(Re)claiming my scientific identity during dual pandemics

Image for post
Image for post
Originally published in this blog post. Illustrated by Amelyn Ng. Inspired by an illustration by Rose Wong from NBC news.

We are in the midst of two insidious threats to life. One of these, COVID-19, is new, [but disproportionately affects the Black and Latinx community]. The other, unjust and violent discrimination against Black people, is much older and deeply entrenched. How in the world will we overcome? Our emotions are raw and that can feel paralyzing. But, lives are at stake so action is required. We must respond…

-from “If not now, when? If not us, who? Perspectives on Stepping Up During Dual Pandemics” on the Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19 (CRAC) blog

If not now, when? If not us, who? is a common maxim but it captured where I was when I wrote the words above. I was affected by the public trauma witnessed by all who are existing during this time of intersecting pandemics. I was struck by the lived experiences of grief and private trauma. For instance, those shared with me by my friends Andrés (here on Medium) and James. I felt the need to respond and found several virtual volunteering opportunities. One of which was through Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19 (CRAC). Working as part of the blog team, I helped to chronicle the successes of Columbia University researchers in the anti-COVID-19 effort. Also, I felt moved to write about the pandemic of systemic racism and how the two pandemics intersected.

Writing for a public blog for the first time during the novel coronavirus pandemic required me to sit face to face with two identities — being a scientist and being a writer. In part, because of a pandemic of systemic racism that has been fought for generations, I had not fully claimed either title, especially “scientist”. With the upswell of an anti-racist movement and anti-science sentiments, I have felt the call and also had the platform to publicly address why I have struggled and now why I reclaim “scientist” as part of my young, Black, female identity.

“For me, the intersection of systemic racism and sexism that uphold the status quo in society and academia cannot be disentangled from ‘I don’t belong’ moments that grasp me each time I struggle to self-identify as a scientist or blogger.” […]

“I’ve just turned the corner on my 5th year of Ph.D. training. But, I must confess I’ve always hesitated to proclaim, ‘I’m a scientist.’”

Since writing the CRAC post quoted above, I have received and been asking myself the question: Why hadn’t I called myself a scientist until now?

My first answer goes deep. There is a dark history of science and scientists mistreating and exploiting Black people. This history is punctuated by the Tuskegee syphilis trials and the inhumane experimentation of enslaved Black women that props up the title, “father of modern gynecology”. The history of exploitation does not stay in the past but creeps into the modern day with the continued use of a cell line stemming from Henrietta Lacks’ cervical tumor (including in COVID-19 research) and the disbelief of Black women during medical diagnosis. These are but a few of the examples that make me question why I would want to be a part of science? Wouldn’t I be contributing to or even benefiting from this exploitation as a scientist?

I vividly remember learning about the scientific method in high school. I started then to hypothesize, gather data, do analyses, and make conclusions. I also learned about informed consent and ethics.

Science is a human endeavor, but it was designed with a built-in mechanism for self-improvement. Science doesn’t accept any single result as truth but always requires further investigation. Scientific inquiry mandates that we question even our favorite beliefs and theories and if the evidence is stacked in the opposite direction, science says to reject them. We have made incredible advances using this method to better understand our world. If at very least, we will need science and it’s methodology until we can combat the current COVID-19 pandemic and learn to prevent future ones. We need to continue making discoveries and updating obsolete and incorrect ideas. Fields as vast as astrophysics, soil biology, virology, and neurobiology need people to advance knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

For generations, people who look like me have heard the call and made contributions to this effort. This includes the first African American Columbia doctoral graduate (‘40), Dr. Charles Drew who developed a method for processing and preserving blood plasma and refused to contribute to the practice of segregating blood based on race. Another Columbia Ph.D. alumnus (’43) is Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark. She developed the “Doll Test” that provided scientific evidence that was influential in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Both Drs. Drew and Clark were a part of the scientific endeavor and ensured their science would promote equity.

We have and will continue to be a part of the scientific endeavor. Of which, I am also a part, but would I be able to take a stand? What am I claiming alongside the title “scientist”?

Image for post
Image for post
Photo of Ashlea holding the “Ain’t I a Scientist?” sign she made for the March for Science in Washington D.C. on April 22, 2017.

My second answer to “why hadn’t I…” revolves around the historic and current gender and racial exclusion of women who would serve as my “this is what a scientist looks like” references.

It would be easy for me to internalize societal ideas about who can use titles like “scientist”. There aren’t many teaching the sciences who look like me.

Of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in fall 2017, 6% were Black, half being Black women.

Despite the paucity of science faculty who look like me, I have had the honor and pleasure of taking classes, meeting and being mentored by established female and especially Black female science professors along my journey. They published papers, wrote books, won awards, and had letters behind their names. These women are accomplished and persist through it all. I strive to get to their level (and follow them on social media!), but without those achievements as prerequisites, I felt I was imposing.

“I am not as experienced as a senior scientist, but I don’t need to reach that level before my accomplishments are valid. I am doing science so I am a scientist. And, I am going to go ahead and say, I am a blogger. ”

As I prepared and wrote my previous blog post for CRAC, I tallied up my experiences and found empirical evidence that I have been doing science (even privately blogging, don’t judge, I was my own editor then) for the greater part of my life. I’m a novice, yet I still write and I still do science, i.e., coming up with hypotheses and testing them methodically. I met the prerequisites. That is enough to claim that I am a scientist.

Recently, however, a group of female undergraduate students indirectly asked for my help. They were interested in learning about the work and academic journeys of Black graduate students (like me) and additionally, established scientists. I thought this was a cool initiative. I didn’t even notice the title distinctions in their email until later when I scrolled through this Twitter thread, read this blog post, and chatted with friends and potential undergraduate mentees. It became clear: I still did not see myself as a scientist and many of my fellow female should-be-scientists didn’t either. This is even after we had the “prerequisites”.

Anecdotally, on the thread, more men than women were claiming the “scientist” title at an early age. This parallels data that showed a split between girls and boys in who they envision as scientists as they get older. At age 5, about 50% of all children draw a female scientist, this drops to 25% by age 10 (Asplund & Welle 2018).

Further, if you do an image search for “scientist” (or “writer,” for that matter), you’ll find results far from representative of the full spectrum of people who should call themselves by the title.

In speaking and thinking more about who can be a scientist, I believe that societal images drive us to discount our abilities based on perceived naivety — as if the evidence is not enough until we are also older and wiser. For this generation, no one would claim that you must be older and wiser to have the title of activist, whether that’s advocating for climate justice or civil rights. We have highly prominent images of young people in those roles.

We, too, shouldn’t dismiss the reality of what a scientist looks like: a child mixing various amounts of glue with Borax and marveling at the results, a middle or high schooler hypothesizing that water quality has an effect on plant height and testing it, and undergraduate students expertly presenting their summer research projects on the role of serotonin in the hippocampus on memory. We need to see all of these as images of scientists hard at work. Otherwise, how are we making our distinctions? When does one become a “real” scientist?

Even as we hear calls to “return to normal life,” we need to keep doing the work of rejecting, dismantling, and rebuilding any systems that allow for the systemic oppression of any minoritized group of people. Even when the mentality of the system is fully internalized, we need to do the work to keep pushing back. For the sake of those currently inside (not to mention the perceptions outside), we need to diversify the stories we tell about who is part of the scientific community. The voices of young, Black, female, and all individuals with intersecting underrepresented identities need to be empowered and heard.

I will encourage young scientists and writers in my sphere of influence to claim their ‘titles of distinction.’ And, as long as I am doing science and writing, I will proclaim and reclaim that I am a scientist and a writer.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

I‘m a writer ✍🏿 & neurobiology Ph.D. candidate 🧠 studying a mechanism behind how we think & behave flexibly. Grateful 🙏🏿 for family, friends, & food ❤️.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store