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Pursuing joy in an alien world

Larissa Palethorpe Headshot

Larissa Palethorpe

As the first in her family to attend university, astrophysics PhD student Larissa Palethorpe explains why multiple sources of support are necessary to survive and thrive in academia.

Originally published by Physics Today, 26 October 2022

As an astrophysicist who specializes in exoplanets and the idea of habitable worlds, I believe that life can thrive in even the most hostile conditions, so it would make sense that joy can thrive there too. Being from a diverse background in a not-so-diverse locale or field can sometimes seem like setting foot on one of those hostile worlds, but I believe that if we choose to thrive in these places, we will.

Although sending astronauts to other planets is something we hope will happen in the not-too-distant future, it has been decades in the making, with generations of people contributing. In the same way, I believe that the likelihood of success in an environment that was not designed for you can be greatly increased by allowing a team to help you along the way. Allies, organizations, and role models make all the difference, and if it were not for those who reached out to me at times when I felt like I was failing, then it’s unlikely I ever would have pursued a PhD. With neither of my parents having gone to university at all, the idea of academia as a job sometimes felt alien in itself, so having people to guide me through this was crucial. I am lucky to have had several amazing supervisors on my journey thus far who took the time out of their day to champion applications, send emails on my behalf, answer my many questions, and generally just be beacons of support.

I appreciate that not everyone is so fortunate as to have mentors who can be advocates for their triumph, which is why organizations can also be a source of support. When I first moved to PhD level, as a Black physicist I found the lack of diversity particularly isolating, which is where the department’s BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) group made a big difference. Meeting up with this group once a month was not only an opportunity to vent and laugh but also a way to see myself visually represented within my own field. From the seminars run by this group I also discovered similar, more national organizations such as the Blackett Lab Family, a collective of UK-based Black physicists that, in its own words, aims “to represent, to connect, and to inspire.”

Inspiration, in my opinion, is severely underrated. There are EDI (equality, diversity, and inclusion) initiatives around the world that have been working to change the face of physics for decades, but there is no comparison to seeing someone who actually looks like you, in a position such as professor, to make a goal seem more attainable. I attended a summer school run by the Blackett Lab Family recently that featured seminars from Black physicists in prominent positions giving their advice. Forming community bonds like this is especially important in a climate of underrepresentation because, on top of research assignments, conferences, teaching, and the stresses of academia in general, you feel a pressure from both those in and outside the field to do more to level the playing field.

Trying to increase diversity within physics is something that we all strive for, but it can seem like a never-ending task that slowly saps your love of the field if you let it consume you. Simply finding a space in which you are able to be yourself while also preserving your passion for the research can be hard, but it’s so worth it.

Being part of a smaller community that acknowledges and supports your own experiences can be a source of joy. Recently, at a conference, a Black, female professor turned around in her seat to speak to me, simply to say, “Stay in the field; we need and want you in the field.” This small act made all the difference to me. Sitting in what was already an intimidating room as a brand-new PhD student had put me on edge, but this act of solidarity allowed me some comfort to relax and actually enjoy the experience.

I was once told that those from underrepresented backgrounds in physics need to find other sources of community to feel supported, and my experience thus far has validated that. Those we work with have not lived the experience of being a minority and bearing the generations of trauma that come with that. So although I’m very appreciative of those who make an effort to bridge that gap, we must still constantly keep an extra ear to the ground, and this can be exhausting and all-consuming. Despite this, I firmly believe that you can find pockets of joy in what can seem like exhausting experiences. Choosing to laugh is sometimes all you can do when a code crashes for the millionth time, when you get called by your minority coworker’s name, or when marking a paper and a student chooses a, let’s say, “mysterious” way to solve a problem. Choosing joy in these moments is an act of rebellion that should make you feel good about yourself.

Let joy be in your journey, not some distant goal. Research can be an extremely frustrating and isolating endeavor, especially when combined with being part of a marginalized group, so aim to seek out the joy where you can. You may find it not only in your work or your teaching but also in your community, in finally fixing the bugs in a code, in helping a student understand a question, in someone finally pronouncing your name correctly. Rotating the sources of your joy means that when one area of your life feels like it’s caving in, there are other activities and people you can turn to. It can be a struggle to thrive as a Black physicist, but find a support network and seek out happiness in the smaller moments, and you ultimately will. In simple terms, pursue joy!

Larissa Palethorpe is a PhD student in astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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