Your success or failure is not determined by this moment in time.
As I was finishing up college, I was full of anxiety about the future. All the usual things, of course, but also seeing how we were veering off in increasingly divergent paths. Some were off on Fulbright Scholarships, others were starting non-profit organizations, one was already a fast-rising star in the fashion design world, a handful were doing something completely wacky like joining a circus, many were going to Ivy League institutions for graduate school, and I was this aimless loser who did not even know where I was going to sleep the day after I packed up my dorm room. I was happy for the success of my friends and classmates, but envious of their conviction and sense of purpose. To my past self and to those who might feel similar pangs of uncertainty, your success or failure is not determined by this moment in time. You don’t have to make a final decision about going into science right now. Yes, I think it is helpful to keep consciously asking yourself if a STEM career is for you, but take this time while you are still young to keep learning new things and working different jobs, no matter what kind. Sometimes, finding your entry into a STEM career path is a matter of timing. At this moment, you may be too burnt out, or you just haven’t found the right question to ignite your passion. You might even just want to test out some alternative careers first. But if you decide you want to take the leap, don’t feel ashamed at having meandered off the path for a bit. These things you did in the meanwhile was a maturing process that made you more versatile, resilient, creative, and broad-minded.
[I ended up crashing in Brooklyn for the summer after graduation, staying with an alumna who previously opened her home to me while I did an internship in the city. Afterwards, I moved up to Boston with a college friend, sharing a studio apartment and slogging through retail/food services jobs. I was then hired as a research technologist in a university biomedical lab, where I learned about working with lab animals, tissue collection, and basic genetic analyses. After two years, I left to become a curatorial assistant in a natural history museum. I worked here for about eight years and earned a master’s degree in museum studies. During my time there, I met many truly amazing professors and graduate students. They helped me realign back into research. When I saw David Attenborough’s “The Life of Mammals,” there was a segment about the sengi (elephant shrew), which is an absurdly adorable African mammal with a long wiggly nose. Learning more about this creature, I found they are actually related to elephants in this group called Afrotheria, which also includes manatees, hyrax, aardvarks, tenrecs, and golden moles. What a family reunion that must be! But it sparked that question of why do elephants and elephant shrews both have such mobile noses? What’s the deal with this radical modification of facial muscles? This is the question with which I applied to graduate school.]
To my first-year college self? Geez, where to begin? Invest in developing better work habits and time management skills, don’t stop learning a second/third language, call your mother, and don’t be so afraid to ask for help.
For underrepresented students in general, I would encourage you to take the time to learn about the history of your community in this country and the prejudices that impact you outside and inside academia. These perceptions are more pervasive, subtle, and powerful than you may think. The best way is to connect with other members of your community, hear their experiences, and share your own. When I first recognized sexist and racist comments in academia, I was shocked and completely unable to respond. If I had educated myself, I might have been able to give a constructive response to immediately indicate such comments are not acceptable. By remaining in stunned silence, with my brain racing to interpret what I had just heard, I became complicit in normalizing such behavior and complicit in perpetuating a “quiet, submissive” stereotype. If I knew then what I know now, it would have been obvious I was being presented with known tropes that people in my community have heard before. By stewing over what was said and trying to dismiss everything with “I must just be over-reacting,” I wasted valuable time and mental energy that could have been poured into my research. And I still felt gross at the end of the day. (Believe me, the people who said these things did not give it a second thought and went on blithely with their lives.) We are working hard to make a better world for you, but change is slow and you should do your best to prepare yourself to hit back when problems arise.
A special word to my fellow Asian STEM students: I know we are all different, but there is enough we have in common to bring us together, so I hope that my words as a Japanese American woman born of working-class immigrant parents have some resonance for you. We Asians are indeed represented in many fields of STEM, which may normalize our presence, but this does not mean we are seen or respected in these institutions. It can be difficult to even begin these conversations when we are still battling over the larger discourse of whether Asians qualify as “POC” (e.g., NSF does not recognize Asians as a minority group) or if it is even possible to be racist against Asians. This nonsense over semantics deflects from the fact that racism against Asians is deeply engrained in the Western world and academia. Concepts like the Model Minority Myth have been manipulated by both the political left and right to weaponize Asians against ourselves to silence us, as well as against other minority groups to divide us. Especially in the United States, there is a given narrative about race relations and Asians are often not in the picture. Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim, in his 18 March 2021 testimony to US Congress, spoke of questioning why electoral poll results broken down by race rarely included us, only to receive the flat answer: “because Asian Americans are considered statistically insignificant.” The erasure of our Asian American communities has become egregiously obvious over 2020 and 2021, where the escalation of violent – and sometimes fatal – hate crimes against Asians were simply deemed unimportant, uncompelling, or too problematic to be reported in the mainstream media. It took the senseless deaths of six Asian women at the hands of a young white gunman to momentarily shift the national spotlight and, even then, this not being treated as an unequivocal act of racism. Given that Asians nationwide still struggle to be recognized as victims of hate, xenophobia, scapegoating, and crass stereotypes in the wake of such a violent tragedy, how can we talk about the problems Asians face in the relatively cossetted ivory tower of STEM?
My personal experiences with anti-Asian racism started extremely early and were very emotionally painful for a child, but, thankfully, I have never experienced real violence or aggression. . . yet. There is resignation to a certain amount of racial slurs and catcalling while walking the streets, but it was shocking to encounter blatantly offensive comments in the halls of prestigious academic institutions: open insults about Asian countries, being told I should be happy Asians are portrayed as being good at math, and barely concealed male glee at realized stereotypes of “tiny” and submissive Asian women. Most things are bit more subtle. Greater expectations to take on organizational tasks. Losing out on intellectual discourse for being too quiet and shy. The prospect of getting trotted out as token diversity for the optics. I have been in lab meetings where the PI pressed my Asian colleagues for the latest results and requested more assays within the week, making jokes about working the in lab 24/7. But the moment the conversation turned to casual topics of Western classical literature or opera, the PI physically aimed his body away from us and towards his fellow white men in the room. This presumptive exclusion from cultural life highlighted the PI’s expectation that his Asian lab members were there to produce results with automaton-like efficiency, with no worthy home lives or cultural refinements to enjoy. We are praised for our excellent work ethic and hired into STEM positions, but not always valued as human individuals.
The Model Minority Myth hangs over Asian American heads like a guillotine blade, with overachievement expected without much praise (perhaps accompanied by sotto voce claims of technical proficiency, but no real creativity or feeling), and little sympathy for failure. We are allowed to succeed to keep the wheels of science turning, yet not succeed too much, if we refer to the “Bamboo Ceiling” keeping a relatively low number of Asians in leadership and tenured positions. This is a frustrating place to be when you just want to do the science you love.
I am still figuring out how to navigate being an Asian woman in STEM, so I don’t have much to offer in terms of advice except to educate yourself on these issues and be prepared to respond with confidence if you do encounter anti-Asian sentiment aimed at you or your colleagues. Also, please take care of your mental health. These small acts of erasure are a slow burn. In addition, there are cultural pressures we often face from our families or have internalized. This can also be difficult to resolve, especially if these pressures manifest in unhealthy ways. But I hope it is possible for us to examine these cultural factors with some empathy so we can come to an understanding of where our parents/communities are coming from, while being able to advocate for our own goals. Finally, be proud of being Asian! There can definitely be a lot of incentive to assimilate with the majority white population, but we can never be white. We can only be ourselves. So, let us be ourselves with conviction, dignity, and joy.
Our individual paths may be different, just as the path of the Asian community in the United States may be different from that traveled by Native American, Latino, Black, and other minority communities. We need to acknowledge the uniqueness of these experiences, as well as their intersections, which have not always been peaceful. We cannot devolve into assigning value to collective trauma in a winner-takes-all “oppression Olympics.” The fact is, we may all travel different paths, but we all end up in the same destination, where we are subject to those prejudices that prevent us from being the safe, prosperous, and marvelous people we want ourselves to be. I hope we can all help each other.