The auditorium was packed. Several people stood in the back, while others sat in the main aisle leading into the conference center at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech.
More than 150 students, faculty and members of the university community had come to hear Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a developmental biologist from the University of California at Berkeley.
Hayes was invited by the Biological Sciences Diversity Committee, and co-sponsored by the College of Science Diversity Committee, the Women and Minority Artists and Scholars Lecture Series, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the Virginia Tech Life Sciences Seminars and the College of Natural Resources and Environment, as part of the university’s weeklong celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A major goal of Hayes’ visit – and the week – was to honor King’s legacy by framing ideas and movements so that we can create a more diverse university community, rich in history, understanding and dialogue across personal, cultural, and educational divides.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” said College of Science Dean Sally Morton, quoting King, as she introduced Hayes.
“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
Her words invoked King’s writing, “The Purpose of Education,” published in the Morehouse College student paper, The Maroon Tiger, in 1947. In the article, King encourages a view of education that enables discerning “the true from the false,” and acquiring “worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” King’s notion of education, then, was to inspire logical and moral thinking, one based on “not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”
And achieving this education, Dean Morton reminded us, requires a diversity of ideas and backgrounds.
This was the sixth science-based seminar in celebration of King’s legacy. The Biological Sciences Diversity Committee in the College of Science initially hatched the idea for the series.
“The idea was to integrate scientific research with diversity activities because people tend to divorce these kinds of activities from other things they do in their academic life,” said Anne McNabb, professor emerita and current co-chair of the committee, along with Florian Schubot, an associate professor of biological sciences. She and former department head, Professor Bob Jones, initiated the committee several years ago.
“A lot of what we have done is about communication, inclusiveness and community – all in line with the Principles of Community at Virginia Tech,” McNabb said.
The audience was immediately engaged as Hayes began his talk, “From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A Tale of Toads and Men,” which also kicked off this semester’s Virginia Tech Life Science Seminars.
“As a kid I loved frogs,” he said excitedly, showing pictures of where he grew up and where he played.
I couldn’t help but be excited, too.
He then told the story of how his journey began: starting at a young age, he was always curious about frogs and salamanders. He loved frogs so much, he said, that as a kid he spent time in the woods and the swamp. He even shared how his parents, especially his grandmother, encouraged his curiosity.
As I watched his story unfold, and how it transitioned from the personal to the scientific (and back again), it became clear that he had a knack for storytelling, and for engaging faculty, students and all people alike – even those who may not have known much (like me) about biology, hormones, and the reproductive physiology of amphibians.
Listening to him, we became immersed in his story, and by default, immersed in the world of amphibians and how the environment affects them and those who live near them.
I sat down with Hayes later that afternoon. I asked him about how he engages audiences and students so that we could learn from him as we continue moving towards effective inclusion and communication in research.
Here’s some of what he shared with me on communicating science and opening himself up to and for students (and others):
Tyrone Hayes: To me it’s important to be able to communicate not just science, but academia beyond the campus. I think too often a campus is like this gated little place that’s not accessible to the people around it; it’s sort of ivory tower-ish. It’s this feeling that you’re in this little inaccessible community.
When I talk with people, I try to have a common language and not slip into the academic jargon. I try to explain the importance of research, not necessarily as it relates to biomedical research, but to explain, even with a joke that people can understand, that somehow what we’re researching is based somewhat in inherent curiosity.
CH: One thing you did today that was really engaging was to tell a story, including your initial interest in frogs, and I noticed you used personal anecdotes during your talk. How did you learn to communicate in such an effective way?
TH: I attribute this to my grandmother. She was a great storyteller. My father was also a great storyteller. He could tell a story about going to the bathroom.
I’m also a very visual person, so I spend a lot of time working on slides, like choosing pictures that include people. At lot of young people in the sciences, for example, aren’t used to graphs and things, so I spend a lot of time thinking, if I make a big motion with my hands and say, ‘Look how BIG that is!’ Or, ‘look how small that is,’ then I find an effective way to use imagery and motion that can help with the story.
I also think being able to tell a story with little pieces of your own life makes it more real to people, rather than, let me tell you about this chemical, which doesn’t mean much to most people, and about this frog that you’ve never seen before, and about this chemical equation that may not mean anything to you. If you put yourself as the scientist in the story, then it makes it a more real thing – that thing is really happening.
I do the same thing in my lecture courses. I don’t use PowerPoint, just chalk. And, for example, when I talk about osmoregulation (salt and water balance) and why you dehydrate certain things, I use the example of taking my daughter camping in the desert. The lecture is even called, ‘Why my daughter doesn’t pee in the desert.’ As I tell the story, I go through all the hormones that change, and why if you’re small, with a high surface area to volume ratio, you lose more water, so the hormones change to prevent you from losing more water, and so forth. And it becomes a more interesting story about me going on a trip with my daughter, rather than just drawing a picture of the kidneys and showing you how they work to regain water and salt.
To some extent, you have to gain confidence in your abilities, especially as a minority. There can be self-induced pressure, and sometimes there’s pressure from the outside to wear the right kind of suit and have the right kind of slides, and so I realized that I could be myself and make this information more interesting so then people would listen to more of what I had to say than fit into a mold that I wasn’t going to fit in anyway. So, I could wear a tweed jacket and cut my hair, but I think you have to get to a level of comfort where you can express yourself and do something that’s a little different than how most people do it.
CH: Did you feel like you needed to distinguish yourself?
TH: I felt like I could speak more and present more in my own style. And I think doing so actually gets the information across even better because then it’s my story. It’s not just me presenting data slide after slide with a monotone voice. Sometimes I’m excited about things, sometimes there’s a joke, and sometimes I’m sad about things – I show it as I talk.
Most of the time, I rarely see someone presenting science when they’ve actually put themselves in it. People tend to remove themselves from it and present data that are separate from them. But they’re not. I don’t think they are for anybody, but we have this culture in science that that’s how you do it. It’s like a rule.
CH: Have you spent much time talking and working with folks outside the university?
TH: I present at a lot of places that don’t necessarily count for tenure. For example, I did the keynote at the Presbyterians for the Earth conference, I’ve given talks at a food preparation conference, at the Steel Workers Union, and in several local high schools. These are things that don’t necessarily count on your resume for tenure, so some people would say they are non-traditional venues. But I think it’s probably more important to speak at these kinds of events, like Kids Tech at Virginia Tech. [Hayes has visited Virginia Tech on several occasions for this conference.]
CH: When you visit with younger age groups, what do you do with the kids?
TH: Depends on the age, but my goal is to present the same data or story to everybody, so if I’m speaking to a breast cancer group, or a herpetology group, or an ethics group, then the focus is a little bit different. What I’ve found with little kids is that you can’t talk to them for a whole hour; they’re not going to sit there that long. So, I might use the same slideshow, but I’ll show them a picture, and ask, ‘Who can tell me what this is?’ And they’ll all guess. Then every five slides or so I’ll have them discuss what they think happened. So, there’s a lot more participation during the talk. It’s interesting because when you’re at the college level and ask a question, no one wants to say anything. But when you’re in a fifth grade class, everybody wants to talk.
So that’s one thing too – what happens to everybody that they no longer want to raise their hand? Are they picked on enough that they’re worried about being wrong? It’s just like every little kid could be an artist or like science, but somehow it gets chiseled away from them. It’s like dancing; any little kid will dance, and then they get to a point where they won’t try it.
CH: I’ve gotten the impression that you’re quite a mentor with graduate and undergraduate students…
TH: Yes, I’ve always had a pretty close group. But I’m also very gregarious, and though I have a separate office, I don’t use it. I have a desk in the student office so I see my students everyday. We all share a space, and we all work together. We have lab meetings once a week, and 2-3 formal social functions once a year. I had a very important mentor when I was an undergraduate, so it’s very important for me to try to do this with students.
CH: Can you tell me about a time when you’ve worked with a student who’s had a hard time? Were you able to bring them in and learn from that? And, how could we learn to work with our students more effectively, too?
TH: That’s a hard question. There are varying levels of appropriateness to maintain a professional relationship and that can be tricky, but in many cases, it’s developing a rapport with the student that makes them comfortable by saying, look, these things are going on and figuring out where you can help.
Sometimes student issues are financial. Fortunately, I have an endowment and funds that can help buy students math and science textbooks.
Some of it’s just being understanding when students need flexibility. I’ve had students that were single parents, that have had multiple family issues back home, students with parental issues, and others that have lived in their cars. When I think about what some of my students have had to do just to get to Berkeley, let alone get through Berkeley, and then move on to the next step, it humbles me.
Sometimes you do think that students are making things up, like surely not that many bad things have happened to this student. But sure enough, those things did happen.
CH: It seems like it’s really important to you to interact with students so that you learn their stories and their backgrounds. Can you tell me how that helps you as a mentor?
TH: I’m still learning, too, and everybody’s different, but learning what barriers there might be to getting an education is key. One is books. I remember when I needed a neurobiology textbook, and it was something like $300.00. At the time my parents were paying $200.00 in rent, and I remember thinking, how can I ask my parents for a month and a half of rent for one book? I think it was the only upper division class that I didn’t get an A in. So, being able to now purchase books makes it less of an issue for other students.
Ultimately, understanding what these barriers are is important, and then helping them be able to excel and succeed. I think also being in an environment where you’re rewarded and expected to express your individuality rather than the more general environment at a university where you just want to blend in and not stick out. In my space, I think people are encouraged to express their individuality and express their culture.
CH: Do you find that students come to you and share their background, or do you find that you’re learning those things as you develop relationships with them?
TH: It depends. Some students are really private. There are some students that I really don’t know much about at all. Others really like to talk and express themselves. And that may be the difficult thing too, which is to build an environment where students feel comfortable doing either one. You have to make sure everybody is comfortable with things. You know, every relationship is not going to be the same. It’s important to understand that.
CH: It sounds like you’re good at judging the scenario or the person.
TH: I’m still learning. I think it becomes dangerous when you think that you’re good at something. When you’re good at something then you stop trying.
CH: My experience in the humanities, for the most part, seems more overtly focused on empathy than some areas of science. Has this been your experience?
TH: Yes, I think the sciences can be more like that. Even if you think about writing, you have to unlearn how to write more creatively because it doesn’t matter if it’s choppy, and you shouldn’t use flowery phrases. You know, it’s short: you did this, you did that, these were the results. This is also sort of indicative of how the field is in general, how being a scientist is.
CH: Do you think it’s the culture of what you do as a scientist, as part of the material aspect of lab work?
TH: I would say it’s different from, say, poetry or dramatic writing where you’re trying to express how you feel about something. Whereas as a scientist, how you feel about something, or your hunches or your beliefs, don’t really matter. It’s pulling all that stuff away, which maybe why it’s more unusual to present the scientist as, here’s my story and I’m a part of it. Not just, here are the graphs, so make up your own mind about it. Even a discussion in a scientific paper is about what the data suggests. It’s not what I think, it’s not what I feel.
CH: There does seem to be evidence that emotion is divorced from science, but you seem to put the personal (and emotional) back into science. Do you have any advice for students and faculty to practice a sense of empathy, or for those who get entrenched in this system of working hard to get ahead?
TH: I think some of it again depends on your personality and how comfortable you feel reaching out. I know other faculty who have really good relationships with their labs, so it’s not all that unique. But, I think sometimes we take risks with students who have a lot of things going on, and it takes a little more time to understand what’s going on and work with them.
You know, you might have a student who might not have all A’s, but they’re enthusiastic and excited. And they ask, ‘why does this happen?’ when something goes wrong, so you help them fix it.
CH: In thinking of other students, have there been times you’ve been in their shoes?
TH: I was lucky enough that I found a mentor early on and I also met my wife around that time, and she was very supportive. So I certainly had that feeling of do I belong, was I a mistake? You know, the imposter syndrome. But based on many of the students I’ve interacted with, nothing like what some of them have had to deal with just to get to college, let alone to finish and move on.
Many of my heroes are students who I’ve met.
CH: Do you find that any of these student experiences are based on race specifically, i.e., in terms of disparities of who has historically had access to college?
TH: The joke in my lab is that I’ve never had a minority because I’ve never had enough of anybody to be a majority. But I think a lot of it has to do with feeling like you’re the only one, and looking for your group. And, the more of a minority you are, then the more difficult it is to find somebody like you with some kind of connection you can identify with.
I’ve also seen it like: I had a white grad student, who first had to adjust a little bit because he didn’t know which jokes were appropriate. Then, one time we were having a potluck, and he said he couldn’t bring anything. And I said, ‘what do you mean you can’t bring anything?’ And he said, ‘I’m not ethnic so I can’t bring anything.’ You know, the Chinese student was bringing Chinese food, the Vietnamese student was bringing Vietnamese food. So I said to him, ‘Diversity doesn’t mean everybody but white people. If you were in your hometown, what would you bring?’ And so he brought a dish that I guarantee no one had had before.
That was an amazing experience. Always one of my jokes is that white people don’t know how to be minorities, because you’re rarely in a situation where you’re the only white person. This was probably the first time ever that this student had been in a situation like this.
CH: At the end of your talk today, you started to touch on some environmental justice issues. Could you tell me more about that?
TH: I first learned the term environmental justice with Keith Ellison in Minnesota when he was campaigning against the chemical atrazine. It was the first time I started to think about these kinds of things, and they’re things that my students whose families work in agriculture have experienced. They’re now things that I’ve experienced. You know, my father put down carpet and I remember he would come home everyday with his hair white and make a joke about how old he got a work. But it was because he was sanding asbestos.
But certain agricultural communities are separated by language and economics. Living in these communities, you get into the mindset where if everyone else has it, then you don’t realize there’s a problem. Like if everyone you know has diabetes, then you might not realize it’s something that’s disproportionately affecting your community because of environmental things that are happening in your community.
My wife, for example, works with a Native American community with a high incidence of diabetes. It’s a community in Northern California, where all kinds of organic produce is grown, but it all gets shipped out, so people there don’t have access to it. There tends to be nothing but processed food, and I think the nearest real grocery is almost 40 miles away from where they live.
If you live in that community, though, you don’t see the problem because everyone has diabetes. My focus is on the reproductive affects from pesticide chemicals, and statistics show that the chemicals we know to be associated with adverse health outcomes are more likely agricultural communities, in which 90 percent of the communities tend to be Hispanic. I’m not even talking about superfund sites that tend to be near low-income neighborhoods and so forth.
Right now, my lab is doing work in South Carolina where I grew up, in the place that turned me on to frogs and biology, which is now the Congaree National Park. So you think great, we at least now have a place that’s not going to be cemented over. But it turns out that the park is contaminated with atrazine. It’s also contaminated with ethinyl estradiol from birth control pills because the surrounding community has leaky septic tanks since it is a low-income, and therefore a predominantly African American, community with weak sewage infrastructure.
These are the kinds of things I think more about now, including what happened to the other black kids I went to school with growing up in South Carolina, who were from these low-income communities. The outcomes for different groups of kids, depending on educational tracks and so forth, was very different. Overall, it was like the black kids weren’t even in the same school. It was even segregated at lunch.
CH: What does it mean to you to be here with us as part of the MLK legacy?
TH: I often get invitations that are for MLK Day or around Earth Day. Both of these mean something because there’s an added meaning to me to get to talk about my interest in frogs and environmental justice.
I’m not sure if a lot of people in science are talking about these issues. And it’s important almost equally to be invited to the Earth Day events, because for me as a minority appreciating nature and to now be researching it, it’s almost like a way to give back. And these things that I talk about here are things that I talk about no matter where I’m invited. But it’s almost more special because I’ll get invited to talk about things that I think are important intertwined with the science.
This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.