#ShutdownStem - #Strike4blacklives

#ShutdownStem - #Strike4blacklives

Today is a day we all academics should take time to evaluate how much we care about diversity in our working environments

That yet another black person killed by police in the US in the middle of pandemia time made us all think about how badly we treat each other is quite sad. We all know very well the advantages of living in this globalised era where we can take a plane and be in all these beautiful places, we can go to a restaurant and just try all these new cool flavours, we can go online and buy that cheap new toy. But when it comes to the person next to us, which can look differently than us, why do we become afraid? 

As a woman in STEM, I have countless experiences when because of my gender I am discriminated. It is a never ending struggle, which consumes my time that I could otherwise be doing my science. How can one compare my CV to the one of someone that doesn’t struggle with this?  It is expected that I show to be more than outstanding to stand out, but I waste my energy trying on one hand to prove myself and on the other hand playing this role model to help out those girls that might need a push to keep going. 

Not truly believing I had unique skills, I got accepted in Cambridge for a post-doc in 2013. Not truly believing I was chosen among many candidates for the job, I had to fit in among - mostly boys - that behaved as very promising young postdocs. Shortly after I started, the new round of PhD students arrived, and postdocs were excited about fishing some of those young students to make them work for their CVs. I was encouraged to do the same, but my confidence didn’t help out. 

I had a good idea for a student’s work, and went to the PI Gerry of my grant, who smiled and said politely, it was a good idea.  Few days later a student knocks at my office’s door, smiles and says: “Are you Paula? I’m Keith, and Gerry sent me to talk to you”. From that day on, we worked together, exploring different topics about stars and the Galaxy. Hours we spent discussing, plotting things, drafting ideas on the board, enjoying to do science. 

After 2 years of PhD work, Keith had published 3 papers, and had drafted 2 more papers which we decided not to submit because results were negative or we didn’t have enough evidence to support our results. One of them was the suspects about the existence of a dwarf galaxy that merged with the Galaxy and was fully disrupted. We called it Atlantis, but we were afraid to publish with little evidence. Now that disrupted galaxy is the center of attention, subject of many papers in Nature, and it is dubbed Enceladus or Sausage.  I was insecure to push him further, he was too shy to claim something so big. 

What he’d learn at that time was enough to finish his PhD, so I encouraged him to spend the extra year to waste his time exploring more difficult and risky problems. 2 more papers came out that last year. The rest of postdocs realised that working with Keith would lead them to have papers and started sharing their ideas with me, to think if Keith would like to work on them. Few such ideas were quite good, but I told them Keith had the potential to think for himself and he was using the spare time of his PhD to do so. I also didn’t want these other postdocs absorbing my dear colleague and letting me working alone on my stuff. That tend to happen to us women in STEM, unfortunately too often. 

Keith came once confused, why postdocs would not go to talk to him as they came to talk to the other students, and I told him because I believed he could do better developing his own ideas. Of his peers, Keith is the only one with a tenure-track position by now and has many leading projects. Even until today, when I am desperate about trying to do something too elaborated for my computing skills, I will approach him and have help. My science until today is much inspired by what I have learnt working with him in Cambridge. 

For me, it was never a thing that his skin was black. He was a fun student that had incredible skills to study our Galaxy. And now he is my dear colleague with whom I know we’ll keep contributing to Astrophysics for a long time.  I find it a shame that someone so outstanding would be seen by so many of our close colleagues as “the black person for the STEM quote”. Today, we should think about how are we going to make it normal that not only white men don’t have to justify their success and scientific interest, but everybody.

It is a crime to judge the scientists by their papers and citations. There is enough evidence that such metrics will only benefit the white men CVs, which is against diversity. Soft skills, or potential indirect benefits, should be evaluated with same weight as papers. At the long run, those skills will lead to the truly novel research which inevitable will bring better papers. The risk taken by investing in diversity is comparable to  block the evolution of the established group.