Q&A: Ana Lyons, who works on the DESI project at Berkeley Lab, says nationwide discourse on racial issues motivated art series
Inspired by the nation’s grappling with issues of race and racial discrimination in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 killing by police during his arrest in Minneapolis, UC Berkeley physics major and Berkeley Lab student assistant Ana Lyons turned to art as a way to contribute to the conversation.
Aware of the scientific community’s own self-reflection for its history of racial inequity and discrimination, Lyons found solace and positivity in a poster project honoring the contributions of Black American physicists. The project will feature a series of 12 posters, and she has already completed her first set of six.
Among the physicists featured in her series: Willie Hobbs Moore , the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics, and Harry Lee Morrison , longtime UC Berkeley professor of theoretical physics and a founding member and fellow of the National Society of Black Physicists. Moore earned her Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Michigan, and Morrison served as a professor for 22 years before his retirement in 1994. He continued to serve as assistant dean in the UC Berkeley College of Letters & Science for 11 years after his retirement.
A third-year physics major, Lyons plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics after completing her undergraduate studies. She is a part of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) project that is led by Berkeley Lab. The DESI experiment will produce the biggest-ever 3D map of the universe, and Lyons works on data-visualization and quality-assurance tools for DESI.
Lyons recently rekindled her dabblings in painting and drawing - she had put art aside for a time to focus on her university studies.
Learn more about Lyons’ scientific pursuits and her poster project in this Q&A:
Q: How did you get the idea for the poster project?
A: At the beginning of the summer, I think for the first time in a while, the country as a whole was forced to start examining our history of racism, discrimination, and violence toward Black Americans. The scientific community has had to face its own racial issues, as well. The renewed conversations about equity and justice in the Physics Department at UC Berkeley inspired me to try and be a part of that change.
I’ve always loved drawing and painting, and creating a series of portraits of influential Black physicists seemed like a cool way to contribute. I also realized that I hadn’t learned about very many Black physicists (if any at all), and I thought the project would be a fun way to educate myself.
Q: How did you research which scientists to include in the project?
A: I am really indebted to some great websites for helping me in my research: African American Women in Physics keeps track of the African American women who earn physics and physics-related Ph.D.s in the U.S., and the math department at the University of Buffalo has a great website on Physics and The African Diaspora , which gives biographies of Black physicists both in the U.S. and around the world. The National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) also has lots of great info on its website.
When deciding who to include in the series, I tried to include people who did research in a wide variety of fields, as well as people who contributed to well-known areas of physics but whom most people might not have ever learned about.
Q: What kind of work are you doing with Berkeley Lab scientists?
A: At the Lab, I’m a part of DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument), which is a survey to create a 3D map of the night sky by collecting the spectra of millions and millions of far-away galaxies and quasars. The goal is to use this map to measure the effects of dark energy on the expansion of the universe. I started working with DESI in January 2019, in the Data Systems team under Stephen Bailey. I mostly work on building data visualization and quality assurance tools.
Because DESI is such a large survey, making (pardon the pun) astronomical amounts of data, it’s important to have tools to allow us to keep track of our progress and survey efficiency, as well as tools that make sure our data is as good as it can be. The main project I’ve worked on is called " Nightwatch ," which as the name suggests is a tool for observers to use in real time during the night to monitor the status of the instrument and the quality of the data being collected.
Q: Describe your experience in art, and have you had other opportunities to combine art and physics?
A: I’ve always loved drawing and painting. Throughout high school, I painted a lot. I took an advanced placement course in studio art and took art as my elective all four years. In college, I didn’t have as much time for hobbies, and art kind of fell to the wayside. But being at home with more free time over the past few months has inspired me to start painting again - it’s been really fun getting back into it.
This poster project is my first big artistic undertaking in a while, and it’s been a great way to mesh my love of physics and my love of art. These two interests haven’t historically overlapped, but I supposed it does come in handy when I have to draw a particularly complicated graph or diagram in my notes or on my homework sets. I’m in general a visual thinker, which helps me with both my art and with physics.
Q: When and why did you decide to pursue physics, and do you have a particular career goal in which type of research you’d like to be a part of?
A: My dad reads a lot of popular science books. One day, when I was maybe 12, I picked up "Hyperspace" by Michio Kaku from his shelf, and I was immediately hooked. After reading that book, I decided I was going to be a physicist (and a string theorist, to boot). When I finally got to take a physics class in high school, I was relieved to find that I enjoyed it outside of just reading about the cool stuff like black holes.
Now that I’m in the middle of my undergraduate degree, I’m still just as sure that I want to do physics research, but I’m less sure about exactly which field. I’m very interested in condensed matter theory, as well as nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. I’m planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in physics after I graduate.
View six posters in the series: