Here’s an amazing fact: Miona Short recently became the first African-American woman ever to earn a Bachelor of Science(BS) degree in Astrophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Here’s another amazing fact: She did it exactly 100 years after the first African-American woman graduated from the University of Wisconsin way back in 1918.
“That’s … that’s wow. It’s really cool. Somebody first told me that fact when I was a freshman – that I would be the first – and I was floored. Right now, I feel very honored, very humbled,” Short tells Madison365 in an interview at Colectivo Coffee on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison. “Timing is everything and I had no idea until I started looking up the history of some of the first black students at the university and when I saw that the first black woman graduated exactly 100 years ago, it sent a shiver up my spine. It’s one of those things that brings tears to your eyes. The numerical alignment is so beautiful, but the fact that it would take 100 years is very telling of the culture in the United States.”
[Just to make sure, Madison365 contacted the UW Astronomy Department chair about Short’s historical graduation and they responded: “We’ve surveyed the faculty, and while we don’t have ethnicity data for all of our alumni, this appears to be correct.”—Ed.]
“I’m very happy. I feel very honored to have done this. It’s a field I’ve known I wanted to study all my life,” Short continues. “I’m just very fortunate to have been able to achieve that dream in a way that I know that a lot of people in my family or even my friends have not been able to achieve their dreams from childhood. I feel very fortunate.”
When Short received her diploma at the UW-Madison Commencement Ceremony last month it signified a momentous milestone in a dream that started very early in life once upon a time on the south side of Chicago.
“My mother says the moment I realized I wanted to be an astronomer I was two years old and we were living in our townhouse on the south side [of Chicago] and I saw a Kraft Cheese commercial and there was a cow jumping over the moon. I asked her what that was. ‘What’s going on there? What’s that thing?’ She said, ‘That’s the moon!’ And I told her I wanted to go there,” Short remembers.
Mom told her that she would have to become an astronaut first.
“I said, ‘OK, cool. That’s gonna happen,’” Short remembers, smiling. “That evolved into wanting to study the stars. I think there are things that get written in our book of life early on. I’ve had this passion for all of science since – particularly for astronomy and astrophysics.
“It kind of makes me want to cry just to think how embedded this love is and how ingrained it is and always has been,” she adds.
Her dreams got a big boost when she, along with Hiwot Adilow of Philadelphia, became the first recipients of the First Wave/MC Lyte Scholarship as high school seniors back in November of 2012. Legendary hip-hop artist MC Lyte, founder and board chair of the Hip Hop Sisters Foundation, and Lynn Richardson, president of the foundation, took part in the selection.
“It was really, really cool. I was glad that I was able to get college paid for. My parents had a talk with me when I was in high school that I might have to stay in Chicago and go to a city college if I didn’t get enough money to go anywhere I wanted to go … and that was hard. But once I got that scholarship secured, my parents were so happy,” says Short, who was a member of the seventh cohort of UW–Madison’s First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community while in college. “Lots of stress went away. It was a blessing.”
The MC Lyte Scholarship is a four-year, full-tuition scholarship that is a tribute to the quality of student artists who prepare for college while developing their artistic potential. MC Lyte was a pioneering rapper from the late ’80s and ’90s who was the first solo female rapper to release a full album. But do the young people even know who she is?
“I definitely knew who MC Lyte was,” Short says. “My mom was a big fan. I knew her more-popular songs. It was an honor to receive a scholarship in her name.”
It was during her time as an undergrad in Madison that Short got to realize one of her lifelong dreams when she got a unique chance to meet one of her heroes and one of the world’s best-known astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, at Overture Center in 2015.
“My cohort brother Deshawn McKinnney bought me that ticket and which included a meet-and-greet with him after,” Short remembers. “I was really fortunate to be able to meet this rock star in my world.”
Dr. Tyson is also famous for being the host of FOX’s Cosmos. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen.
After Tyson’s talk at the Overture Center, Short could see that Tyson was super-tired from taking so many pictures and only asked to take a quick selfie with him instead of a formal picture. “He took my I-Pad and did a selfie with me. I was just so star-struck that I quickly walked away,” she remembers. “I got away and I soon said to myself, ‘Yo, dummy. This is Neil De Grasse Tyson … go shoot your shot!’
She snuck past a security guard and got back in line and she was the very last one to see him that night in Madison. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in astronomy/astrophysics, too, wanna be friends?’” she laughs. ‘Can I come to New York and study science with you?’ I read an article about Carl Sagan reaching out to him at a young age and wanting to do the same for other young ‘ns in the field. I thought maybe in the spirit of that that I might get a lead. I might get an ‘in’ with him.
“I didn’t,” she adds, laughing. “But he couldn’t have been nicer to me.”
Short spent a summer in 2015 at Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the people who run the Hubble Telescope for NASA. “It was on the Johns Hopkins campus [in Baltimore, Maryland],” she says. “It was so cool to see astronomy done professionally outside of a university setting. I really enjoyed it.
“I would get there super-early in the morning just to watch the sunrise,” she adds. “Just being in that atmosphere by myself so I could bask in it.”
Short says that she was, of course, a big fan of “Hidden Figures,” the recent movie about three brilliant African-American women at NASA – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history.
“It was an amazing movie and super-inspirational for me. I really want to read the book because I’m sure there were things that were either skimmed over or not fully represented to its fullest reality,” she says. “I really want to see the nuances that weren’t included in the movie.”
The women in Hidden Figures were indeed very inspirational, and I tell Short that she is an inspiration to so many young people, girls and kids of color who have been traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“I’ve thought about that. I’m very humble when it comes to talk about being inspirational. I’m so flawed and so imperfect and I have to keep my Bible to keep me in check sometimes,” she says. “But I’m not going to downplay this achievement by any means. I’m very happy if I what I’ve done can be an influence on young girls and young people of color.”
With her historical graduation in the books, Short is looking ahead to the future, which she admits is giving her all kinds of varied emotions.
“I feel both terrible and amazing at the same time. Amazing because I’ve spent roughly a quarter of my life in this place. In college, we’re all trying to find what our dreams are going to be. It’s so terrifying because I have so many possibilities now,” she says. “I could lift up Schrödinger’s hat and there could be a cat under there or there could be a job in New York. Or it could be going to Hawaii. That’s kinda frightening. It’s exciting.
“I’ve had this cushion for five years. Now I don’t and now it’s really time to go out in the world and tailor this life to be everything I’ve always wanted it to be,” she adds. “That’s exciting; but it’s like there’s no rule book … no manual for how to do that.”
One of the exciting endeavors that she is embarking on is launching her own hair and beauty company called “Shukrah.”
“I’m coming up with a whole line of products. Shukrah is a hair tool company right now and we are probably going to move into the beauty space later,” Short says. “Our flagship product is a comb that will make it easier to detangle and shampoo or condition the hair in fewer steps.
“I can thank the astronomy and physics departments for why I wanted to start this company in terms of just needing to save time in my hair and body care routines to study,” she adds, smiling. “There was nothing I could find to take my wash-day from six-plus hours down to the amount of time that would allow me to study on that day.”
“I have a lot of hair, I don’t know if you can tell,” laughs Short. “Washing, conditioning, styling. Maintenance can be a lot if I’m doing it on a regular basis. I really just hated making that choice of: do I study today or do I study this weekend … or do I do my hair? How long can I neglect myself in one area before I have to just hone down on that? And I was tired of making that decision.”
She has learned how to code and she has a domain and is building a website for Shukrah. “I have a vision for what I want the website to look like,” Short says. “I’m really excited about this company. It’s going to be super-helpful to women. And hopefully super helpful to me.
“I’m at a place in my life where I’m trying to figure out how to progress without running all the time. Having deadlines without always putting myself under an ungodly amount of stress in order to meet that,” Short continues. “If this company is going to focus on self-care – particularly self-care for women of color – I want to be able to reflect that in my own life as somebody who is building that company.
“The goal is to build it, build it and run it well, but not rush it … but also take care of myself in the process,” she adds. ” It’s something that I’m learning – we’re all kind of learning – slowly and surely.”