Baking cookies

We’re making cookies. Nothing particularly fancy. Butter cookies (with vegan butter– stupid dairy intolerance) from a cookie monster cookbook my mom and I were given when I was little. My mom and I made these cookies for Halloween and decorated them like pumpkins. At Valentine’s Day, they were hearts. At Christmas, we hauled out all the old irons and made Norwegian cookies. I haven’t had the guts to try them without my mom yet.

My son and I will make the dough, chill it, and go for a walk. We’ll roll out cookies. He’ll get bored if history serves, so I’ll finish, and we’ll put them in the over. He loves colored sugar, so I have plenty on hand.

When I bake cookies with him, we hold my mother’s hand. Not literally. She died in 2008, but we hold it nonetheless. We talk about her. He gives me the greatest gift by asking about her and wondering what she was like, and I walk through my memories with him and tell him our stories.

The cookies are quiet good, but the community around them is phenomenal.

Naivete in Science and Academia

We are in the middle, or perhaps still the beginning, of a pandemic. Protestors are finally being heard about black lives matter. One of the questions that arises as we see all of the inequities– many of us seeing them, perhaps, for the first time– is whether we will do anything about it.

We know there are inequities in academia about which students thrive, which faculty succeed, and which become leaders in their institutions and disciplines. Every time I participate in a faculty search and hear that the pipeline is too leaky– there are not enough women or black scholars in a discipline to be able to have applications much less interviews, I think back to my first position at Yale. I wondered when I arrived why there were so many new hires who were women or black faculty. I had heard the story that we didn’t exist or didn’t want to go into academia and yet every other hire was a woman or black person. Then I learned that the provost had offered a deal where for every female or black faculty hire, the department was given a second hire, and it made sense. The mysterious, unlikely and allegedly non-existent faculty hires existed after all, and we were incredible. Some of the leaders in our fields started together at Yale.

We have an opportunity in this time to try and deconstruct the systemic racism that runs through our institutions. First, we have to want to do it, and I’m not sure most academics have the stomach for it. We all struggled and sacrificed to get tenure and to move up through the system. Tenure, which was created, in theory, to protect academic freedom, is a funny beast. The AAUP lobbied for it and it was institutionalized in 1940 to protect faculty from being fired because wealthy donors objected to them. We claim it protects our right to speak and research controversial topics, and often my colleagues talk about how it is what makes them comfortable speaking out, but then why is it not applied to all faculty– to the teaching faculty, the newer faculty, or our adjuncts. Are we protecting the voices of those who have shown they understand and respect the system above other things?

In my role, I think a good bit about how we can help all of the incoming faculty to be successful. I also think about the students and how many times I have heard them ask why the faculty do not reflect their diverse races and backgrounds. I don’t think small tweaks to what we do are enough. What happened at Yale wasn’t a small tweak– it was a huge investment, and it did bring in a far more diverse faculty, but once we arrived, we were reminded over and over that we had to prove ourselves, or we wouldn’t belong.

We need to make big steps at every stage– recruiting, interviewing, mentoring, collaborating…. when I went up for full, one of the comments I received was an observation that I didn’t seem to collaborate much in my own institution. A colleague was surprised that I wasn’t on grants with other colleagues. I would sometimes be put on them, but in every case, when the funds were awarded and the budgets cut so was I. It isn’t an accident that most of my collaborations over the years are with female colleagues. They are excellent and they want to collaborate with me.

Every person has a different experience, but one of the commonalities of being one of the few in a field is that one is often excluded from collaborative opportunities.

In Europe, the commission that oversees EU research funds, the European Research Council, spent years mandating that projects needed to have more diverse leadership. I watched as my female colleagues who were so often excluded from opportunities to lead were able to lead, at least in part, and then in toto. They rocked it. They brought different perspectives, ideas, and approaches to challenges. They asked different kinds of questions. They had a seat at the table, and science was the better for it.

We can make this kind of change. It needs to happen. Most scientists, like most people, tend to iterate. But, put them together with a broader range of perspectives and experiences, and better questions and more creative, impactful answer will happen.

What needs to be done? We need to change how we do hiring. We need to think more broadly across our institutions and get out of the mindset of the department and committee that focuses down on small details. We need to set up mentoring that helps people form and maintain connections. We need to be more connected to and involved in our communities. We need to support our colleagues as undergrads, grads, postdocs, faculty– throughout their careers. The pet to threat construct needs to be dismantled.

Much of the science in the US happens at academic institutions. We need to change how those institutions function if we are to do the best work and find solutions to the enormous challenges we face. I want to change the structures of academia not because it can be done but because it needs to be done. I’ve been called naive for wanting to change them. Perhaps I am. Perhaps they cannot change, but if that it is case, I fear for our world and for the science we all need to heal ourselves and our planet. We have to try, and we have to do better if we want to do the best work.

Ways to Rethink How We do Academic Work to be More Inclusive

Black lives matter. They matter everywhere, and they matter in science and engineering, but we have far too many barriers and far too few colleagues.

There are so many structures we have in academia that whether we are willing to admit it or not are designed to see if people can hack it. It’s such a strange demented thing. Science and Engineering are already tough enough without putting up artificial barriers. These barriers become pressure points for structural racism, sexism, and bias.

Doctoral Students. If we want to be inclusive and empower students for success, fund them. Don’t fund them on research grants where they are beholden to a specific investigator who, in turn, is beholden to the whims of funding. Fund the students. We have NSF fellowships and others, and they are phenomenal. They give students great opportunities. If if were not for an NSF Fellowship years ago, I would have left science. It allowed me to change fields and find my passion. We need more of these opportunities.

Funding Agencies. Study section pains me. Grant applications should be blind. Study sections shouldn’t judge the talents of an investigator. It’s bunk. It comes up when reviewers find fault. Someone didn’t publish enough of had a gap. Is the work important? Is it innovative? Great. If we are truly putting out PhDs who can propose innovative work, it should be funded. Stop basing proposals on perceived track records and start basing them in creative, important work.

Publishing. In fields where publishers have moved to double blind reviews, the diversity of authors increased. Why is it so important that we know who the authors are?

Team science. We need to find more opportunities for everyone who wants to be part of a team to be part of one. It is incredibly difficult to do science in a silo, but if you are a woman or minority in science, chances are you will not have the same opportunities to collaborate, and if you do, you’re going to be doing the majority of the work– diminishing the impact of being on the team. We need to find ways to promote building more diverse and inclusive teams. Incentives related to funding and publishing can help change the landscape.

These are small but important steps to help change the structural flaws in the system. If academia really wants to undo the structures, start with getting rid of tenure. Tenure is not about freedom of speech. If it was, it would be for all faculty. Tenure is about propagating the status quo.

The status quo needs to change.

Shock, Horror, and the Role We Can Play

I feel like I’m letting my students down. I look at what is happening, and I don’t have the words. In too short a time, the list of names is far too long. I saw the video of George Floyd being pinned down, begging for his life, calling for him mother, and I wanted to reach through the screen and tear that officer off him and hold him and tell him it would be ok.

It is not ok. It is terrible, and horrible, and unthinkable, except how can it be unthinkable when it keeps happening.

So, what do we do? We demand better from our governments, our officials, our colleagues. We stand with each other and say enough. We stop using the terminology of savagery that tries to dehumanize humans and we get over our fear that our parents tried to teach us and treat people as full human beings regardless of their race, gender, orientation, or any of the other preconceived classifications we could derive to debase their humanity.

But that is not enough. In every aspect of our lives, we participate in the structures that contribute to racism. How many times have I sat in reviews where the person’s race was discussed? How many times have I heard it used to explain their failure, and how many times have I thought, what failure are they talking about? I spoke, but never loudly enough or often enough.

Women are speaking out, but too often they are speaking out against black men. I look at how Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog and her response, and I can’t help but think of all the times I’ve been told to be scared of being alone with a man, especially a black man. We are finding our voices, but using them for the wrong reason too much of the time– to feed fear rather than finding a new structure where being asked to leash a dog is the legal and sane thing and an opportunity for a conversation about the space rather than a threat.

My mother gave me the greatest gift. She implored me to be brave and speak out. We all need to speak out and speak up for our students, our colleagues, and our discipline. We need to change the structures of academia that allow us to window dress our racist beliefs with structures and procedures that we claim insulate us and force us to be more inclusive.

There is nothing inclusive about a search that can’t find women or one that revels in an African American professor like a pet. The pet to threat transition is real, and we have to stop allowing it.

In music, artists began auditioning behind a screen, and it changed the makeup of orchestras. We have to find the screen to apply in academia for students, for faculty, for staff, and for ourselves, because we have for far too long pretended to care while perpetuating the same biases seen in society at large.

In the meantime, we need to listen to our students, be at their sides, and refuse bow to a government that again and again not only allows but supports people who murder citizens.

Innovating During the Pandemic

In my administrative role, I think a lot about labs, and I think a lot about mentoring faculty and their success. With the pandemic, some of the things we do are scuttled, but we have an opportunity to not only do those things differently, but at least in some cases, do them better.

We have new faculty who are scheduled to start this Fall. Normally, we reach out over the Summer, but for many, contact increases as the Fall starts. This year, more of our incoming faculty are excited about having launch committees not only to help them get started successfully, but to also have regular contacts before they are meeting in person. It’s a first step along the way to helping welcome them and have them be part of the community.

We have faculty who are going up for promotion and tenure. I have been humbled by colleagues who are organizing pretenure online talks. This is brilliant. Not everyone can afford or is at an institution that can afford to pay for faculty to do the circuit as they get ready to turn in their packages. This offers a brilliant opportunity for people to get to see their talks and learn about their work first hand even if they cannot attend a talk. I hope we all keep this moving forward. It’s a chance to level the playing field a bit.

We have researchers who have risen to the challenge to rethink how they do research. On this, I am absolutely humbled. Most of my work involves chemicals one doesn’t want in one’s house. In fact, my insurance company a number of years ago asked me to sign something that stated I would not do chemistry at home. But I’ve been inspired by my colleagues who have thought through how they might be able to do at least some part of their work at home whether it is collecting and storing environmental samples, 3D printing components, testing sensors, or even printing electronics. My seven year old is getting roped into my work to see if we can print structures for a project. It may not be the highest resolution science I will ever do, but it will be the most fun, and perhaps, we’ll gain some new insights into what can be done.