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  • Writer's pictureDr A Bashir

30 The Royal We: Part II

Another season is coming to an end! I hope you have enjoyed listening to all of our Season III interviews.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that our episode titles this season have paid homage to beloved television shows, movies, books, and songs (Legacy, Steven Universe, Community, Squid Game, Il était une fois, etc); for our latest episode, we decided to do something a little different. Our season finale is titled The Royal We: Part II as we’ve slightly altered the format of the episode for this conversation, much like we did for our 18th episode, The Royal We: Part I. Instead of playing {The AND} like we did last season, I chatted with co-editors Dr Shaz Zamore and Amber Wendler about their upcoming book, which compiles the stories of Black women and non-binary scientists and nature enthusiasts from around the world. This episode will serve as a spring board to other group conversations that I’d like to facilitate in the near future, honing in on a particular topic and giving space to 2-3 experts to share their work and their lived experiences. The Royal We series will officially begin sometime in late 2022, early 2023.

It continues to be such an honour to share these stories with you. Thank you for listening, reflecting, and growing with me.

You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and more.

The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.

Dr Shaz Zamore: If you are unusual—you have some character trait that is unusual for a STEM professional—you are integral to the process of changing what STEM is, and for whom, and how. STEM is what you can make it; I want people to know that.

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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we’ll be chatting with Amber Wendler and Dr Shaz Zamore, co-editors of an exciting book project assembling the stories of Black women and non-binary scientists and nature enthusiasts across various career stages, research interests, and geographic locations. Future Dr Wendler is a newly-minted PhD Candidate within the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech, having completed her Bachelor's in Biology at Boston University. Dr Zamore, or Dr Z, is a Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, having completed their Bachelor's in Biological Sciences at Cornell University and their PhD in Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of Washington, Seattle. I am so excited to catch up with Amber and Dr Z today, and as one of the contributors for this really exciting project, I'm keen to find out more about the origin story of this upcoming book. Let's start there—how did the idea for this amazing book first come about?

SZ: Amber, why don't you take that one?

Amber Wendler: Okay! How this all started was I was actually featured on a She Explores podcast in Fall of 2020, just talking about some of my experiences outdoors, observing wildlife. Soon after that podcast was released, an editor from Mountaineers Books reached out to me with many nice things to say about it, saying that she hadn't heard a story quite like mine before, and asked if I ever considered writing a book. To be honest <chuckle>, I hadn't considered writing a book before; I was extremely flattered that she thought I could do that, and that I had a worthy story to tell, but I didn't think that my story was all that unique. I knew there were other people who were like me, with similar stories to tell.

I was also just about a year into my PhD, feeling pretty overwhelmed by the work I had to do for that, so I took some time before replying to think, and the more I thought about it, I realized how great [it] would be to have a collection of stories from Black women and non-binary nature enthusiasts and researchers. I asked the editor what she thought about that, and she was very interested in that idea, which was awesome, but it seemed like a massive undertaking and I knew that I needed a co-editor to get this done. The first person that came to mind was Dr Z! How Dr Z and I met was actually during organizing for Black Birders Week that summer prior, in 2020. Dr Z actually did a postdoc at Virginia Tech, where I'm doing my graduate program, and we were both on this panel together that summer, highlighting Black scientists, so they were the first person that came to mind, and I'm like, 'They would be great! I really hope that they're interested.' I reached out, and they were interested and just as excited as I was! So, we submitted a more formal proposal to Mountaineers Books, which was approved, and that was, like, early 2021. And here we are, almost a year later!

SZ: What a journey! <Laugh>

AW: Yeah!

AB: And the goal is to have this work published fairly soon, in 2023, if I remember correctly. Did you have a person or an audience in mind when you first started thinking about this book project?

SZ: Not really! <Laugh> So I had... Amber approached me about the book and I was familiar with Mountaineers Books—I actually have a couple books of theirs, so that was a <cat meows in background> pretty awesome kind of connection that happened. The readership for Mountaineers Books is quite different from the people that I had written for before, and, I think, that we're pretty used to communicating with when it comes to science communication. So, it's really shaped as people have submitted their essays and their pieces to get an idea of what they want to say, and then once you figure out kind of what they wanna say, who you wanna say it to comes pretty naturally. So, it's shifted. Now, we kind of describe it as we're having a dinner and we're making all of our own food from our own cultures, ideally for people from our identity shared-space to come, but there are extra seats, and anybody is welcome to come and have this meal with us, come enjoy this with us. And so, I guess now... I think in our introduction, we're planning to say ‘It's for Black people and the people who love us.’ <Laugh>

AB: Oh, that's amazing!

SZ: Yeah!

AB: And what are some of the challenges that you both have faced as editors? As a contributor, you have the challenge of putting together a piece. As an editor, you have to make sure that the piece is very well thought out, that it's cohesive, that it makes a lot of sense, that there's a nice arc, and there's also having to deal with everyone's feelings about their very personal pieces. How have you navigated that, and what other challenges have come up as the last couple of months have gone by?

SZ: Yeah. Amber, do you wanna start, or I can...

AW: Yeah, if you wanna start, I can get into some of the other challenges maybe.

SZ: Sure! So, I think one of the things that came up when we were talking with Kate, the publisher, is really how vulnerable this book is and how vulnerable these pieces are, and then helping people navigate. I think, in academia, especially when you're so used to doing science writing, the times when you talk about yourself are almost always talking about your trauma, and one of the biggest things that we ran into is coaching people away from sort of making trauma porn, which is, I think, in academia still very much the standard for getting access to more resources, or to apply your need for additional support. It usually comes off that way, whether that's the goal or not. And so, coaching them away from that and saying, ‘You know you don't have to relive all of this. You could just say how you felt. You could say what your embodiment was.’ That was pretty big. And just hearing [and] seeing how raw these emotions are, and realizing that [for] a lot of these contributors, a lot of their trauma is very much unhealed, and so protecting them and making sure that this isn't… you know, being vulnerable while also being safe is probably one of the bigger things that came up.

AB: Mm, wow. Amber, have you experienced any challenges as you've navigated this editorial space?

AW: Yeah, going off of what Dr Z was saying, another thing that we are trying to coach people through was really taking ownership and authority over what it is that they were saying, not being afraid to be considered an expert—

SZ: Yeah!

AW: —in their research or the outdoor activity that they're doing. Oftentimes our stories are being silenced, and not the ones that are being featured, and there can be imposter syndrome that comes into play. Dr Z and I are reading all these incredible stories and we're like, 'People are selling themselves short!' We really are just trying to tell people not to be afraid to showcase their strengths and—

SZ: And celebrate the generational cultural knowledge that they have! I think that comes into play too, that certain appearances, certain cultures, certain histories are aligned with expertise or an ability or knowledge. What your family has learned in the generations that they've been fisherman, for example, is just as valuable, if not more valuable than common knowledge that is usually, like, European dominated, so definitely that cultural value.

AB: Yeah. I'm wondering now if there's anything you feel you've learned about yourselves as you compile these stories. Is there something that you've taken away from what you've read and gone, 'Wow, I wanna apply this in my own life,' or 'I see this differently...' Have there been personal lessons?

SZ: <Deep breath> It's a different kind of self-reflection, that's definitely... It is fortified. Just kind of going off of what we were just talking about, having confidence in knowledge, it's definitely fortified my ability to say, 'I am a snowboarding expert. I am as good as the professionals. I'm doing all of that wild stuff!' I could talk about it, you know? <Laugh> And then, I think it's also just reading a lot of the different pieces, seeing the habits, and how we talk about our stories—just celebrate, celebrate, celebrate, celebrate more! All of those wins, every single gain that I have made, the community has made, my network has made, all of that needs to... just really relish in it because we have this tendency of really focusing on the problems, because they're so big and so grave, but we really gotta spend that energy to enjoy it.

AW: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. And I think something that I've been trying to prioritize is, you know, having a work-life balance, having projects that I'm passionate about outside of my PhD research. This project was something that's very exciting to me, and just reminding myself that I can take the time to enjoy this. And the community has been so amazing! Sometimes you don't realize what it is that you're lacking, and this has just lifted me up; I didn't realize how much I needed this community, just the support and empowerment, and realizing all the shared experiences. And we have such a diverse group from all different career stages. Also, realizing some things that other people experience I have also experienced.

AB: Before we continue, I did want to take a moment to say thank you to the both of you for putting the casting call out there, for all of us to have the opportunity to not only create this community, but also to tell these stories that we guard very heavily, just because they're very private. And there's a hesitance—I know personally, I'll speak from my own perspective—the hesitance of being vulnerable before a large group of people, it's a daunting experience, but both of you standing at the helm of this ship has offered us such a sense of calm and safety in being able to tell our stories without feeling like we have to alter them or hide any more than we would in other spaces, so thank you. I do want to say thank you.

SZ: Aww!

AB: And I'd love for you both to tell our audience about who you are as people, what you study, and what you do for fun, because I think that's such an important element of why this book came to be to begin with. So, Dr Z, how about you go first: who are you, what are you, and what do you love?

SZ: All right... Let's see!First and foremost, I'm a big kid grown up, which is what my godchild calls me. <Laugh>

AB: Aww!

SZ: So, if I were to identify in any way, I am a big kid grown up! I'm always look for ways to engage inner children in adults, so my inner child meeting with your inner child. My research and training is in neuroscience, and I consider myself a neuroengineer and STEM communicator. Those two merge quite beautifully <chuckle>. So, a neuroengineer is somebody who designs and builds tools that helps us to explore, understand, augment, or expand our sensory or cognitive experience. I've worked with all sorts of different animals in all sorts of different environments and locations. I've worked with rats, looking at the rat whisker system, building test arena for their whiskers. I've worked with flying snakes, making a VR immersive arena to look at visually-guided behaviors, and that brought me to doing STEM outreach first and foremost, and now that's what I do as my career. I am a professor, but I also do have this title of being the STEM outreach coordinator for the ATLAS Institute, and so my research now has actually switched to people. I make STEM kits for all sorts of different children, really trying to focus on making an intersectionally accessible learning tool, which has really just turned how we think about informal STEM education right on its head. It's pretty fun! I get to make toys all day and also talk about neuroscience, which are my two favorite things.

AB: Yay! I love that so much.

SZ: Yeah, and then, really quickly, to tie in outdoors: I'm outdoors all the time. I live out in the middle of the woods in the middle of the mountains in Colorado. It's something I've longed to do for years and years and years! I'm a back-country snowboarder. I also [do] a lot of hiking, camping. I have this Jeep that I'm trying to—my nemesis right now <laugh>—to set it up to be an Overland Jeep so I can go out, be on a trail for 5-6 days, and do really long tours and things like that. So, I've been [a] snowboarder for 13 years, 10 years back-country snowboarding, 13 years snowboarding, so I've been at it for quite some time, and I've changed my whole life so I could do it. I love it. <Chuckles>

AW: Similar to Dr Z, I also love being outdoors, and I'm grateful that my research gets to bring me outdoors. Currently, the research project I'm working on for my PhD is looking at differences in breeding behavior for a bird species in Puerto Rico, seeing how environment influences their behavior, comparing rain forest and dry forest environments. I get to spend five months out of the year outside, watching birds, which is pretty cool. I also do enjoy recreational birding, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, trail running—basically anything outdoors, I'll be there! And I enjoy traveling, so I've gone on many road trips across the United States. I feel grateful that I've been able to see many places; currently for my research, it's in Puerto Rico, but I've also done research in Alaska, Ecuador, Belize…

AB: Wow; wonderful! I did want to circle back to this idea of community, because it is such a common thread in all of our lives and seeking out safe spaces. How do you go about creating a supportive community, specifically in the academic environment? 'Cause it can be particularly challenging there.

SZ: Mm.

AW: Yeah, creating community can be difficult. I joined Twitter in early 2020, and that was wonderful for me to see a whole bunch of other Black scientists, so I just would message people directly and be like, 'Let's chat!' And that seemed to work really well because then I got connected with other people who connected me with other people, and we have group chats and meetups. But within my own department, there are not as many Black people. So, in that environment, I really had to seek out a community. And actually, just recently, all the Black students in my department and also related departments have been meeting up pretty regularly, so this was just a community that we created for ourselves. We all found each other and started a group chat and started meeting up. I would definitely say if it doesn't exist, then don't be afraid to create a community or reach out to other people to help.

SZ: Yeah, there's always people around even, like, in the woodworks, you know? We're always around. If you put out that signal, I think, undoubtedly, someone's gonna be like, 'Oh, hey, I didn't know you were here!' <Laugh>

AB/SZ: Yeah!

SZ: For me, creating supportive community has fallen to K-12, thinking about the next generation. Now, I'm in this position where I'm faculty; I have some sway over what the culture is like, and really just preparing students to be ready for the culture in an honest way. I think we have this very 'pie in the sky,' 'Oh yeah, anybody could be a scientist, anybody can go into academia!' but then you don't prepare them adequately for the fact that it is not ready for you yet. <Laugh>

AB: Yup! Oh gosh, facts!

SZ: So, I feel like if somebody was just real with me and was just like, 'Listen, you're gonna have your work and that's gonna be hard, then you're gonna have these things on top of it,' I think I would've probably spared myself at least a year of grief. <Chuckle>

Then when it comes to the older, higher education, I think just being vulnerable, sharing how I'm feeling when things affect me, like what's going on in Russia right now. Just being honest about it and creating spaces for people to bring their emotions in academia—a thing that is, you know, so taboo—has definitely helped. It's amazing how many people will walk through that door when you make it for them. And then, regardless of what our identity is, regardless of what our background is, finding shared experiences, shared struggles, shared wins, you know… The sense of touch is the one sense that we need to survive. Everything else, we don't really need it, but touch is it. And so, the more we talk about how things feel in an experience, the more connected we're going to be.

AB: Yeah! My last question's a bit of a big one and I... It just popped into my mind as both of you were speaking: what do you want your legacy to be?

SZ: <Deep exhale>

AW: As a scientist and researcher in academia, often how people measure success is through publications and grant funding—very research-oriented metrics—and while I am very passionate about my research and want to succeed in that area, I would definitely like my legacy to be beyond my research. If people don't remember my research, that's okay. I want people to remember mentorship, advocating for marginalized groups, and removing systemic barriers in place that prevent Black people, Indigenous people, people of color from entering and staying in academia, from gaining access to necessary resources and knowledge, and I want people to remember me as someone who built community, and uplifted people and... Yeah.

AB: I think that's perfect. And if you remember anything else you can, of course, add it on later on as well.

AW: Cool, thank you!

AB: Yeah! Dr Z, what do you think your legacy will be? Or what do you want it to be? I think that's a better question.

SZ: There's so many things! <Laugh> Like Amber, I want my legacy to be outside of academia. I'm working to make my research into a company that I'm hoping to grow and expand, and kind of make a little thumbprint on some minds out there in a statistical way <laugh>, getting statistical numbers. I think kind of at the heart of [it], I'm still focused on play. Play is so important for brain development, for health, for connection and community, so I think about play a lot. The feeling I want to leave people [with] when I leave a room is kind of like, 'Ah, I feel like I just played a fun game!' That kind of feeling, like, 'I was challenged and I got a lot of dopamine, and I feel good.' <Laugh> Like that, on a bigger scale.

And I think when it comes to my work and what I want that impression to be, it's that science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), these are tools, and whatever tools we make shape us, and we shape them. And it's this reciprocal thing, so STEM can be whatever you want it to be. It can be whatever you make it to be. And if you are unusual <chuckle>, you have some character trait that is unusual for a STEM professional, you are integral to the process of changing what STEM is, and for whom, and how. STEM is what you can make it. I want people to know that.

AW: That made me think of one other thing when you said 'STEM can be what you make it,' and that's also that scientists are more than their science. Scientists are people too, with multiple identities. I can't separate my identity as a Black woman from my identity as a scientist, and there are other things that I enjoy doing that influence my science, so [I] just want to also show people that scientists are more than just their science.

AB: I love that. I think that's the perfect way to also summarize this project that you both have worked so diligently on, because you are allowing us all to embrace all the uniqueness and the unique qualities that we have. We also have this safe space and community, which is something that you both mentioned, and we also get a chance to share our humanity and show that we as scientists and nature enthusiasts are full, creative people with dimension and depth. And I think the legacy that you speak of is already underway through all of the work that you do, and especially through this project that I'm so, so blessed to be a part of. So, with that, I will say thank you to you both. Thank you, Dr Shaz Zamore and future Dr Amber Wendler. Thank you so much for joining me today.

SZ: Thank you! This was awesome.

AW: Yeah, thank you so much! So happy to have you as a contributor! <Laugh>

AB: <Laugh> Thank you for the opportunity!

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