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Black Woman Told ‘Black People Are Just Not Good at Science’ Earns Physics Ph.D.

When Monifa Phillips graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland June 24, she became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the university.

It’s no small feat. In fact, she attracted the attention of both Teen Vogue and the Scottish Parliament, which congratulated her in a motion last week.

The hard-earned milestone however, did not come without its fair share of racial stereotypes attached.

“I’ve been told ‘black people are just not good at science’ for instance, ‘they are just better at music,'” Phillips said on Twitter earlier this year.

She said she has to review the websites of prospective companies to see if they hire black people or people of color.

“Otherwise I have to ask, ‘DO YOU HIRE BLACK AND BROWN PEOPLE? FOR THERE IS NO EVIDENCE.’ and see how they respond,” Phillips said.

A study the journal Educational Researcher released earlier this year found that although Black and Latino students are interested in science, technology, engineering and math fields, they are either switching majors or dropping out of college at higher rates than their white classmates.

The report’s lead author Catherine Riegle-Crumb spoke to Inside Higher Education in February.

“We definitely need more investigation into these things, what’s actually happening within classrooms, to be able to measure the experiences of youth of different backgrounds,” she said.

Phillips said she’s more than noticed the lack of diversity in her field.

“I’m a proud Black British woman from (London). I made space for myself in a predominantly white, male field,” she said on Twitter. “It was hard, but with the support of my family & my community, I did it.”

Phillips, a materials scientist, presented her thesis on materials that could be used to store memory.

“Our demand for more memory keeps growing,” Phillips explained on Twitter. “We always want more storage space in smaller and smaller devices.”

She focused specifically “on an emerging technology called ReRAM or RRAM, which has shown great potential for improving on Flash memory, which is widely used today.”

The university’s School of Physics and Astronomy congratulated Phillips on being the first and also addressed the need for more diversity.

“We recognise that Physics suffers from a lack of racial diversity,” the school said. “Although Monifa is the first, we are determined she will not be the last PhD awarded!”

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