This is a guest post by Lynette Strickland, who just defended her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She will be moving to Texas A&M Corpus Christie to do a postdoc, and also has an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship lined up. (Congrats, Lynette!) Lynette is also a co-first author on this Science article on how, without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough.
Here’s Lynette’s post:
At the very beginning of my graduate career, I was awarded an NSF-IGERT Fellowship. This graduate student traineeship would partner multiple institutions, two of them being the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (my institution) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), located in Panama.
This fellowship would go on to change the course of my research and perhaps my trajectory in academia. About mid-way through our official tropical exposure course for graduate students, we found ourselves at the STRI field station in Fortuna, Panama, home to one of the most extensive mid-elevation cloud forests in Central America. Never having previously left the States, I was mesmerized from that first deep, sharp breath of mid-elevation air. I was also introduced to a STRI scientist this day, Dr. Don Windsor, a beetle biologist with a special love for a unique group of beetles, the tortoise beetles. Early in the day, Don told me about a peculiar organism, the metallic tortoise beetles. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t actually picture a metallic beetle at the time. Never having had much of an interest in insects, I can’t say that I gave that much attention to them growing up, but I was determined to find this metallic beetle. I spent the day meandering through forests, pointing out every orange and yellow beetle I could find, none of them being “the” beetle, of course. Finally, at sunset, standing at the continental divide between Panama and Costa Rica, I see a patch of low-lying vines and wander over for a closer look. I flipped over a leaf, and there was the metallic beetle.
I would later find out that this metallic tortoise beetle was none other than Chelymorpha alternans, and came not only in a metallic form, but multiple color forms. I couldn’t stop thinking about them over dinner that night. What were the genetics of these color forms? How were they maintained in populations? I didn’t know it then, but my dinner musings would go on to form the central questions of my dissertation.
Here comes the twist in the story. In the weeks following this time, I was filled with questions, passion and ambition, but I was not always met with the same by the established scientists around me. You see, not everyone was convinced that these color morphs were in fact the same species. Observed matings between the morphs had been written off and it was often said that animals make mistakes all the time, particularly insects and that these copulation events were of no consequence. I was told that these beetles could not be the same species because they looked too different.
It was an intimidating experience to have well-established scientists doubt the questions and hypotheses of a first-year graduate student, well-meaning though they may be. I was deflated and unsure of myself, but the argument just didn’t make sense to me.
Let me give you a bit of information about my reality. I grew up in a single parent, low-income family on the east side of Austin, Texas. I have one older sister and we are both biracial; our mom is Hispanic and our father African-American. My sister takes after our mom with fair skin that’s nearly impossible to tan and silky straight hair that requires heat to have any sort of curl. On the other hand, I took after my dad with dark skin that only gets darker in sunlight and a mass of coily hair that I’ve given up trying to tame. Growing up, my mom always called us night and day, and in public people would often ask if we were actually sisters. Imagine your entire reality being shaped by people asking whether your sister was really your sister, because you looked too different. Sound familiar?
I was unintimidated by the differences in these little color polymorphic beetles because my perspective was so different from anyone who had asked the question before. Because of my background, it never occurred to me that two things might have to be unrelated because they look too different. My unique perspective granted me the freedom to pursue this line of questioning, unhindered by doubts, and this is why inclusion and not just diversity is so important in science. Diversity means that we have represented differences within a group, but inclusion means that those differences and the perspectives they bring are valued.
Why does science need inclusion? According to the 2018 STM report, the number of active, peer-reviewed journals (in English) has increased 5-6% a year and the number of published articles increases ~3.5% a year. So, science is doing great, right?
Well, we know that personal background, structural bias, and differences in culture affect us as people but also influence the research we produce and pursue.
As scientists, our experimental design and statistical analyses should absolutely be objective, but as humans pursuing passions, we have to stop pretending that the questions we choose to ask and the hypotheses that we are brave enough to follow, are anything but subjective. This truth is not a hinderance, or variation to account for in our statistical analysis. This subjectivity is valuable because it changes the questions that we’re willing to ask and pursue in the scientific community, ultimately fostering a more honest representation of the societies we are meant to serve. How much longer might the mysteries of this golden beetle have remained unsolved if not for a difference of perspective in the one asking the question?