My Journey

As I get ready for the This Week in Science podcast at the Entomological Society Meeting in Denver, I’m reflecting on my journey. November 6th, 12:30 PM Mountain time

My journey has not, nor likely will never be traditional. Yes, I have plenty of stories about collecting insects, playing in tide pools, and general curiosity about the world as a child that any of us can tell and I know is in our bones. But, I think the one thing that points from my childhood to where I am now, is I always wanted to understanding things at the root, at its core, I didn’t like easy answers and I liked the truth. I was and still am a Jill-of-it-all, though maybe a little more focused on particular things now. I love(d) music, theater, dance, math, yeah I loved math and still do. I spent a lot of time with my mother who also loved hiking and natural history. We discovered together what was that bird, insect, or fish I just saw, collected, or pulled out of the water. She was my in-house naturalist and lover of all things. She went back to school in her 40s and became a lawyer, showing me that age or gender can’t stop you from pursing what you want.

When I look back on my trajectory, it’s more of a meandering flow, not a direct line, with plenty of eddies, and at this point in my career finally makes some sort of sense. I think, maybe, I hope, ah who the heck knows? The meandering with eddies is reflected in my undergraduate education from a liberal arts tour to landing at UC Berkeley, after a stint practicing environmental direct action (a story that my Conservation Science students have heard too much about) and learning scientific diving, just because it sounded fun. Becoming a “professional student,” as my family so loving described me, at a variety of schools, and trying many different majors out from theater to classics at Sarah Lawrence College, to anthropology at Colorado College, to finally general Biology at UCB, gave me a certain sense of discovery and of creative choice. Moreover, this combined with my truth-seeking youth, shaped my stick-to-it-ness, my persistence to pursue a master’s and PhD, to take things to what I thought was the ultimate outcome. The love of learning and the love of truth fell neatly into the biological sciences. I enjoy surprising people, to confuse their perception of who I was. I can remember going back to a high school reunion and the surprise and shock that I had a PhD, that I was going to do a post-doc at Cornell. What is up with that? I had confused them. In high school it was music and theater, the classics, not science.

There are challenges to being a woman in the sciences, and those challenges in some ways have changed for me throughout my career. As a student, someone saying I couldn’t do something fit into my rebelliousness and stubbornness. “Oh yeah, that’s what you think, now I’m going to spank you with my big brain.” But, the challenges of awkward and unfortunate experiences with male superiors is still upsetting. Once I had my PhD, for the first part of my career, juggling being a younger academic than my academic husband, the two-body problem, having kids, etc. etc., I had my nose down, scrappy, trying my hardest to land in the right place and not lose traction, the panic of veering too far off the path to tenured faculty would often send me into tail spins. Until I just didn’t care anymore. Frankly, my path has required a lot of creativity, which I’ve learned is so important not only in our research but in how we put our career together. I saw opportunities and I grabbed at them. Sometimes in hindsight it might have made more sense to be a bit more patient. But grabbing at opportunity has opened me up to rich experiences such as being part of building a new department of Applied Ecology in NC State, in shaping the academic program, in teaching classes that I created that bring me incredible satisfaction, and enjoying my research that is truly my own and creates collaborative opportunities I never had before. And, more recently building a new graduate training program as part of the Genetics and Genomics Initiative in my new home in the College of Sciences and Biological Sciences department, finally found the right spot! Yet, I’m still navigating academic hierarchies that exclude me, that make me for moments feel less than. A wise academic woman, who also grappled with the two-body problem, told me patience and persistence were her mantra when these feelings bubbled up. I realized that in my scrappiness I had lost my patience and over the last couple years I’m trying to build that muscle back up. With constant exercise it’s getting stronger. In all the times of satisfaction and turmoil, I have never lost a sense of wanting to do what I love, enjoying life, and the knowledge that like my mother I could pull up stakes and do something completely different than this. Even at my age.

Diversity is important for so many reasons, including showing every underrepresented young person that you can do this too, this alone cannot be undervalued. As well as providing a visible mentor to people, the greater diversity, the greater number of perspectives, the greater number of experiences, the greater number of backgrounds coming together to make decisions about education, about research, about our future, the better science we do, the better we are at educating people in our country. As I’ve aged as a professor, I have learned to tell people to stop, listen, do not assume that you have any idea what it’s like to be a woman, a person of color, or any other underrepresented person in science. Stop and take in what we are saying, this is important. Look at the tenured faculty in your department and count of the total how many underrepresented faculty you have. Look at the demographics of the graduating PhDs. We are scientists, the statistics and research is there. This is not an attack on any particular person, because this is something that should be said to white women too. So much of the conversation about underrepresented people in science is dominated by white women. It’s time for us to listen, truly listen, not talk over, and not assume for example that we understand what is like to be a person of color in the sciences or in this world. I have learned more from the academic women of color Facebook pages and twitter accounts by listening and reading and have watched so many women respond to these women in ways that we do not take from male colleagues. At this point, we need to keep asking questions and we need to start answering them. What are we doing to promote inclusivity in our teaching and in our classrooms, what are our own implicit biases, how are we talking straight to people who are putting us or others down, how are we accounting for diversity in faculty hires? Are we going to continue to look only at candidates that have the most publications and the most funding at the earliest stage of their careers? Are we going to pay people equitably? Are we going to value faculty that are not on the tenure track? We have a lot of work to do and we need to be thoughtful and deliberate in what our goals are and the steps we need to take to achieve those goals. With persistence and a dab of patience, we need to step forward and step up!

Burford Reiskind Out!


About the Author:

Martha is the Director of the Genetics & Genomics Scholars graduate program and an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State. She investigates evolutionary process of how species respond to rapid changes in their abiotic or biotic environments.