If you didn’t know that Miona Grae Short was an astronomer, her Facebook profile photo — a selfie with celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — might clue you in. And in May, Short became the first black woman to graduate with an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a century after the university graduated its first black woman.
Short came to the UW by way of Walter Payton College Prep, a selective enrollment public high school on Chicago’s affluent near north side where she got the opportunity to participate in research being conducted by astronomers at Caltech. Also a spoken word artist, Short arrived on the UW campus as part of First Wave, a multicultural artistic program and community.
Short sees poetry in the stars. But an entrepreneurial streak has her looking at founding a startup before tackling graduate school. Short spoke with the Cap Times about the universe, diversity at UW-Madison and tapping a market niche.
How long have you been interested in astronomy?
I literally cannot remember a time when it was not the great love of my life.
When did you realize you were on track to be the first black woman at UW-Madison get a degree in astrophysics?
Someone clued me in my freshman year. It was like, “Whoa, pressure.”
How do you feel about it now?
It feels good. My time at UW has been marked with social and academic anxiety, but my love for the field drove me to completion.
So what was your experience in your coursework?
The astronomy department has excellent professors. I had classmates who were nice, but also classmates who were really uncomfortable and that was clear and it made being there awkward a lot of the time.
Uncomfortable with what?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not sure if it was talking with people outside their own social circles. Given what I experienced in Madison outside the astronomy department, it felt like there was some racial aspects to it. When you have people who didn’t grow up with diversity, it’s easier for them to have expectations that aren’t based in reality.
What do you think the expectations were?
I don’t know. But I felt underestimated a lot.
Did that make it hard to do your best work?
It did. Coming from the high school I went to, I was no stranger to people making subtly aggressive comments or underestimating people because of their background. But I was expecting college to be different. I thought it would be people passionate about the subject and that they would share that passion with me. And a lot of times they did, but a lot of times the social aspect clouded what could have been productive academic interaction.
Were you also performing for First Wave?
When we first came here, our cohort was mostly performing together. A friend and I did a performance on violence against women for a U.N. representative that was such a fabulous experience.
How did those two fields of study and exploration — astronomy and spoken word — mesh together?
The universe is extremely poetic. Every time I went to stellar astrophysics class or cracked open that book — Wow! It was just such a gorgeous class. It felt like art the whole time.
Gorgeous how? The images you were shown?
No. It was the concepts. They were beautiful. Learning about the hydrostatic equilibrium of stars — how stars have a balance of gravity and pressure that hold them together. Pushing out is the pressure and pushing is the gravity. Each of those balances each other so that the star can remain stable. That was so endlessly beautiful to me.
The harmony of the universe?
I don’t know that the universe is inherently in harmony. I think human beings like to impose harmony where there is none. The universe is chaotic and there are aspects of that chaos that are extremely moving to us as humans.
And that informed your poetry?
Yes. And even my friends’ poetry. They would want to include something about the universe and would consult me, so that was really cool, too.
Were you involved in any groups to support students in their work, groups for women in science or students of color?
No. The astronomy department recently graduated its first black Ph.D., Greg Mosby. A couple of times of month Greg and I would grab tea or coffee and talk about what was going on in our lives. It was for the black students in the astronomy department, and that was me and Greg.
Was that helpful?
It was. He had excellent advice.
Are you planning on going to graduate school?
One day. Everyone is telling me to give myself a time limit away from school. But I have role models. Astronomer Aomawa Shields started her Ph.D. at UW-Madison, left to pursue acting for 10 years, then went to University of Washington to finish her Ph.D. and now is a professor in California. Seeing her do that solidified a boldness in me to be able to take on other dreams and still come back to this field. I want to figure out a way to keep my thumb on the pulse of astronomy while I explore other things in my life.
What is it you want to explore?
I want to explore my art, which hasn’t developed as much as I would have wanted. I also want to explore the startup world. I feel that starting a company from the ground up is a great way to fortify a discipline.
In what area would you like to start a company?
In the hair and beauty space. There are a lot of things wish I could have had in college that would have made studying and keeping my hair together easier. Now I can be in the position of making sure other people with a lot of hair and not a lot of time don’t have to sacrifice quality of personal care for the quality of their work.
I imagine that’s a competitive market space.
The most competitive space is products, and I want to work with those companies by providing tools to complement their products.
Are you thinking primarily of black women as your market?
Yes. But I’m learning from a survey I’m taking that other women with tangling issues would also benefit from this.
What are you working on?
The flagship product would be a comb that allows you to dispense fluid through the teeth.
Have you set yourself a deadline to go back to studying astronomy?
I haven’t set a time, but I’ve set a feeling. When it longer fills me, when I feel like I can no serve it to greatest capacity and it no longer serves me, it’s time to go.
What would have made your academic career at UW-Madison better?
Simple answer — if people would just be more comfortable. I can’t remember who said this: if you are a black person in an overwhelmingly white space, people think either you’re really dumb or a genius. I’m neither of those things. I’d like people to stop acting so damn weird because of the history of this place and the history of the country and treat me as they would have somebody treat them.
I notice you didn’t suggest another program. Are you calling on individuals to become aware and change?
Well individual people make up a larger groups. At our department send-off pizza party someone said it was a great community of undergraduates. I was taken aback because I had not experienced that “great community.” But luckily I had my First Wave family and other friends.
Would you encourage a young black woman from Chicago to come to UW?
I thought about that a lot. I would have to talk to someone on an individual basis and see where their head is at. I wouldn’t villainize the department; I don’t think that is fair. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities. It would really depend on what kind environment helps them do their best work.
They would have to be somebody who likes to work on their own?
Definitely. And I think a lot of the culture — I don’t know if it’s the larger U.S. academic culture or STEM culture — has this idea that collaboration signifies weakness. I think that’s dangerous. It’s not about using group study or community as a crutch, but as a way to expand ways of thinking and solving problems.
I thought collaboration was a buzzword in STEM.
Buzzwords are often indicative of the superficial; the deeper goals require a lot of hard internal work for individuals and institutions. There has been this love of the individual, brilliant scientist for a long time. Once we get into a changed culture, I think there will be a lot benefits for the up-and-coming scientist.