Is it me or is science a sad and lonely place? Or am I going through a tough season right now?
During my dissertation studies I hit the 4 year slump BIG TIME. I went nearly a year without collecting any significant data or heck even laying eyes on my research subjects. I poured myself into teaching and I said that’s what had me busy. But the truth is, I was woefully unhappy and feeling lost. I never once thought of quitting or dropping out of the program – because teaching college level biology and studying animal behavior was still my goal – but my focus was off and heart just couldn’t take it.
Two things happened that made me emotionally unwell that academic year. 1) My colony nearly collapsed. I had inexplicable deaths among my prairie voles and there was no obvious reason why. 2) I was graduate student representative at faculty meetings. I learned things about faculty politics that dashed ALL of my dreams of being a science research scholar at a big university or even a middle/small university with a wannabe complex. The veil had been lifted and I liked none of what I saw. If memory serves, it was around this time that I began attending Dissertation Support Group and later one-on-one therapy to deal with my anxiety, procrastination, and dealing with difficult situations and people.
Now as a post-doc I’m feeling the blues again. I absolutely love what I do. When I finally conducted a behavior experiment with the pouched rats (when I was still at Oklahoma State University) it had been 3 or so years since I had physically observed animal behavior and recorded actions. Sitting on the low make shift stool in that hot dusty room in Tanzania, I had forgotten how much I missed behavior experimentation. I live for this.
But I also live for times enjoying the smiles and laughter of friends and relatives. Moving far away from home is always a challenge and for extremely extrovert personalities like mine, the times spent in gaiety are essential for my sharpness and psychological acuity in the lab and field. I am not merely a scientist. I am a person, a very social person, and a sensitive one. I know this acknowledgement makes me very vulnerable, but just as learning about my learning and study style helped me become a better student and prepare for tests, understanding my mental and emotional needs makes me a better research scholar.
I was reviewing the Storify from the Sigma Xi Google Hangout with Dr. Melanie Harrison Okoro and Dr. Ashanti Jackson and I paused as I kept reading references to overcoming isolation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). For African Americans (as well as Latin and Native American, as well as students from other under-represented groups such as those from rural areas, far away geographic regions, those with disabilities, that speak other languages, and that may identify as LGBT and especially trans) academic settings can be lonely places. Sure there are lots of people around, but you often feel alone. And all the excitement over attending a great university or one with a lot of prestige may not compensate for all of the extra labor you endure to find connection, feel at home, and access self-care services.
The struggle is real yo.
With so many stake holders talking about how to attract blank, blank, blank individuals to STEM or certain institutions, there is a (series of) conversation(s) that has yet to be fully had: How do we make under-represented minorities (URM) feel truly welcome and included in STEM and apart of our “prestigious” programs and/or university communities? Do administrators, potential employers and advisors recognize the emotional and psychological requirements for survival for scholars – students, grad students, AND faculty members? Simply peppering your halls and your brochures with faces from diverse backgrounds isn’t enough. Furthermore, you can’t play the same ‘hazing games’ with students from under-represented groups or international groups. For one, the cultural context of some of the playful ribbing may not translate and in fact may be insensitive and inappropriate. Recognizing the humanity of your students and colleagues means de-centering a main-stream perspective of what is okay. It means recognizing any privilege you may have. It means rejecting cruelty in any form, no matter the intention. Getting to know people means being willing to open yourself up and thinking out side of the box.
There has been so much emphasis on papers and grants and publishing and data – which are all VERY important pieces of science. Science doesn’t happen in isolation. Most projects are very collaborative. (For real, when was the last time you read a single author paper…Ok, I digress, but you get my point). No one is doing science alone, but for far too many students (and not just those from URM groups) the mental stress of school or work and uber-competitiveness of current science academic environments means so many people are feeling alone. And many of us are craving connection to something besides the bench. Perhaps what really needs to happen is a revolution. Re-centering people in the scholarship of STEM should be what serious science is about. This is the cultural evolution I am ready for.