When some 7-year-olds read about the sun potentially engulfing the Earth into a red ball and exploding into a supernova, they’re likely to have nightmares.
Then again, not all 7-year-olds are like Whitney Ingram, who was reading her father’s National Geographic at that age.
That interest in the sciences is what’s leading Ingram to become the first black woman to graduate from the University of Georgia with a Ph.D. in physics.
“My love of science at a young age came from arts and crafts books, where you could build small projects,” Ingram told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That passion stayed with her through college, where she eventually earned her bachelor’s degree in physics.
After some convincing from her mother, Ingram decided to reach out to UGA’s Office of Institutional Research to find out if she would be the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the university. UGA sent her an email confirming the historic feat in February.
Black female physicists are a rare breed. There were 138 black women working in physics as of May, according to African American Women in physics, a website that keeps track of the number of black female physicists in America.
“There’s a gray area between those who work as physicists and those who have a Ph.D. degree in physics, or astrophysics,” AAWIP.com’s founder, Jami M. Valentine, said in an email. “This becomes more muddled as university programs become more interdisciplinary.”
There have been 93 African-American women who have received their Ph.D. in physics, Valentine said.
“Getting a Ph.D. is hard, and being a black female adds another emphasis to it,” Ingram said.
Ingram said her interests in the field began at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, where she was one of three students in Roy Billinghurst’s advanced physics class.
“I liked seeing how his demonstrations in class applied to physics,” Ingram said. “I think when you start to get things to click, it starts to be more fun.”
Ingram’s historic degree is complemented by her lofty accomplishments, which include a Science Graduate Research Fellowship with the Department of Energy and a fellowship with the Southern Regional Education Board. Ingram was also one of 65 U.S. students selected to attend the annual Nobel Laureate Conference in Lindau, Germany.
While working in a national lab would be a dream, Ingram said she understands the importance of minority visibility in high school and college classrooms and hopes to be an example for future leaders.
“I’m happy to be the first,” she said, “but I don’t want to be the last.”
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