Space for Creativity

All of the most creative ideas and approaches I have had came from being in places where I felt supported. I’m far from alone. People are more creative when they feel a sense of belonging. Why, then, have we been so slow to work towards creating inclusion and belonging in science and engineering?

My best students and colleagues were rarely the ones who made perfect scores and grades. They are often the ones who find a space where they feel like they fit and are welcomed. I think about the times I have navigated challenging environments in science, and in those times, I feel like I’ll never have another good idea. But, when those environments change, the ideas come flooding back. It is incredibly difficult to be creative when one worries is one’s colleagues will harass one, one’s students, or seek to make life difficult. One focuses more on survival than on what might be possible.

If we value science and engineering and innovation, we owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to dismantle the systems that make harassment and prejudice not only so easy in academia but so common. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues who have to work twice as hard to even be considered acceptable when, if we didn’t constantly judge and downgrade their performance, they would have the space to be transformational. We owe it to our fields and to the possibilities they hold. It is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do. Creating spaces that allow people to thrive creates better science and more possibilities.

Blending into the wallpaper

I read the Yellow Wallpaper in college and had nightmares for months about her decent into madness. But, life moves on, and with a love of science and much less love for having a boss, academia seemed like a good avenue. (It didn’t hurt that my advisor, who is truly a mensch of a human being encouraged me at every turn.)

One of the artifacts of being a woman in science is that I am often not heard. I have lost count of the number of times I have said something only to hear it reflected and discussed by my male colleagues as if they have conceived of the idea and brought it to fruition themselves. But I am not just unheard. I am often overlooked and unseen. Because of this, I have been privy to discussions that still leave me dumbfounded.

I have heard faculty blithely exclaim that people of a particular race are just not as good at science. I have heard the musing as to why this must be, but I have been flabbergasted when the same people think it is odd that I ask. When did I get there and why would I ask. Because it is wrong, a flawed premise, if one feels better ensconcing racism in the trappings of delicate language. There is nothing delicate about it. I have heard faculty blithely note that women really struggle as faculty. Again, there is shock when I exclaim whether they have lost their minds. They kindly assure me they are not talking about me. No, no.

The structures of academia are deeply well suited to maintaining heterosexual male white supremacy. The decisions are made by the same people who exclude others during hiring and promotion. Just the thought that one might have to write about how one contributes to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the time of hiring, much less during promotion is dangerous– apparently distracting from the merit of work.

There is little merit in work that propagates the colonial view that science is separate from society. Science is done by people about the world and universe around it. It is phenomenal and fantastic, and it is best when it includes both diverse people and perspectives. When a small group alone are the ones privileged to ask the questions, the work is just as small and misplaced. I watched a colleague for years develop drug delivery systems for the vagina that were too large to fit in the vaginas of the animal models. It was disconcerting and unethical for the animals. It was also just stupid, because the dosing wasn’t going to improve as the technology was translated. Another approach was needed, and if the work had been done in a way that his group members felt they could be heard, it would have been done better.

Science is the most empowering, transformational experience I have ever had. Getting to try to understand why, and getting to apply that to, hopefully, make things better… who wouldn’t want to be part of that? And they should be part of it. All of us are needed to unpack and apply understanding. We have incredible challenges right here, right now, and instead of deciding who belongs, we should be working on how to include everyone. I have watched more students who were deemed borderline flourish when they were supported and encouraged. Not every person has to want to do science, but everyone should have the opportunity and be supported, not just because they made it through a gateway but because we all will be better for their perspectives, questions, and insights.

I have blended into the wallpaper too often. It is maddening, and it is is scary to step away from it and call out the insanity of small minded people. I am deeply difficult for them, but as I speak, there is freedom, and I hope, over time, the crumbling of the fortifications of the tower. We all belong, and we are all essential to the enterprise.