The concept of increasing diversity in science and science communication has worked in my favor. I got minority supplements to work in labs and travel awards to conferences. I received fellowships to report on health issues in minority populations for newspapers. Not bad, for a first generation immigrant.
But until recently, my own ethnicity was not something I discussed openly very often.
I was born in Mexico City, but was convinced from an early age, that I was meant to be American--blond, blue-eyed, pretty, thin and accent-less. (I'm a brunette and have always struggled with my weight.) So when my family moved to Los Angeles in 1988, I was thrilled. The stork had dropped me on the wrong side of the border, and eight years later, fate was righting her mistake.
But when I arrived, I quickly realized that I couldn't communicate with my new, American compadres, and when I tried, I felt horribly self-conscious. I felt so out of place, I shunned speaking Spanish. I felt embarrassed when someone would approach me in my native language and mortified when my mother couldn't communicate with non-Latino parents.
For years, I saw my heritage as a handicap rather than as a source of pride and strength. I can’t remember when I came out of the Latino closet, but I think it happened when I moved to New York for graduate school.
My first semester there, my mentor was Ivan Hernandez, who’s now an assistant professor at SUNY Downstate. I’d never had a Latino mentor before. He was critical of my work, but patient when I made mistakes. He helped me apply for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which I received.
We spoke about science in English, but in Spanish about everything else. These conversations helped me to realize that Latinos could be successful. While I don’t think he’s solely responsible for my awakening—I also credit professors, my friends, salsa dancing and the city itself—I do think he was instrumental in my becoming comfortable with my ethnicity.
While support systems for students like me were available in college, I didn’t feel like they applied to me. I was Latina, but I was also technically a foreigner, so I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the Latino organization. Nor did I feel comfortable in the foreign students association because I had grown up in this country, and I was too “American.” That’s why witnessing the amount of support for minorities in science and science communications at Science Online last week was wonderfully inspiring and reassuring.
Scientific American blogger and scientist Danielle Lee and Alberto Roca (@minoritypostdoc) of MinorityPostdoc.org focused the “Broadening the Participation of Underrepresented Populations in Online Science Communication & Communities” discussion on broadening the concept of diversity. “Browning up the place,” as Raycelle Burks (@DrRubidium) put it, isn’t enough. Diversity means including people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities, individuals with disabilities, LBGT, Native Americans, Eastern Europeans, etc. It means taking into consideration that a single person may belong to several of these groups. You can be a poor/rich, brown/light Latino, European, Native American, and/or LBGT female scientist and/or science communicator. Diversity means having an open mind and understanding that other people may have a different--but just as valid--worldview.
Danielle's session was dubbed the "diversity" session-- the word was even its official hashtag--but the conversation about diversity's role in science and science communication spilled beyond the 60-minute discussion. It permeated the entire unconference.
More than 50% of the participants were newbies, and 60 percent were women. Students (@PopovichN, @marisfessenden, @tanyalewis314) mingled with professionals young and old (@david_dobbs, @carlzimmer, @davemosher, @sarahwebb, @carasantamaria). Some attendees were local (@helenchapell, @davidkroll, @themonti1, @boraZ). Others traveled thousands of miles to attend (@edyong209, @alokjha, @laurawheelers, @rojasburke, @meganmansell, @docfreeride); some even from beyond the grave (@borazombie). And Mireya Mayor (@mireyamayor), a Cuban-American scientist turned National Geographic explorer, gave the keynote address. She reminded everyone that scientists aren't socially awkward introverts.
Scientists are a diverse lot. Some like doing experiments; others prefer to be a voice for science. But increasingly, they are doing both.
Although, I chose an “alternative” career—science journalism—I’m happy to see that scientists are becoming more open minded about what it means to be a scientist. I was afraid to make the switch for a very long time, much in the same way I was afraid to publicly admit that I am Latina—and it’s wonderful to see the shift happening.