Many people have been so awe-struck by the images of our universe, it has inspired them to pursue a career in astronomy. Bryné Hadnott was halfway through her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Washington University in St. Louis when she happened to come across images of Mars from the Curiosity rover during an elective class in planetary science.
“The images completely blew me away,” she recalls. “So, I switched majors in my junior year to planetary science and fell in love with the imagery of it.”
The change took her through a whirlwind of research across the cosmos, metaphorically speaking. During her undergraduate degree, Hadnott analyzed Mars analog basalts as part of a summer undergraduate research program at the California University of Technology. After graduating with her bachelor’s, she learned about coding and remote sensing at the University of Vermont. From there, she started a doctoral program at Cornell University analyzing hydroxide and water bonds using spectroscopy, and then transferred to Johns Hopkins University to study organic aerosols by shocking cold gasses with plasma, with the aim to better understand the gases on Saturn’s second largest moon, Titan.
Despite this deep passion for astronomy and her extensive research experience, Hadnott decided to leave the field. As a Black woman working at predominantly white institutions, she encountered difficult experiences.
“I was really profoundly unhappy with the environment in academia,” she says. “In grad school I had such an isolating, alienating experience. After leaving in 2019, I felt pretty disillusioned with academia and just frustrated, but then industry wasn’t much better.”
However, during her time at John Hopkins, Hadnott befriended Ashley Walker, an astrochemist, science communicator, and activist. Both Hadnott and Walker are Black women from Chicago who had experienced racism in academia.
Having founded numerous groups promoting Black people in STEM, such as Black in Physics and Black in Chem , Walker went on to start Black in Astro.
Hadnott joined Black in Astro in 2020 and became more involved as an organizer in 2021.
“It was just so great to see so many people who look like me, who had other experiences like me, at predominantly white institutions,” she says. “I had never had that sort of community before, and especially in grad school. I kept getting more and more involved [in Black in Astro] because it was healing.”
Since leaving academia, Hadnott began combining her passion for astronomy with her interest in writing and illustration. She took online writing courses through Creative Nonfiction and started doing freelance work through NPR Scicommers for publications such as Physics Today and Scholastic Kids. In 2022, she started working full-time for Stanford University’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Cosmology, writing features about recent discoveries in astrophysics and developing ways to visualize dark matter stimulations with the aim of helping the public better understand this mysterious substance that is so influential throughout the cosmos.
“It has been another steep learning curve, but it has been fun to write about and try to think of ways to visualize it,” says Hadnott.
Communicating this type of complex scientific subject matter to the public is no easy task. Hadnott notes that conveying scale in astronomical terms can be particularly difficult. For example, most people will understand a distance of 3,000 miles – but parsecs are a whole other ball game. Nevertheless, Hadnott says she enjoys the challenge, and this unique intersection of science, art and communication.
Another benefit, she says, is that she gets to encounter diverse groups of people this way –one day she may be speaking with an astronomy expert who specializes in lensing, and the next day it may be a high school student who is just getting interested in physics, or a person who writes science-related poetry.
All the while, Hadnott is working to communicate the mysteries of dark matter, she continues to share her writing and science communications skills with Black in Astro as the resident storyteller/writer for the group.
“It's relieving and it brings me a lot of joy – an insane amount of joy,” she says. “To have other people around you on that same journey has just been really inspiring, enlightening, grounding. It makes me feel hopeful for what the possibilities could be. I think they should be very different from what they are now.”
Hadnott recognizes the importance of facilitating change. She believes one major way to do so is to have more Black representation in positions that can influence an institution’s culture, for example by hiring more Black faculty, deans, and provosts.
She also sees benefits in breaking down the walled silos that people in astronomy work within. Even if there are no Black faculty members to partner with, Hadnott notes, there is always an opportunity to explore partnerships across disciplines moving forward, for example with the African American studies department.
“I think more partnerships would be more helpful for improving the field and improving the culture,” she emphasizes.