Nature, Science, and Having to Say Goodbye

One of my really amazing students, Dr. Nuzhat Maisha, graduated recently. She is one of the most careful, hardworking scientists I have had the privilege of collaborating with over the past five years. She’s moving this weekend to Boston to start working at a company, and they are incredibly lucky to have her.

We met today via video to go over the revisions for two of her manuscripts. She was surrounded by boxes, and I was home at my small desk on the porch. As we were talking about the role one of the polymer components played, I yelled and fell down. There was a wasp around my desk.

I am not a nature person. I love nature, but I’m most comfortable when nature and I can be at a respectful distance. Nature, I think, feels the same way. When I ran into a bear in the Catskills, both of us were delighted to keep moving on. I was terrified. The bear mostly seems annoyed that the eggplant in running shoes was singing to deter it.

Once I stopped screaming, and I really hope Nuzhat had pressed the mute button, I obtained the swatter. I had no intention of swatting the wasp. It is a mud dauber, and they are very beneficial insects, but I needed to deter it until I had a plan. We carried out the rest of the conversation periodically interrupted by screaming and deterrent-swatting and science.

I hate saying goodbye, especially to brilliant, wonderful colleagues. I miss her already. I’m sad that our last meeting involved screaming and wasps, but I am so grateful for the last five years, and I’m so grateful that when I’m losing it, I get to work with a brilliant colleague who finds the humor (and mute button, I hope) in the unexpected things that happen. It is what makes science and collaboration amazing.

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.

Where are the stories of scientists?

I was watching a documentary about obituary writers recently, and in it, one of the writers addressed the question as to why the New York Times had a large number of white men in their obituaries as resulting from the historical nature of obituaries. People who made an impact in the 50s and 60s were predominantly white men. In the future generations, obituaries will be more diverse.

Here’s the thing– people who made an impact have always been diverse, but the stories that have been told have not been very diverse. Just in science, we don’t tend to tell the stories of people who are diverse. James Parsons Jr., a Black scientist, ran a large research lab in the 1940s and developed critical formulations for stainless steel, and yet one has to look around to find his story. Norbert Rillieux, a free Balck man, is the father of modern chemical engineering developing the multiple effect evaporator in the 1840s, and yet it takes hunting to find his story. Evelyn Roberts was pivotal to testing and characterizing pyrex glass in the 1910s and 1920s. I would guess that most chemical engineers and materials scientists don’t know the stories these people who transformed their disciplines. I didn’t know until I went looking for them.

We need to to make sure our students know that scientists have always been diverse, but their stories have not always been told. We need to tell their stories.

Pandemic days

Sitting down and writing is a luxury I haven’t had in the pandemic. It’s such a strange thing to think about, that we’ve been home since March. When the pandemic started, I was trying to straighten out my aunt’s estate. We’re still in the pandemic, and I’m still trying to straighten things out, but it is further along which is a relief.

I find parenting in the pandemic surreal. My son is 7, and if someone isn’t in the room with him, he tends not to log in or stay logged in. The same kid who could play video games for hours wants nothing to do with online learning. He wants to talk with a person who talks back. He loves his teacher, but he knows his teacher is talking to over 20 kids, and he’s lucky if he gets called on once or twice during the day. When I’m there, he talks to me. He wants to connect and share. Sometimes, he just wants to curl up and be held. If we snuggle for 10 minutes, we both feel better.

We went walking over the weekend, and I asked him what questions he had about the pandemic. He wanted to know why this was different than other colds and viruses. He wanted to know when and how it would end and if there would be another one. He wanted to know if he had to go to school, and when he did if it would be the same or different. He wanted to know if people would hug again. He also wanted me to know he was ok with not hugging as long as we could still hug sometimes. Me, too.

My mom was a hugger. My aunt wasn’t. One of her friends described her as spikey. That was a good description. She could be warm and generous and funny. She was always smart. But, she felt betrayed easily. It was hard for her to trust people. She and my mom had incredibly hard lives. My grandfather died when they were young, and my grandmother struggled with raising children. She locked them in the closet when she brought over dates because she said men didn’t want to see children. Neither my mom or my aunt even felt good enough.

My aunt kept an incredible collection of slides and photos. Going through them over the last year, I remembered what it was like when I was little and my mom and aunt lived across the street from each other. On Friday nights, my dad would go out, and they would open a bottle of wine and talk. I loved those nights. They were incredibly happy and laughed hard. They could fight like nobody’s business, but they laughed a ton, too.

I don’t remember my mom laughing like that after we moved away. I don’t remember my aunt laughing like that, either. We all still got together, but it always felt forced, until my mom had cancer. My mom had moved in with me, but once it metastasized, she went home. She hadn’t talked to my aunt in a number of years, but at some point, my aunt called. It then became a weekly thing for my aunt to come over. My dad started traveling a lot, so when I was there, it was often the three of us again. Some of the time, they laughed like they had all those years ago.

My aunt was a mess when my mom died. She could be spikey, and she was incredibly spikey then. She came to visit me a few times, but she was still spikey. We hadn’t talked in a long time when she called to tell me she had cancer. On the last day together, we talked about my mom. The spikes were gone. We were back in the kitchen on a Friday night, when stories were told, laughter was made, and joy was found by those who carried so much with them. I miss them, both.