Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Closed Gates and Opening New Doors: #SciFoo 2019

A glimpse into the world of spider monkeys

Last year I fell in love with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. It’s about a school for teenagers who disappeared through doorways to other worlds, where they finally found a place where they fit in, but then found themselves back in our own boring, real world. The kids in the school find comradery with other kids that are all strange and weird in their own unique ways but are longing to get back to the place where they really fit. It made me of El Zota, which has always been my Narnia. When I left after 15 months of dissertation fieldwork in 2001, I needed a break and switched to new project studying captive apes. But my goal was always to either find a job that allow me to get back to field in the summers and take students with me (or find one working with captive animals that had space for me to get back to the field for applied conservation projects).  Unfortunately, my Lack of Attaining a (Real) Job made me put those plans on hold and it feels like a magical place from my dreams that I just can’t find the doorway back too. I ended up moving on to research studying woman of color scientists specifically to create space for myself and others in academia, but in doing so I have become even more aware of all the doors that keep slamming Because I Am Not Welcome.

But then in April I received an e-mail invitation to Science Foo Camp. It looked a bit more like a random spam e-mail than a key to a new door, but when You Get a Summons Inviting You In… the only obvious step seems to follow it.  But the invitation to Sci Foo describes how they invite people doing “groundbreaking work,” and I was worried that it was Another Place I Did Not Belong.

My career is a Total, Utter Failure. In six years, I haven’t been able get the most important part of my dissertation published. In seven years of interviewing for academic and non-academic jobs, I have failed, again and again, to impress hiring directors and search committees. I have been knocking on 280+ doors, and most of them have been slammed in my face. And I have also been repeatedly reminded, in so many small and large ways, in which I Do Not Belong unless I flatten and mold myself into something that is… not quite myself.

But Sci Foo also fell right in the middle of when a friend was teaching a field course at El Zota.  We planned for me to come down and give a guest lecture in her course and was Finally Going Back. But there was that e-mail for an exclusive, invitation-only conference that I may never get an invite to again, so I put my field plans on hold and Said Yes to Sci Foo. I thought I could work around it go to El Zota after, but my friend’s class was cancelled due to low enrollment. And the one week that she would go down to Costa Rica was exactly when I would be at Sci Foo.

I would much rather visit the Beautiful Swampy Rainforest That Haunts My Dreams, instead of networking with a bunch of strangers who probably think I Do Not Belong.

#fieldworkfail: The Swamp of Sorrows Where I Nearly Drowned of Failure

But I went, and I was pleasantly surprised that the exclusive, invitation-only had the peculiar effect of almost eliminating the normal forms of gatekeeping and hierarchy academia has taught me to expect as normal. Instead of the “Do you even go here” responses I expect, people treated me like belonged. Until now, I had not consciously recognized how incredibly constant that experience has been, and the ways in which it has paradoxically intensified after receiving my PhD and Failing To Get a (Real) Job. So many of my experiences in science, from applying to field positions to applying to graduate school to submitting grants and manuscripts and 280+ job applications have been “You Can’t Sit With Us.” When I have been offered a seat, it’s always been at the Academic Kids Table (visiting, adjunct, postdoc positions), where it is impressed upon me that I am Just a Trainee and Still Early Career with less potential than the graduate students who *could* lived up to the potential I Failed to Achieve.

The best part about Sci Foo was being treated like an adult that was welcome to sit with anyone and included in conversations on everything from non-human language to protein-folding to the search for alien life and treated like A Real Scientist With Valid Expertise.

I had some amazing conversations and met fantastic people. Of course, there were sessions that were mostly old white men talking among themselves and conversations where I still didn’t feel like I quite fit in. But there were also fascinating conversations with people that made an intentional effort to invite new people in and make sure that if you were talked over that you were heard. Through those conversations I was reminded of the passions I have set on the back burner.  In a failure story slam, I talked about the #fieldworkfail that reminded me how much I love The Swamp of Sadness Where I Nearly Drowned of Failure. For years I have failed to get back to my gorgeous, swampy, bullet-ant infested rainforest, and dreamed about writing a fieldwork memoir interspersing my #fieldworkfails with stories of spider monkeys. I want to share the social lives of these enchanting, endangered animals, and how important it is to understand their world and conserve their forests before it becomes too late. That was plan, back when I started Spider Monkey Tales, but I have kept getting further and further away from that goal.

When I started studying them in 2005, Geoffroy's spider monkey was not listed as Endangered. Now they are one of the 25 Most EndangeredPrimates. Now is getting precariously close to Its Too Late.

I have been getting caught up with fighting to get into the gates slammed in my face instead of findings ways to create the doors back to where I really want to be.

I need to get my butt back down to that beautiful rainforest and plunge right into The Swamp of Sadness Where I Nearly Drowned of Failure and get cracking on Writing the Damn Book. And I think I’m done trying to fight my way into places that don’t want me.

Who wouldn't want to read a book about these gorgeous creatures' lives?

So anyway, if you get a strange e-mail inviting you to a gather of Really Important People Where You Probably Don’t Belong, take it. It might just be that magical key that leads you back to finding the door that’s always been there, waiting for you to find it again.