Tuesday, June 1, 2021

How physics and performance shaped one scholar's work and identity

Simone Hyater-Adams confidently stands at the crossroads of many different identities: she is a Black woman, an artist, a physicist, a scholar, and an educator.

Simone Hyater-Adams, who earned her PhD in
2019 from CU Boulder, used her personal
experiences in academia to examine the
construction of identity at the intersection
of physics, performance, and race.
Image Credit: American Physical Society

But the road to reconciling these different parts of herself wasn't a smooth one, she says. It required thoughtful self-exploration and a deep dive into academic research on identity and performance to understand how all of the pieces fit together.

"My experiences have been one of the biggest influences on my work and philosophy," says Hyater-Adams, who believes that personal perspective can actually strengthen one's scholarship. Everything I've done has been a direct exploration of my own experience − I begin by wondering if I'm alone in thinking or feeling this way."

Hyater-Adams earned her PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder's physics education research program in 2019, where she developed a framework that examines identity at the intersection of physics, performance, and race. Her research interests grew organically from personal experiences as she transitioned into various stages of her life and career.

Reaching for the stars

Surrounded by a family of musicians, it was only natural that Hyater-Adams found joy in performance. As a child, she participated in theatre summer camps, piano lessons, and dance school where she learned tap, jazz, African, and hip-hop styles.

"I really did love the stars," she shares when asked about how she discovered an interest in the sciences. Growing up, Hyater-Adams would proclaim that she'd one day be an astrophysicist, and found herself fascinated at the physics concepts she learned in school, like centripetal force and friction. But it wasn't until a high school physics class that she realized she could pursue this interest as a career.

"I had originally planned to go to school for theatre," Hyater-Adams says. Instead, she enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia with a major in physics, and was introduced to a myriad of research and outreach projects through the Virginia Space Grant Consortium's STEM Bridge Scholarship Program.

Hyater-Adams took advantage of every opportunity that came her way: coding Fortran-99 computer algorithms for atmospheric satellites, measuring oxygen content in sea water using lidar technology, studying the spectroscopic properties of holmium, and even designing a tree windbreak barrier for protection from damaging hurricane winds.

At NASA Langley Research Center, Hyater-Adams participated in a variety of research projects. Here, she sends off weather balloons for atmospheric research. Image Credit: NASA

At the suggestion of a former research advisor, she spent her final summer as an undergraduate student working in physics education at NASA Langley Research Center. “I liked it much more than I thought I would,” says Hyater-Adams, who explains that she was initially hesitant to explore education because she wasn’t aware of what she could do with it other than teach. At NASA Langley, she assisted with programs that trained primary school teachers how to conduct authentic research experiments using real NASA data and develop projects based on their research experiences to implement in the classroom. 

The following school year, Hyater-Adams reignited her spark for performance by filling a few empty slots in her schedule with courses offered by Hampton’s theatre department. “It just reminded me how much I love it,” she says. “Performance has always been my safe space.” 

She enjoyed it so much that she began seeking out opportunities in graduate school that would allow her to combine physics with her lifelong passion for performance. Ultimately, this led her to the physics education research program at CU Boulder. 

Performing physics 

In her first year of the program, Hyater-Adams was often grouped in with CU Boulder’s cohort of traditional physics students, since her advisor, research assistantship, and even a few of her classes were through the physics department. This, combined with the difficulty of adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, led to an extreme case of imposter syndrome. 

“I wasn’t accepted into the physics department for grad school, but I was there anyway,” Hyater-Adams says. “And not only was I transitioning away from traditional physics, I was also moving into a hyper-white space, and experiencing the stereotype threat that comes with being the only Black woman in any of my classes − or even within the whole department.” 

Arriving from Hampton (a historically Black university), this experience was both new and jarring for Hyater-Adams. She describes it as an identity crisis marked with a heightened sense of racial awareness. 

To better understand her experience, Hyater-Adams turned to the work of education scholars such as Zahra Hazari, who focuses on reframing physics for underrepresented groups, and Na’ilah Nasir, who examines the racialized nature of learning in connection with inequitable education outcomes. She also started taking classes and forging mentorships in the ethnic studies and dance departments at CU Boulder. Though this was initially separate from her physics work, she eventually found a way to combine her two areas of study in a book titled Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, in which Cuban American scholar José Esteban Muñoz examines the political relationship between identity and performance in queer communities.

Hyater-Adams dances in an MFA program
concert called Taking Up Space, hosted by
the dance department at CU Boulder.
Image Credit: CU Presents
“I began to see performance as the act of constructing one’s own identity,” Hyater-Adams says. “And that’s powerful to put together with physics learning, because it means Black and brown students can construct their own identities as physicists − they can take something that seems not for them, and make it for them.” 

This idea flourished as Hyater-Adams dug into a critical analysis of racialized physics identity and performance. She interviewed several Black physicists for her dissertation and quickly learned that an overwhelming number of them had, at some point in their lives, engaged in some type of performance art. And this isn’t a coincidence, she says: “Music and dance − historically, these art forms are very important in Black American culture.” 

She theorized that the relationship Black students have with performance art can positively impact the construction of their physics identity. This is key, she says, because it may help convince Black scholars that they do have access to scientific forms of knowledge, and that their unique perspectives and experiences can actually enhance, rather than hinder, the way they perform in physics spaces. 

From theory to practice

Taking it a step further, Hyater-Adams put her theoretical musings into practice by supporting and developing educational STEM outreach projects. “There’s nothing better than being able to see a student have a transformative experience,” she says. “It’s just so fulfilling.” 

One notable project was Performing Physics, an initiative created by Hyater-Adams that integrates performance art into physics learning for elementary and middle school students. In the first run of the program, participants were tasked with building a set of paddles that could generate an electric field, then given the creative freedom to design a performance that somehow involved the paddles. 

After the completion of her doctoral degree, Hyater-Adams joined the ranks of the American Physical Society National Mentoring Community, which aims to increase diversity in undergraduate physics by fostering relationships between students of color and local mentors. In this role, Hyater-Adams learned about program management, how to work in large organizations, and what it means to be in the nonprofit world.

These skills, along with her passion for STEM outreach and performance art, set her up to be a perfect fit for her newest position as Director of Programs for STEM From Dance, a nonprofit based in New York City that uses dance as a medium to empower, educate, and encourage girls of color to build futures in STEM. Much like Performing Physics, the organization teaches technology and engineering concepts through the designing, building, and programming of props that are used in choreographed dance routines. 

“I was so shocked to find this position,” says Hyater-Adams, who sees it as an ideal blend of her love for science, performance, and making a difference. “It really is a dream job − it’s exactly where I want to be!” 

With a promising future ahead, Hyater-Adams already serves as an example of what she encourages in her scholarship and outreach: for those in STEM to challenge norms, acknowledge all parts of their identities, and chart their own pathways to success. 

“Many people find it helpful to be one person at home and another at work or school, but this can be very draining,” she says. “So how do we move more smoothly between different spaces without losing authenticity or draining ourselves to conform? How might we reconcile our identities and just be us?”

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