“I was always curious as a child. And my mother was my greatest supporter, always reminding me that I shouldn’t accept things as they were,” said astrophysicist Rita de Cássia dos Anjos, adjunct professor at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) in Palotina, Brazil.
As a Black girl from a modest family in Olimpia, northern São Paulo State, the first barrier Cássia dos Anjos could not accept was the gap between the education she received in public school and what she needed to get into higher education. “By the end of high school, my sister managed to pay for a yearlong prep course for university exams, and I noticed that I really lagged behind my peers,” she said. Not having been approved in her first attempt, Rita asked the course coordinator if she could attend classes for another 6 months. He allowed it, and that time around, she was approved to study biological physics at Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho in São Paulo.
“I really looked up to my mother, and she worked as a nurse. So I wanted to study biology but really fell in love with physics during the prep course. So I thought biological physics was the perfect choice,” she said.
During the course, however, physics spoke louder, and Cássia dos Anjos answered. She went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of São Paulo, studying integrable field theory and solitons, waveforms that keep their shape while traveling.
During her doctorate, also at the University of São Paulo, Cássia dos Anjos studied cosmic rays—atomic particles that cross Earth from beyond the galaxy. To seek out where cosmic ray particles come from, she studied starbursts—extremely luminous galaxies that are source candidates for these particles traveling at almost the speed of light.
Immediately after finishing her doctorate in 2014, Cássia dos Anjos began teaching modern physics at UFPR. Three years later, she was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the City University of New York, where she stayed for 3 months. “I was at the Lehman College, Bronx,” she said. “The neighborhood looked like the Everybody Hates Chris TV show. Everybody there was Black, and I loved it. But at the college, there were fewer Black people…the overwhelming majority of the faculty was white.”
These demographics are not very different from many parts of Brazil, she said. “My campus is small, with around 140 faculty members. Up to 2 or 3 years ago, I was the only Black faculty member here. Now there’s a pardo [mixed ancestry] professor as well,” Cássia dos Anjos said. Even if 70% of the population in Paraná is white, Blacks and other ethnic groups are vastly underrepresented among the higher ranks of academia in Paraná and elsewhere in Brazil.
Cássia dos Anjos has had a larger public presence since her research earned her a Serrapilheira Institute grant in 2018 and a L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science (Brazil) award in 2020. She uses the visibility from her prizes to call attention to inequalities in gender and race that pervade Brazilian science. She’s working on funding for projects in which she can work with young girls in science to get them to try their hand at real research. “I feel it’s my responsibility as a woman of color to help open the path to other women of color in my field,” she said.
—Meghie Rodrigues (@meghier), Science Writer