Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting. The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab. He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.
I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change. I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities. And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science! But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?”
I am more than a scientist.
Last month I gave my first group meeting in my new lab—the group that will be my home for the next five or so years. I asked if I could make my group meeting an introduction, a review of where I’ve been rather than what I’ve done in my short time here, and my boss said sure.
So I dug back through old emails, old files on my hard drive, and reconstructed my science from my last few labs into a nice, pretty, sort-of-job-talk. But my story isn’t complete if it’s just science. I included the time I spent taking architecture classes—found old renderings and photographs of models. I worked in a photo of me decked in rainbows for Pride. I showed a beautiful lace shawl I had knit during lectures while I was TAing gen chem. I talked about some of the amazing, resilient people I’d met along the way, and how important I thought it was to get to know each other as more than just our projects.
And I’m happy to say that this group meeting went really well! My PI loved it, and a postdoc in the lab recommended that it become a new tradition to get to know new students better.
I am more than a scientist.
I’ve crafted my appearance over the last few years; sometimes I worry I send the wrong message. I’m pierced and tattooed, my hair color has spanned the unnatural rainbow, I’m fat and femme, I almost always wear heels, and I laugh too loudly.
My students enjoy following the changes in my hair color. Admins ask me about what dye I use and how long it lasts. The sweet, incredibly studious premed in my section asked if I could recommend a piercer, because she planned on going all-out on her eighteenth birthday. The undergrad I’m mentoring this summer wants to know my opinions on burner culture and politics and consent and feminism.
I’ve been told that I look more like an artist than a scientist. I want to know why it’s so hard to imagine that I could be both.
I’ve joined the organizing board of a queer student group on campus. I host game nights. I push for more activism on my campus. I’m finding people who complete totally different aspects of my person than my labmates, my work, my classmates do.
I love the work. I feel that as a scientist I have a responsibility to be more—to not just bury my head in the sand of academia and pretend this is all there is—but to use my status as an academic and the platform that gives me to speak out against institutionalized injustice.
That’s why you came to grad school?
You bet your ass it is.