She decided to study physics. It was in a way good timing – a black American woman had just become the first of her kind to obtain a physics PhD, back in Greene-Johnson’s home state. At Stanford, Greene-Johnson was the only black student in her major, but that did not surprise her. What did matter was the presence of six black PhD students in the department. “I had brothers and sisters galore,” she told me.
She approached them every time she was struggling with a homework problem or needed a friendly face. When she told her academic advisor that she was considering a master’s degree, he encouraged her to reach higher. (Incidentally, this advisor was a white man whose efforts helped Stanford over the next three decades produce several black American physicists with PhDs.)
Five years later, Greene-Johnson returned to the Midwest to begin graduate school at UChicago. There were two other women in her class, both white. No other black graduate students were in the department, despite the university being located in the city’s historic Black South Side.
She joined a research group at the crossroads of physics and chemistry. She remembers her counselor greeting her by saying, “I wanted the other one,” referring to one of the white women in her class. “But you do.” In the following months, Greene-Johnson barely heard from him; he preferred to pass on information through his postdoctoral researcher. At the end of a group meeting where their counselor was on the speakerphone, the postdoc asked, “Is there anything you want to say to the students?” The counselor simply hung up.
It was a bad environment for everyone, says Greene-Johnson, but as a black woman, she felt she was “someone to be tolerated.” When she achieved the third highest score on her qualifying exams, she remembers that her advisor reacted with shock at her success.
Nevertheless, he ended up kicking her out of his lab on the assumption that her research was not going fast enough. “It was basically, ‘Clean your desk, and good luck,'” she recalls. Greene-Johnson did not protest. She waited until the rest of the students went to lunch, and quietly she packed her things.
Humiliated, she hid in her apartment. She was in doubt as to what she should do next. She also learned that her counselor had tried to have her scholarship revoked, which would have made it impossible for her to continue in another laboratory. After more than a month away from school, Greene-Johnson decided to regroup. She grabbed coffee with the postdoc, who had recently accepted a position at the nearby Argonne National Laboratory. “You are a good scientist,” he told her. “Come and work for me” – and let the PhD program lie.
Those words were the affirmation she needed. More than anyone else, this postdoc had known Greene-Johnson and the culture of their former lab group well enough to acknowledge that the problem had been with their counselor – not with her. But she still wanted her degree. I’m not leaving until I have toshe remembers thinking.
For the next few weeks, she shopped around for a new advisor, this time paying close attention to the interactions between professors and their students. The one she sat on was remote but neutral – at least he did not expect her to fail. In this new laboratory, she wanted to theorize about how small, gaseous molecules bind to a metal plate.