Do the work. When I was in my first academic position at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky, I thought I was doing the work. I taught my classes well. I engaged undergraduates in research that was published in peer-reviewed journals. I secured national grants to support teaching initiatives. So when I was denied tenure, I was in disbelief. When the Dean told me that it was because “Faculty in the School of Natural Sciences are threatened by strong women, especially strong women in short skirts,” I was shattered. I have put myself back together, in part, by supporting women in science through activities ranging from serving as Co-Chair of the Committee for Sex and Race Equity in the Lexington-Fayette County Public Schools to serving as a mentor for an NSF writing workshop for underrepresented faculty. In 2016 I was invited to speak at an Athena SWAN Networking Event for women in STEM at the University of Liverpool. Preparing my talk in the early fall, I thought I would be speaking about hope, about breaking glass ceilings. Instead, in the aftermath of the election, I found myself working to support students as we all processed what the country had just told us. Supporting students that semester included managing some very difficult conversations in my First Year Odyssey seminar, in which two Black female students found the courage to be extremely honest about their experiences in life and at UGA. As I navigated all of this, I found myself reflecting on my many privileges that had allowed me to persist in the face of discrimination early in my career. I had more, and different, work to do.
Commitment to diversity through teaching and learning. Much of my career has been spent teaching students at the beginnings of their university education, often in introductory biology courses. My experiences with students at this stage has shaped my approach to education. One of my primary goals in my classes is to communicate to students that successful scientists are driven by curiosity. I try to ‘re-humanize’ science by introducing students to the people behind the discoveries, including diverse examples of scientists. I have been engaged in the push toward active learning since the first National Science Foundation workshops on critical thinking in the sciences in the early 1990s. One of my major motivations for changing how we teach science is the recognition that the current model is not inclusive. At UGA, I was in the inaugural cohort of CTL Fellows for Innovative Teaching, working with this group to successfully ‘flip’ my introductory biology class. A growing body of research supports active learning strategies such as this as a pathway to inclusive teaching, resulting in significant learning gains for minoritized students.
I not only innovate in my own teaching praxis, I mentor others around teaching innovation. Currently I am, along with Erin Dolan of the Department of Biochemistry, a Facilitator for the Biology Instructional Action Team (IAT) within the Department and Leadership Teams for Action (DeLTA) project, funded by the National Science Foundation. The Biology IAT consists of both experienced and new faculty teaching introductory biology. The DeLTA project has specifically targeted diversity and inclusive teaching as a goal, and the Biology IAT purposely addresses these issues in our biweekly meetings, discussing topics such as flexible assessment, inclusive syllabi, and other tools for good practice within our classrooms. Given the number of students who take the introductory biology sequence each year, leadership on the Biology IAT has the potential to have a large impact on UGA students.
In addition to undergraduate education, I am also committed to increasing diversity through graduate education. I recently received a National Needs Fellowship grant from the USDA NIFA to support diverse graduate students in Entomology, a field with documented under-representation of women and minoritized students, especially in the senior ranks. I recruited a cohort of 5 fellows with representation including 2 Black students, 4 women, 2 first-generation students, and one student returning to science after 10 years in the work force. This past year I have been meeting with these students weekly, providing both formal instruction around topics such as responsible conduct in research, but also informal conversations around navigating the academic landscape. This type of mentoring has been shown to be important to the success of students from diverse backgrounds. But it also has been extremely important for my development. Listening to these students as they traverse their first year of graduate school has opened my eyes to some of the challenges these students face, but also the strengths that they bring to our graduate program.
Commitment to diversity through research. While our practices in the classroom can impact large numbers of students, I find that my greatest satisfaction comes from working with individual students in my laboratory. I strive to provide students that come to work in my lab with authentic research experiences. Most of my undergraduate research students contribute work that ends up in published, peer-reviewed journal articles, which I recognize with authorship. The experience of discovery, and sharing that knowledge with the greater scientific community, leads to students understanding that they have a place in science. I believe this is particularly important for students from groups that have typically been excluded from science. I actively recruit diverse students to the lab. While at UGA I have trained 12 undergraduate researchers, of whom 8 are women, 3 are Black, and 1 is Hispanic. These students have gone on to medical school and graduate school (including PhD programs at UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, and UGA) or found careers in STEM (including the Georgia Department of Public Health and the CDC). Again, while I am certain that these students have benefited from their experiences in my lab, I can’t ignore how invaluable my interactions with them have been to my growth around diversity and inclusion work. Two years ago I was in the ‘minority’ in my lab as a White woman. The privilege of listening to the Black and Hispanic students willing to speak freely in the lab during a time when conversations around race were explosive has profoundly changed my understanding of what it means to be a person of color in this country.
Commitment to diversity through service. My service work to diversity comes mainly through mentoring graduate students. Recently, this has focused on the National Need Fellows and my informal mentorship of these students. However, in part through my teaching of our Department’s section of GRSC 7770 Graduate Teaching Seminar, in which I include modules on inclusive teaching and diversity, and in part based on my broader conversations within the Department, I have a reputation as being engaged in DEI work. As an example of the type of contribution I can make, this year I was asked to teach the DEI module in our Professions in Entomology course. I had planned on working with students to prepare individual diversity statements for their resumes. I asked students to prepare for the class by watching “Picture a Scientist” and submitting a discussion question. It quickly became apparent that students were very interested in discussing inclusive fieldwork. This had also come up as an concern during our departmental review. It became clear that there were issues, ranging from affordability of required field gear to comfort for diverse students in rural settings, that had negative impacts on student field research and teaching. Issues that our faculty, myself included, overlooked due to our privilege as economically stable, primarily White, primarily male academics. I am now working with a group of graduate students to develop a safe fieldwork strategy document to include in broader mentoring strategies within the Department. The safe fieldwork strategies will build on the excellent work of Amelia-Juliette Claire Demery and Monique Avery Pipkin, published this year in Nature Ecology & Conservation.
Following being denied tenure in my first academic position, I questioned who I was. Am I really a scientist? One of my most important privileges, outside of being White, has been that I was raised in an academic family; I have never lived more than a mile away from a university. It simply didn’t compute when I was told I didn’t belong – of course I belong, I have always belonged. I work throughout all the arenas of my professional life, my classroom, my lab, my department, to convey to students that they, too, belong. I work to listen to students and scientists who have very different experiences than mine to learn how to best support them, to help them develop that sense that they belong. This year I was speaking to a graduating Masters student who had been kicked out of their family home as a teenager for their sexuality and had to support themselves financially through UGA undergraduate and graduate school. They told me that my belief in them was ‘revolutionary.’ I keep this close to my heart when I get discouraged. We have so much work to do dismantling the systemic oppression that academia is built on. But it is possible to have an impact simply by believing in our students. We can all do that work.