Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Identity Matters in Science

 In April, I went down to Chambana (U of Illinois, my alma mater and the location for my new postdoc) for the 21st Century Working Scientists meeting. The meeting was about engaging in science communication, public outreach, and broadening participation in science. Danielle Lee was the keynote speaker and spoke about bringing your identity into outreach. We all set goals for what we wanted to accomplish in our scientific communication, and the ways that we wanted to approach it. Danielle's approach to blogging (and scientific communication in general) was the opposite of mine. She was all about bringing her whole identity to blogging. That means stating exactly who she is, and what she thinks, and how that affects her science. The reason I stopped blogging a few years ago was because I was afraid to do that. I was overly-anxious about how others may perceive me based on my writing, particularly search committees. For a two-year period, I averaged about an interview a month, so I knew that they would probably be googling me and reading anything I put out on the internet. It strait-jacketed my ability to write at all. I worried that if I wrote about captive animal welfare, or my feelings about using primates in biomedical research, or the challenges of being a woman of color in science, that it could detrimentally affect my career prospects.

My perspective on this has changed. I used to think that if I highlighted my research background and focus on the science, that's all that mattered. But I've learned that it doesn't work that way. We don't conduct or disseminate our research in a vacuum, and we can't leave the sociocultural context at the door. It follows into classrooms and labs and field sites. It shapes the opportunities we get, the way our colleagues treat us, and the social and intellectual environment in which we try to do research, writing, and outreach.

Many of the events in the past month have made it hard to focus on research, writing and science. How do you focus on your work when social media is constantly blowing up with the latest tragedy? In the past month, we've seen the deadliest mass shooting targeting LGBTQA, predominantly Latinx individuals. With Trump's campaign egging on hatred and xenophobia, and anti-Islamic sentiment, Muslims and Sikhs are facing increased risks for hate crimes and racial profiling in the US. After the Brexit vote, hate crimes are surging in the UK as well. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Bangaladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, there's been a spate of attacks, some of which target either holy sites or Muslims celebrating Eid. While it's clear that ISIS is targeting devout, observant Muslims, many Americans are still equating Muslims (and Sikhs, and anyone that looks brownish or Middle Eastern or South Asian) with terrorism. And in the past two days we watched the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile streaming across social media. These murders are just two in a long list of police violence against black people. And then at the ensuing protests at Dallas, there was another deadly shooting targeting the police officers at the event. And it continues...I'm scared to hear about what might be next.

I'm tempted to block out all media, hide out, and try to focus on my writing goals for this summer. But that's hard to do. It's hard to live in country where there are so many ordinary citizens owning guns and harboring hatred for anyone who is an "other." It's hard to live in a country where the police target, harass, and murder for people for being black or brown. It's hard to sign into Facebook and see some of my friends liking hateful, racists memes. It's hard to live in country where the Republican presidential nominee is outrightly encouraging xenophobic and misogynistic hate toward pretty much anyone who isn't white (or Christian, or straight, or male).

In this social and political climate, it's hard to be an "other." I'm not part of a heavily targeted group, so I have it easier than many others (in case you were wondering, I'm Indian, Catholic, and my last name is Portuguese). But I've certainly encountered my share of microaggressions, some of which are based on either my actual identity, or what people perceive me to be (people usually assume I'm Latina, but occasionally I've also been mistaken for a variety of other ethnicities). My last international conference experience (to Canada, a place that I thought was racially progressive compared to the US!) was definitely marred by the "flying while brown" treatment. In the past year I've become increasingly anxious as xenophobic sentiment has increased in the US. It really hit home for me when a Sikh man was brutally attacked while driving in my community, just down the road from where my childhood church and high school.

It's hard to not feel anxious when this sort of violence is a reality. In the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Danielle wrote that she is Too Traumatized to Science, and I'm going to add to that. In a social and political climate where minorities and "others" live in a state of fear and anxiety, it takes a psychological toll. If want the culture of scientific research to actually be "inclusive" and "diverse" we need to recognize that, and make space to deal with it. As a whole, we need to acknowledge that black lives matter, that brown lives matter, that gay lives matter, and that when social and political issues affect some of us, it affect all of us.

I'm back in Chambana now, working with a girls science camp. We've been discussing with them the ways in which identity influences the scientific process, and how diverse perspectives result in better bioengineering. I'm glad that they are learning this lesson now--it's one that I think all of us would have benefited from a bit earlier in our scientific training.