms of the differences, there are some. The way I think about chemistry, or the chemistry that is closest to what I do, is the materials are made and they are characterized at a very basic level. What I do is more involved. We go into how the materials perform per se, and not just a general performance but a very specific performance so that is where the difference comes in. 

DV: As a Black woman physicist what do you think about the recent pieces discussing the paucity of Black people in the discipline, both scholars and students, and how do these issues relate to your experience? Also, we know that these problems are systemic but what are the specific ways that we see them happen at Brooklyn College?

SS: That’s a very big question so I will try to start at the top. When it comes to hard sciences there is an inherent belief amongst the majority practitioners that people of color are not capable of doing these things because we are not smart enough. That’s the first thing. So that’s a foundational principle. That principle of course has affected the information that is currently available as science because if you are someone who has an idea and you’re a person of color your idea might not be allowed to come to fruition, simply because of that fact. So when I read some of the articles that you sent me Lawrence, it made me think about some of those unsaid unpublished ideas. It also does not help if you are poor or a woman. My first introduction to physics was through a male teacher in Jamaica—Jamaica, West Indies that is. I was 13 years old and first day of class I was in what is considered the 9th grade, it was 3rd form in Jamaica, he told the entire class, and this was a class of at least  25 students, 5 were girls. He told the entire class that girls cannot do physics. We should look around in the classroom; look at the girls, because they’re not going to be there within a week. He was right in the sense that after the first week only two girls were left. Myself being one. I think he became right not because of it being a fact but because what he said scared the other females.

This is one of the things I recently realized still existed when I went to Yale in January. They had a conference on undergraduate women in physics. CUWiP it is called, run by the American Physics Society. I heard young girls, like 20 years old and they’re undergrads and they’re fresh faced and they’re still saying the very same things that I experienced and I was honestly a bit dumb struck. Because I swear to you I thought those things were gone (laughter). So when I heard those stories I was like oh my god this crap still exists?! So it was a very eye opening experience for me and it made me realize how entrenched in the foundation certain things are. It’s not a Brooklyn College thing but Brooklyn College happens to be one of the big perpetrators of it. My own experience is why I am saying this but I want to emphasize something that I suspected but in reading some of those articles you sent me but it was reaffirmed. We are dealing with hard sciences and hard sciences are supposed to be based on facts, very objective of course, result based observations. I believe it has added to the behavior of some of the practitioners, the majority practitioners, because they think they’re objective. They think they are not participating in these “trivialities”, these biased behaviors. That is something that I honestly do not know how you get around that. I have had conversations with people in authority in my department and I have brought to their attention certain things that were biased behaviors, only to be told to my face that they did not think so. I honestly don’t know how you get around that. 

LJ: That’s interesting. I want to go back to the experience you talk about in Jamaica and then at Yale and how it took you back. Can you say something about your everyday work experiences and how maybe you feel unaware or immune to that type of thinking, yet these experiences are still quite common?

SS: You know as human beings we tend to get comfortable with whatever circumstances we are exposed to for long periods of time. Being at Brooklyn College I have been isolated; I am the only tenured female in my department. And I have been since I joined the department. Prior to me there wasn’t any. I am also the only Black one so I am fulfilling double minority roles here. As a result of that I have experienced a lot of unfair treatment based upon people’s biases. In terms of what the environment has done for me, like I have said it has been very isolating and that’s why whenever I get the chance I pretty much like to get the hell out (laughter) I do. You need to be away from your norm sometimes to have your eyes opened. So I tried to make sure I get involved in service outside of campus, outside of CUNY. The isolation is not completely due to the environment, it is also because my research productivity has been negatively affected because of some of the experiences I’ve had and because of those, less than stellar productivity, I have been forced to be more focused on what I am doing. It’s like when you have blinders on and you are trying to get to a goal or end result, that’s also been a contributing factor to the isolation. I want to make that clear; it’s not all about them. You know what it is like, when you are trying to compete but you are weighted down by an anchor. You’re competing with people who are not, how do you compete? You can’t compete fairly, that’s for one. So you try to work harder, you try to make up the slack in other ways if you can, or stuff like that. It does affect other areas of your life and so one of the areas of my life it has affected is I have become more isolated and not as outwardly active as I would like. 

DV: I want to ask about a specific thing; you said whenever you get a chance you try to get the hell out. I feel like that is very much the thinking of anybody who is a person of color at Brooklyn College. Because even though it is considered a minority serving institution I have heard from a lot of people, even if they do not say it verbatim they are saying it by how they are reacting to the situation, but would you say Brooklyn College feels like a white institution or a white space?

SS:  Yes. I mean you walk on campus and you see it. Less so in the student body, unless you step into a hard science course, and of course that is different but the upper level administration, the deans, the faculty body. 

LJ: One of the most important aspects of pedagogy is how we explain the nature of knowledge in our disciplines. I found the comments by the physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein to be intriguing because she describes her study of cosmology and particles in the “wake” of slavery and argues that science is inextricably entwined in history. She also quotes from a Nobel laureate physicist Abdus Salam; I would like to know your thoughts about the following statement: 

In the early eighties Professor Salam commented he suspected that when a sufficient number of people of the African Diaspora start to do physics, something like jazz would appear. It took 15 or 20 years before I had the intimate knowledge of physics necessary to interpret this statement well enough to understand his meaning . . . When enough people of African heritage do physics, they’re going to bring a different aesthetic, and it will be new and valuable. Because classical music and jazz exist we don’t think that we’re musically poorer. Had jazz never come into existence we would’ve been musically poorer, but before jazz, musicians could say, “We’re doing just fine. We have this wonderful art form here.

SS: At first I didn’t get it. Of course being a physicist, the foundation for us is objectivity. The information isn’t going to change but then I thought about the point I raised earlier, which was how many people of color point of view have been silenced? From that perspective I understood it. What is that could have helped us further along technology that was pretty much stunted as a result of the source? Physics is not supposed to be biased; it’s not supposed to consider the source, it is supposed to consider the information. But because of these biases, the source of the information has become part of the information and that is a big violation in physics. As an experimentalist you are not supposed to be a part of your experiment. So we have done a big disservice in silencing ideas and the voices of people of color simply because they are people of color. It’s one of the ways in which the idea if you are a person of color you’re not smart enough to do science has been upheld. The more people of color believe this idea or act on it, the more it gives strength to the very fact that there are less people of color contributing to physics or other sciences. That is the failing of it and that is the perspective from which I understand that statement.

LJ: Can you touch on the comment that was made about String Theory that was mentioned in the article and how speculation brings in a certain level of subjectivity that might be afforded to white scholars but the same level of subjectivity not afforded to Black women in the field?

SS: Yes. I don’t remember who said it but they were pointing out how abstract that is. It’s really one of the most abstract things in physics. Many physicists don’t even buy it. But, the idea is accepted by a lot of reputable people. But what you said I don’t know if that was my take from that statement. I think the person said that particular theory is afforded belief whereas a Black woman of color is afforded doubt based on her own experiences. For me, it’s like if you’re telling a person of the white class what your experiences have been and the biases you’ve experienced and endured, the doubt is immediate from them because they are going to say that is not true, you’re just making crap up; you’re using the race card. Whereas if you tell a person there are multiple dimensions out there and we can connect them all, ‘oh ok, that’s believable.’ Why? You can’t see it. As far as I am aware no one has ever seen a string. It’s a whole lot of theories with very little no experimental evidence. There is a lot of experimental evidence that shows people of color are exposed to a lot of biases but they’re not believed. It is the whole doubt thing that is afforded simply because of this whole color factor. 

DV: To piggyback on the last question. The American Institute of Physics conducted a study that asked why there are so few Black students in physics and astronomy. What the study found to be the 2 biggest issues were (a.) the environment and (b.) the lack financial support. Would you say these findings correspond with Brooklyn College and if they don’t how do you see them?

SS: I think those findings are spot on, in almost any physics departments that I can think of. That’s just a general thing and again it is based on how people of color are perceived. Especially if they are from poor neighborhoods. When you’re from a poor neighborhood you’re not going to go to schools that are focused on math so you are coming in with a weak foundation. When you bring that weak foundation to a physics class, what do you think happens? The foundation of physics is math. Newton developed calculus for physics. Mathematicians did not develop calculus, a physicist did because that is the tool he needed to explain his physics. So you’re coming in from your poor high school with your poor math background and expected to do physics, what do you expect to happen? Then you end up with high DFW rates; it looks bad and it feeds right into the idea that people of color cannot do science. You are set up to lose from the moment you start school because of your demographic and your location. 

DV: What do you imagine can be done to turn physics at Brooklyn College into a model anti-racist department?

SS: Definitely we would like more students. For there to be a department you need students; so that is one thing that I would say we should start with. The second thing would be to have more faculty of color in the department. It does not bode well when students look around in their classroom and they see old white people teaching them, or younger white people teaching them, and worse they are all males. You are perpetuating the foundational stereotype of the physics professor: white, male, possibly old, with gray hair. It’s 2020; that should not still be the picture. 

LJ: How do you respond to the person who says we have Dr. Sophia Suarez who comes from Jamaica and goes on to get her PHD and do great work? It can be done right. How do you respond to that statement? These might be considered excuses, you do not come from the best high schools or have the best books but you can learn math if you want to get your PhD in physics. 

SS: That may be true but you have to consider other factors. I am from Jamaica but I started out with a much better math background than a lot of students in America in these high schools. I was an average student in Jamaica; I graduated high school in Jamaica as an average student. When I came here my family here didn’t know what to do with me so they sent me back to high school. I completed an additional 2 years of high school here. I ended up graduating the salutatorian. What does that tell you? Average in Jamaica, salutatorian here after two years; that’s ridiculous. It shows there’s a big difference between average in one place and elsewhere. That is what you have to think about. If you just take it as ‘Well you did it, someone else can do it.’ Then you’re an idiot. You need to think about the component of each individual. Circumstances are different; I naturally gravitated towards math as a child. It was my favorite thing; I hated reading and more so biology. I was more interested in math and physics and anything I could solve a problem for. There is that aspect of the person that must be considered. On top of that I was told by various professors at various levels that I shouldn’t go for a PHD, but I’m not the type of person who listens to other people. I have goals and I make sure where I stop on the journey of my goals, whether it’s the end point or before, I make sure that it is due to me not someone else. So that is also a factor, but you have to make sure you are not using the same paint brush and painting everyone; people are different. My thing is, how many individuals, how many girls, how many girls of color have been turned away from physics simply because they didn’t have the “ignore other people” mindset that I did? And that mindset is because I grew up in isolation as a child and I just played by myself. I didn’t really have friends so it helped me in that regard, but other people have different experiences. Those experiences have contributed to who they are and based on those experiences how many of them are not doing what they would like to do or wanted to do in the field of science? It is because of the things I have said by the practitioners, the foundational practitioners. So that’s the big concern for me. It’s true, it can be done, but just because it can be done by the way it was done by me does not mean that’s how it should be done. 

DV: I have one more question. I keep thinking about the answer to math. If this college ever considers this, that they’re going to use it to frame the physics department, they’re going to use it to frame other departments. For the past few years they’ve been trying to push for more remedial courses in math instead of helping students in different ways that actually help them. I guess the question is, do you think there are other solutions that can directly address these differences in a student’s education coming to Brooklyn College outside of their preparation in math?

SS: Definitely, for students entering college these days it’s a big deal and a lot of them seem lost. They don’t know who to turn to, where to get some advice, and sometimes all that it takes is someone to help you, offer a few good words. It can really just help move you along in the direction you need to go. I would say more sessions, more interactions with people. If you have a young student coming into college having ideas about a hard science why not hook that person up with an actual faculty in the hard sciences, preferably someone who looks like they do? Have that person be mentored, have that person just hang around the lab, see if that is something you want to do so that they are not as scared.

When I first started Hunter College I got involved in a research lab right away which was the best thing that ever happened to me. Outside of class I was in the research lab. I wasn’t doing anything initially. I was pretty much a freshman and then a junior so you don’t have much responsibility but I got to see the science being done. I got to see the people doing the science; I got to listen to the conversations, and it made me want to be a part of it. Just the affiliation, the exposure, the interaction, the access. How about that? But Brooklyn College is so isolated. Again, students come to the campus for the classes and they go home. You know how many students are unaware that there is research happening on campus? They have classrooms in the same building that my research lab is located and they do not know what the heck is happening behind those big yellow doors. 

LJ: Or that professors actually do research! 

SS: Yes! Honestly, that is part of the administration’s failure. To me they have been so focused on teaching at the cost of everything else, especially research, students have the sense Brooklyn College is a teaching college. 

LJ: Well there you have it. I’m going to catch you off guard with a fun question. When the television show Breaking Bad came out, I don’t know how familiar you are with it.

SS: You know I have never watched that show.

LJ: I can believe, but it made so many people interested in chemistry for the first time. It had the whole premise of using chemistry to profit as a drug dealer and a cook. But if I may put you on the spot, if there was a show about physics that would make people super interested what would be the premise?

SS: That’s a very interesting thing; it would have to be time travel. Visiting alternate universes, that whole deal. 

LJ: Absolutely.

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