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.

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.