survival and activism in academia

Hi all, it’s your favorite sunflowering baddie, and I’m here to quickly let y’all know that activism and survival in academia are not mutually exclusive. It is not necessary to pick one over the other, and the fact that a lot of (old, white, male) folks in academia are insisting that you do so should tell you all you need to know.

I’m talking about this right now, in brief, because of a conversation I had this morning with my advisor about whether or not my significant branding within the institutions I participate in dilutes my science. My advisor argued that I needed to maybe begin toning it down, because what I needed right now is science publications and not Internet notoriety for having loud opinions.

To me, this conversation is wild because the entire reason I had enough clout in the ecological community as a whole to even get into graduate school was because my activism gave me the voice and space I needed to be able to do science. As a first-year student at a PWI, I needed not only to speak up to advocate for myself and my ability to do science; but I also needed allies willing to hear me out and create a space with me. This was the only way I could craft my eventual science persona as a biogeochemist, and the fact that I do advocate for justice in STEM shouldn’t detract from my actual scientific work. Think about it: for what other extracurricular activity could you be shamed for in this way? No one says that someone’s knitting habit detracts from their ability to be an amazing bird ecologist; so why does my social justice activism define my ability to use a thermal conversion elemental analyzer and write about it?

In truth, the reason white women and POC (especially qtWOC) get flak for their activism is because it makes the gatekeepers of power uncomfortable. If we are constantly clamoring for change while tossing around additional weight of our science, it throws into disarray a lot of the dogma that white academia has clung to for so long–namely, that science is an apolitical meritocracy. If URMs point out that our strength in the sciences is in spite of the machinations of an academia made for white men, it forces those white men to reconsider their existence in the system. This is uncomfortable, and it should be. White men have never needed to fight for their humanity in a system meant to exclude them; the idea that they’ve gotten along not just because of their science (stellar or not) but because of a system functionally built to value them (the person) is scary. Which, welcome to the world of URMs–where we constantly juggle the micro and macroaggressions of the people around us just to be able to do the science that should be buying us a seat at the table.

Believe you me, there is nothing I would’ve liked better for me to only talk about my love of carbon cycling and the root-soil interface. I wish every day that I was in a position where my academic life functioned only as a vehicle for my science. Unfortunately, my existence as a queer first gen Latinx means my entire existence in academia is mediated through the intersections of my race, orientation, and class status. Academia does not exist in a vacuum: and is just as affected by the society it exists within as academia affects the society it is part of. The current way academia is run, I have no choice but to to amazing science but also incredible amounts of activism. It the only way I survived to this point. For a lot of URM’s, there comes a point in our lives where simply staying silent endangers us more than making noise does. I lived a lot of my undergraduate years trying to sit silently by, eating the injustices done to me by white academics who constantly discounted my science and my mind because of my ethnicity and gender presentation. All it did was leave me at the end of a jetty at a Famous Biological Lab, debating whether or not I should just leave science or leave this world entirely.

In the end, I am still here in academia because I spoke up: I spoke up about my science, and I spoke up about the injustices done to people of color who just wanted to do science. Through both sets of being active, I was able to find the people I now call my mentors and friends; and the people who ended up writing my letters of rec to get me into graduate school. The day that academia lets URM’s thrive without the constant slam of micro|macro|aggressions and harassment, the day that kids who look like me don’t have to buy their humanity by overworking themselves or hyperactivism; on that day where students of color can go into academia with the same expectations placed on them (and same benefits given to them) as their white peers,

On that day, I will finally shut up about social justice and do nothing but run the thermal combustion elemental analyzer and write about the soil-root interface.

Until then,

-sunflowerqueen

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How Age Can Pave the Road to Tenure

There are lots of articles about how older women feel invisible and how ageism affects women in the workplace.

My story is about how age and experience has helped me in my road to Full professor.

I entered graduate school more than a decade after I finished undergraduate school. I found a graduate program that was willing to take a chance on me, even though my undergraduate grades were only reasonable and I had not taken some of the standard courses or exams you might expect for my field. The program had a good number of women in it, and the department was actively recruiting women graduate students and faculty. They told me that they often prefer “older students” because they tend to be more focused and mature.

Once I arrived, I did see some of my graduate student friends struggling with the question of “why am I here?” and “did I just come to grad school because it was the next/obvious/easy step after undergrad?” I never really struggled with these issues.  I was very focused and worked as hard as I could to get out in a reasonable amount of time.  In the end, I finished my MS and PhD in about half the (tremendous amount of) time I had allotted myself.

Recently I have been promoted to full professor relatively few years. Continue reading

Valuing chronically ill graduate students

nsf_disability_removal

Many states issue “special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked.” Working under these rules, a disabled person can expect to make less than $4/hour. Some people think paying disabled people less is a good thing, as shown by this response when Maryland ended sub-minimum wages for disabled people:

If a worker is less productive, should they be paid less? This is not an abstract question for me.

Continue reading

Finding (or building) community in grad school

I care a great deal about being a well-rounded person.

I didn’t get a lot of guidance about higher education while I was in high school, and I went off to college at a top institution without a lot of understanding of what possibilities existed. After I graduated, I made a really active decision not to go straight on to the next academic step. Part of this was uncertainty about what I wanted to do, but the other piece of this decision–and it was a big piece–was that I’d felt really sheltered. I’d spent my entire life in school. I didn’t really know what it was to be a “real” person. Continue reading

More than a scientist

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?” Continue reading

Guest Post: Publishing without supervisors

Today’s guest post is by The Blundering Ecologist, a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in Canada. In addition to research, she is passionate about asking uncomfortable questions and learning the rules so that she can break them properly. 


I can’t do this.

That was my only thought when my class professor told me on the first day of classes I had to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors on all the work I submitted to his class. I anxiously took notes until class was over. Loitering in the hall, I waited until all the other students had left so that I could ask for his advice. Why was I supposed to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors when they have not significantly contributed to my work?

“For my dissertation my PI was just like that. The whole four years I struggled alone and the last thing I wanted to do was put his name on my work. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to publish alone. It was just easier to put his name on it.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I mean, if I was you, and I had the [expletive] to do it I would go back and publish without him… Put him in the acknowledgements. That would really show his co-workers what kind of researcher he was.”

“But, for now?”

“For now, put their names on your work and keep your head down. He has complete control over your M.Sc. and the headache isn’t worth it… at least, not yet. Don’t make things difficult for yourself.”

One of my supervisors was an urban geographer (primary M.Sc. supervisor) at my university and the other an ornithologist (secondary M.Sc. supervisor) at a university in another city. My M.Sc. work was in Ecology and on mammals. My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.

Twelve months later… Continue reading

On seeking accommodations in school

I’ve known for a long time that accommodations are a Thing–that is, that they existed.  About a year back, TSW had an excellent guest post on this very topic, outlining what sorts of accommodations exist, who qualifies for them, and some of the hurdles folks face in moving through the system.  I hope for this post to serve more as a personal case study, to describe my experience in requesting accommodations for the first time, and to offer any insight I might have gained from the experience.

I’ve written a bit already about my mental health.  As I mentioned in that post, I have pretty serious depression, but I’ve found a combination of therapy, medication, and physical activity that keep me pretty darn happy and stable.  That said, though, most of my first year in grad school has been tougher than it needed to be due to my housing situation. Continue reading