Looking for people like me

Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, this blog talks about diversity in role models and the challenges of finding ‘someone like me’ provide scientific mentoring from the perspective of Jordan Ellison, an undergraduate student at the Colorado College. If anyone feels like they are in a position to provide mentoring for Jordan, please Contact Us!

Where are the role models

When people talk about diversity in the sciences, it seems to me as if those conversations are never truly inclusive. I am proud to be a Woman in STEM, but the inter-sectionality of identities too often feels overlooked when it comes to the sciences. Just because there has been an increase in the number of women in the field doesn’t mean there isn’t still overt sexism and outdated gender roles. When the topics of diversity and inclusivity arise in conversation, it can get awkward and uncomfortable pretty quickly, probably because the people talking about diversity usually don’t come from a diverse background.

I can only speak from my own experiences but before I do so, here’s a little bit about me: This fall I will begin my final year as an undergraduate student at Colorado College, majoring in Organismal Biology and Ecology (hereafter OBE). I have just wrapped up my second summer working as a research assistant to an incredible professor, and I am working on my senior thesis. My institution is comprised of over 60% of students whose families can afford the $70k/year costs and has more students from the top 0.1% than from the bottom 20%. I don’t work multiple jobs on campus to have some extra spending money; I work to help my parents out every now and then when they’re in a sticky position financially. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and never did much to connect with the outdoors until college, whereas many of my peers are veteran outdoorspeople. My mom is a 1st generation American whose parents immigrated from Mexico and Colombia, while people on my dad’s side of the family have traced our ancestry to the American Revolution and a boat from England in the 1600s. My mom never finished community college while my dad has a bachelor’s degree; my mom is brown, my dad is white, and I am somewhere in between—existing as both and neither—while holding a great deal of passing privilege.

These are just a few of the principal parts comprising my identity, but these are also some of the things that most affect the way in which I think about the world, interact with it, and live within it. Who I am is why it is impossible for me to separate the science from the person, or the ecology from the social contexts. Many people keep science separate from the rest of their lives, and I find it difficult to do that.

Over the last year I have embraced the position I am in as someone that is very passing. Staying quiet is always the safe option, but when I have the energy I feel a responsibility to challenge peers and confront ignorance. I’ve started to have these difficult (and sometimes productive!) conversations with people more and more often. However, this gets tricky pretty quickly when the person you’re trying to confront is a professor. Despite CC having a casual culture that includes referring to most professors by their first name, it is still easy to feel intimidated by professors. I do not hold a Ph.D, write letters of recommendation, or sit on chairs and committees. There is an inherent power dynamic that makes confronting professors about feeling out of place in their classroom an awkward conversation.

This past year, I took a month-long course in Argentine Patagonia, talking with local researchers and learning primarily about forest ecology and biogeographic origins and influences. I can talk for hours about the trip; the people, the uncomfortable, the incredible. It marked a major point in my life, as the experience finally validated thoughts and feelings of underlying issues and differences I had begun to notice.

One day, we were with one particularly brilliant researcher who happened to be a woman. Over lunch, I overheard my professor and the researcher talking about women in the workforce, trying to compare Argentina and the US. I listened to the researcher share a few of her own experiences, that to me screamed “internalized sexism,” while my professor questioned if there could be something “biologically intrinsic” explaining why he’s seen “females” to set lower goals than their “male” counterparts. I felt insulted, so I fought back and the discussion that ensued just further frustrated me. After dinner, I tried to talk to the professor about all that had happened, trying to explain who I am and why what he said affected me. Though he said he’d support me in any way he could, I could not take him seriously after feeling so offended.

On our final night before traveling home from Buenos Aires, I expressed my disappointment to a few classmates in our failure to engage with the place and culture. I was told that we took an ecology course, and if I wanted to learn about the culture, I should take a Spanish class abroad, as suggested by one of my classmates. I found this utterly ridiculous and honestly problematic, as I personally do not believe in the separation of ecology and social context.

I’ve found this belief to be one of the main things that separates my line of thinking from many of my peers. Aspects of my identity, especially being a scientist, do not exist in separate compartments. Rather, they function and interact, just as no species exists in isolation. I try to see how everything interacts and connects, not just the plants and animals and fungi, but also who we are. How can we work to conserve and mange land if we don’t understand the social contexts and political climates we must work within? Why would anybody care about a rare bird species in a remote area if they’ve never been camping outside or had someone share the wonders of birds?

It’s not very hard to count the number of students of color on one hand in most of my classes, especially those in my department. Of all the academic departments, OBE is one of just a few that seemingly lacks a single professor of color. Just in my time at CC, a professor position in the department opened and was filled. I saw an opportunity for a person of color to enter a tenure-track position, but unfortunately that was not the case. While I am glad it was filled by a woman instead of another old white man, I am still disappointed by the failure to bring on a single person of color by the department. I once asked my advisor about this, and despite CC and the OBE department actively working to increase diversity, the reason I was given was that there just isn’t the representation in the applicant pool.

Sure, maybe there have been more women entering the field in the time my advisor has been in it, but for me to hear that there just really isn’t the representation of POC in the applicant pool was incredibly disappointing, almost discouraging. Maybe the field of ecology really is just that white, but maybe there is a vicious negative feedback loop limiting access to succeed in this field. The domination of white people, especially those that are arrogant (as is the case at my college), could easily be one of the many things functioning as a deterrent. I won’t let any of this be what stops me from being an ecologist.

Which professor in my department can relate to the anxieties that come from being constantly surrounded by wealthy white people in every classroom? How can I feel comfortable in a classroom or supported when I know people in positions of power believe my identities dictate the capacity I have to work and achieve? How can I ever believe in myself and succeed feeling the current working against me?

Now, at this point I must acknowledge the support I have gotten by various professors and people in my life. I am very appreciative of the opportunities I have been given and the relationships I have formed. I wouldn’t be excited to pursue the field of ecology had I not worked in the field with Flammulated Owls these last two summers. I wouldn’t be as passionate about sharing and communicating research had I not been at CC and had a range of experiences. I am also appreciative of the friends that have listened to me rant, especially those that I get to bounce back ideas about tangible ways to make a difference and change the culture our department.

Despite being aggressed by peers and professors alike, I have gained something incredibly valuable from all these experiences: motivation. I know I want to continue doing research, make it to graduate school, and hopefully end up a successful ecologist with a Ph.D. Maybe there just really isn’t the applicant pool right now, but that does not mean there will never be. What I have recognized in the little time I have been in this field is a problem that can be fixed. The lack of diversity may very well be due to a lack of inclusivity and accessibility. Let’s make higher education more accessible and the field of ecology more inviting. It is our responsibility to do this, and as an aspiring scientist, I am ready to start doing the work to help facilitate this. By working to communicate science using my own work and passions, I hope to inspire more people than just my mom to start noticing the singing birds all around us.

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