One time, when I was 15 years old and considering a (more lucrative?) career in acting and screenwriting, my class took a trip to have a master class with a REAL ACTOR. He was none other than Chris Sarandon, who is the brother of, yes, Susan Sarandon. Having watched his most notable film Fright Night in preparation for my brush with fame, I was pretty sure Chris Sarandon would be a sexy spooky vampire, in addition to being mildly famous. Fifteen year old me was extremely concerned with impressing him. In the end, Chris Sarandon was not sexy (I’m lyin’, he was), spooky or interested in turning my classmates into vampires. He was just a nice older man who encouraged me to break into screenwriting. This past week, I had a similar experience with scientist, advocate for women in science and non-vampire Dr. Sasha Reed of the US Geological Survey. Despite my nervousness about meeting such a superstar, talking with her was so refreshing and uplifting, two things I’ve almost never felt upon meeting a fancy scientist.
Sasha is a biogeochemist who thinks about how global environmental change will alter ecosystem function via terrestrial nutrient cycling. She’s drawn to the Earth’s extremes, so her study sites range from the wet tropical forests of Puerto Rico and Hawaii to the aridlands of the American west. Her publication record is poppin’ and the amazing range of her expertise is almost enough to make me turn off Grey’s Anatomy and start exploring new areas of the literature (almost). On top of all that, she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011 by President Obama, so you know she’s doing something right.
“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would always have been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.”
This is the epigraph of a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance” (Spencer et al. 1999). I’ve got to start by saying that this is an amazing quotation to open a paper. Woolf published A Room of One’s Own in 1929, when the borders surrounding the acts of being and doing were explicit and codified for women. Decades later, in 1999, Woolf’s lamentation remained relevant and remains relevant in 2016. Part of Spencer’s doctoral dissertation was this study on the effect of stereotype threat, which the authors define as “the experience of being in a situation where one faces judgment based on societal stereotypes about one’s group”, on how individuals deal with situations where their actions may reinforce the existing stereotype. Not only was this research unique at the time for exploring the experience of being judged or stereotyped, but it also started by focusing on a societally common but rarely critically examined stereotype—that females perform poorly in math compared to males. Spencer hypothesized, correctly, that when you know someone is judging you, that the expectations set for you are low or negative, that knowledge interferes with how well you can do, even if you are capable of performing well.
My life, both as a Graduate Student and as A Human in The World, has been sort of chaotic of late, leading me to avoid trying to sit down and get my thoughts about the things happening to/because of me into an intelligible format. Not just an intelligible format but more importantly, one that matters to anyone besides my personified diary.
Diary: It’s been a while Sue, girl. Tell it how it is! Let it all out. Don’t even worry about how it will all sound. This is a safe space for your tender grad student underbelly.
Sue: Diary, thank you so much for saying that. You’re always so available and I love that I can imagine you as Donna from Parks and Rec and not feel like I’m perpetuating stereotypes in this safe space.
Diary: Whatever, girl, I will be as sassy and supportive as you need me to be. All you have to do is write some sentences in me, at some point. Just a few.
Sue: (Fidgeting with a melting tub of ice cream) I’m really sorry I’m so busy right now I can’t write about my life but thanks again for reminding me, you’re literally the greatest. *Sheepishly opens Netflix*
Diary: -_____- Scandal, really? Basic.
Anyway, I’m hoping to do right by my Diary, who has been side-eyeing me on my nightstand for months, and this blog, by sharing some thoughts retrospectively on this past summer. I’m going to call it Summer Jam, because I wish I went to the Summer Jam hip hop/R&B concert/goliath when I was a teen, rather than exclusively going to Belle & Sebastian concerts, where I skewed the age distribution significantly.
This first portion of the Summer Jam series is on Learning New Things as an Adult. This might seem like a lame way to honor my sassy Diary, readers, my aspiring blog and the eponymous hip hop concert/wet T shirt contest that is Summer Jam, but I promise it’s a more important topic than you think. Let me show you, by way of Narrative…
My research has taken me to a murky new area (who am I kidding, most of science is a murky, mysterious business): functional analysis of soil microbial communities through gene analysis. For my research questions, this means looking at the bacteria and archaea in soils in terms of some job that they do and the genetic switch that controls how much they can do that job. For instance, if you’re curious about a biological activity like nitrification, which turns ammonium in soil into nitrate (all the plants say: hell yeah, do that thang), you might want to look at the genes that control nitrification. For some of you, that’s equivalent to toasting waffles and calling it a gourmet breakfast, but for others, it’s as confusing as the US electoral college (what is that thing?). As it turns out, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do, but trying something new has been a separate quest entirely.
My lab doesn’t do molecular anything, so this piece of my dissertation has been more independent from my advisor than any other. To get the expertise, lab space, equipment and patience necessary to learn the molecular techniques for this project, I needed to team up with a lab that could furnish/tolerate me and help me to interpret the results. Enter: The Hewson Lab. Located in Wing Hall on Cornell’s campus, this team of Excellent Humans mostly studies marine viruses but strayed from their watery path to work with my tropical dirt. I walked into the Hewson lab in early June with only a fuzzy knowledge of what PCR (polymerase chain reaction, for those folks who like to front like I did) actually is, and only a few papers under my belt that explained the techniques in that vague way that methods sections do. I was nervous, nay, terrified?, that I was going to be found out as a fraud who needed way more instruction than anyone was willing to give. Nodding confidently as the microbiology grad students explained the steps for extracting DNA from soils, making a “master mix” and running a gel, I was actually just becoming dizzy and making a half-baked list of things to Wikipedia (look, it’s a verb!) later.
My options, going into this new situation, were to start fronting immediately, admit all my ignorance, or pull together some combination that preserved my pride while allowing me to actually know what was going on. As I often do (popcorn/Reese’s Pieces, gin/tonic, Haitian parent/ Indian parent), I went for the combo. My reticence to admit what I didn’t know came from a couple of places. How could I, knowing what people who have gone to high school and Private Colleges are expected to know, tell someone that I have never really done PCR before (not even in Bio lab)? Or that I am not sure why gene copy numbers vary among taxa? Or that annealing temperature is a foreign concept to me? Or that I read a phylogenetic tree as well as I do Italian (badly, with a lot of guessing)? All of these uncertainties stem from my late turn from the liberal arts to the sciences (junior year, NYU) and my protracted catch up routine.
But how to dispel the anxiety that the people with whom I work, the nice, smart and reasonable people, don’t somehow have these thoughts bubbling somewhere beneath the surface?
They also come from a less straightforward place—one more steeped in mainstream expectations of people who look like me. There’s a very real set of underlying expectations of Black and brown people when it comes to academic pursuits. You’re either assumed to come from low-achieving schools and therefor have a lower baseline knowledge and experience than your colleagues, or you’re an exception to this rule, a shining anomaly and a testament to the lack of problems and racial disparities in education. When you are that brown person, you’re kind of fucked either way. Whether you do extremely well or fumble through (as most grad students do!!) you somehow enable a stranger to go: “See, just as I always said!”. And that’s precisely what I wanted to avoid. But how to dispel the anxiety that the people with whom I work, the nice, smart and reasonable people, don’t somehow have these thoughts bubbling somewhere beneath the surface? I don’t know if there is a good way to talk yourself out of that discomfort, or for that matter whether anyone should. Whether or not your immediate colleagues think in overt or subtle generalizations, or in any generalizations at all, someone out there does. And wherever that person is, their assumptions do something real, felt, to the experience of being brown and being an academic at the same time.
So this is what I’ve gathered about learning new things as an adult. The position of being older, of having made it to grad school, and a fancy one at that, comes with mixed expectations of what you should know. Some of those expectations make sense: understanding the building blocks of life, the genetic basis of biological functions, these things are fair expectations. Others are less reasonable because as PhD students, we’ve come to specialize, and when your research draws from a couple of disciplines, there’s bound to be a moment where you have to learn something from the ground up. And then there are the expectations that are based on what people think they know, and which reveal a confirmation bias born of latent prejudice. This last one, it’s the worst, and I’ve experienced on a number of occasions that I might recount later. The best thing that I’ve learned from fumbling around a microbiology lab most of this summer is that having facts crammed into your head and stuntin’ like you were just born with a PhD is a lot less respected than is the ability to learn new concepts and unite them with your own area of expertise. TBH, this is a relief to me.
This post is, broadly, about getting what you deserve. In this sense, I won't be discussing anything directly related to research, but this will be about being an academic to some extent. I'll start with a pretty weird experience I had this past week at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. The Summit, which focuses on problems affecting women around the world as well as innovations and triumphs of women, is a fairly exclusive event. Its purpose is to showcase stories of women experiencing and witnessing loss, persecution, trauma and subjugation in an effort to motivate a mostly American audience to take some sort of action towards improving the world for women. I say that it is exclusive primarily because of its cost, which ranges from $50-$300 per day for a three-day event, and the fact that it is a star-studded event featuring numerous big names (Hillary R. Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, the list goes on) and what my untrained eye would call a gala. In effect, the Summit wants to be a sort of feminist national convention while it is actually somewhat less inclusive or progressive than it presents itself. More on this later.
The reason I was able to attend the event (for free) was because I asked to. I decided I wanted to go, contacted some organizers, and sent an email explaining why I and other women at Cornell would benefit from the opportunity. Weeks passed before I heard from organizers and at that point I expected a polite "no". Instead I got a very positive "yes", followed by "we can offer up to 50 tickets". Listen, when I say I was shocked, I was truly mouth agape, high pitched squealing, floored. Their offer further nuances the assertion that the Summit is exclusive, and complicates what I think about the whole event. My point, though, is that through this experience, I was reminded that though I am not entitled to anything and that asking for what I want is the best (only?) way to get anything. I feel extremely grateful for those tickets but at the same time realize that my own feeling of not deserving to attend, due to my lack of funds or social clout or general relevance, would have held me back from even sending that plaintive email. I had a five hour bus ride to NYC to think about the fact that my expectations of what I should and shouldn't have probably hold me (and others!) back from simply asking for what they desire, and that's pretty shitty. Getting to go to the Summit was a good experience, but realizing that my own expectations of what I should and shouldn't have are like a personal roadblock was even better.
Part Deux: When your outcome is nothing like a Mary Kate & Ashley movie
The other thing that happened to me last week was my A exam, the Cornell equivalent of the qualifying exam, which determines your candidacy for a PhD. I'm neurotic (or just extremely into preparedness, a la Jennifer Lopez in Enough), and therefore had been studying for the exam, which is a 2-3 hour verbal ordeal with my PhD committee plus a written assignment, since November 2014. Things got serious when I realized I was two months away from the gauntlet, at which point I stopped responding to most communiques that were not bookended with questions about ecology. I worked every day to make sure I had covered all (or most) of my bases and my only succor was night cheese. I thought that I was highly likely to pass because I DID NOTHING BUT STUDY AND EAT (SOMETIMES). But, so it goes, I was passed conditionally, meaning that I have to do some reading and some writing and take a forest ecology course because I was almost good enough, but not perfect. If anyone reading this knows me (likely no one is reading this so I'm not super worried about it), then you know that I work extremely hard at the things I think are important and pretty much consider myself a deadbeat if I don't meet my own idea of excellence. Guys, I actually couldn't not cry after hearing that I got a conditional pass because I was so, so upset. And this fact only made matters more uncomfortable, because who even cries in front of their PhD committee? Yes, that's correct, only baby geniuses who are both infants and scientists (more on this later).
So, in this case, I worked my ass off to ensure that no component of photosynthesis was left unmemorized, no global carbon flux was without a known size, and still the outcome was not what I thought my efforts warranted. Since I was a small child in a so-so public elementary school, and perhaps even before that, I had been told that hard work and dedication gets you exactly what you want, what you deserve. And as it does for many people, that meant something to me, and when it didn't prove true, I believed some cosmic injustice might be at play. Now, because my self loathing has settled and I've put on my big girl pants (read: any pants at all), I am able to see through my drama cloud to the reality of things: that there is an element of randomness even in the midst of preparedness that necessitates taking a good look at failure and saying "yup, that's a thing that happened, and my value as a human remains more or less in tact". Though obvious, this last part is kind of the crux of a problem with people like me, like plenty of young PhD students, who often measure their value by their academic success. Many millenials are raised to believe that hard work makes one deserving of success and don't always know how to make sense of normal, run of the mill failure. I find that the logical converse, that failure puts a mirror to our personal work ethic, has kind of screwed us up.
So here's the take away: that youngish, smartish, academic women probably don't think they are good enough to have things and thus don't ask for the things they want. Those same people have been brought up believing that enough effort makes one deserving of success, and that coming up short is a sure sign of one's character. To conclude, I say "dang, we need to reevaluate".
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.