UCF student Keanna Jardine ’18MS feels a lot of pressure. She’s an African American woman pursuing a doctoral degree in physics, with a focus on planetary sciences.

Jardine represents a small number of black women in the field of Astronomy. According to a study by the American Institute of Physics, in 2016 as low as 3 percent of those who received bachelor’s degrees in Astronomy were African American.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and attending an underfunded high school, Jardine felt she began her academic pursuits from a place of disadvantage. There, both the facilities and the staff suffered greatly as a result of budget cuts, and Jardine was especially devastated by the lack of proper science and technology resources for its students.

From the start of her undergraduate studies at Adelphi University, she felt her high school experience contributed to a feeling she describes as imposter syndrome. The sensation still haunts her some days.

“I felt like maybe I didn’t belong completely,” she says. “I had to work 10 times harder to catch up.” Jardine expresses that there is a particular struggle to succeed because the expectations are extremely high for women of color.

Although the odds are stacked against her somedays, her track record leaves no doubt about her work or her potential.

She was admitted into UCF’s selective physics doctoral degree program in 2016 under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Adrienne Dove. Last spring, Jardine became a NASA fellow, earning a Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) grant. More than 250 graduate students applied for the fellowships in the planetary sciences division nationwide. Only 29 were selected. The recognition comes with enough money to cover her research and the rest of her graduate school career.

Jardine’s research focuses on asteroids and the space dust that forms them. This dust — which makes up the surfaces of most celestial bodies — is still mostly a mystery. Jardine investigates the adhesive and cohesive properties of this dust, the ways it builds up to create asteroids, and then breaks down and enters the solar system again. Despite disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Jardine continues her work while following health guidelines to keep herself safe when she is in the lab.

In understanding the qualities of dust, Jardine is contributing to what is known of planet formation and the role of dust in that process. Through the creation of earthen stimulants made to mimic this dust, Jardine makes intelligent guesses on how dust acts in space through critical research. Once she completes her degree, she hopes to work for NASA. She said she hopes to act as living proof to those back home that there is a place for them in academia and STEM.

“I have little sisters and they look up to me,” she says, “I want to be a role model for them.”