The article below was first written for the Free Radicals Blog and is being shared again at my personal blog below. Find the original post here.
I led a group of college students on a field ecology trip to the Adirondacks in the fall of 2016. As I prepared for the trip, it occurred to me that their experience with camping and hiking would vary. Some people are to the outdoors as Beyonce is to the stage, raised in nature’s glow and clad in Gortex as she was in sequins. Others might have a little exposure to nature, like children given wine at the dinner table: introduced early enough to play it cool in later encounters. What excited me were the students for whom the word stakes only invoked dinner or gambling, not shelter. I looked forward to watching their reactions to the torrential downpour we would sleep through and the effusive sun meeting the horizon the next morning. How incredible would it be to witness someone’s nascent relationship with nature take shape?
I realized disdainfully that I would hardly see this moment during the trip—almost every student in the group had already spent plenty of time hiking. Their previous experience with the outdoors was likely the reason they had signed up for the class in the first place. Despite my initial excitement, the excursion ended up only sharpening the point of an old thorn: the racial divisions within natural spaces.
The students in our group explored the forest with ease, each contact seemingly both familiar and personal. As I guided them through different ecosystems, I began thinking about the social and emotional capital that these students – who were almost all white and upper-middle class – hold because of their experience with hiking, camping, backpacking and climbing. I was reminded of how people of color specifically have been alienated from nature. Without a mainstream culture that normalizes outdoor activity, it is unlikely (though admittedly not impossible, e.g. myself) that a young person of color would seek to spend time in nature beyond passing through it. History and culture tend to sieve out those who “know” nature and, as in my forest ecology class, impact who may go on to study the environment.
White families populate most people’s mental picture of who uses natural public spaces. This image stems from both contemporary and historical notions of who these spaces were intended for when they were created. Established in 1872 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone National Park inaugurated the world’s first public parks system. When the national parks initiative became a full-fledged National Parks Service in 1916, the parks concept was being developed and promulgated by a certain set of wealthy men, sometimes described as hunter conservationists. Though the intent was to conserve America’s natural spaces for public use, the issue of which public’s use became contentious. As states began issuing Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation following the abolition of slavery, the National Parks System followed local laws and maintained segregation in recreational spaces. Parallel to the legacy of segregation in national parks, African Americans and other non-white people associated nature with potential danger. Hiking while Black in the early 20th century could certainly lead to a violent encounters with white segregationists, and that caution has been embedded in the cultural memory of Black America. While small groups of African Americans were involved in the early maintenance of national parks, non-white employment in the National Parks Service today is dismally low (17.9% as of 2011). Together, these historical factors guaranteed that most African Americans were unlikely to approach natural spaces recreationally, cementing the wariness of many African Americans to the outdoors today.
Some might argue that nature appreciation is only racialized because of longstanding cultural differences between those of European versus those of non-European ancestry. This argument is facile because it flattens the cultural topography of non-white people and neglects the multifaceted relationships that African, Asian, and Latin American and Indigenous groups have built with their natural surroundings for centuries. The present distance between people of color and nature partly results from historic barriers to land ownership in the United States. Thus the reticence of black people towards nature is equally a function of class inequality as it is racial injustice. Landowners in 19th and 20th century America, mostly wealthy whites, were also those with the means to spend leisure time in nature, and for whom outdoor activity marked status. People of color formed the slave and labor classes which were disenfranchised of their civil rights and the ability to experience nature for pleasure. The historical connections between class, fear of racial violence, and nature have shaped the present racialization of who is likely to be “outdoorsy”.
Without my happenstance opportunities to immerse myself in forests, I likely would not have discovered my love for them, and would almost certainly not be an ecologist today. My voice would not be a part of the conversation among scientists who are trying to solve the problems wrought upon the environment. Still, exposure to nature is a social filter through which so many people of color will not pass. The historically imposed distance between people of color and their natural surroundings is widest in the halls of universities. The people and perspectives driving environmental research are homogenized by the same filter that I slipped through by chance.
As I observed the students exploring wetlands, hardwood forests and alpine ecosystems that weekend in the Adirondacks, I listened to their excitement about the curious mushrooms we found, and how beautiful the clay soil felt, and thrill of knowing the names of trees. Herding them back into the van and driving back to campus, I was hard hit by the duality of my happiness and unease. The mostly white makeup of that trip was a result of active historical exclusions. Enrollment of black and brown students in the future would not change without active inclusion effort. By inspecting the roots of this inequity, uncovering its causes, and actively connecting people of color with nature, we can reshape the populations on trails, train new environmental experts, and pursue environmental questions with fresh eyes.
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.
* * *
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?
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.
There was no Summer Jam blog series. I'll come out and say it because I dropped that ball like the sweaty-palmed non-athlete that I am. So there. But I have some other thoughts for you. This post could also be called "Sue Pierre's: Why Did I Get Accepted 2". That's a Tyler Perry reference for those who don't like garbage cinema.
This semester has been a bunch of things to me. It was mostly a time of transition and realizing (but when are we not doing those things?). It was pain and relief too close together to tell apart. Through this semester, I’ve been served a few lessons and one that I want to talk about here, mostly a note to myself.
I switched lab groups. I started a new advising relationship. I worked more independently than ever, and didn’t fail. I published my first paper. I became a mentor. I decided that academia does not equal success. I looked around me and noticed that I’m not the only one who’s feeling exhausted and tired of this grind. And that despite my exhaustion, the reasons to persevere persist. They’re there.
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".
I've been happily plodding along, hopeful and unaware, towards what I thought would be my first published paper. It's nothing big, nothing earth-shattering, but it's mine (and a few other people's), and I've been working at it for so goddamn long (relative to the rest of my life). But it recently occurred to me, halfway through the process of responding to reviewer comments, that my data may be have been misrepresented by the statistical analyses I used. Misrepresented. I'm going to let you sit with that for a minute because it took me over an hour to move past this fact. My interpretations and conclusions in my already-peer-reviewed paper might be bullshit, and this alters the message of the paper I've already submitted.
I sat in my office nearly the entire day, hardly moving, rapidly typing, deleting and retyping R code to try and figure out where things went wrong. By the end of the day I was exhausted, hella cranky, and still wanting for answers. More than anything, I was worried about what the senior scientist with whom I'm collaborating would think. We were 3 days away from our resubmission deadline, my conclusions had suddenly seemed as valid as a snowball on the Senate floor, and I was unable to decide whether to press on or retract the questionable data.
Though the other two problems still exist, the last one is no longer an issue. It took me a few minutes of hand-wringing and light whining to realize that I can't publish something that I doubt. I'm disappointed with the current situation, but I'm coming away with a lesson in science ethics. You just don't put something out unless you're data say it's true. As for my paper, she will eventually see the light of day, but I need to do a bit more tinkering before her debut. I'm trying to think of it as progress, not failure.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.