Rebecca Charbonneau is a Cuban-American historian who recently obtained a doctorate. from the University of Cambridge in research on the history and philosophy of science. She is also a Gates Fellow who has studied, among other things, colonist and colonialist science, extraterrestrial intelligence research, and Soviet and Cold War rocket and space science.
Prior to obtaining his MSc from Oxford University, however, Charbonneau was majoring in astronomy at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. After leaving Mount Holyoke for personal reasons, she ended up at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida to be close to her family. There, Charbonneau obtained a double specialization in art history and critical studies of media and culture (“like sociology, but with applied elements”) and a double minor in studies on sexuality, women and gender and in English.
Charbonneau said having a varied undergraduate liberal arts education is something she brought to her graduate studies in science: “Many of the contemporary challenges that exist in science, especially space science today, have historical roots. “
“Scientific fields tend to take objectivity for granted,” she said, explaining that “[scientists] often don’t realize how much of their way of thinking they have inherited. Charbonneau continued to unwrap these ways of thinking with stops at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory and the Whipple Library in Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, as well as at the NASA History Office. Since last fall, she has been at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as Historian in Residence.
“I was incredibly intimidated when I started walking into spaces like Oxford, Cambridge, NASA,” Charbonneau said. “There are bits of dust in there that are older than me and have seen more history than I have even studied.… I think we build these places as larger than life, and that prevents us to see how much we belong to those places… If I had been able to learn this sooner, I might have gotten to where I am more quickly.
Charbonneau identified two mentors who helped her overcome an initial bullying. “Two people from Rollins have had an incredible influence on me: Kim Dennis and Mackenzie Moon Ryan. Having female professors and university role models really helped me see that I could achieve this goal. And this has been especially valuable because my field of history of science, especially the history of physics and astronomy, is truly male dominated. “
His identity as a Cuban American helped contextualize Charbonneau’s academic interests. In particular, she is interested in “giving a voice to people in history who have not made their voices recognized.” I mean communities that were affected by colonialism, but I also mean people who were unable to enter the historical archives for various reasons.
“In fact, I’m really proud of the work I’ve done in Russia, for example. Because of the Putin administration’s crackdown on access to documents, it’s really, really hard to make history in Soviet science. And because of that, there is this image that there was not a lot of contributions from Soviet astronomers, Russian astronomers. Part of what I’ve done is a lot of oral history interviews where I’ve gone through and talked to people and tried to record their stories. It’s really a beautiful thing for me to be able to preserve the voices of these people.
This profile is part of a special series in our September 2021 issue on scientific careers.