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An Interview with Physics Professor Adam Burgasser

As a member of the BAEI Advisory Committee and Vice President of the American Astronomical Society, Professor Adam Burgasser is eager to create more pathways for Black students to thrive in the field of physics and astronomy. Burgasser earned his PhD in Physics at California Institute of Technology and has made significant contributions to astronomy. Prior to joining the faculty at UC San Diego, he was a Hubble Fellow at UCLA, a Spitzer Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, and a faculty member at MIT. He co-directed the UCSD-Morehouse-Spelman Physics Bridge Program, sponsored by the UC Office of the President through the UC-HBCU Initiative.

An advocate for advancing diversity and inclusion in the sciences, Burgasser has been recognized at UC San Diego with the Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Award, the Outstanding Mentor Award, and the Distinguished Teaching Award. He has also testified before Congress and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on astrophysical science and equity. His advocacy for Black students embodies the BAEI core value Heshima, or respect. This value represents respecting the excellence and talents of our Black community at UC San Diego. Read the interview below to learn more about how Burgasser has supported Black student success through the UC-HBCU Initiative and the BAEI Advisory Committee:

What inspired you to become an advocate for diversity in physics? 

Before I came to UC San Diego, I went to my first National Society of Black Physicists Conference in 2009. It opened my eyes to see just how homogenous all my other science conferences are, and indeed physics is–it’s very much white men who look like me. The NSBP conference was far more diverse and engaging; we had discussions about community and social issues, and things that happen within the culture of physics. These kinds of things are just not discussed at typical physics conferences that are dominated by mostly white people. It opened my eyes to this whole other layer of understanding my field–from a social perspective, from a cultural perspective, and from a race perspective. It was important for me to see the problems within the homogenous culture we have in physics.

The person who encouraged me to go to that meeting was my department chair at MIT at the time. It was important to have a leader who said, “We need to change the culture, and as faculty, you’re the ones who are going to do it.” That experience changed how I approached my entire career. Later, I co-directed the UCSD-Morehouse-Spelman collaboration in Physics with the Chair of the Morehouse College Physics Department Professor Willie Rockward, who I’d met when he brought some of his students from Morehouse to UC San Diego to introduce them to graduate programs on the west coast. Our collaboration was an eight-week summer research program that ran from 2013-2017. The program invited students from Morehouse and Spelman, HBCUs in the Atlanta area, to come to UC San Diego to conduct research in different areas of physics, and learn about graduate degree programs.

What is the most rewarding aspect of working with HBCU students at UC San Diego?

It’s rewarding to know that there are different ways of making an impact in your field. You can win the Nobel Prize--but that’s kind of hard! Where I’ve seen a lot of impact is thinking about how we do physics and how we can change how we do physics so that it is inclusive of many more viewpoints. It's those different viewpoints that really push the innovations and discoveries. I don’t think I’m going to win the Nobel Prize any time soon, but I think I can help find the next person who does win the Nobel Prize–that might be my contribution and my impact. That’s going to come from bringing people with different perspectives, different experiences, and different skill sets into the field.

Can you talk about the support services available to Black students in physics?

At the field level, we have the National Society of Black Physicists, which provides mentorship, collaboration, and pathways for Black PhDs in physics. In my community of astronomy, we have the American Astronomical Society. Within that, we have the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, which is specifically focused on the issues that affect underrepresented minorities in the field, particularly racial minorities. We're trying to find ways to identify and share the resources that students need to succeed in astronomy, resources that their white colleagues often already have. We are identifying programs that are working effectively to increase the numbers and retention of Black students in graduate programs and beyond. At the UC San Diego level, our goal is to be able to bring in cohorts of Black students so that they can build a community in science together. We also need to hire more Black faculty, particularly in the sciences.  Those are the mentors that our Black students in particular are seeking. And we need to ensure that our Black faculty colleagues have the resources and mentors to succeed and thrive.

What are some of your main takeaways from serving on the BAEI Advisory Committee?

The most important part of that process was using the survey data and reaching out directly to different groups on campus–students, staff, and faculty–and really building our direction and priorities based on that data. When you’re acting locally, you have to start by looking at the local needs and the local demands for how to address the issues we have on campus. Having that specificity of issues that our various constituents point out, and focusing on those, that’s the great strength of the BAEI approach. We have many institutional changes taking root at UC San Diego, but it is also important for individual departments to step up, take initiative, and be proactive in implementing changes within the departments. That's what’s going to change the culture. For faculty, the culture starts with the department. For the students, the culture is often anchored in the departments. The more we can get the departments to make changes, participate in and lead EDI activities, and really reflect on their processes so that our Black students are not lost, ignored, or left without mentors, the more we’ll see changes on the broader campus at large.