She decided to study physics. In a way, it’s a good time — a black American woman just became the first woman to earn a doctorate in physics in Green-Johnson’s hometown. At Stanford, Green-Johnson was the only black student in her major, but that didn’t surprise her. What was done was that there were six black doctoral students in the department. “I have a lot of siblings,” she told me.
She turns to them whenever she has a homework problem or needs a friendly face. When she told her academic advisor that she was considering a master’s degree, he encouraged her to reach a higher level. (That advisor, by the way, was a white man whose efforts helped Stanford produce many black-American physicists with Ph.D.s over the next three decades.)
Five years later, Green-Johnson returned to the Midwest and began graduate school at the University of Chicago. There were two other women in her class, both white. Although the university is located in the city’s historically black south, the department has no other black graduate students.
She joined a research group at the intersection of physics and chemistry. She recalled being greeted by her mentor saying, “I want another,” referring to a white woman in her class. “But you will.” Green Johnson barely heard from him for the next few months. He prefers to pass information through his postdoctoral fellows. At the end of a group meeting, their advisor was on the speakerphone, and the postdoc asked, “Is there anything you want to say to the student?” The advisor hung up.
Green-Johnson said it was a bad environment for everyone, but as a black woman, she felt like “a person to be tolerated.” When she scored the third-highest mark on the qualifying exam, she remembers her tutors being shocked by her success.
Still, he eventually kicked her out of the lab if her research wasn’t progressing fast enough. “It was basically, ‘Clean your desk and good luck,'” she recalls. Green Johnson did not protest. She waited until the other classmates had gone to lunch before quietly packing up.
Humiliated, she hid in her apartment. She didn’t know what to do next. She also learned that her advisor had tried to strip her of her scholarship, which would prevent her from continuing to work in another lab. After more than a month away from school, Green-Johnson decided to regroup. She drank coffee with a postdoc, who recently accepted a position at the nearby Argonne National Laboratory. “You’re a good scientist,” he told her. “Come and work for me” – leave PhD programs behind.
These words are the verification she needs. Knowing the culture of Greene-Johnson and their former lab group better than anyone else, the postdoc was able to recognize that the problem was with their advisor, not her. But she still wanted to get a degree. I won’t leave until I have toshe remembers thinking.
Over the next few weeks, she looked around for new advisors, this time paying close attention to interactions between professors and students. The one she chose was cold but neutral – at least he didn’t expect her to fail. In this new lab, she will theorize how small gaseous molecules bind to metal plates.