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Wakandacon returns to Chicago without ‘Black Panther.’ Meet the aspiring astrochemist making her mar

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

Who says you can’t go home again?

Wakanda forever!

Wakandacon — The convention born last year on the heels of Marvel’s ultra-succesful “Black Panther” film, returns to Chicago this weekend with a theme of “finding your tribe.”

The three-day “Afro-Futuristic” celebration goes beyond the comic book universe inhabited by King T’Challa, the Dora Milaje and Shuri, to conceptualizing Wakanda as a fundamental place full of healthy and happy people, according to event co-founder David Barthwell. Last year’s event encapsulated the Black experience, and this year, people have expectations, he said.

We’re trying to figure out what can Wakandacon grow to become,” he said. “This year, we’re really focusing on mental health as the driving factor behind our programming decisions, with the objective of figuring out how you create Wakanda in real life. And we settled on ‘healthy minds and healthy bodies create healthy communities.’”

Workshops at the sophomore event include everything from kemetic yoga for self and community healing, and discussions about mental health and how trauma impacts communities of color. In other sessions, participants can learn stunt choreography and build robots. Panels cover topics such as pro wrestling and cosplaying while Black, and Akron Watson (who plays Aaron Burr in Chicago’s “Hamilton”) will discuss life as a black theater professional in the cast of a ground-breaking show. As Barthwell put it, the need and want for community is there, regardless of a “Black Panther” movie release.

“Themes might change, but I think the event will definitely grow and shift as we continue to learn more,” he said. “Something that we’re really trying to do is to bring together those organizations who are working in the community and the people who are doing the work, whether it’s STEM education or advocates for creating spaces for LGBTQ people and let them amplify their messages using our platform.”

Ashley Walker, 30, will use the event to amplify her message that the country needs more black women in science. As a future astrochemistry student, she will lead an Adler Planetarium-sponsored panel about Black women in astrochemistry and planetary science, specifically the very low numbers of black women in the U.S. that hold Ph.D.s in physics (less than 100, according to Physics Today). The number is even lower in the field of astronomy, according to the organization African-American Women in Physics.

“Ashley is a rising talent who has everything it takes and more to become a top scientist,” said Nia Imara, an astrophysicist and current John Harvard Distinguished Science Fellow. “At this early stage in her career, she’s already done a lot for the community and is constantly inspiring young, future scientists. With her unique set of gifts, insights and experiences, we need her in astronomy.”

Walker will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Chicago State University before pursuing her Ph.D. in astrochemistry.

“My mom likes to tell the story that my uncle had to buy me a red telescope because, at one point in time, I wanted to be the moon, and another point in time, I wanted my parents to buy me a star out of the sky ... that’s what pushed me into the journey of astronomy,” she said. The Englewood native changed her career plans a few times, from professional dancer to forensic scientist, before discovering her passion for the chemistry of space.

Since 2015, she’s worked with others in her field, from planetary scientists to computational chemists, from Harvard University to Johns Hopkins University, studying planetary atmospheres and their chemistry.

Now, as a visiting research assistant at the Hörst Phazer Lab group in Maryland, Walker studies prebiotic chemical molecules on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. According to planetary scientist Dr. Sarah Hörst, the head of the lab and an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Walker is learning how to use infrared spectroscopy (a technique that looks at how light interacts with materials) to study planetary haze analog materials that are made in the lab. The experimental research is for Walker’s senior thesis.

“We’re looking at this chemistry and we want to understand how it went from chemistry to biology and we’re looking at the atmosphere of it and looking at the sand, looking at how it rains and how it has methane lakes,” she said.

“It’s such a unique place that NASA decided to check it out.”


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