How Has Your Field Changed Over the Years?

Manavi Chatterjee (Biology):

I feel the Labs in US are more supportive of sharing and collaborating which was lacking in some places in India where I did my PHD.

Rajeev Erramilli (Physics):

My field, high energy theory (hep-th), is notorious for being very intimidating and adhering strongly to what I would call “genius culture”: the idea that it’s the work of lone geniuses who just intrinsically have some special sauce. I should add that this conception of science is laughably false: science of all flavors is and always has been a deeply collaborative project that needs different sorts of people with different skill sets.

Within my research collaborations, partially because I think everyone is so young, I think we have an understanding and a grasp of this collaborative structure. We try to be very welcoming and supportive to our newest members. I haven’t been in my group long enough to know if anything has really changed since I’ve entered, but I definitely see the difference between how my research collaboration acts vs how some other researchers in my field act. A significant problem is the nearly wholesale lack of women and URM and URM women in hep-th. I’m working on a project this year for the first time with a woman involved in the project, and that should be shocking considering I’m a 3rd year now. While I think we’ve done a good job of helping her feel welcomed, the broader reputation of the field keeps many, many more people out.

 

The Yale physics department has historically done a good job of hiring and admitting and matriculating a large number of women, but almost no URM and exactly zero URM women in recent history. Additionally, the department just very obviously has a corporate feeling to it. I don’t feel that my work or my opinions are respected by the department administration, and I feel that they often conceive of diversity, equity, and inclusion as purely numerical diversity and assimilative inclusion instead of true equity.

 

To majority students, I think we need to think outside of purely including people who have similar experiences to us, who talk like us, and who act like us. For example, I think many of the domestic majority graduate students in the physics dept, men and women alike, correctly perceive their experience as graduate students to be quite good. Our pay is great (for single, traditional grad students)! Our teaching is great! But the mistake we often make is that even though our experiences may be great, there are many others whose experiences aren’t great. I have heard too many stories of casual sexism and racism around the department; I know too many people for whom the university has made their lives hell by not providing dental/vision care or sufficient support for dependents; many of us graduate students without grant funding have been forced to double our teaching load with little to no say in this matter, as if it were just a “policy change” and that somehow this was a sufficient justification. My advice to majority students is to be compassionate, empathetic, and supportive of the students who will have different experiences from you. Put the people around you first, and don’t let the glitz of the ivy league university you work for blind you from that.

Juri Miyamae (Earth and Planetary Sciences)

It is a little difficult for me to say anything about changes in the field because I have not been exclusively involved in any one field for a long period of time.  While it can be disappointing that positive change is often glacial in pace, I found it is often very localized depending upon the institution, department, lab group, or even cohort.  Some places are actively supportive, most are ambivalent, and then there are places that are almost cartoonishly inappropriate and unpleasant.  But overall, I have to feel hopeful that more departments and professional societies are making efforts to be consciously inclusive.  However, it is still up to us to hold these institutions accountable to their self-proclaimed standards.  

 

If I feel more comfortable in expressing my thoughts, that is probably less to do with any significant changes in my field and more to do with getting older, crankier, and less patient with BS.  I also feel greater responsibility towards my junior colleagues to set an example and make things better for them as well.  That being said, academia is still very much a hierarchy where there are real risks associated with speaking truth to power.

 

In terms of creating a more supportive environment, there is obviously a lot we can do as individuals to foster inclusive workspaces, but in order to have continuity and normalization, we need institutional support.  For example, in most top tier research universities, evaluating a faculty member for tenure does not involve any input from current or former students.  Instead, tenure candidates are judged on their research.  This becomes a problem when we expect professors to not only produce high-profile research, but to also undertake the responsibility of teaching and mentoring.  And most faculty never learn these skills unless they make the extra effort to seek out that kind of training.  Placing equal value on mentorship, teaching, and outreach is just one step towards cultivating a scientific community that cares about individuals and integrity in human interactions.

 

To majority students:  just as you want to be recognized as unique individuals that worked hard to overcome hurdles to be where you are today, we want you to see us in the same way.  The lifelong prejudices and stereotypes we encounter as under-represented minorities are erosive forces washing away our worth and sense of self.  Interpersonal and institutional prejudice prevents us from being the people we aspire to be.  We lose control over our own identities when we are reduced to a stereotype.  This erasure has starkly real implications for our careers, our well-being, our families, and even our survival.  I realize that having open discussions about these issues and experiences can be deeply uncomfortable, but I hope you listen with an open mind and an open heart.  It is not just about the history of horrible things we have endured, the alarming statistics, or the relentless influx of appalling stories in the news.  It is also about realizing that for each person who is expressing themselves to you, they had each reached a personal breaking point.  And that might manifest itself as anger or sadness or confusion.  It may not be eloquent or clad in bulletproof logic.  But we are taking risk, exposing our vulnerability because things need to change for the better.  By talking to you, we are calling upon you to be a part of that change.  

Martha Munñoz (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)

It has become more diverse just in the past 15 years, which has tangibly expanded and improved the quality of science. There is a false dichotomy between excellence and diversity, as if there is a compromise on excellence by allowing for diversity. That is the trope perpetuated by empowered majorities that excuses overrepresentation of some groups. We’re doing better science now that reflects the fact that the people doing the science are diverse and bring different perspectives away from misguided beliefs. 

To give you an example: It was a long held belief in my field that Anolis lizards exhibited exclusively strict territorial polygyny, such that females only mated with the residential male of the territory they occupied.  My colleague, Dr. Ambika Kamath, dismantled this widely-held notion. She demonstrated how this view was based on tenuous observations with serious confirmation biases. Subsequent approaches, she also demonstrated, were built in a way that was designed to confirm this view, rather than actually test it. She demonstrated how this view was thoroughly inconsistent with the data, and upended an entire notion that was held for a very long time. And so, she improved the quality of our science by having a broader perspective that was less encumbered by certain biases, and by asking more critical questions.

Rowan Palmer (Engineering):

  1. Do you feel the field is more welcoming now than when you entered?
    Although I’ve only been in college for four years and haven’t been in the industry for long, I have noticed a change in the ways in which people have conversations about representation and respect. There’s a lot more direct openness and honesty about the ways in which representation can affect power dynamics, learning, and work environments. And that, to me, is a positive first step. 
  2. What is your message for majority of students? How can they be allies to URM?
    When someone speaks, Listen. And then respond. Validate their ideas, ask them to elaborate, amplify their voices. It’s not enough to be listened to — you also have to be heard and valued in the conversation. If you notice someone being quiet or struggling, ask for their input, build spaces. And recognize that just because one person who is an URM seems confident, comfortable, and/or respected in a space or conversation doesn’t mean that everyone is. 

Dr. Sreeganga Chandra (Neuroscience):

It has become diverse at the level of students and postdocs; but it is not at all diverse at the level of faculty or when you go higher since the turnover of those positions is extremely slow. What has changed a lot in respect to gender is now there is [the notion] that there should be parity for women. Before there would be panels that were 100% male, now in the last few years because of social media if you have a seminar series and at least 50% are not women then there would be serious pushback. Women who were invisible are now visible, not necessarily because they [people in power] want that but because they have to. Now you hear different voices and totally different perspectives.

Nazar Chowdhury (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology):

“I think COVID is the end all be all of what the medical field has become. There is a push to recognize medical professionals and their diversity. I think COVID opened the door for people to realize it doesn’t matter how good your care is if patients don’t want to take your advice about masks, vaccines, or whatever else. So we need diverse voices in our fields because there will be patient populations we cannot. I think medicine as much as its difficulty shows that doctors are really putting their lives on the line, but really people need to understand how important it is to have Black doctors, Hispanic doctors, international medical school doctors, having doctors from different races and religions. We need all voices or there will be people we leave out. We need people as safe as we can and if people aren’t listening we need a diversity of people to reach out to them. I think the field has the chance to open its doors to people of all backgrounds and make the work as diverse as possible.”