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?
“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.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.