With 2020 came a lot of pain; in the midst of my own personal pain came connection. I heard this month’s guest, Dr Marguerite Matthews, speak for the first time during SfN’s panel discussion titled ‘Black Lives Matter and Neuroscience: Why This Moment Matters’. I was inspired on sight, and I couldn’t wait to ask her to be a guest on Her Royal Science.
Walking into any interview as a host can be daunting, especially when you feel profound reverence for your guest. What could have been one of my most nerve-wracking stints as a host turned into a seamless interview that lasted far longer than I expected. In addition to the 70+ minutes of recorded content – that was trimmed down for your enjoyment – Dr Matthews spent an extra hour on Zoom with me, as we laughed and shared more of our respective journeys in academia.
In this episode, we talk about Dr Matthews’ STEM journey, which starts at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. She then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, attending Spelman College for her Bachelor’s in Biochemistry, then on to the University of Pittsburgh for her PhD in Neuroscience. In addition to juxtaposing her experiences at HBCUs and PWIs, we also delve into her poignant thoughts on how the conversations surrounding racial inequality, which were propelled to the surface of our social discourse in 2020, have the potential to effect change in academia.
You will certainly enjoy Dr Matthews’ intellectual acuity as she shares her perspective on 2020. As a nod to the insight that she bestows upon us this month, this episode is aptly titled ‘20/20’.
The transcription of our conversation is below, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Marguerite Matthews: Oftentimes, many people set themselves up to think that they're above the idea that they can be racist, or they can be biased, or discriminatory, and oftentimes absolve themselves of the work to fix it. And I think that's probably a much bigger problem in the academy, than even in the general public.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for our last interview of the year. Today, we will be chatting with Dr Marguerite Matthews, a Scientific Program Manager within the Office of Programs to enhance Neuroscience Diversity at the National Institutes of Health. Prior to her position at the NIH, Dr Matthews completed a BSc in Biochemistry, followed by a PhD in Neuroscience, and postdoctoral training in Behavioural Neuroscience. She is also a part of Building Up the Nerve, a podcast meant for neuroscience trainees to learn the ins and out of assembling a successful grant application for the NIH. I hope to speak with her today about her STEM journey and how some of her earliest life experiences have influenced her path to present day. I'd also like to speak with Dr Matthews about how she predicts the conversations surrounding racial identity that were propelled to the surface of our social discourse in 2020 will affect academia at large. But let’s start from the very beginning: Dr Matthews, what’s your story?
Dr Marguerite Matthews: Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this conversation. I love talking about my story in science because, in many ways, it's not remarkable at all! And in other ways, it is, in the sense that, there are so many barriers that can be part of this journey into a career in general, but certainly in the sciences, and I feel very lucky to be where I am.
I have to say part of my story is I never wanted to be a scientist. This is not at all what I set out to do when I was five! (Chuckles) And so when my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I thought it would be Beyoncé! I was going to be a superstar, singer, dancer, actress extraordinaire, and that's not what happened at all. A lot of how I got to where I am is really the work of mentors, and people who approached me about new opportunities, particularly in the sciences, because I happen to have an affinity for the sciences. Even as I got older and into high school, I thought I was going to be a writer. I loved English. I love literature. I love to read. I love to write short stories.
AB: Same here!
MM: Yeah, I mean, it was so liberating! And it was just so – I won't say easy – but it just came to me so naturally, you know? The words flowed for me, onto the page. I loved writing essays and all of that. And I also happened to be good at science. I was a straight A student so I got good marks in every subject. But when it came to [choosing] a way to go, I thought I would maybe study English in college [but] I was asked to apply for a research internship in my junior year. It was my chemistry high school teacher who said I should apply. And I thought there couldn't be anything more boring in the world than working in a lab!
MM: Mind you, I didn't know exactly what that meant, but it sounded super boring, like, why would I want to be with a bunch of test tubes and do essentially our lab work that we do at school? Why would I do that from 9-5 every day during my summer? But I applied anyway because I really respected this teacher and I thought, you know what? It couldn't hurt to have something on my resume when I'm going to college and I didn't know a lot of people who were going to apply for it. So, I figured that would also help me stand out.
I got into the internship program and I did my summer internship at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, up in La Jolla, California, not too far from where I live. And that really started my trajectory. I started to enjoy science in a different way. I saw some of the practical aspects of it. More than just liking learning about chemicals, stoichiometry, and other things like that, I really got to appreciate how things work, and I [could] be a person who can investigates those things. And people trusted me to handle very, very expensive equipment and reagents that [if] you spill one drop on the floor, that's hundreds of dollars!
It's really a series of events similar to that, that happened all throughout my journey, all the way up until graduate school. Even going to graduate school – getting a PhD anyway – was not really what I set out to do. I thought I was going to go to medical school, but [I’m] really thankful to have mentors who saw something in me that I didn't necessarily see and helped guide me. Instead of keeping doors closed or trying to redirect me – in a way thinking that I could have an ‘easier path’, which is what so many people of colour are told, that ‘you probably won't do well and so you should try this other easier thing that other people like you do’ – they opened doors for me and they showed me the path, never giving me any disillusion that it would be easy, but letting me know that they would be there for me to help me overcome many of those challenges. I feel very fortunate to have found my place.
Now that I am a scientist, I have a PhD in Neuroscience, I have a job that helps other folks along their STEM journeys, it gives me so much pride and honour and I really feel like it's a pleasure that I get to do this work, and not really so much the other way around.
AB: I love that. And I'd love to hear more about how you made the transition from biochemistry to neuroscience. From working in a lab, I can definitely say that there's quite a bit of biochemistry in Neuroscience but that might not be the case for a lot of our listeners; they might not know how those two are related. Could you speak about how you made that leap?
MM: Sure! A lot of it was kind of by accident. My first research experience in high school was in a Neuroscience lab; I was in a huge lab that studied learning and memory, but also around the time when neurogenesis was really getting off the ground. And it wasn't just some BS story that people were making up, [saying that] you get these new cells in your brain after you're born. It really was more trying to figure out what's going on. What are the cells doing? Are they functional? That was really fascinating, but when I got to college – I went to a small liberal arts college for women, Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia – and [in] a little small liberal arts college, you have biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science; those are your major options. Neuroscience was not an option. The closest thing would have been psychology, but I wasn't really interested in the psychological aspect. I really wanted to know more about the neurobiology of the brain, so I chose biochemistry because chemistry was a subject I loved in high school.
With biochemistry, which was more of a concentration within the major and not really on its own, I had the opportunity to understand more chemistry as it relates to the body and in more biological processes. But all throughout college, all of my summer internships were, with the exception of one, were in neuroscience. I did various things in neuroscience; some behavioural, some more molecular – really getting to see the gamut and how broad really the field of neuroscience was.
Because I had a chemistry background, people really wanted to use that. They really liked that I had this opportunity to add that, both in terms of coming up with techniques to study the brain, but also understanding the chemical processes in the brain, so it wasn't as big of a leap as it could have been.
But I was so open! Not having an idea of what you want to do opens you up in many ways, right? Because you're like, ‘this looks cool! Sure, I’ll study how this thing works. I've never heard of that part of the brain before! What’s the hippocampus? Okay, sure, why not! Let's do that.’
So, I didn't feel encumbered by this need to only study what I knew from my textbooks. I was really open to whatever opportunities there were. And it just so happened that in my PhD program, I did more neurochemistry, and it sort of happened that that was a project that was interesting to me. I didn't feel like I [had] to do that because I have this chemistry background.
AB: Thank you for mentioning that you went to Spelman because that's also an HBCU and it's a great school! I was wondering if you'd be able to compare some of the, not only academic experiences, but also the social experience of being an undergrad at an HBCU (historically Black college/university) versus being a grad student at a PWI (predominantly white institution)?
MM: Yeah, it's hard to say ‘compare’ because I did not go to a PWI for my undergraduate experience, and going to that sort of institution for graduate school, obviously, it's very different, right? You're just coming in with a different set of knowledge. You've lived a little bit of life and you're almost a grown up when you start graduate school.
AB: Well, I wasn't, but sure (Laughter).
MM: (Chuckles) I wouldn't really say that. Looking back, I was not. But you think you are! You're in your 20s a lot of times when you started grad school, especially if you go straight from undergraduate into graduate school.
But I will say I being born and raised in San Diego, I actually didn't realize how [small] of a Black population there was, and I identify as a black woman. It's only, I think, 6 or 7% in San Diego, but, like, my paediatrician was Black, my dentist was Black. Many of the professionals with whom my parents associated with were Black, so when I went to Spelman, a lot of people thought it would be a culture shock for me, but it wasn't because that was really the world that I operated in outside of school. Even within the schools that I attended, they were fairly diverse – mostly Brown people: Mexican, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian.
[Going to Spelman] wasn't so much of a culture shock, but certainly going to an institution where many of my professors [were] Black. I think I only had one Black teacher in the entire time I was in K-12, maybe two. I definitely know there was one in high school and I maybe one in elementary school.
Then, most of my classmates, probably 99% of my classmates, being Black women [at Spelman] and having an all-Black male school across the street, and another Black-coed university across the street on the other side; it was really quite a beautiful experience. Not only did I receive an incredible education and no way felt inferior to anyone else when I got to graduate school, or like I somehow had to settle for an education because I chose to go to a historically Black college. Many of my peers in high school thought I was throwing away my straight A grades to attend this HBCU that many of them didn't even know anything about. But the identity you develop or the way in which you cultivate how you see yourself in the world was really important for me as a Black woman, to challenge what I thought about myself, what I thought about my history, but also really to revel in that, and notice that there's so much more to being a Black woman than just being a statistic or being a set of stereotypes. Even if I were those stereotypes, even if I matched every one of them, that doesn't make me less than, right? I'm still just as worthy of respect and just to live: to be who I am, to do what I do in the world, period.
I got so much of that being at Spelman and being in the what they call the Atlanta University Center with Morehouse and Clark [Atlanta University]. And Morris Brown, rest in peace. (Chuckles) But it was such a cool experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. I loved it so much.
Even now, if I see somebody with a Spelman shirt on, they could be across the street, they could be almost a mile away and I will run to them and be like, ‘Oh my God! Did you go to Spelman? I went to Spelman too!’
MM: It’s like a love-fest because we recognize that you get so much more than just an education when you go to Spelman, and many HBCU are very similar, that you have this other set of experiences, and life awakenings, that you probably just can't get in other places. I feel, super lucky to have gone there.
AB: I wasn't actually aware that there was still a perception that HBCUs were somewhat academically inferior. I always thought that because – I don't know where the statistic comes from, but I know that 75% of practicing Black physicians come out of HBCUs undergrad? It's something like 70 or 75%, isn't it?
MM: Yeah! It’s very high.
AB: Yeah, I think lawyers are somewhere in and around that statistic as well. That obviously proves that the academic component matches all of the other schools that are available in the United States. Where do you think that perception of inferiority comes from?
MM: Well, I think, like with many other things that are just born out of colonialism and White Supremacy is this idea that the closer you are to whiteness, the better. Unfortunately, systemically, these other schools, these predominantly white institutions are given so much more. They have so many more advantages that if somehow you are at a disadvantage in things that are completely out of your control, that it has that means it has to be inferior, and I just don't believe that.
Even many state schools that maybe are not going to make the top 20 or even top 50 list of HBCUs [are] giving an opportunity for people to get an education and to learn a skill, to learn new knowledge, and to contribute. To me, that's just as valuable as going to a community college or going to perhaps a small state school that may not have a lot of funding. I don't think that what other people think of those institutions, make it what it is, right? I had a great education and whether you think my school is worthy or not, because you've never heard of it, or you think whatever stereotypical things you think about it, that, ‘oh, a bunch of black people go there, so it can't be that good’ – then that's your hang up and cool for you.
Thankfully, it's never kept me or any of my classmates out of any of the doors that they've tried to go through career-wise, [or] education wise. I mean, almost every HBCU that I know of, Fortune 500 companies go to the campus to recruit, the top graduate schools and medical schools in the country go to these schools, these HBCUs – and not just Spelman, which is kind of in many ways, considered one of the elite schools – but [also] other state colleges. They are receiving that kind of attention because those companies know what those schools produce. They know that they're producing smart, capable, hard-working folks. Even if you want to think of it as diversity quotas, they're still coming to us and not necessarily going to the school’s Black Student Union at this predominantly white institution.
There's something to be said about the way in which the schools are able to continue a legacy – that is not something to be scoffed at. Thankfully, my father is a HBCU grad. He went to Howard University for undergrad and graduate school. I learned very early on that there's a sense of pride when you're around people who want you to be there. They care that you're there and they're going to make sure that you succeed.
And oftentimes, you know, we get bit harder life lessons from our professors, because they don't want you to feel like you graduate and then use excuses. There's no makeup test. There's no such thing as bonus points. This is what you get. And you learn how to be responsible early on, but they're going to make sure you succeed. They're going to say, ‘I see you got a D on this test. You need to come to my office; we're going to figure this out because I'm not letting you just fail my class. I know you have more than that to offer.’ And I don't know a lot of people who have those stories that didn't go to HBCUs. And I'm not saying it doesn't exist anywhere else, but I think you know what you're getting into when you go into an environment that was built for you to succeed when everybody else was shutting you out.
AB: Mmhmm. I'm wondering now how that entire experience prepared you for 2020 and for the police brutality that we've seen over and over again in a very brutal way. We knew it was happening, but this was the first time that we were all at home, and could really process what was happening in an active manner. Did you feel more prepared, less prepared, could you feel prepared, really?
MM: Yeah, I was just thinking, how are you prepared to deal with people continuing not to value Black life? Even more than just Black life, honestly, don't value the life of citizens? That it's okay that law enforcement is able to be involved in these heinous crimes and not receive any punishment for it, right? It should not be okay for any person to be treated that way, to be brutalized and worse off killed, so I don't know if I was really prepared for it, but I will say, more so in terms of the reactions and the responses. This is probably something that I've cultivated my entire life, but definitely reinforced at Spelman and something that I've been able to hold onto as time has gone on, that we can't qualify life as being deserving to live or deserving to be abused at the hands of authority. Whether or not someone was committing a crime at the time of their demise, or sleeping in their bed, they don't deserve to just be reacted to as if they were some animal on the street that has to be put down.
You see all these images and stories of white criminals or ‘suspects’ being taken into custody after having gunned down people with an assault rifle in their hands at the time, safely being put into custody for them to await their face with justice, and that is how it should be. I don't even think that other people who even commit these terrible crimes should be treated as if they are just some low life form, regardless of what we think. There's a justice system for a reason and unfortunately, so many Black people are not even able to get to that point, if that's what is suspected of them, that something they've done something wrong that requires them to face the law.
So often, in the news or even people have to preface, ‘well, this person was innocent; this person was unarmed; look at all this good [thing] that they did in the community.’ I think it's important to give perspective to the things that are happening and the people we're dealing with, but they don't have to be blameless. They don't have to be pure to deserve some level of justice and for our outrage.
I think that's the thing that has really been the most salient for me is how I talk about these things, especially to my white counterparts and my white colleagues, in terms of not always having to use these qualifiers for them to show sympathy to a person that was gunned down in their back, or playing with the toy gun in a park, or in a store making a purchase. We don't have to have all of those things for you to say that's not okay.
We shouldn't stand for it, I shouldn't stand for it. You shouldn't stand for it. None of us should stand for it. I think in that way, I feel like much of the conversations I've been privy to have allowed me to have a broader perspective and respect for all people, but especially for Blackness. We feel like because we're Black, that's the stain. You don't make the stain bigger by then adding onto a rap sheet or ‘this person was caught you know stealing cigarettes’ or ‘this person did this when they were 15 and they were in juvenile hall.’ You don't want the stain to get bigger. You don't want people to see the badness. You only want them to focus on the thing that you want them to focus on. Being Black is the crime apparently so why do we feel like we have to cover it up? That's what makes this idea of white supremacy so egregious – that we're always having to explain ourselves and to have to be perfect. And even when you see these people who were in the civil rights movement who were ‘doing everything right’, by the book, these blameless citizens, perfect records, even they got brutalized, fire hoses ran on them, their houses bombed, or crosses burning in their front yard. Like, it doesn't matter!
Why do we constantly, even now, feel the need to make it seem like there's this level of respectability that you can have in order to be seen as a human being? Again, you can be committing a crime, but you should be dealing with a jury of your peers or a court that actually make that determination.
I know that was a really long answer, but...
AB: It was an extraordinarily beautiful answer, and so poignant. I don't even know what to say, because it's so true. I was just nodding vigorously as you were talking because I’ve felt that in my own life as well. I felt the need to be perfect in every single way because I also feel like I'm representing so much more than just me.
AB: I walk into a room and I think if I mess up this presentation, if I am not the best student in the class, another person like me will show up and [other people] will automatically scoff and go, ‘I don't want to have to deal with another one of those.’
AB: And it's such an unfair burden to carry.
MM: I think your point is super well taken even in terms of the way we present ourselves in our professional life. We carry these burdens with us everywhere.
MM: Whether it's just showing up to a seminar or, you know, walking out of our front door and trying to figure out what's going to happen to us at the end of the day. It’s this constant state of paranoia and fear that these things can happen to us and we want to believe that we have some control of how that happens. It is incredibly heavy to carry every single day.
I say all the time, who cares what people think? And, in general, that is my mood forever, as the kids say!
AB: Hashtag Beyoncé!
MM: Beyoncé actually did say that! You right, you right! Queen Bey said that... It's not that that thought doesn't cross my mind. What will people think, how am I presenting myself? I want to represent my employer well, and certainly I want to represent myself well but I don't want to create these other issues. When I walk into a room, I do want people to see me as a professional and as a list of my accomplishments and not what they might assume of me for XYZ reasons, but it's hard to escape that, this idea that we have to be the shining stars and hopefully change someone's mind. Not that other people can't, you know, just be who they are but, white people often are not... the whole race is not represented by a few bad people, a few serial killers. They are not seen as colonizers, pillaging the world for riches of their own gain. That is not really kind of the representation [that they get] and yet we oftentimes. if we make one mistake, it feels like, ‘oh no, I've let my family down, I’ve let my race down, I’ve let my community down.’
It's a lot to carry, so I hear what you're saying. It's a lot. It's a lot to deal with, and I don't know if I've learned how to not do that from my education, but I've certainly learned to consider it a little bit differently and not always feel like everything has to be perfect in order for me to be seen. The hope is that I don't have to be perfect to be seen as someone who is worthy of respect.
AB: Do you think what has transpired in this past, I'd say eight-month period, where being at home during the pandemic has allowed people to just sit and introspect and have conversations with their families about race – do you think that will change the game at all?
MM: I hope so. That is truly the hope, that having the opportunity to slow down from the busyness of life and going, going, going – the literal coming and going all the time – will help people really have an honest evaluation of themselves and what's happening and see that as a sign to move forward and to do all the things that maybe they were too afraid to do.
I see it within my own institution where I work – folks really feeling the urgency behind what's going on. Not that they didn't think racism was a problem, or discrimination, or some of these other inequities – that not only is it a problem, but we haven't done enough. Everything that we thought we were doing to make things better is not enough. It's just not. And here we can see where it's just busting apart at the seams.
I've seen movement, and I hope that momentum continues to change. Certainly, in the United States, there's almost some joy in this idea that we might not really be out of the thick of the pandemic until the end of next year, because I kind of want people to still stay put, so that they can work at these other things that they've either been too busy to tend to, or unwilling to see the need to really put effort behind it, like, Well, I don't think bad things about different people who are different than me, or I don't actively act out in this way. But that's not enough, right?
AB: emphatic Yeah.
MM: Passive behaviour is not enough. We have to act against. It's not enough to be not racist. You have to be anti-racist, right? It requires intention, it requires action, and it's not enough to just think and hope that the bad people die off and we can progress as a society. At no point in history is there an idea that that really happened.
I do think that I'm hopeful anyway, that there will be meaningful change. I just hope that enough people have been waking up, not using this time to hibernate.
AB: Do you think that academia has more of an opportunity to change than the more general public? Do you think we're more situated to actually effect these greater bigger, more substantial shifts in our thinking?
MM: I would hope so, but people who are intellectuals aren't necessarily morally right.
MM: And, unfortunately that, I think, actually creates a larger problem. Many people in academia – and I'll certainly throw in the type of institution that NIH is, because it's made up of a bunch of people that received higher education in the academy, and taught there, and were in leadership positions because it functions very similarly – people who are intellectuals and scholars and value scholarship, they oftentimes pat themselves on the back for those same reasons and then ignore all of this other stuff going on. There are plenty of very-well respected, incredibly brilliant scientists who don't believe that bias exists in science. And how can that be, when you have all kinds of biases, whether they're ‘bad’ or not, there’s still a bias. You can't separate yourself, your experiences, your thoughts, your ideas from your work. It's just impossible for a human being to do. You bring all of who you are to your work and despite maybe some of your best efforts, it exists.
It doesn't have to be a bad thing, but to act as if you can also have these biases against the people who are doing science, or even the science itself. I mean, they're still journals in the year 2020 publishing about Black people being inferior!
AB: emphatic and drawn out Yeah.
MM: I think, oftentimes, many people set themselves up to think that they're above the idea that they can be racist, or they can be biased, or discriminatory, and oftentimes absolve themselves of the work to fix it. And I think that's probably a much bigger problem in the academy, than even in the general public.
Because now, you've got these people who do have the ability to change, and to understand why there's a need for this change, even evidence-based approaches, who just are like, ‘no, I know everything. I'm very smart. You know, we don't have a problem here. That's their problem. That's the despicable’s problem or the deplorable’s problems’ out in wherever place that you decide.
But I do also think that that creates a bigger responsibility to make a change and because you do have the ability to see what's really going on, to understand the data, to understand what's happening, and make a change and do something about it. Create better structures that allow for the elimination of racism, sexism, name the phobia. You can do that. It's well within your power. It's do you want to – that’s a whole other situation.
So, I'm hopeful that it can be done. Whether there's real movement more broadly is anybody's guess, but I'm glad to see – I've been talking with a lot of trainees, other faculty, and people in leadership positions at academic institutions, who are thinking about this; even thinking about bringing in critical-race theory, talking about reparations frameworks. Things I would have never thought a science department would talk about! Maybe sociology, and psychology, maybe even some of the other humanities, but certainly not in the sciences!
I'm really encouraged by that, and I hope it snowballs. I hope other people start to see that in order for you to really grow in a way that is meaningful, and true to the all these diversity statements that folks been putting out, I hope that you see that there are other places doing it better, that students and faculty are going to those places saying, ‘no, I'm not coming here to study because you don't seem to really value this’. And I'm not just talking about Black and Brown faces.
I hope that everyone says it's not acceptable for you to just do this lip service. We need to see actual movement. What are you actually doing to create a more inclusive environment? It's not just about creating space for Black folks in this time of civil unrest, particularly as it relates to racism. There's all kinds of other nasty, dirty secrets going on across identities at many of these institutions that's brushed under the rug. Well, they bring in a lot of money. And that's just not acceptable.
This time, there's no more excuses and I hope people in the general public, but certainly trainees, decide that they're not going to stand for [it] and continue to push their institutions to not just make a statement, but to make change. Have actual action behind all of those words.
AB: Yeah, I mean, the letters came in...
MM: Oh, they were pouring in! They couldn't wait to tweet them out!
MM: And I'm reading it, like, all you said you're committed to diversity, but what's the commitment?
AB: Yes! Exactly.
MM: Where are you? What have you done? What are you currently doing? What are you going to continue to do? What are you going to implement that’s new?
Come on. And you're smart enough to know that’s not how we do it. Especially scientists? Are you kidding me? You know we love data! You gotta come on, you gotta have some specific aims, we need to see some preliminary data –
AB: Some future directions!
MM: Right, exactly! Give us something to work with, some meat. This would never have passed peer-review, ever.
AB: Just to kind of wrap things up, I'm wondering if you have any life lessons that you would like to share, from your experiences in STEM. You've had more than 10-15 years that you've been in a STEM career or training stage. Do you have any takeaways that you'd like to share, some gems with our audience?
MM: I would say be open – be open to experiences, opportunities – but also don't settle. You don't [have to] accept one and then give up the other. I think both things can be true. But in terms of openness, you never know what opportunities – be it a research opportunity – stepping out and saying I'm not really interested in this career path; I want to try something else.
Allow people to introduce you to other opportunities, but also not saying ‘I'm going to suffer through this postdoc because I really want to be in a lab that publishes Nature and Science papers.’ That ‘I'm going to accept having poor mentorship or poor toxic environment because I'm going to get the science experience that I want to really want to do’, and ‘this person is an expert in that field.’ So often we make concessions, thinking that we have to do that in order to be successful. And that's not always the case.
But also, I hear so often, ‘you know if you want to live in California, you're not going to have a lot of experiences... you should be open to going to the middle of nowhere, in Montana or Oklahoma, if you want to get a faculty position.’ I say, if you want to move to California, move to California! You don't have to feel like you have to be so open that you have to end up being far from your family, or being miserable in terms of social life, or whatever the case may be.
I think so often scientists are told to accept whatever they're given and I don't believe that at all. When it comes to culture, when it comes to [your working environment, thinking] I want to work at R1, period. I'm not expecting anything else. That's what you want to do, go for it! Let me know how I can help you get there.
When I say be open, I don't think you have to just accept anything, but there's so many opportunities out there, especially for scientists, and life doesn’t have to be one way. Even when you know you want to be a faculty member and you want to stay in science and have your own lab, it doesn't always have to look the way your mentor did it, or the way your friend did it. Your journey to that point may be very different than other people. That does not have to be a bad thing; it's okay that it looks different or you approach it differently than other folks. That's one piece of advice.
And then the second thing would be to not feel burdened by this idea of having to do everything right, and I don't necessarily mean being perfect. Similar to being open, and also being willing to not settle – so often we feel like, I have to have this many things on my CV, I have to have spoken at this many places, I have to know that these many people – wanting to pack your CV or feel like you need more experience than what you already have.
I think you should do what you love, do what interests you and motivates you to get up every day, or to work late at night, or to work on the weekends, or however your works good works out. But what is it that is going to help you? [But] if doing this other thing, just to say you did it so you can put it on your CV, or you can talk about it in your interview is not going to be worth it.
I think pursuing what fuels you, even if it's tedious – it may not be something you particularly like to do, but if you see like the value in that the endpoint – maybe it's doing R code. I hate R code, but I know this is going to actually enhance my research!
I think you should do things that are meaningful to you and where you want to be, but not just doing it for the sake of saying, ‘I did it.’ There's not been anything that I've done that I feel because I didn't have the experience, it's kept me out of what I want to do. Actually, not having those things probably led me to be in the position that I am and I love what I do. I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, and so glad that I didn't try to make my career journey look like anybody else's.
AB: Facts. That's a perfect way to end this episode.
AB: That was so good!
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