Epistemically Challenged: Natalie Chavez
Epistemically Challenged is an opinion series about how each one of us explores knowledge. In this installment, Natalie Chavez, a Ph.D. candidate in Biology at Stanford talks about expectations while growing up.
Growing up, it was always expected that we were going to college—it was expected that all of us “niñas y niños” would go in order to strive for a better life—achieve the American Dream. There was just no plan or strategy to get there, as no one in my family had graduated from college before. Not only was I the first in my family to earn a Bachelors in Science, but I took the deep plunge and went on to get my Masters in Biomedical Science. Wait—wait! That’s not all: I am still in academic training and in the process of getting my Ph.D. in Biology. WOW! Here I am, a trailblazer in my family kicking ass and taking names. This journey has been one of the most challenging and the most rewarding experiences because it forced me into new territory in order to grow and move forward. I have been lucky enough to have built a community of intelligent, kind-hearted, and ambitious friends and peers within my field in biology research. But the real challenge has been to bridge the gap between my scientist community and my family/non-science community.
I did not always have my next steps figured out. I vividly remember sitting in my Advanced Placement Calculus class in High School trying to work out a mathematical equation that had me stuck. I went back and forth, picking up my No. 2 pencil, writing things down, erasing my progress, and then ultimately sat quietly, thinking more about possible solutions. During this moment, I listened to the excited commotion around me. My classmates were all chatting about the prestigious colleges that invited them to interview—Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, UCSD—and I felt a rush of anxiety roll over me. Oh shit, am I late for applying to college? Not having a mentor at home or in high school to show me the ropes of how to apply for college, I had completely missed the application deadlines. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough or confident about applying for college—I just didn’t know! This experience propelled me to become much more proactive as an undergraduate and graduate student—I was never going to be left in the dark again.
From an early age, I had always been fascinated with biology and how our bodies function and interact with the world. As I progressed through graduate school, it seemed that I had so deeply immersed myself in my studies and the jargon for describing my work had become so specialized that I felt more alienated from my family. It was then and still is now quite difficult for me to have conversations with my family (and non-science friends) about what it is exactly that I am studying—if it does not immediately relate to cancer. Cancer is a very accessible topic for people to engage in science conversations, because everyone knows of someone who has either directly or indirectly been affected by cancer. But basic science research—studies performed by scientists to understand normal functions of cells and tissues, like how a group of cells respond to mechanical forces to change their function (i.e. cells in a blood vessel of a hypertensive person)—can often seem abstract and inaccessible to non-scientists. Unless it has a direct application towards treating a disease, studying a process in biology for the sake of knowledge can seem to some like a waste of time.
Several of my close women colleagues and friends noticed this disconnect between scientists and non-scientists and wanted to do something about it in our local community. We began volunteering as science writers and creating workshops on STEM topics and leadership skills geared towards Latinas in the Bay Area. And we started introducing more science discussions at the dinner table. This was our way of forming community amongst the women in science and to collectively advocate for science education as a way to propel a more diverse workforce.
For more than 10 years now, I have helped foster a supportive community of women in science through mentorship. I had never really identified myself as a trailblazer for other Latinas in STEM fields until it was brought to my attention by one of my mentees several years ago. While at Brown University, I mentored a couple of first-generation Latina college students to help them adjust to college life. I admired these young women for their scholastic achievement (they did way better than I did!) and for moving from Los Angeles all the way to Providence, Rhode Island. I saw a lot of myself in these students—a strong drive and fearlessness for new experiences regardless of tradition.
When I got my acceptance letter from Brown University to attend graduate school it was a huge discussion point in my family. My parents feared that I would be too far away from the family for too long. It took a lot of guts for me to venture into the unknown and remove myself from my hometown, so the courage my Latina mentees embodied resonated with me. At our first coffee meeting one of the students said, “Oh, that’s really awesome that you’re pursuing, you know, a Ph.D. I am only getting my Bachelor’s in Biology, I can’t even imagine a Ph.D.” That’s when it hit me that I was in a position of great influence and one that I could use to inspire young Latinas to pursue a higher education and make a difference in the world in a way that aligned with their goals. Aspiration seem more possible when there is someone in field you want to enter who looks like you or grew up in a similar environment like you did.
We can also encourage more Latinas to become a part of the STEM community by updating the image of what it means to be a scientist—we are young, diverse, and creative! We can also try harder to connect our research with the general public—present the work in a way that is engaging and easy to digest! There is a lot of meaningful work being done right now to inspire young children and middle school students in science; however, we need to reach out to local high school students and undergraduates and their parents. It is difficult for parents to support their children to pursue STEM or higher education more directly if they are not familiar with the college application process or concepts and advancements in STEM fields.
I have been involved with the LISTAS organization (Latinas in STEM2 to Achieve Success) for the past couple of years in the Bay Area and they do an amazing job of running a yearly day-long symposium for young Latina middle school and high school students and their parents. They support the advancement of Latinas in STEM by covering career workshops for young Latina students and educational workshops for their parents. This symposium is a great way of establishing a pipeline for Latinas and Latinos in STEM, and it creates a half-way point where Latina and Latino scientists, parents and students can meet to discuss science. It is a great way to demystify science for many families: Dual engagement allows both parents and children to continue the conversation even after the symposium is over.
As a graduate student, I also try to tell a story when I talk about my research to better connect to students, parents, or really anyone who is not in my specific field (not all science is the same). A big portion of my day is spent in the details of my project, so it is actually quite a challenging exercise to take a step back and re-frame my work into a bigger and more relatable question. It is not as easy as you might think! It helps to stick with familiar themes and weave in analogies when discussing connections or processes within a biological system. Storytelling has existed for thousands of years as a natural and an effective way for people to communicate with each other—and it is crucial for increasing the dialogue between scientists and the public, and is especially effective for connecting with my family and other Latinas or Latinos. Animated speech helps too. I used to get dinged for being too animated in my speech, but I have found it to be very effective for relaying the passion in one’s work and for getting people engaged and asking questions. Better understanding and engagement of others in the sciences will hopefully lead to better discussions on science policy, greater involvement of diverse students in STEM fields, more informed support from family members, and ultimately a better (more diverse) community of scientists in society. So it is up to us Latina and Latino scientists to become ambassadors for science in our family and in our community.
Unexpectedly, as an ambassador for science and an expert in cell biology, I have become our family’s “biology expert,” which means I get asked any question relating to general physiology and health issues. “What is this procedure for?” “How does this drug work?” “I don’t understand how someone can become sick by this?” And on and on. Even though I am not a medical expert and do not specialize in all of the areas of research that come up, I do feel like all of the ‘soft skills’ in my graduate training, like critical thinking, investigative questioning, and conducting a literature review have come in handy when researching a particular drug or interpreting clinical evidence on a disease. Then after researching all of this data, I explain all of this information in a way that is easy for anyone to understand. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are or how impactful your research is if you can’t communicate it properly. And to change the diversity profile of STEM professions through education and advocacy—this could not be more true!
— Natalie Chavez is a Ph.D candidate in the Biology Department at Stanford.