Jonathan Lansley-Gordon, August 2023
On Wednesday 2nd August, 2023, The Blackett Lab Family welcomed its first ever cohort of graduates from its flagship outreach programme, Representing Physics.
The three-day event saw 32 London students of Black heritage engage with a host of activities designed to showcase physics through different lenses, and to encourage them to pursue it at further and higher education. We couldn't be more proud to be the first network of UK based Black physicists to cook up something like this – a programme that serves our broader mission to diversify perceptions of physics and one that inspires the next generation of Black physicists within our own communities.
We kicked off the programme by giving our students a taster of what it's like to be a physics undergraduate studying at a world-leading institution. Partnering with the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, we were treated to guest lectures on fascinating topics like gravitation and relativity, quantum theory and nanoscale photonics. We toured the campus to explore key undergraduate checkpoints (the library, some swanky lecture halls and of course – the canteen!) and got a sense of the 'buzz' of first year undergraduate study. To round off our 'day-in-the-life' experience, students were treated to an afternoon in undergraduate labs, designing and conducting advanced experiments to investigate electromagnetism with oscilloscopes and falling magnets.
A trip to the National Physical Laboratory saw students talking to the scientists and engineers who apply principles of physics to some of the world's most cutting-edge meterology research. With special security clearance for behind-the-scenes access, students were thrilled to witness the many ways fundamental physics works in action, and how breakthroughs in research can be leveraged to revolutionise a host of modern technologies. In conversation with the many working scientists and engineers, they were introduced to the wide range of career paths open to graduates of physics. We were then joined virtually by three of our very own BLF fellows, each physicists of Black heritage now working in areas like finance and law. Students were honoured to have a wide-ranging conversation with them about their studies in physics and how that led to their various career pathways.
As Black physicists ourselves, we recognise the importance of exploring big questions and having conversations about physics through the lens of identity – an angle of incidence that often gets overlooked.
The Institute of Physics hosted our third and final day which saw students take part in a variety of interactive workshops, learning about the value of a 'physics identity' – something that research indicates is necessary to be successful in physics. Students reflected on the experiences they've had that have either affirmed or otherwise threatened their own physics identities, and came up with some empowering strategies to navigate an academic landscape that is still plagued by outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a physicist. We discussed the persistent issue of underrepresentation and the challenges it presents, while celebrating the successes of trailblazing Black physicists at the forefront of 'representing physics' in the UK.
RP2023 culminated in a celebration and graduation ceremony for our participating students that welcomed our project partners, supporters and siblings, parents, carers and guardians. Engaging the community in a broader sense was a fundamental part of our vision to re–present physics, so we were chuffed to welcome so many supporters who came along to celebrate each young person’s successful completion of the programme. We were also honoured to be in a position to answer questions about physics, careers, transitions to sixth form, college, university and apprenticeships, and how The Blackett Lab Family will continue to provide ongoing support and motivation. Kitted out in their exclusive RP2023 merch, the students – or more accurately, these honorary inductees to The Blackett Lab Family – are shining examples of ambition and aspiration.
To the next generation of UK based Black physicists; this is only just the beginning!