Improving Ecology for Students , Women and The Public: Thoughts from Dr. Sasha Reed
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.
Stereotype Threat is Real
“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.
Getting what you deserve
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.