Less gossip and more camaraderie in academia

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren

I have been thinking about a topic shared by Dean DePauw on “Academic bullying”. Most of the articles I encountered on this topic address the issue of professors bullying graduate students but what about bullying between graduate students? You would think we would all try to have each other’s backs since we can easily empathized with one and another as we all go through some of the same hardships during our time in graduate school, but experience tells me this isn’t always the case. I think it varies a lot between departments but for those with a strong competitive mentality, I think cases of graduate students going after each other are a bit more common (mostly for people within the same discipline who see each other as competition). We are all under a lot of pressure but sometimes people try to use others to feel better about themselves. This can happen as gossip, talking about someone behind their back and painting a negative image of them on somebody else’s mind.  Some people advocate for the “power of perception” as an important part of success; if this is also the case in academia, there could be real damage made on somebody’s career just by creating a negative image of them.

Hopefully people become more aware of the fact that when someone engages in toxic conversation about somebody else, it says more about them and who they are, than it does about the person they are talking about. We should take every comment with a grain of salt and realize that all these comments come with a hidden bias (or hidden intent); we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt and make up our minds about something or someone on our own. Another great option would be to shut down negative comments and stand up for the person who is being attacked without being given the option to defend themselves or give their side of the story. We should keep in mind that “silence is complicity”.

We can build better working environments with a smooth pathway to collaboration by fostering camaraderie and fellowship among graduate students. This can also be extended to relationships between faculty and administrators which would improve the working environment in the department as a whole.

Fear of conflict: can we make real progress if we don’t dare to disagree?

This post is inspired by one of my favorite talks by Margaret Heffernan (she has given a few TED talks and they are all great!) titled “Dare to disagree”. She explains how most people tend to avoid conflict but highlights the importance of disagreement in order for real progress to take place.

Disagreement is particularly important in successful research teams; open conversation should be encouraged and ideas should be challenged in order to drive strong and meaningful results. Even though this seems very intuitively the best scenario for creativity and innovation to direct research, I think research collaborations have been moving away from this model because of people’s inflated egos, the fear of being wrong, fear of damaging their popularity among peers, and fear of standing up to authority, among others. Sometimes it feels that the system has applied so much pressure on scientists, faculty, and graduate students that everyone’s insecurities have come to the forefront and have started to drive their actions and comments or the lack thereof.

In my case, I think my confidence was lowered when I started graduate school and one of the effects of this was my increased quietness. Moving to Blacksburg, Virginia to start a PhD program was a very VERY BIG change for me. I lived at home during my undergrad so this was my first time leaving home. Moving from a big city like Miami, FL with lots of diversity to a small town like Blacksburg where 80% of the population identifies as white, was also a big difference for me. I remember saying that for the first time in my life I was actually experiencing what it meant to be a minority. I became very aware of my accent as a result of other people’s comments; the difference in culture and of course the difference in looks also became apparent. I was having to get used to all these changes and looking for a way to adapt to my new environment while struggling with feelings more commonly referred to as “impostor syndrome”. Even though throughout my life I have always felt like I don’t quite “fit in”, I had never felt so “out of place” as when I moved to Blacksburg to start a PhD at Virginia Tech. All of these feelings contributed to me not feeling comfortable enough to speak up during meetings or as part of class participation. Once everyone around me started seeing me and describing me as very quiet and shy, it became even harder to get out of it and make changes to correct this. Maybe this goes back to the power of perception? (more on that later…)

There were a few times when I was sitting in class or meetings and wanted to say something but would end up thinking about it and waiting for too long until the opportunity had passed me by. Then the same thing I was thinking would come up and it would turn out to be true or correct and this would be very frustrating for me since I would become aware of the time we could have saved if I had decided to speak up, and since I would miss the opportunity to make an important contribution to the conversation. I became more aware of the improvement I needed to make in this area and have started practicing speaking up more often and to do it when I think of it instead of waiting too long. It will probably be an on-going process for me.

The fear of speaking up can come from different origins for everyone. This is why it is so important for institutions of higher education to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak up and contribute. Imagine the impact it could have on accelerating progress and driving innovation if everyone shared their thoughts and challenged one another. Academic research in particular should be a place with less ego and insecurities, and with more humility and open-mindedness.

On choosing battles… when to speak up

Earlier this year during the spring semester I attended the Big Event at Virginia Tech for the third time; a group of students from my department volunteers to help every year as part of our community outreach efforts. During the opening ceremony event, different dance and a Capella groups performed to entertain the crowd while we waited in line to receive our tools and directions to our assigned project. All of the performances were being streamed live on the big screen that was set up on the drillfield right behind the stage. Another dance group was introduced in the middle of this ceremony and suddenly the big screen started showing pictures taken by the event attendees’ that were taken throughout the event (and shared on twitter or Instagram). I was immediately thrown off by this because the group (who was performing a type of dance typical to Indian culture, using traditional music as well) had already started performing and I was very interested in seeing their performance. Time kept passing by and I grew more and more annoyed at the fact that they weren’t being shown on the screen; I even pointed it out to my group of colleagues and raised my concern to them that this may be a sign of racism and discrimination. These colleagues went on to tell me about all the different things that may be occurring besides what I was claiming: “maybe they’re having issues with the camera, with the whole IT system, etc…” I still had this funny feeling about it and I told them that none of what they were mentioning as reasons would hold if right after the group’s performance, the camera went back to live streaming. This is exactly what happened, right after the group was done and the music had stopped, the big screen went back to streaming the event live. This particular group also had one of the longest performances, which means that if there were any technical issues with the equipment that were quickly resolved, there would have still been plenty of time for the camera to go back to them and show the remainder of their performance. But the timing of things and that funny gut feeling I got about the whole situation, got me to investigate deeper into this incident to find out what had really happened. This was the only group that was not displayed on the big screen and they performed in the middle of the show (meaning other groups performed both before and after them and none of them had any issues with not being shown on the screen). It is important to mention that they were also the only group who was representing a different culture (Indian) out of all of the performances.

I emailed the group of performers and asked them if they had made any special requests to not be displayed on the big screen. They told me they did not make any special requests and were not even aware that their performance was not shown on the screen. I also emailed the organizing committee for this event (it is fully run by undergraduate students) to inquire if they had any issues with the technical equipment that day and in particular during this group’s performance.  After going back and forth with a few of them being transferred from one member to another until finding someone who could provide an answer, what I got was: “the cameraman couldn’t find a good angle” and hence the performance was not recorded. I found this reply very frustrating as this group had performed in exactly the same space as all the others who went before and after them.

At this point I was convinced, as I am today, that this was a subtle act of discrimination. I discussed it with a few friends, some agreed with me and some disagreed and felt I was being “overly sensitive”. The ones who agreed had a few different suggestions such as sending a letter to the school newspaper to try to shed some light on the incident and hold people accountable of their actions also as a way to prevent something like this from happening again, or telling someone higher up in the school’s administration and leave it up to them to act according to the principles of community.

I did the latter because I felt the first one would take too much time and effort, but also because I didn’t want to place any attention on myself nor the group of performers out of fear of retaliation from individuals in the organizing committee or from the majority group who might see it as a personal attack on them. I still don’t know if anyone has reached out to the organizing committee to prevent something like this from happening in the future. And I also don’t know if this was the best course of action I could have taken, should I have done more? How should we address acts of discrimination around campus?

Additional note: as I was adding the link to the group’s page above, I noticed that all the pictures on the site show mostly (if not all) white students. Another call to increase diversity?

Academic Freedom as Excuse for Discriminatory Behavior?

We had a saying back home (I was born and raised in Colombia) that translates to “your freedom ends where that of others’ begins” and this was used to teach children to care for others and understand that their actions can have an effect on someone else’s life. This is also to show that a sense of awareness, sensibility, and responsibility, are all necessary for a civilized society to function.

I was recently a part of a round table discussion where we were trying to come up with different approaches and techniques to increase diversity at Virginia Tech and to increase participation from the underrepresented minority groups in various programs and administrative areas. At one of the tables, some of the participants’ comments and suggestions were met by a professor’s somewhat dismissive response who was claiming that abstaining from certain discriminatory practices should not be mandatory because of “academic freedom”. Similarly, the adoption of new inclusive practices should not be expected from everyone and people should not be held accountable for this based on the same principle of “academic freedom”.

From one of the readings in our class by the American Association of University Professors, “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition”. I think the key words here are “for the common good”. We should all strive to act in ways that are beneficial to all and do not favor just a selected few. Maybe the saying should go as: with great freedom, comes great responsibility.

Since the moral compass of all individuals cannot really be trusted, it is important for institutions of higher education to clearly identify their values and make sure to keep all members of the community accountable for promoting them.

Sexism, microaggressions, and unconscious bias in higher education

The videos below are both representations of the experiences women have throughout their lives. The presence of these types of comments and behaviors can hinder a woman’s performance in higher education (both undergraduate and graduate) and in the professional setting. How can institutions of higher education address this issue and prevent it from perpetuating into the professional workforce?

Maybe a requirement for seminars or workshops that present the issue with concrete examples and teach on the negative effects not only for women but society as a whole, should be implemented.



Future of the University – A more inclusive community for learning

It sounds like a broken record these days but I truly believe that all institutions of higher education need to be working towards creating a safe space for people from all walks of life to come together to learn from each other and collaborate with each other in the quest for solutions to the problems we face as a global society.

As Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson suggested “maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy… imagine how different the world would be”

I think the sooner we become aware of the impact we have in each other’s lives and how we are all interconnected, the sooner we will find the solutions to the problems we face today and the better tomorrow will help build.

Scholarly Integrity: Research misconduct and broken trust

I reviewed the case of Melanie Cokonis, a scientist at the Sothern Research Institute, who admitted to falsifying data in reports that were submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her work was also supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), among others. This indicates that her work can have a direct impact on decisions of public health concerns where falsifying assay data for drugs that can be released to market could have major negative implications for its users.

It seems that the resolution of the case would only prevent her from working for the government or any government sponsored project, as well as keep from serving in advisory or review committees pertaining to public health safety for a period of three years. This got me thinking about a TED talk I watched on trust and how we should only give it to trustworthy individuals.

Although I am usually in favor of everyone deserving a second chance, in the case of this type of research misconduct where deliberate falsification of data could result in major negative health implications for the general public, is it fair to give a second chance? Is there a way to accurately test an individual’s trustworthiness during the hiring process of any organization that could prevent situations like this from going unnoticed and resulting in devastating outcomes for public health safety? What is the measure of accountability?