Note from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gergana Daskalova, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.
I recently attended the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, one of the biggest scientific conferences in the calendar year of an ecologist. Over the course of just one day, I got asked where I am from 18 times. I counted because in just four years of attending conferences, meeting with seminar speakers and engaging in similar activities, I have been asked where I am from way too many times. When the pattern repeated itself on day one of the BES conference, I thought I could do the actual count on day two of the conference. I, like many other of my fellow conference goers, get these questions at a very high frequency probably because our looks or accents give away that “we are not from here”. Though it may seem like an innocent question – where are you from? – it leaves me feeling like my fellow ecologists are more interested in why I stand out than why I belong.
To counter the question in a productive way and to get the focus back on my science, over the last year, I have made a point of replying that I am from the academic institution where I am doing my PhD. People always follow up with “No, I meant where are you from originally?” The problem is not that I want to hide where I am from, the problem is that in a professional scientific environment, where I am from shouldn’t matter. When people make general chat at conferences with a group of PhD students, most of them get asked what they do. When the conversation makes its way to me, I get asked where I am from. Followed by comments about my country of origin. Cool! Exciting! I’ve never been to that country. Why did you come here? What a poor country. Was it hard living there? The list goes on. Only just over half of the 18 people that asked me where I am from originally then went on to ask me about my work.
I love the country where I grew up and that will always be a gigantic part of who I am. But I do not want the first and maybe only impression scientists have of me to be about my “country of origin”. I want people to remember my scientific findings, thoughts and ideas. Even though I have gotten pretty good at twisting the conversation back to my research, it is frustrating how insistent people are on finding out where I am from originally. I love talking to people I haven’t met before at conferences, but it can get exhausting to continuously be made to feel by the turn of the conversation that I stand out giving me an overall impression that I don’t belong. I already knew that among over 1000 people at that conference, I am very likely the only one from my country. And many more people from many other places are in similar situations at the British Ecology Society Meeting and other conferences.
At my first ever conference, I went to a lunch with the keynote speaker and I happened to sit right next to them. I asked them why earlier in the day they asked four people in our conversation what they do, and then when the conversation turned to me, they asked me where I was from. The keynote speaker said it was because they could tell I was not from “here”, so they thought I would feel more welcomed if they had acknowledged that I am from somewhere else. Since that first conference, I have asked more people why the first thing they ask me when they meet me is where I am from, and the answers vary. It’s instinctual. I didn’t think about it much, I just thought it was nice to ask. I was curious. I didn’t know what to say and this is the first thing that came to mind. I thought that would be a more interesting conversation.
No amount of English fluency and grammar perfection will hide my accent. I don’t want to change how I look or sound. Having people draw attention to why another person is different will never make that person feel more comfortable. Us early career scientists are constantly reminded to work on our elevator pitches, and unsurprisingly, they rarely start with where we are from originally. “Start with your research question!”, my PhD supervisor always tells me. Of course, learning about people’s life stories is a big part of getting to know people, and there are times for those conversations too, it’s just that when you only have minutes to chat with a scientist at a conference – ask us about what we do.
Earlier in 2018, Terry McGlynn urged people to stop saying “native English speakers” in reviews. But, inclusivity in science goes beyond just language fluency. It doesn’t matter where we are from, what we sound like, how fluent or not our English might be – what matters is the science that we do. The next time you hear an accent unlike yours at a conference or similar event, I urge you to pause and think for a minute. What is the first thing you want to ask your fellow scientist? Are you really more curious to find out where they are from, or what they study? By asking about the research that someone has to present at a conference, you can learn about cool new findings, find a potential future collaborator, and ultimately, reaffirm that you do indeed think of your colleagues, regardless of what they sound or look like, as scientists.