Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New Profs in the Age of COVID19 - @swannegordon


New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76


When Andrew (Hendry) invited me to contribute to a blog series showcasing how new PI’s were handling their COVID-19 experiences and worries, he also attached a few examples. I struggled initially to think about what else I could add that hadn’t already been eloquently said and was about to decline. I soon realized that even with all the similarities between the previous posts and anything I would write, I could still bring forward a viewpoint that is often not shared. Frankly, because it is a viewpoint that is so rare, and in many ways quite dissimilar from the majority of my peers. The viewpoint I refer to is that of an underrepresented minority in STEM or, specifically, a new Black female PI in the field of ecology and evolution.

First, let’s start with the commonalities; where I have similar woes and anxieties as my peers, especially in my field. We should start here because how better to remember this crazy time than with a multitude of examples and representations all reinforcing the same things.

My lab focuses on variation in nature, why it exists and how it is maintained. Under that scope, we use a variety of techniques to examine topics such as color polymorphisms, rapid evolution, and the interaction between sex linkage and adaptation. Our pre-Covid plans for this spring and summer were to expand this research experimentally into three new topics: urban ecology and evolution, the role of behavior in eco-evo dynamics, and a more integrative approach to understanding animal behavior via neurobiology.

The current pandemic started interrupting these plans during what was the end of the big planning phase of our lab’s first field season to Trinidad in March. Our plans were to intensively collect Trinidadian guppies from freshwater streams all across the Northern Range Mountains of Trinidad between two collaborating labs that would become the main foundation of our upcoming experiments. We began hearing more and more about the threat of the virus, and so we adjusted our plans in case we were either not allowed to travel, or got stuck in Trinidad after we had traveled. One of the plan adjustments meant changing our pre-bought tickets so that we staggered the inbound and outbound flights of our four-person team.

I was the last person scheduled to leave; the day before my flight, my University canceled the trip and all international travel for its faculty and staff. The following week was one of mass confusion, anxiety, and long days. I had to shut down my lab including our undergraduate research students who also helped maintain the fish stocks we already had. (Sidebar: I have no graduate students or postdocs yet but will be recruiting into next year if anyone knows of any good candidates). The only other three people who could help with the lab were in the field. This meant I had to care for the stock by myself while trying to get the hard-working field crew back home as safely and as soon as possible. We ended up playing it safe and buying new tickets for the field crew to return early before they closed the borders; they eventually all made it home safely (including the fish populations they had managed to collect).

My current day to day life consists of mainly juggling the following things: 1) trying to motivate myself to write up the many papers I have outstanding from my postdoc ( so much to do, and so little motivation); 2) work and mentoring meetings (so much Zoom); 3) taking care of our rapidly growing stocks in our fish rooms between the four of us who were given special essential status from the University; and 4) the massive amount of work homeschooling two very bored, yet completely resilient and amazing kids (teachers really should be paid more!). All research is currently on hold although the University is now preparing research ramp-up plans across the Departments from 0 to a 30 percent opening in the near future. However, as far as I know, my summer plans to co-build outdoor stream mesocosms (especially needed for my new postdoc starting in August), run some cool experiments, and host six additional summer research students at our University field station are all canceled or postponed until way into the future.

Ok, what I have written above may seem like a lot of complaining. However, I am more than cognizant that my position during this pandemic is actually more privileged that many other people. This is why, in spite of everything, I try to focus on the many reasons I have to be grateful, even during a pandemic. I am fortunate to even be a New PI, to have a good academic job at an institution that has shown itself during this time to truly value its students and staff, when so many of my equally qualified peers are still searching. I am fortunate to have been given a start-up fund from Washington University in St Louis that should cover my research plans for the next couple of years should the funding environment crash post-Covid. I am also fortunate, so far, to be healthy (my family as well), whilst so many are not. I am fortunate to still have a healthy fish population, students eager to return to work with them, and for being given a year and a half off from teaching at the University so that I had the time during the early days of the pandemic to focus solely on my lab and my family. I am also fortunate to have some good colleagues, a supportive co-parent/research partner, and the best and most hard-working lab group. We are small, but mighty (come join us!).

Now that we have covered the viewpoint that any researcher or field biologist can see themselves in, let’s go over two places or points where my viewpoint or experience may be different. I think one thing the virus has also accomplished is to shine further light on inequality in America and around the world; in all regions, the virus has continued to disproportionately affect communities of color and the economically disadvantaged.

Even with my privilege of job security during the pandemic, as a Black person living in America with two young kids, I live and breathe with anxiety. Threats of racism, police brutality, and inequalities in education, the justice system, health, income, and housing (among other things) plague our communities with no real end in sight. These issues are also worldwide, represented in every single facet of our lives, and will only get worse after this pandemic has weakened. When my husband and I were deciding which Universities to apply, and then which job offer to choose, we had to consider many more important factors than the average scientist. While others focused on the Departmental fit or job offer, we also had to focus on what were the repercussions of this choice for our Black children. Would they be welcomed in their schools, in their neighborhood? Could they find representation of other people, or teachers, that looked like them? We were also moving them from Finland, so this was a big priority. Other than just the academic accomplishments of my colleagues (and Department) for future collaborations, I needed to also focus on where on the ‘racism or bias in academia’ scale did my potential colleagues average, and if high, could I handle it for a few years?

Table courtesy of the book, Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris. This book highlights the ‘intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color’. However, a quick search on the US Department of Education website for the updated numbers show me the percentages of black faculty across the US has remained quite constant since then (e.g. still only total 3 percent for black women faculty).

With these thoughts in mind and having remained in academia all of these years as someone at the intersection of biases across both gender and race, I also knew my struggles in the time of Covid and post-Covid would look different than my peers’. Seeing all of the past mental and physical extra hoops and obstacles I had to go through throughout my career that my close colleagues did not have to make me worried about the future. I worry about how much more of a struggle it will be after the pandemic when resource limitations in funding, hiring, promotions, publishing, and collaboration will get worse and likely expand the flourishing biases in academia. Historically, underrepresented groups always suffer more of the consequences during these times. Academia, let us band together to change the cycle of this narrative and protect those around us that are most at risk; but, excuse me if I don’t hold my breath.

Finally, I want to mention that although we are all going through a pandemic, there are some among us that are dealing with larger mental loads related to it. I see some colleagues on Twitter who are quick to mention how they are taking this time to catch up on manuscripts and grants that are lagging, and that’s great. However, unlike these colleagues, this pandemic has also seemed to paralyze me. In my case, in the early weeks of the shutdown in St Louis, I had been bombarded by statistics including: 1) that the first few deaths in St Louis and the majority of deaths in big cities involved Black people, and, 2) that 38% of people who have died from Coronavirus in Missouri are Black, but Black people make up only 12% of that population (numbers not recently updated). Although much of these facts are because black representation in the work force is disproportionately tipped towards frontline, essential, and/or lower income jobs, there are also enough cases I have seen on my Twitter feed that cross socio-economic lines. Given that I need to leave my house many times a week to go into the University to care for the fish populations, it is always such a mental hurdle for me when I get home. A mental battle to quell my fears of a disproportionate risk (whether perceived or actually epidemiological) of myself or family members dying from the virus in order to work relatively care-free on my papers or discuss science with my lab members. On top of this, our four-year-old son has an immune deficiency. I am thinking people with any immune deficiencies or other illnesses have similar if not worse fears. 

Where do I go from here? Where do we all go from here? Hopefully toward a better, more open and inclusive academia, with understanding and respect for all of our relative struggles and experiences during this unprecedented time. I for one am excited to eventually get back to some semblance of the new normal, but with a renewed appreciation and gratitude for the aspects in my life I used to take for granted.

Update: I just got done watching the viral video of the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis and it has made me so angry. It is damn time all of us rise up and say enough is enough. It is time for those of you in academia who are absolutely cloaked in privilege to start feeling the same anger Black people feel when these deaths occur time and time again. This is because it is a human problem, and not just a Black problem. It is time for you to imagine your brothers, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles struggling to breathe and dying without mercy under the glare of cowards (and the justice system). This issue goes beyond simply academia, but it is so much more important!


  1. "Academia, let us band together to change the cycle of this narrative and protect those around us that are most at risk; but, excuse me if I don’t hold my breath." Maybe a good thread for the blog would be a discussion of what exactly such needed measures would be, in this time of coronavirus. Double-blind peer review and grant review? Targeted funding opportunities? Other things? Have the things that make sense and are needed changed, because of COVID-19, or are they the same things academia has needed and largely failed to do for a long time now? I'd certainly be interested in reading a discussion of this from those who know more than me. :->

  2. Swanne, thanks for your courage to speak the truth about your experience. This is non-trivial when one is not yet tenured. Feed your flame - your passion for science, for life and knowing it more completely! You are a special person who deserves to follow her passion, deserves to have a chance, to contribute, make new insights, synthesize in your own unique way.

  3. Swanne, Thank you for sharing your experience and opening our eyes to a cruel reality. It is crazy how even in such diverse countries as the USA, race, gender, and nationality are factors that strongly determine the structure of educational, political, and scientific organisations. Human bias is terrifying, and more terrifying is learning that even new technologies such AI are learning so much from humans patterns that they are also becoming racist, sexist, and xenophobic. Hopefully, you experience will inspire more underrepresented scientist to flourish.
    Best Jaime

  4. This post brought me to tears: tears of pride and tears of guilt. I have lived with Swanne for so long and yet her post still taught me how heavy and omnipresent the weight of her emotional load is. I have lived and worked with her for 12 years, and seen all her experiences of discrimination, bias, and harassment; all the barriers that they have put in front of her. And through all that, I mainly stood by. I mostly stood silent. I cowered and wished for it to go away or get better. I pretended she could sweep things under the carpet, stand up, and move on, and prioritized protecting my anxiety for difficult conversations over listening meaningfully. Swanne, I am sorry for negating your experience. I am sorry for wanting to show myself as a supportive husband and colleague in social media and safe spaces, for thinking that I knew it all already and not letting you drive the conversation at home so that I could learn more. I am sorry for not seeing the magnitude of your daily emotional load because I was too concerned with wanting you to ‘move on’ and be happier. I promise that from today on, I will listen. I will acknowledge my ignorance and racist and sexist biases. I will use my voice and privilege as a white man to stand up to injustice: injustice to you, injustice to our children, injustice to students… so that I may be part of the change academia so badly needs, and not part of the problem.

    1. That is an amazing response Andres. Incredible. Swanne's post has moved me in ways I had forgotten possible - as has your response


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