Seeing Yourself In Science: Reflections Of An Undergraduate
By Jess Walsh
Looking back, I realise now I had no idea what was waiting for me at university. Coming from a family of which few members attended third level institutions, despite always knowing I’d attend university, it’s proven a slightly alien and alienating experience in some ways. A marked change in Ireland’s attitude to education has occurred in the past 30 or so years since my parents were my age. As two people from the north-west of Ireland and members of large nuclear families, their opinion at the time was: “College is only for the well-off living in the east of the country.”
In 2015 when I was applying for college, I remember thinking: “Isn’t it great that support and initiatives mean anyone in Ireland can pursue education to third level?” In fact, the 2016 Irish census reported that 60.6% of 20-year-olds in family units were students. Before arriving at UCD, I’d seen the university once on the open day nearly ten months earlier. Unlike the families I see each day now strolling around the campus, I hadn’t grown up within walking distance of the university. My home’s over 200km away, so while I knew I’d go to third level (if for nothing else, to keep up with everyone else who was continuing their education) UCD wasn’t the natural choice.
Prior to starting university, I thought I’d have job offers coming out of my ears by the time I graduated (a point I’m rapidly approaching now!). STEM careers seemed not only a safe option, but the sector to be in. Ireland housed a slew of pharmaceutical companies at the time and has gained more since. In my first semester of my first year, a lecturer told our class of many budding chemists that: “To get a proper job in Chemistry, especially Medicinal Chemistry, you need a PhD minimum”. He effectively chose my undergraduate path for me by saying this. Until that point I wasn’t sure whether I’d choose a Biology or Chemistry subject. Given how difficult it was to get into – and stay in – my undergraduate degree at that very early point, I resigned myself to the perceived fact that I wouldn’t be able to attempt a PhD, and therefore couldn’t get a worthwhile and fulfilling job in Chemistry. I switched to Biology, taking modules in Cell Biology, Plant Cell Biology, and Microbiology – which led me to pick my current stream in Cell and Molecular Biology. I’m happier than I think I ever would have been in Chemistry, and a huge portion of that is due to the teaching and care I got from the staff in my school.
Seeing “people like me” in STEM
While we’re all unique, I feel there’s few people like me in lecture halls, in industry, in academia, and STEM in general. There’s a lot of categories “people like me” tick – a litany of minority groups in the general population which shrinks even further in STEM. This point affected me more and more as I progressed through college. As the years have gone on – as is often the case in life – I’ve had my ups and downs. The challenges were tough and made tougher by the weight of my struggle to get in and stay in college.
It’s a lot of pressure which is exacerbated when you feel like you’re the only one of your peers feeling that way. And when you pay attention to the lecturer at the top of the class, who often seems nothing like yourself, you can fool yourself into thinking they seem to have no issues, no complexities, no challenges going on in their working or personal lives. Regardless of where on (or equally off) the STEM career spectrum a student’s aspirations lie, we can’t help but see our lecturers as role models. We wrongly convince ourselves that these people who do the job we want, or the kind of job we dream of, floated through their education and up the career ladder. We think: “If all the people I see up there aren’t in any way like me, how can I ever get there?” From my first to my third year, that’s all I ever thought.
By no means were the university staff cold, closed-off people. They put cute pictures of their pets in lectures, rewarded us with slides of science memes when we got questions right, started lectures with music, told jokes, were all-round engaging and lovely people. But I still couldn’t see myself in them because well, of course they were funny, happy, great lecturers. Based on what I saw, I believed they'd had nothing overly difficult to contend with.
As time went on, the more I chatted to staff, and the more I shared – the more they shared. And it couldn’t be further from the truth that your average lecturer and average student have nothing in common. Of course, this revelation would come as the years went on during my degree, but it would have done 'first and second year me' the world of good to hear about the commonalities between myself and my favourite lecturers. Maybe I would have had fewer “I’m in the wrong course” crises, would have felt a greater sense of belonging, would have identified more as a scientist and less as someone undeserving who had ‘snuck in’ and would be found out at any second.
While clearly I can’t ask my lecturers to pour their hearts out to the younger years in lectures long after I’m gone, those I’ve asked to be a little bit more human through anecdotes and sharing personal experiences have got better feedback and engagement from students than previous years. Granted, anecdotes about unusual study strategies and exam approaches don’t remarkably improve engagement with the course material or performance in exams, but they let us see the humanity of our lecturers, allow us to see ourselves there, and I know how important that can be for a student.
I’ve had staff members share stories ranging from humorous encounters with anti-vaxxers, all the way to heart-wrenching moments in their lives that might have (or certainly did) change their paths fundamentally. These revelations usually weren’t unprompted – they’d occur after I’d looked to talk to someone to get advice. I never expected such personal reflections from staff members I admired, and for the first half of my course was half-petrified of. Personally, the effects of those stories being shared kept me in college – something I outlined in a Hello Bio Lab Hero nomination for the most long-suffering of all my lecturers.
While not necessary, those shared experiences shortened the gap I perceived between myself and those staff members. The more I found myself in a varied environment – that in some ways mirrored my own – and saw differences embraced, the more comfortable I felt and the more I thrived.
Why diversity in STEM really matters
Believing in the importance of and core values of science as I do, I know we need the most diverse set of people possible to solve issues. Only with varied people do you get a wealth of life experiences and knowledge which can aid in solving the myriad problems society faces today. By sticking to the same subset of people to populate labs and research groups, we miss out on generations of knowledge which is common knowledge in groups underrepresented in science.
So many examples of this exist. Tu Youyou, who combined a knowledge of pharmaceuticals and traditional Chinese medicine, discovered artemisinin in sweet wormwood, a compound used to treat chloroquine-resistant malaria and save millions of lives. Research conducted in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut in Canada revealed Inuit women’s insights into climate change can help support and contribute to scientific data of the Arctic climate and environmental change. However, this knowledge is often overlooked, with researchers instead focusing on climatic impacts of hunting and movement across sea and ice, tasks typically performed by men.
A more diverse STEM community also impacts us on a far more personal level. Research on black men in America, the demographic with the shortest life expectancy largely due to chronic disease, found that when patients were assigned a black doctor, they agreed to more preventative procedures. Anecdotal evidence from black doctors themselves supports this research, with an insightful threadfrom @Oga_DoctorBlue on Twitter revealing the potentially life-altering effect that having medical practitioners from similar backgrounds can have on patients’ outcomes.
Commonalities break down barriers; make us less fearful of asking questions we desperately want to but perceive as silly; allow effective communication; help develop deeper connections and lead to better results for all. Science is all about asking questions: questioning the unknown, defying the impossible. If swathes of people leave science, or never enter the field to begin with, we’re missing out on questions, approaches, answers and entire ways of thinking which could alleviate or even answer issues we’ve grappled with since time immemorial.
Jess Walsh is currently in her final year at University College Dublin studying Cell & Molecular Biology. She has recently finished an undergraduate project on CRISPR transcriptional regulation in Arabidopsis which she’s super excited actually worked! In July Jess is set to start a Research Scientist position in Cambridge with Illumina on their iAspire programme. In the future, she hopes to bring her belief in equal access to education for all, diversity in STEM and the world as a whole into whatever she ends up doing.
Follow Jess on Twitter: @rucshuns
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