If there’s one thing LaNell Williams wants women of color interested in studying physics at top institutions to know, it’s this: You can do this.
Williams is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences working in the lab of Wagner Family Professor of Chemical Engineering and Professor of Physics Vinothan Manoharan, and just the third African American woman to pursue a doctorate in physics at Harvard. When she graduates she will join a cohort of fewer than 100 African American women who have received doctorates in the field since 1973.
“When I tried to apply to Harvard, despite everything I had — a 3.93 GPA and a National Science Foundation fellowship — I was told I was reaching too high. And if you asked any black woman in this field, especially those of us who are at places like Harvard, they’ll tell you similar stories,” Williams said. “The biggest thing Harvard and places like it miss when it comes to recruiting is that they’re not encouraging those of us who are qualified, those of us who are ready, those of us who are able, to come to these places.”
To help change the situation, Williams co-founded the Women+ of Color Project as a student at Wesleyan University to support women of color in STEM fields. The group ran a three-day workshop at Harvard recently for 20 African American, Latinx, and Native American women interested in pursuing a career in physics, astronomy, and related fields. Attendees were selected from a pool of candidates who had applied or been nominated, and the goal of the event was to help them access the resources they need to apply to and succeed in graduate school.
“I’m bringing these students here now, because I want to tell them, ‘You are good enough,’” she said. “They have the grades; they have the scores; they have the pedigree. What’s keeping them from applying — and this is what I’m focused on — is the conversations and the resources.”
In her keynote speech, Nia Imara, a John Harvard Distinguished Science Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, urged the women to bring their unique perspectives to the fields they study.