Sometimes I think about what it would have been like if I had chosen a different job. Had I picked another career, a non-science career, what would life look like right now? Some things wouldn’t be very different at all. I would still have a snack drawer in my work desk, regardless of whether it was in an elementary school or in a press room. My days would still be punctuated by finely calibrated breaks during which I unbutton the top of my pants for a few minutes, a little gift to myself. I would still try to bring baked goods to meetings of all levels of importance (Madame President, the situation in Mosul is dire, but these brownies should help!).
But if I hadn’t gone into science, I imagine the most different thing would be not having to explain what my job actually is every time it comes up. How often does a nurse get asked “what do you mean ‘nurse’”? How regularly does an accountant get quizzical looks after bantering introductions over cocktails? Unless that accountant brings his pet bird to drinks, this never happens!
Most people have jobs folks have heard of, and their jobs entail tasks and ideas to which many people can relate. When I say I do scientific research, there’s usually the initial “Oh, my, well isn’t that interesting” or the “Ooh girl, yaas, get it” response, depending on the person I’m talking to. When I get into explaining that I focus on ecosystems and biogeochemistry, I tend to get the “bio-geo-what-now?” or the (sucks teeth) “well damn!” response, again, depending on my interlocutor. At this point, the discussion of my job is fully over, and someone has already brought up an episode of RadioLab that everyone already heard, or someone has managed to make a tenuous artificial intelligence connection to my mention of science, leading to a swift Westworld segue. Now, I’m mostly fine with this because it’s entertaining to discuss all the podcasts that have come to form our collective consciounesses (millenials, amiright?), and Westworld is bomb, though I’m personally saving it for a future binge afternoon. I’m convinced, though, that if people weren’t confused or overwhelmed, and sometimes even weird and cagey, at the mere mention of science, some solid conversations could take place. And, admittedly, if I could be less ham-handed at explaining what biogeochemistry is, that conversation would last past my first drink.
This got me to thinking about analogies, and how they work really well for everything else. Literature and poetry have had wild monopoly on this for a while (Metaphor! Simile! We get it, jeez!). But advertising also employs analogy to make usually ludicrous claims (chewing certain brands of gum literally never makes you feel like you are snowboarding, believe me). Scientists act like they’ve never heard analogies before, and instead choose to explain what they do in the most literal and unrelatable ways to general audiences. Tucked into this problem is the fact that jargon terms that mean the same thing as normal words feel like caffeine; saying them makes you feel pleasant but then later kind of disoriented (another analogy that lets on too much about my personal life). I imagine that plumbers refer to broken toilets as “broken toilets”, especially when an impatient party is paying for their time. Plumbers are doing it right!
Here are some pointers and resources that have helped me focus on using analogy and keeping it simple when explaining scientific ideas:
Lesson: Don't be a dirtbag
Lawd. It has been a minute since I had time (made time?) to write and think and not compute. It is without doubt that I do all manner of better when I take a bit of time to put some words down. I might start by answering the eternal question of "Sak pase?" , though despite the pithiness of the question, the answer is bulky. I'm in the midst of an impressive balancing act that may collapse at any moment. I've been concomitantly
This is on my experience with balancing efforts to increase diversity in a homogeneous academic field and doing the science research I love. If you have thoughts, please share in the comments.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been shelving my hobbies (writing, painting, making stuff out of other stuff) in lieu of a new task, one that isn’t at all a hobby, but is definitely not part of my job. My job as a graduate student is to absorb knowledge and skills from as many places as I can, to translate what I’ve garnered into some new knowledge, and to put that knowledge into the world as published research. (For context, I also buy and sample international variations on the cheese puff and I watch what my mother would call 'television that does not edify the mind', so it’s not all fun and games.) I do research because I love it and I think it makes me better. I do research because I like to think it might make the world better.
I don’t get to walk out of a discussion about race in science and stop thinking about it because the conversation ended.
But I’m not just a graduate student who does research. I’d like to be just a graduate student, but I’m not and couldn’t be if I wanted to. I and, dare I generalize, other students of color, have an immutable identity laced into our student identities, one that tugs and tightens throughout our years as researchers. I am not just a grad student because my phenotype is something I can’t step out of, can’t tone down, and can’t camouflage into the population of those who are “just grad students”. I showed up in academia with intentions of doing two things: learning and doing science. Steadily, I am realizing that my presence here, against all intentions, will force me to engage with things not wholly scientific. Here in the world of science research, I will have a different experience from most of my peers because I cannot turn off the brightly lit sign above my head that reads “now dealing with issues of diversity”. I don’t get to walk out of a discussion about race in science and stop thinking about it because the conversation ended.
There are many people, peers and senior colleagues alike, who know that the position of students of color in science departments, especially the natural sciences, is an awkward one. It’s a balancing act of sunny commonalities and sobering differences. For persons of color, losing that balance can be a fuck up in either direction. I’ve heard many times in many ways that this additional experience, being tasked with maintaining neutrality while working in a non-neutral system, is exhausting. This tax levied by academic science is certainly felt by minorities of all kinds, but the particular situation of persons of color in natural sciences is something different.
In my department, I’ve helped to start a conversation among students and postdocs about the meaning of diversity in ecology, why inclusion seems just beyond our reach, and whether we have been reaching for it at all. The ensuing dialogue has been supportive and constructive, but has also forced me to think about what it means that I, the only student of African descent in many years, was the one to start it. I’ve felt glad that students and faculty have been involved and action-oriented, yet the feeling that I’ve made myself accountable for the outcomes still nags. The question I circle back to is whether the onus of confronting the homogeneity of ecology tends to fall to me because I am a person of color, and whether I will shoulder that responsibility throughout my career. In one sense, dealing with under-representation is a choice I made knowing the time and effort the initiative would require. In another light, the choice feels much more like triaging wounds and treating the ones we simply can no longer put off. A necessary act.
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More critical than polemical, my goal in sitting and writing this was to get my head around whether the urgency I feel about changing what ecology looks like, where its practitioners come from, is felt as acutely among all graduate students and faculty. If not, I wondered this: what is the effect of dealing with representation and inclusion because your physical identity implicates you and dealing with these issues because engaging is a choice? These are the questions I held onto as I planned what I would say to a room full of Cornell professors at the faculty meeting this week. A few graduate students (really smart and brave graduate students) and I were invited to present our case for increasing diversity among applicants, students and faculty and propose solutions to the issue. For weeks we planned our message, our arguments, our solutions and deliverables (not unlike a grant proposal!). When the day arrived, everyone was nervous, but I think I felt something different from the rest because I am different from the rest. As the only brown-skinned person in the room that day, and only person one would describe as Black in our department, my stomach knotted with the fear of becoming that crusading Black girl.
True nausea, the kind that makes you almost stay home from work, plagued me the night before and throughout the morning. Was I setting a tone for the rest of my academic career, becoming that person who talks about diversity a lot? Was I going to walk into spaces and have people straighten up and speak diplomatically as though I were inspecting endlessly? Again, more nausea. This was that additional tax I’d heard about. The added cost of being forced to rally because for me, for us, the status quo grates. In a moment of lightheaded stress, I likened this predicament to the comments section of online articles. There in the nether regions of a controversial post, where vitriol runs freely, there is always someone who, despite the impossibilities of hate, is compelled to correct and inform and negate what seems overwhelmingly established. Why do you do this, you hopeful idiot? I say this when I errantly scroll down below the ads (“Five Things You’ll Never Believe Victoria Beckham Eats!”). This week I learned why the hail-Mary commenter screams into the internet. She does it because saying something, doing anything, makes it easier to believe that the status quo doesn’t have to be. In the same way, people in any minority group are so experienced in things happening to us that taking a stand, however flailing and hopeless, feels like us happening to things. It’s a subtle difference in state, but it means the difference between object and subject, between passive and active.
To my extreme pleasure, our conversation with our faculty went exceptionally well. Professors were understanding and interested in being involved. They were action-oriented. They listened. I doubt I could ask for a better interaction. But the question I started with remains. Despite these shared gains, does the toll of addressing homogeneity in science unequally affect those in the minority?
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.