For our first episode of 2021, I spoke to one of our most popular – and undoubtedly beloved – Her Sci guests, a recent PhD graduate in Engineering who was featured in our second episode of Season I. I really wanted to have a follow-up interview with her, not only because she’s always a delight to speak with, but also because I wanted our audience to hear about her continued journey since we last chatted.
The first time we spoke in the Summer of 2019, she speculated that she was about a year away from graduating. Neither of us knew what would be waiting for our global society in 2020, a pandemic that would radically change the way lab-based research is done. She still managed to complete her PhD in the Fall of last year, with all the poise and brilliance that she’s always possessed as a creative experimentalist and a savvy engineer.
During our most recent conversation, we spent a fair amount of time talking about how the COVID pandemic contributed to her graduation plans, the value of knowledge translation and outreach, as well as the necessity to do our part to inspire the next generation of young people in STEM – an endeavour that is very close to both of our hearts. We also had an honest conversation about the financial drawbacks of staying in academia, a topic I and others around me typically (and unfortunately) refrain from discussing publicly.
You will certainly hear the joy in my voice as we speak to Her Royal Science's first guest of 2021, who shares her journey to PhD completion, her ‘PhDone’ story, and I hope you’ll join me in congratulating my very dear friend on her recently completed doctoral degree.
The transcription of our conversation is below, with minor edits for clarity and brevity. Please forgive any typos!
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's interview. Today, we'll be chatting with one of our most beloved guests from Season 1. She was featured in our second episode, ‘Get a Cat’, and recently completed her PhD in Engineering in Boston. If you haven't yet listened to her story, please do so! In this episode, we'll talk about her experience wrapping up her PhD during COVID and her future plans. For our listeners, would you mind doing a quick recap of what you studied for your PhD?
Guest, PhD: Hello, hello! Yes, I can. A lot of the work that I did in my PhD was very interdisciplinary. A quick 10,000-foot view, as they say, would be studying material properties at different length scales. Looking at them, on the nano scale – where material properties change, as I discussed very briefly in the last episode – and also at the macro and meso scale as well.
AB: Okay, with the hopes of applying it in what setting?
GP: That's a great question! I think the applications of a lot of the projects that I worked on was more about understanding material properties. Whenever you want to apply any kind of material to a particular object, or a project, or some kind of device, you have to understand how it's going to behave both at the length scale and also under the conditions that you're going to be using it. I think it comes down to a fundamental question of material science: we have to understand this material before we use it. If we have a particular material or a polymer at the bulk scale – something that you can touch and feel that's large enough for you to be able to observe and characterize – when you make it much smaller or when you heat it up, or when you do other kinds of modifications to the material, you can change the material properties in a way that can't actually be predicted using the properties that you had from the bulk state, so there's a lot of interesting phenomena that happen, both at the nano scale and at the micro scale. And also, the way that you characterize the material could really affect the properties that you get out of it. There's a lot of nitty gritty to it, but I think to answer your question, the goal of these projects is to understand the materials, much earlier than it is to apply them in a particular setting.
AB: [By the way], I was thoroughly impressed by your defence. You did a phenomenal job and you made it accessible to someone like me who knows nothing about engineering, nothing about physics, nothing about anything that you really talked about, but I was able to actually relay that information to someone like my mom, which I think was impressive.
GP: I appreciate that kind of feedback, but I think what it comes down to is a ton of practice; knowing your material and practicing disseminating that really complicated information to a variety of different audiences. I really appreciate that feedback, but it's something that I've worked really hard on, and I think it's something that's not really a skill that most people gain in grad school, but I feel like that's one of the most important skills that I've gained over hours and hours of practice in group meetings, or at conferences, or in different types of settings, where I did a lot of outreach: having to explain myself to high schoolers, or even younger people who don't even know what nano means. That's a complicated thing to do, but it just takes a lot of practice. And it's much, much easier to get that practice early on when there's not a ton at stake, than it is when you're at your job and have to talk to a client and you don't know how to break down this complicated task. Definitely comes down to practice.
AB: I'm glad that you said that because I think a lot of people think that it does just happen. You just walk into a space and you know how to do that. But I've also had to practice a lot to cater the stuff that I do to every type of audience that I might come in contact with. My question now, to follow up what you just said is, how did you find the time to fit in the different types of outreach that you were interested in doing? Grad school is incredibly busy, and I can imagine the projects that you were doing are also very time consuming.
GP: That's certainly true. And it's so funny – somebody else asked me that recently, so I had to sit down and think about, if I was so busy, why did I...? [The person who asked me] was someone who didn't understand the impact that outreach would have. Looking back on my journey – it's really funny to think about, but – disseminating science is all about storytelling. In practicing telling my science, I've kind of figured out my – I know you like to say this, what is your science story –
GP: I've kind of gone back and had to look at, how did I get here? And what it ends up being is that I had a lot of people go out of their way to explain their jobs to me, or what they were interested in to me. It was really small interactions that put me on a path that I was not really destined for otherwise. The way I think about it – what’s that game, pinball? – where the ball hits the little corner and it pivots and ricochets into another corner. One of the [interactions] that I really love telling is, a year before I was applying to colleges, I met this woman who, at the time, I believe she worked for NASA. And she was talking about the projects that she was doing, and it was like a light bulb that switched off in my brain, and I was like, ‘this is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing!’ So that's kind of what got me started in engineering in the first place.
It was her taking the time to explain it; and she was a scientist at NASA, talking to a high-schooler, you know? That’s not her job! I’m sure that was not the highlight of her day. But because of the interactions, I feel very strongly that it's my responsibility to pay it forward. You never know what kind of interaction might change somebody's life. And I know that's putting a lot of pressure on both the people who have advised me and also my advisees, but I really think it's the aggregation of these small interactions that really [contribute to] the decisions that impact your life.
It's really important for me; you asked where do I find the time? I have to find it. That's not an option because I have to contribute. I have to be able to communicate this, especially to communities or to younger students and youths who may not have ever seen a woman that looks like me doing engineering or doing grad school.
I got a lot of those questions in outreach; they were like ‘what do you do? why are you doing this?’ and ‘how did you get in there?’ or ‘are you really in grad school?’
I love science; I love, love, love doing research, and I’m an experimentalist at heart. I would not have spent all those years in grad school and in undergrad if I didn't. But I think the thing that made my grad school experience meaningful, the thing that energized me – besides good data, but, you know, good data is hard to come by – was these experiences. These types interactions with people, where even failed experiments that I did were able to inform something for somebody else. That really kept me going.
Going back to your question of where do I find the time; it wasn't so much that I had to find the time. That was such an important part of grad school.
AB: Now, let's talk a little bit about the experience of you wrapping up your PhD in 2020, which is probably one of the most tumultuous years that our generation has lived through, at least in terms of our adult years. I know a lot has happened over the last 20-25 years that we were witness to, but this is special because we are adults, and we have an adult perspective, and [this year] affects our lives – our education and our professional lives – so significantly, and you were about to defend. How did you wrap up your PhD during the COVID pandemic?
GP: Okay, I have to preface all of this by saying that we are in Fall of 2020, and things have already been so tumultuous. laughing God knows, next week, there’s going to an earthquake where I live, so I’m saying this in early Fall. If something more terrible has happened, I’m unaware! I’m blissfully unaware right now! But you’re right, it’s been a disaster and it's been so difficult to grapple with everything. Part of me is like, ‘it’s still March! I’m still dreaming!’
But more specifically to your question of, how was wrapping up my PhD during the pandemic and during the tumultuousness of this year? I really feel that I got very, very lucky, which is a crazy thing to say. First of all, on the base level of I am healthy, my family's healthy; a lot of people can’t say that. Fundamentally, that's the first thing. And, I'm very, very grateful to have had the resources of, you know, being in a large academic institution, having access to things like health insurance and being able to work from home. I think a lot of people didn't have that. So, when I say I feel lucky, I know it's been a crazy year, but I know that it can be so much worse. Anytime I want to complain, I just want to think about the blessings that I have had and the how grateful I am for those. So, that's the preface at the beginning.
But then the second part of ‘I feel lucky’ is I wanted to graduate earlier in the year, the first normal-ish, two months of the year, [but] there was a painful negotiation process that I went through with my advisor, which was unsuccessful.
I had asked to graduate, because I felt that, at the time, I had succeeded in the projects that I wanted to, etc. And there was a resounding ‘absolutely not.’ And ‘there's a lot more to be done,’ which, to be fair, I think that's what a lot of advisors say.
I kind of want to fit in a little bit of advice here. That was a really, really painful time for me, and it was really painful because I think the challenge of the advisor-advisee relationship is that there's such a huge imbalance of power, so when you want to graduate and the person's like, 'no', there's literally nothing you can do. I mean, there are some steps that you can take, but it's extremely challenging.
It was a really hard time for me, so I reached out to my mentors outside of my advisor and got some advice, and I really had to push back. [Earlier], you asked me about the science that I did in grad school, but if I were to say something non-science that I learned in grad school, the biggest thing was –and I did learn this from my advisor who I had to do this for – was push back. Fight for yourself. Keep pushing, because people are there to tell you ‘no’, but you have to be the person to not tell ‘no’ to yourself. If you're not fit for something, they will just not hire you, right? But you can't be the person at the beginning, like, 'oh, they're not going to,' so projecting that onto my decision-making up of, ‘I'm not even gonna bother.’
That was a big thing in grad school for me. Apply for scholarships, apply for awards, ask for things. If they say no, that's on them. That's fine, you move on, ask for another thing.
Long story short, I asked to graduate... and I mentioned before that I'm an experimentalist, so all of my stuff requires me to be in lab. My work didn’t involve a lot of simulation or a finite element modelling, so I did have there in-person. When everything shut down, earlier this year , there was this awkward moment where, first of all, we didn't really know what was going to happen. It was really hard to be like, 'well just sit at home for a month and then you'll be back'.
Basically, what ended up happening was, I just kind of argued that I would work on one last paper based on results that I already had and I’d just be out. I think it's really, really challenging, in addition to not having that nonverbal communication that you have in-person, but also, the situation is challenging onto itself. There were so many times where I would propose something and they'd be like, 'well, no, this is not sufficient, like you will need to take X, Y, and Z data' and but I [couldn’t] take X, Y, and Z data. So I'd have to reiterate.
It was me being a little bit stone-headed, moving forward, iterating, trying to get that yes. I also understand that, not having access to the lab and to the experimental setting was kind of the reason that I was able to graduate in the first place. I think if we were [in lab], I’d be there for a couple months because any kind of research advisor always wants you to do more research when you’re cheap.
I certainly feel, as I said, very grateful. But I also feel very, very badly for people who are [doing] experiments, in the middle of their PhD. I really hope people got to do something else with their data.
It’s challenging, but it’s also not over. It’s hard to have any kind of general conclusions; but if I were to summarize it: I just feel lucky that it happened this way because I was able to graduate, but it also had really bad side-effects for anyone who's trying to apply for jobs anytime this year or next year. There's going to be massive challenges because firms and companies... the same kind of uncertainty that we feel, they're feeling too, but then they are applying it to their hiring system. I also read some departments are not hiring PhD students!
AB: Yeah, I heard that! There are a couple of schools that are not even doing [doctoral] intake this year, entirely. The world has completely changed. I did want to ask, did you feel like you could go to your other supervisory committee members when your primary supervisor was saying, ‘no I don't think you're ready?’
GP: It's a little bit of a tricky situation because I think what was really important is that I felt that the relationship that I had with my committee, at least some of my committee members, was very, very close. There were [other] people on my committee, [that] I would not feel comfortable going to.
I think is really important to have a relationship with the committee members, or maybe just one or two, who know you as a person, outside of who you are as your main advisor’s advisee.
I don’t know how this works in other people's departments, but in ours, typically, you work for your advisor, maybe have some collaborators, but after you're done with your classes, you really only interact with that one person. But it was really important for me – just because I had some other challenges during grad school – to reach out to other people as well. Over time, they understood the nature of our relationship, and were able to facilitate some of that.
Another component of what I think is really important to have on your committee, especially if you have not the kindest person as your advisor, which happens very often, is to have somebody – I like this word – who’s an advocate for you, someone who can really mentor you in a way that is beyond, get this data, get this result, go to this conference, get this paper. [They can ask] 'what's your long-term plan? What are you trying to do with your life? What are your skills? What are the things that you need to be better at?' Also, if there's department politics, you need someone to advocate for you.
I think it's really important to have someone like that. If that person is your advisor, consider yourself very lucky because a lot of times, that's not the case. But I definitely think you should have that person. And it [may] not be in your department. It could be somebody in your life. It just happened that mine was in my department, so I feel very lucky to have had an advocate.
Going back to your original question about being comfortable going to your committee – I think the onus is kind of on the person to develop a committee [where] you work on those relationships, such that you feel comfortable going to them. Not that you look back like, Hey, can I go to this person? but you actually develop that relationship moving forward. I know a lot of people who make their committees based on their classes, or based on who they TA’d for, or maybe people whose work is relevant to them. But, you know, try just hanging out with that person a little bit, try to figure out what their research is, try to figure out their style, talk to their students, try to get that relationship, because it really, really pays off.
AB: Do you feel like any of the experiences that you had in graduate school affected your desire to stay within academia?
GP: So, I am not in academia anymore, [but] it feels very weird because we've been home for forever. I didn't really get to say goodbye, so it still feels like I’m in grad school.
I think it was a really interesting intersection of a couple things that worked out for me of, you know, deciding not to stay in academia, at least for the time being, which is that different from what most people's PhDs are – you hyper-focus on this one problem and you become the world's expert – I think I had a very different experience in that I worked on a lot of projects and I had a very versatile set of skills. I was maybe an expert in one particular subset of a particular subset; more generally, it was that I had a very diverse set of skills that happened for whatever reason.
I applied for a couple of opportunities to be able to see what the applying for faculty position process is like. So, I attended meetings, seminars. There, I realized that not only was my background not really fit to continue, they want somebody who's really an expert and they can expand upon their expertise.
But on another hand, one of the ways in which grad school kind of informed my decision to leave – I don't like the terminology of ‘leave’... I'll just say pivot – to pivot away was kind of observing new faculty and trying to see the balance of how much you like things and how much the job will inform your life. That can be in terms of your hours, in terms of your salary, in terms of your lifestyle, in whatever way you want to plan your life – at least the first couple of years – you want to make sure that that matches your passion and also your skills. I love science, I love research. I'm currently in a field where I am interfacing with a ton of science and research. But this idea of I have to fight for...
Asma, I don’t want to say this because what if somebody does want to do this? I don’t want to lead them astray. I don’t want them to feel bad.
AB: It's your life story, right? Even if you said, oh, I would never touch industry, someone who decides to go into industry is going to feel bad. If you said, I want to go home and have babies, someone who chooses not to be that is going to feel bad. So, unfortunately, life choices are going to make someone feel excluded, but they're your life choice and you're not saying anyone else needs to do it like that... or are you? (Laughter)
GP: Oh, no, no.
AB: I didn't think so.
GP: Yeah... So, making sure your passion, your skill-set, matches what the job can do for you. I know this sounds really cheesy but I learned this thing called ikigai, which could be the incorrect pronunciation and incorrect interpretation but, for pop-culture purposes, it's this kind of Venn diagram of four things which is what you love, what you're good at, what you can get paid for, and what the world needs.
I think it's important, even in early stages in grad school, to understand what is in the middle of those four circles. In grad school, you're boosting what you're good at, so you are developing those skills, but the other components of what you love... I don't know if that changes over time. It just might manifest itself in different kinds of ways. And what the world needs, some people might not think that this is important, but I feel that it is, for me to be doing work that's impactful, but of course, you can decide if that’s important for you. And what you can get paid for: it's a little bit weird to talk about, but I think it's important to talk about. It's important for me to be able to be valued for my skill-set and also what I bring to the table. When we talk about things like money or salary, it gets a little bit icky because it's like, don't you want to just do your work for the sake of doing your work? No, I'm working because it sustains my life and my passions. Being in academia is a really, really awesome job, but it's also not the highest paying job for somebody that has a PhD. And also, the time commitment is really high, so you have to balance: do you love it that much to be able to forgo the lifestyle that you'd have with different kinds of industries? I think that's a really important question for whoever is trying to figure this out. Think about all these components together, and be honest with yourself. If you, for example, would like to be supporting your parents in a couple years, or your family; if you have your own kids, [and] salary is really important, that should fit within your decision-making process.
I think it's really strange to be thinking of these kinds of decisions in grad school because so I [was] doing an engineering PhD program, which, as a quick disclaimer, is always paid in the United States. I think some people do not know that, and I just want to make sure everybody knows that you get paid doing PhD in Engineering, and also in some sciences. It's not a lot, but you do get paid and you do get health insurance, in case anybody was wondering!
AB: Same in Canada, by the way!
GP: Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of the humanities are not like this. [A PhD in STEM is] not just five more years of school. You don't pay for tuition, in case that feeds into your decision-making process at all. And I am focusing a lot on money because I'm assuming that you will figure out what you love. If you're in grad school, if you're thinking about grad school, you kind of have a good idea of what you love. Also, trying to understand the world around you is really important, in terms of what the world needs. And also, if you're listening to this podcast, in general, you probably want to have some impact, or you're interested in learning about people who are impactful.
And then what you're good at, that circle expands over time. You can never have too little skills; the better, the more diverse, the more versatile your skill-set is – with regards to what you're good at – the better decision-making you can have. Whenever that circle gets a lot bigger, that central area also gets bigger. Anyways, that's why I focus on the ‘paid for’ thing.
When I was a student, laughing a couple weeks ago, my life was on pause, I didn’t really think about anything else. My grad school experience was not the best, and also very all-consuming. And so, in looking for a job, it was really important for me to figure out what I want to be doing, and how I can valued, which is a very long-winded answer to your question.
AB: I appreciate [your answer] nonetheless, and you bring up a very valid point about money in STEM. I suddenly thought, ‘why is it that in STEM careers, in particular, we’re shamed for wanting to be paid appropriately?’
As a business person, someone can walk into a corporate office and say, ‘I know what I bring to the table. I'm demanding 500K as my salary and I’m not going to walk out of here with anything other than that.’ And sure, the people can say, ‘no, we're not going to pay you that much; you can go somewhere else’...
GP: laughing Did you say 500 grand?
AB: laughing There are some people who will make that kind of money!
GP: laughing Asma, oh my God! I want to walk into a business firm and be like, ‘I am valid, I value myself.' 500 grand? Oh my God!
AB: laughing As a postdoc, because I was looking for positions last year, they just tell you, ‘what you're going to get paid is X amount of money.’ $40,000 [in Canada], or in the UK, I think it's GBP 33,000. They tell you what the number is, you go, 'okay', and then you move on with your life.
GP: You can’t really negotiate, and it’s not a lot...
AB: It's not a lot of money if you really think about it, for being so specialized. We have a skill set that not anyone could just walk in and be trained in a week. There are years and years of experiments and expertise that we've accumulated, but we are shamed for asking for what we're worth. Why do you think that is?
GP: As a grad student, the whole idea is that you're here for five years, six years, maybe less if you're doing a different kind of program, and [you think] I can survive on breadcrumbs for X amount of years because afterwards there’s something brighter.
I'll make a very quick aside here. People experience different kinds of abuse during their graduate experience, and they put up with it because there's not a lot of support, [and] also because they think, hey, it’s five years, or it's like, there's two more years left, three more years left, I'll get over it, but I will advise very strongly against that, as somebody who had not the best experience in grad school.
Now that I'm working, I have to unlearn a lot of the defence mechanisms that I had, a lot of these anxieties that I had. You're in your formative years. I'm talking to you, the audience, and whomever this is relevant to: [it's] really important to think about the long-term ramifications of your decision-making. It might just be a couple of years, but just think about how this kind of training is feeding into your general workstyle and who you are as a person.
But back to why this is the case: because we're trying to pursue science, there's really not a lot of room for... Asma, I don’t know; that’s a really hard question!
It's just a systemic problem, where people are not valued and it's so interesting to me because, you know, when you think about tech companies, the people who are making the most money are typically not the people who are the scientists. They make a fair amount of money, of course; they're comfortable, but they're not the ones making millions of dollars a year, unless they have a business degree. Maybe somebody could respond and say, 'hey, maybe this just isn't the kind of thing to get you money.'
AB: The only thought that I can really processes at the moment is I think people prey on other people's nobility, or other people's passions. It's even present in other industries, where as a record producer, you make infinitely more money than the person singing on the record, but the 'talent' is the person singing. As a person who makes movies, it's the guy who owns [the production company] that makes the money – he hasn't touched a camera, but he makes all the money. And you're preying on the fact that this person has a passion for art, or has a passion for science, or has a passion for understanding humankind, or has a passion for animals, or has a passion for XYZ. That's the feeling that I get, just thinking about it.
It's always the business side of things that exploits that.
GP: I never thought about the parallels, but you're absolutely right.
AB: Yeah, it's not a STEM problem, but it is a power problem, and it's a business problem. We've commodified our passions, but not appropriately. Our passions should be worth much more than they get paid for if you really think about it. Your talents should not be that cheap. Someone coordinating the talents shouldn't make that much more money than the person who actually possesses those talents.
GP: There's a lot of things that are [systemic]. If we think about it, you do make money as a PhD in STEM in the both the United States and Canada, but it's not a lot, so you probably can't support having kids on that salary, unless you have another salary. Also, considering the fact that you're working most of the time, depending on your PhD experience... Thinking about [that] – who are the types of people who can actually go to grad school, or apply to grad school, or stay in grad school.
We feel grateful that if you get into an accident, or your family has an accident, you have health insurance to be able to support them. Or maybe, if something disastrous happens, you have some kind of backup, but a lot of people don't.
There's this phenomenon that happens in academia that I've seen so many times, and I encourage whoever's listening to try to see if you can see that: confirmation bias. I'm in engineering, there's not a lot of women in engineering. There's not a lot of people of different races in engineering, at least from the United States. There are international people. I’ve heard a lot of people – I'm so sorry for saying this; this is not my thought at all, I’m just communicating it and I apologize for whatever hurt this may apply to your audience – 'I don't see a lot of Black people in engineering, they're just not interested in engineering.' That is confirmation bias! It's because you're looking at yourself and you're like, I don’t see a lot of Black people, therefore I make this terrible, fallacious argument of 'they don’t like it'. You don't think about what actually goes into somebody's getting into the program.
It's awful. We have to think about these things. And it's not just socioeconomic; it's also people's implicit biases. It’s not just that somebody doesn't have money to apply, but if they apply, there's so much research being done on the way that people perceive your name, or the way they perceive your experience, based on what they think about your race. It's so pervasive – and again, I'm sure it's pervasive in other fields, but I can talk about STEM – it's just really disturbing to see people we think of [as] highly-educated and they make these awful arguments.
There was this committee, for example, that was made up in our department and I noticed it was made up of a very well-meaning group of friends that all ended up being white guys, and I asked one of them, 'hey, why don't you have diversity?' and they were like, 'well, nobody really asked'. When I first learned about the committee was when I learned that it had [already] been created. I was not involved in the creating process.
I was telling one of them [later on], 'if you make this kind of committee now, when you have a job, you're going to be hiring people and putting people in good positions that remind you of your friends.'
It’s so important that when you have the opportunity to create diversity, it might be uncomfortable because they're not your best friends, but this is a professional setting!
GP: In a professional setting, you need to have this kind of thing, [diversity]. It's infuriating. I'm probably not doing [a good] job of explaining it, but it's just so infuriating to see this kind of thing happen in academia, where everybody's like, 'we're above this, we’re neutral, we don’t see race, we don’t see gender'. Absolutely, you do! You’re worse than everyone else!
AB: Precisely! I do love the fact that we can have these kinds of conversations, because both of us are minoritised in different ways. Can you speak to that experience of standing out, being one of a kind, and almost feeling like you have a spotlight on you when you enter these spaces?
GP: Sure; I think I spoke a little bit about this in the last episode –
GP: I’m not going to delve too much into it, something that I spoke about earlier here: this internalization that sometimes we have. If you're a minority in a group, [internalization] is a very natural defence mechanism, and I'm about to tell you that I did it, so don't feel bad if this happens to you too.
I learned something very nice – from somebody whose name I totally forgot because memory loss was a huge part of my grad school experience – it was about women, but we can apply this to other types of minority communities. If you have one woman, it's tokenism. When you have two, there's competition because you're trying to see one versus the other. It's not like if you have one woman on your committee, or one woman your department, that's great, you’re diverse. You’ve got to have some kind of parity. That's the only time where it matters.
When you're one, like I have been in the majority of my experiences – I think I can say I have been the only one that looks like me – there's so many different side-effects.
I am a very high-strung person naturally. I have very high standards for my life but I also felt that I had to boost those even more, so it becomes this really challenging thing of [being] five times better, or – I won’t say five times better, because that sounds really conceited, and also not true, but – I had to work five times harder to prove my worth and prove that I deserve to be in the place that I was.
When I first started my engineering classes, I wasn't really the only woman, but it was definitely not parity. Maybe two of us, or three of us. In our entire graduating class, we [couldn’t] have been more than a handful, or maybe a little bit more. I remember during my orientation – and I still cringe at myself, but I have to learn from myself – we went in a circle and we had to say a fun fact. It was a group of 12 students, pre-college students, and one of my fun facts was, 'I'm the only girl here.'
It was so cringey, because I was like, that doesn't make me special! It's not a nice thing! I have to think about why am I the only girl... Sorry to share that cringey experience with you! It took me some time to reach out to the other ladies in my department and do a lot to support them because when you're alone, or when you feel alone, it becomes really challenging. You could be the smartest person in the world, but if you don't have support, it's really easy to slip up on your classwork.
There were a couple of classes where I was like, I really don't want to go to discussion because I feel like all my questions are stupid. I never went to discussion. And as a result, all my questions were not answered, even though they probably weren’t that stupid. I felt a little bit behind and I had to seek out help from people who went through the same thing that I did.
I want to say it’s getting better, but I don’t know. I hope it's getting better. I think we have to be optimistic because what we're doing, especially what you're doing here, is making it better. We have to be optimistic about it, but I mean it's challenging.
AB: I hope I'm contributing to it being a little bit better. It's weird because, obviously, the reason why I started this is because I felt like I didn't truly have a safe space where I was when I was doing my PhD and I was a little bit tired of putting on that brave face, having to deal with things and see things in the world and not like what I was seeing, and then coming to the lab and being my regular, joyous, happy self. Even if I were honest and I told people, 'oh, I'm kind of feeling down today because of whatever has happened.' They go, 'but you don't know those people,' or 'why do you care?' or 'but you made it. Why couldn't everyone just be like you?' And I'm just like, (heavy sigh) 'you guys don't understand that, by creating the model minority status, you're actually just harming a lot more people than doing good.'
GP: Exactly. For myself, it took me a while to recognize that. I think that was a big part of my non-scientific experience during my undergrad, having to realize, me being the only one is not a nice thing for me. I shouldn't be congratulated because I'm the only one. I should be thinking about what is keeping other people out.
There's this thing that been bugging me for a while. If you are a lady in STEM-oriented grad program, you might have had similar experiences, where you go to Women in Engineering or like Women in Science lunches, and events like that, which are excellent. Highly recommend you go, even if you don't know anyone, that's a place to make friends. A+, just go.
There’d always be a point at these kinds of events where, towards the end, maybe people start talking about their horror stories. There's maybe 10 people left, and it's the people that have had a really good conversation, so you know you can trust them. Then slowly, out of the woodwork, people are like, oh yeah, I had a similar experience, and it becomes, like you said, a safe place. But something that's been frustrating me recently is that those do not get communicated to the people in charge.
This was a big thing for me in grad school, like, I don’t know how to get people to care about things that don't affect them. And this is also what's going on in the world today, people who are against vaccines, like, what are you doing? What is happening?
AB: I know.
GP: Like, public health! Wearing masks; I don't know what's going on. It’s been this really frustrating experience. I don’t want to downplay this at all; it’s so important to have safe spaces to communicate these things. It’s so important to be able to talk about the things that challenge you, talk about how you overcome them, such that they can help other people without feeling like you're less than because you're talking about you challenges, or you're less than because you didn't survive grad school, [and] you had to drop out. That's completely valid, super normal but I feel like people get shamed into not talking about it. At the same time, to resolve these huge power imbalances between ginormous schools, and institutions, and departments, well-funded schools, committees, and then the grad student who's going to be out in three years... how do we resolve that? I don't know, call in! I want to hear your answers! Just kidding, but I mean, I really don't know. That's been really bugging me. Do you have any thoughts?
AB: I’ve thought about that a lot as well, just because – as I've talked about with you – there were things that I saw [during grad school] that I contemplated talking about with higher-ups, but I just felt like I couldn't. I think the only solution that I can come up with – and it's probably not the best solution because the onus is now put on someone else – is allyship is real. If you have more power than another person, you should use that power.
For instance, at the lunches that you were talking about, where maybe women were talking about their experiences: maybe it's harassment, or maybe it's just being discounted – you say something and no one listens to you. Then a man says it, and all of a sudden, it's the best idea in the world – those kinds of experiences can be actually really awful.
GP: Ugh, you can’t see me but I’m eyerolling!
AB: chuckles Yeah! Those microaggressions can accumulate. In that situation, if another fellow man goes, ‘Excuse me, she was talking, and that was her idea; allow her to finish,’ I think that has more [power]. And it’s so annoying because it seems like only men can interrupt men, but use your power and say, ‘You are not going to disrespect this person like that. That is unacceptable and she's going to speak right now.’ And don't do it after the fact. I don't like it when people go, ‘Oh, I'm going to text you and tell you it was really rude what so-and-so did...’ I don't want the text! I don't want to hear from you. If you didn't say it in the moment, I don't believe that it really bothered you.
Say something if you have power. Now, if you and I are graduate students, and we're like, at the bottom of the totem pole and both of us realise that we're being disrespected, another professor could come along – because they have comparable power status – and say 'you're disrespecting your students'. I think that's supposed to be the premise of having a supervisory committee. mumbles It just doesn't always work that way... But that's where it's supposed to come from, right? These people are all at the professor-level or assistant-professor-level, so they can challenge each other in a way that doesn't seem like you're challenging authority, [instead] you're just presenting your ideas. That's the only thing I can think of.
GP: I hope it works like that, but it really doesn’t, or it hasn’t in my experience. Because something happens, which is a realistic part of what we have to understand: the relationship between the professors is much longer than the relationship with the student. If someone is having a bad time, worst case scenario, they [the student] complain to you for five years and then they're gone.
Sorry to be negative – it's 2020. I have literally nothing left in me! laughter It's challenging; you're right that the onus is absolutely on other people to speak up, because sometimes that's the only person they’ll listen to.
But I’ll also quickly [end on] this note: I don't really care who you are, what kind of person you are; you can be a shy person or the most not shy person in the world: seek out mentors and mentor people as much as you can. It's going to be infinitely valuable for you and infinitely valuable for other people. It's so important to have mentors. It's great to have friends, and it's been such an honour to be your friend, but it’s important to have people who have gone down the same path as you, or are going down a path that you might want to go down. Try to talk to them, get their advice. And try to get their advice in a way that's not sugar-coated. For friends, we try to be as sweet as possible, because we want to maintain relationships and also that’s just how friendships work. The same way how they say that having a therapist is really important because they have no stake in your life. Rather than you complaining to a family member, you'd rather complain to somebody who's not in your life. That's what I mean by mentors. Have somebody who if you make X decision versus Y, they're not going to not want to hang out with you, because they don't hang out with you anyway! laughing They’re not your friends!
I think that's super, super important. And also, mentor people. Pass it on. We talked about this, but it takes really small interactions to add a little seed in somebody's mind; maybe they like something, maybe they don’t.
At the core of what I'm trying to tell you about mentorship is, your voice matters and your experiences matter. If you understand that, you'll understand the importance of passing it on.
Her Royal Science jingle