Diversity course reflection

I did not know what to expect from this course when I signed up for it. Diversity is not something that I had thought much about until I came to graduate school. During my first year as a PhD student, I came to begin to understand the diversity dynamics in academia (or lack thereof), particularly in the sciences. I signed up for this course to learn more about those dynamics and to educate myself on how to be better. How to be more open, how to be more understanding and how to be better to the next generation. This course blew away my expectations. Now, I am, by no means, an expert in diversity and inclusion, and I don’t think I ever can be, but, I can try to think about the circumstances of others. Most importantly, I can try and use my privilege to lift up those around me who aren’t being uplifted by the current system.

Because of this course, I will not only be thinking about what the issues with lacking diversity in the sciences, but I will be trying my best to act and create more inclusive settings around me, as a scientist. Furthermore, I will be advertising this course heavily to my fellow graduate students in the sciences, especially those that come from privilege. In order for us to become well-rounded scientists (and let’s be frank, people), we need to be able to think more openly and act more inclusively.

I imagine that this course at Virginia Tech (GRAD 5214) will be one of the most influential in my career. As opposed to other classes, it has not changed the way I think about my research questions or the science that I want to do, but it has changed the way that I think as a scientist, and it has changed the way that I think about interacting with other scientists. I hope that more scientists take courses like this one during their education, that way we can all work together to try and fix this broken system.

Thank you to the instructors, Dr. Shernita Lee and Dr. Justin Grimes, for this educational experience and for broadening my world view. And thank you to all of the students in the class for creating a welcoming and safe space for discussion, I don’t think I would have gotten much out of this course if it weren’t for the fantastic people involved.

STEM Gender Inequality

This past week the Society for American Archaeology held their annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is an international meeting where archaeologists from all career-stages came together to discuss their science and celebrate their field with one another. But there was an incredibly important session during this meeting, the #MeTooSTEM session. Now, I did not attend this meeting, and I did not see this session, but I saw some of the twitter following about it. The session was two hours long and apparently the room was entirely packed, not even standing room was available. It was great to see people coming together in such a formal manner to address the issue of sexual harrassment in the sciences. However, at the same time, it was very upsetting to hear that a known sexual harrasser was present at the meeting. How is an international field such as archaeology (and science in general) supposed to move forward when we are not building an inclusive environment for those who have been harrassed? Scientific meetings are meant to be fun, but looking at the Twitter feed of some of the attendees, they spent the entire conference avoiding an individual who had caused them so much pain in their lives. Why should we advocate for young scientists to join our fields and come to our meetings when those meetings refuse to protect them? I don’t have an answer, and I was not at the meeting, nor am I an archaeologist, so I don’t know the nuance of the situation, but to me, SAA is showing that they are not for inclusivity and creating a healthy space for their members.

This is not an isolated event in the world of science. This past summer, a herpetologist was awarded a prestigous award at a conference, and during their acceptance speech they showed inappropriate photographs of their female field technicians. Around this time last year, stories divulged that a geologist, who was about to win a prestigous award, had sexually harrassed multiple women in isolated field camps in Antarctic. Are these stories different from SAA? In some ways they are. These individuals had their awards rescinded and Marcant was fired from his University. However, these individuals were known to engage in inappropriate behavior, and in the case of Marchant, people felt they couldn’t speak out until they had tenure, a process that takes years. So just like Yesner at SAA, their behavior was overlooked by the society for some time. Maybe this is just the first step and soon SAA will not allow harrassers to attend, only time will tell. However, from these stories, it is clear that scientific conferences have a lot of work to do to build inclusive environments for all attendees. But on the brightside, the offenders are being punished, societies are holding entire sessions to discussing #MeToo, and scientists are rapidly getting fed up with the current situation. Science, in general, has been striving for inclusivity for some time, we are not there yet, but we are definitely trending in the right direction.

Perpetuating a stereotypically masculine paleontology

This weekend saw the appearance of an article that I feel to be quite damaging to my field, paleontology. This past Friday the New Yorker released an article. I won’t go too deep into the specifics, but one major controversy of this paper was that the New Yorker released its article before the paper was released, breaking a strict embargo placed by the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). The editorial board at PNAS was quite upset with the New Yorker, but I digress. I don’t want to talk about publishing, I want to talk about the way the New Yorker decided to tell its story, I want to talk about Robert DePalma. Robert DePalma is a paleontology PhD student who discovered an incredibly important fossil site. One that may tell the story of the last few hours of the Cretaceous Period, a site that tells the story of death by asteroid. Many found this piece to be sensational, but others felt that it told a story that hurts paleontology and some of the tropes that we have been trying very hard to break over the years.

I want you to take a moment and think about Jurassic Park (if you have seen it). What do you think about? Dinosaurs? Dismay? Dr. Alan Grant? The first time we see Dr. Grant, we are greeted by a white man in a cowboy hat. An explorer who feels at home in wild. Paleontologists are often met with this trope, we are expected to be grizzled, tough as nails, masculine men. Toxic masculinity has deep roots in academia and especially in paleontology. But why am I talking about Jurassic Park? Because the New Yorker article introduces us to Robert DePalma, adorned with his cowboy hat and listening to the Indiana Jones theme song, a song specifically about white men going out and “discovering” things with reckless abandon for the people who live there. The article continues on DePalma and paints the picture of a very masculine individual carving out dirt with his grandfather’s bayonet. But do you know what the article doesn’t mention? Any women, people of color, or the indiginous peoples that lived on the land that DePalma now claims for science. How is paleontology meant to press forward and build an inclusive environment when these are the people that popular media tend to focus on. We hear of the DePalma’s, the Bakker’s or the Horner’s, but where are the extensive biopics on the pioneering women in paleontology? The non-scientist doesn’t need another story about white men trouncing around the badlands, they need to see that paleontology is becoming more inclusive every day. But we still have a ways to go. People need to see that they are represented in paleontology, that if they choose it, they belong here. People need stores about the women and underrepresented groups in paleontology. It starts with important pieces like the Bearded Lady Project, and its about damn time the New Yorker spent their time with one of the amazing women in this project instead of another old white man. 

Intersectionality and paleontology

I remember sitting around the campfire after a long day of field work looking for fossils. My previous mentor was telling a story, about a person of color who came to speak to a conference of vertebrate paleontologists. The speaker had stepped onto the stage and apparently began their talk with “Wow, you all put the pale in paleontology.” While this was delivered at the time as a joke, I think about it often, especially when I am at a vertebrate paleontology or any science conference. The rooms are often filled predominantly with men, white men, to be precise.

 

Paleontology is a historical science, and is historically male. As one reads about the history of the earliest paleontologists, they are overwhelmingly met with male names (with the exception of legends like Mary Anning) . Fortunately, paleontology today is seeing more and more women each year at our annual conference, which is a strong step forward for our science. However, women are still a small portion of career-holding paleontologists today. A prime issue that this presents is representation and retention of career paleontologists in the work-force. It is often easier for white men in paleontology to see others like them in power positions that they can identify with, more than women. Fortunately, The Bearded Lady Project is actively working to bride the representation gap by highlighting the talented female paleontologists today. But an issue still remains, few paleontologists belong to underrepresented minorities. As a field, we are still pushing for inclusivity and for building a diverse community of scientists and people. But what can the individual do in these efforts?

 

This is what I want to better understand through this Graduate Course. To be perfectly frank, I’m not sure what I can do to promote diversity in paleontology. Looking at the current attendees of our societal conference, it seems like efforts need to be focused on the individuals not yet in college. Most likely on those students in primary school. But how? How do we show the younger generation that they belong in this field and that we welcome them in the years to come? Is outreach enough? How do we bridge the representation gap for paleontologists of color, both present and future? I have no answers to these questions, but in my graduate work, I put a large emphasis in outreach and science communication. So  maybe I can use my skills to reach out to underrepresented groups to encourage them that science (specifically vertebrate paleontology) welcomes them. I want to develop my part in the years to come, trying to support an inclusive and intersectional vertebrate paleontology. Until then, I will keep inclusivity and intersectionality at the forefront of my mind in the classroom, and in mentoring students. I feel that building a comfortable environment for education and expression is an integral first step for many future scientists.

An introduction to me

Hi everyone! My name is Brenen Wynd, I identify as He/Him/His and I am a graduate student, pursuing a PhD in Geosciences at Virginia Tech studying Vertebrate Paleontology. I am very interested in global events called mass extinctions, where most of the animals on the planet went extinct over short periods of time. I want to better understand who survives these events and what kinds of patterns of trait evolution we can identify across these events. I am also very active in science communication and striving to make my work accessible to non-scientists. Being active in scientific communication and accessibility, I am also very interested in diversity and inclusion and what I can do as a scientist to promote diversity and inclusion in my field. I am taking Diversity for a Global Society (grad5214) here at Virginia Tech to learn more about diversity and inclusion and what I can do to be an advocate/ally. Greatly looking forward to a semester of learning and conversation!