Madelyn Broome reflected in her computer screen
(Via Madelyn Broome)
UC Santa Cruz

‘My story is a Native story’: Astrophysics grad student didn’t feel ‘Native enough’ until UCSC

Growing up, Madelyn Broome believed two things: She was destined to become a scientist and her Native heritage belonged to her. But when she got to Princeton for college, she began to doubt both. She feared she wasn’t good enough at math to succeed and not “Native enough” to claim her heritage. That changed when she arrived in 2020 at UC Santa Cruz, where she is now getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics. She is also hosting astronomy events for Native youth and mentoring youth to help them see a future for themselves in STEM.

Madelyn Broome grew up with planets splashed across her bedroom walls, a dream to be an astronomer and what she calls a “strong science identity.”

Then, she went to Princeton University and her confidence faltered.

“I felt really out of my depth, I felt like I was bad at math,” said Broome, now in her third year of an astrophysics Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz. She got a low C on a calculus test her first year at Princeton and then avoided math until her senior year.

At UCSC, her thoughts about math changed when her adviser helped her look at math differently and to use her intuition, rather than see it as a measure of her test-taking abilities.

Today, she studies exoplanets, which are planets orbiting stars other than the sun, and supersonic wind flying off distant planets.

Confidence in math wasn’t the only thing she lost in college. Growing up, Broome’s Native heritage was a source of pride. Her favorite “fun fact” was that she was of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Suddenly at Princeton, that heritage felt unearned, not really hers. She worried she was not “Native enough.”

Like many Indigenous youth, Broome’s understanding of her culture is patchwork. Her grandfather, who is Choctaw, had no interest in preserving his family’s stories when he left the Choctaw Nation reservation before Broome’s birth.

It wasn’t until a seminar by UCSC’s American Indian Resource Center three years ago that Broome felt entitled to her Native identity.

“I cried. I really did. It was the most validating thing ever,” Broome said. “My story is a Native story.”

Broome is now determined not to let others doubt themselves like she did. Particularly not Indigenous youth, who see so few people in STEM who look like them, she said.

That’s why Broome is mentoring students by day and running Indigenous astronomy events by night.

She recently got a bus to take a group of Native youth to Lick Observatory east of San Jose to peer through telescopes and swap “star stories” about the night sky from their Indigenous cultures. They were encouraged to ask elders for stories before attending, Broome said. She is planning to repeat the event in October.

Lookout met Broome in the office she shares with five other teaching assistants on UCSC’s campus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Madelyn Broome at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile
Madelyn Broome visiting the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, during an astrophysics internship in Chile.

Lookout: You’ve been mentoring youth for a long time. What prompted you to start that?

Madelyn Broome: Since kindergarten, I had been told I was good at math. I won awards throughout middle and high school, took accelerated math tracks, was a mathlete, but, despite all of that — or, perhaps, because of it — all it took was one 36/100 (which on the curve was a low C) on my first multivariable calculus test at Princeton for that all to come crumbling down.

Unfortunately, I let that fear of bad grades stop me from taking math classes in college, until my senior year. I regret this so very much. And I didn’t want anyone else to go through that.

Lookout: What restored your confidence?

Broome: My current adviser at UCSC, Ruth Murray-Clay. She excels at a math-solving approach that allows us to identify which questions in physics will be interesting to explore. It allowed me to stop frantically memorizing to pass a test and actually build an intuition for physics. That shift was profound and, reflecting on it now, I realize that it wasn’t just a shift in confidence, but also a shift in mindset, too.

Lookout: You are studying exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the sun). This is a relatively new field. What drew you to it?

Broome: Exoplanets is amazing right now, because you can be an early-career researcher and really make an impact, because it’s like as old as I am, 26 or 27 years old. And so, the frontier of exoplanet science is so close that you can push it by asking even the simplest question, and really contribute to the field.

Lookout: What does your work entail?

Broome: I actually work on planets that are way too extreme to host life. I work on planets that are directly next to their stars … and because of that they get super, super hot. You superheat gas. What does it do? Expand. And so when that gas expands, it begins to flow off of the planets in the form of a wind. It just accelerates and accelerates and accelerates until it hits supersonic speeds, and just flies straight off. And so, we can actually see the signatures of the wind flying off of it. And that’s what I study.

Lookout: You study supersonic wind?

Broome: I never thought about that but yeah — flying off of alien planets. I’m gonna start telling people that.

Lookout: You sound like you’ve been driven to be a scientist for a long time; could you tell me about that?

Broome: I had a lot of amazing outreach when I was young.

The University of Arizona would do yearly conferences for middle school girls. Students could rotate through everything from astronomy to gluing numbers on bees. I still remember these events so vividly.

And so I have an unusually strong “science identity,” because of the programs.

Madelyn Broome on stage giving a lecture
As a senior at Princeton, Madelyn Broome was the only undergraduate invited to present at a conference for alumnae.
(Via Madelyn Broome)

Lookout: What do you mean “science identity”?

Broome: “Science identity” is this feeling that I am a scientist. And it’s as simple as that. It’s something that is usually not incredibly strong in young folks from underserved populations.

My goal in doing any outreach is to remind everyone that we are all inherently scientists from birth. And my work with Native folks is especially focused on that. It’s like we are scientists by practice. We’ve been practicing this for generations and generations.

Lookout: You do a lot of outreach with Native youth. Can you share about your Native identity?

Broome: I’ve had all of the privileges of being what we call “white passing.” I’ve always considered myself white because I’ve grown up in a culture that privileges that.

But also, at the same time, being Choctaw, from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma — I’m a member of the Nation — that was always a really important thing to me growing up. It’s a big part of our family history and our family’s story.

It was always my favorite fact when I was little, too. I would tell people like, “I’m part Native American.” And it was a fun fact. And not until I got to college that I realized that that is what it is. For me, it’s something fun.

And I get to claim that without all of the weight that comes along with it for people of color. Also, I didn’t have to grow up on a reservation — but that came with its own downsides. I am what is called an “urban Indian,” which is someone who grows up away from the reservation and is therefore disconnected from their culture.

Lookout: Did your family pass down stories?

Broome: My grandfather had no interest in preserving stories. He wanted to get the heck out of Dodge. And so all the connection we’ve had has been regained through my parents’ generation and my generation.

I don’t have the lived experiences so many folks do. And so I shut down about it. I no longer told people about it, didn’t really get involved with Natives at Princeton, I didn’t feel like I had any right to it.

Lookout: Was UCSC different?

Broome: Yes.

In my first couple weeks, I took a how-to-TA class, and in a video, the director of the American Indian Resource Center talked about how it’s an impolite or problematic question to ask someone: “Oh, how Native are you? Oh, how much?”

Madelyn Broome working closely with students
Madelyn Broome leading a physics outreach event she designed for high school girls in 2019.
(Via Madelyn Broome)

Which is always the first question you get. And that question has always made me feel awful. It’s like a punch in the gut, and you’re like: “Barely.” Like, whatever you say, it’s going to be not enough.

I was like, this whole time, I’ve been feeling like, I’m the one who’s in the wrong.

And then she said, Native students can look all different ways — they can be Black, they can be white, they can be Asian. … And I … I cried. I really did. It was the most validating thing ever, because I’ve always felt like a fear that if I go into these spaces that I’ll just be called out immediately as being like, fake or you know, not “Native enough” and stuff like that.

Lookout: How did your attitude change?

Broome: My attitude became like, not feeling guilty but OK, let’s move on and do something with this identity that has opened doors for me.

It’s my obligation to keep those doors open behind me so that other Native kids can follow more easily. And so that’s just been my philosophy going forward.

I still feel like I’ll be called out at some point. Like, someone’s just gonna say: “Yeah, but you don’t actually know anything about Native culture.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I really don’t.” So I’m reconnecting as so many people are. Even folks that grew up fully immersed in the culture of their tribe or community have lost access to all the things that we used to have because either because the traditions were eradicated intentionally or because they just faded.

And so things like star stories, they’re gone. Some of them irreparably.

Lookout: Star stories, yes. This spring, you hosted a “Native Star Stories” event for Native youth. Could you tell me more about that? Will you do more?

Broome: Yes. The hope of doing this event was that the young folks would go talk to elders who may pass down these stories. So they would (A) have an excuse to talk to them. And (B) these stories would be carried on.

The night was basically modeled around this Mi’kmaw concept called Two-Eyed Seeing, which is when you use one eye to look with the Indigenous way of knowing, and the other eye to look with the Western way of knowing. And then you combine them both for the benefit of all.

We bring in the Western way of knowing with telescopes and looking at astronomy pictures and combine it with the Indigenous way of knowing which is like star stories about constellations and stuff like that.

I wanted them to get the message that: you are inherently a scientist. And you can go to college, if you’re a high schooler.

Our next event will be in October. My goal is for this to be an event that I continue, wherever my career takes me.

Lookout: What would you tell your younger self, the 10-year-old who wanted to be an astronomer?

Broome: You’re good at math, despite what college is going to make you believe. (It took me a long time to get over what my university made me feel.)

I think when I was younger, I was always very interested in having the right answer — very much a know-it-all. So, I’d tell her that asking questions is really what makes you look smart. Like there’s no such thing as a stupid question. It’s very trite, but it’s very true. I try to teach my students that you shouldn’t be embarrassed of being ignorant, you should only be embarrassed of staying ignorant.

I’d also say there’ll come a time when your favorite part of yourself, which is being part Native American, might become a little more complicated. But no matter what, your story is still the Native American story. And you are Native enough.

Anna Marie Yanny is a June 2023 graduate of UC Santa Cruz’s science communication graduate program. She has a bachelor’s degree in behavioral neuroscience and spent four years as a neuroscience researcher before pivoting to a career in science writing. She loves poetry and hopes to someday host radio programs on the mind’s resilience and explain why love is but a neurochemical dance. She produced this piece as part of UCSC professor and Lookout Community Voices editor Jody K. Biehl’s class.

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