Naturally Productive

Part 1

In 1609 Galileo Galilei built the first telescope and lifted his gaze to the stars. For centuries, Ptolemy’s descriptions of celestial bodies and their cosmic dance ruled astronomy. But Galileo’s observations, much like Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric model, changed everything. And so it was that along with the likes of Kepler, Newton, Halley, and many others whose lifetimes span two centuries, Galileo and Copernicus left us an accurate rendering of our tiny cloister in an unfathomably vast universe. As a young girl, I was overcome by the glory of the star-spangled African sky before I ever heard about these men or their exploits. Copernicus had journeyed across the heavens with his imagination—Galileo with his telescope. I, however, dreamed of paying the heavens a personal visit. “I want to be a scientist!” I decided, assuming that “scientist” was a title reserved only for astronauts. But as I grasped that my being a daughter of the Global South made such opportunities almost entirely inaccessible, my dream began to fade. From beneath the African sky to the American heartland, a question traveled with me as I headed to college. What would I dream about now?

My college advisor was an elderly, cheerful professor of chemistry who still used transparency projectors. Having noted how well I did in science courses, he managed to trick (yes, trick) me into pursuing a chemistry degree. His determination to see me succeed was extraordinary, often moving him to galvanize persons and communities to support my education financially. New dreams began to bud in college as reactions I learned about in sophomore organic chemistry remerged in a biochemistry course. I was amazed that cells were essentially labs where enzymes routinely synthesized complex molecules with remarkable speed and specificity. Slowly, my gaze drifted from the sweeping scale of the heavens to the subcellular world of proteins until, at the behest of my organic chemistry professor, I decided to apply to graduate school and further my education by learning more about these microscopic factories. Of course, in those days, I did not fully appreciate the grit and perseverance that research demands. Although graduate school has seasoned me and effectively remedied most of that naivete.

My graduate school journey began with a remark from a professor during one of several orientation sessions. “Look to your right,” he had said to first-year students in the room. “And look to your left. A third of you will not graduate with a Ph.D.” I shall always remember how casually he said it. With a beverage, presumably coffee, in hand and standing by the door as though this evening session was a footnote to his very long day. But his words struck me and stuck with me. I remembered them most on arduous days that pushed me to reveries of quitting. In time, however, I realized that the research was something I enjoyed. I liked working on expanding the genetic code for unnatural amino acid incorporation and characterizing new carboxylic acid reductases for applications in biocatalysis. What threatened, depressed even, was an atmosphere that always seemed to say, “You do not belong.” Making this distinction was a critical juncture in my scientific career. I reasoned that if I left the program it would not because I was pushed out, but because I decided to. But I was too intimidated to challenge my bullies, one of which was a professor who threatened to write me bad recommendation letters if I didn’t do as he bade. So I instead funneled my energy toward blocking out the oppressive atmosphere. This meant replacing musings of escape with a determination to see my work through by cultivating habits of discipline and focus. It was an arduous journey, though at long last, despite my misinformed childhood vocabulary, my wish to become a scientist came true. I published my science, wrote my thesis, and successfully defended it.

Those days are long gone now, but I often think about the energy I spent fighting to belong – energy I could have instead spent on research and time I could have otherwise used for rejuvenation. This was hardly something I alone experienced. I watched other Ph.D. students begin with enthusiasm, only to leave the program prematurely or stay endure severe verbal abuse and favoritism. I remain appalled at the human cost and the wasted opportunities for research and innovation that I witnessed. Since my time as a graduate student, some progress has been made. However, even while many wonderful people are in it, toxic research environments persist in academia. Continued dismissal of the pressing need to envision and implement supportive research environments is, as I write, pushing away trainee and faculty talent, resulting in incalculable losses of potentially life-changing research outcomes. Science can be frustrating, but I do not believe we are losing people because they are disinterested in research or incapable. We are losing them because of an unchecked culture of abuse and neglect, both peer-to-peer and from positions of power. We are losing students because faculty are too overwhelmed with a workload that prevents them from giving their mentees adequate mentoring. We are losing faculty because their work to fund research, mentor trainees, and teach students is underappreciated. We are losing people because expectations are not communicated. We are losing people because we tend to focus on advancing our strong candidates instead of investing in strengthening weaker candidates. We are losing people because we continue to elevate performance over behavior, even though the two are not mutually exclusive. In my view, the need for building more supportive research environments has never been more urgent. What would ideal supportive research environments look like? How can we participate in creating them? Stay tuned for part 2 to read my thoughts on these questions.

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