For scientists across the country, #ShutDownSTEM stirs a mix of emotions
For many academics, news of a one-day strike from labs and classrooms arrived just a day or two before the event itself—“probably because so few [senior faculty/administrators] are active on social media,” said Bret Eshman, a postdoctoral fellow at Florida International University. “That’s how I found out about it on Tuesday.”
The following day, June 10, protests against racial discrimination and violence entered the ivory tower, spread by Twitter hashtags like #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, #BlackInTheIvory, and #Strike4BlackLives. Organized by a group of physicists, #ShutDownSTEM asked for the suspension of all non-essential work in favor of open dialogue, education, and action to eradicate anti-Black racism within research and academia.
#ShutDownSTEM and other campaigns about race in academia have ignited strong responses, deviating from typical narratives within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Scientists often strive to view the world with neutral logic and objectivity. The predominant culture in academia pushes constant work, with sometimes robotic expectations for productivity at the cost of becoming well-rounded individuals.
The strike disrupted that work and, in addition to focusing attention on racial identities, stoked scientists’ emotions. We interviewed researchers from several states (many of them pictured in the photo collage above) to get a sense of how this protest has changed how they understand themselves and their colleagues.
A shutdown catalyzed by anger, frustration
Many scientists told us about their anger and frustration at systemic problems in science and academia.This frustration was exemplified by Lahai Wicks, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee who is one of a few Black students in his program.
Wicks offered some words of caution for leaders during these difficult conversations. “I think program directors and STEM officials have to stop trying to build false diversity on the backs of their BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students and employees,” he said. “What I mean by that is when an organization tries to increase diversity or participate in a multicultural event to benefit their image, they often parade their BIPOC associates around without letting them guide the process.
“Essentially it’s like saying, ‘Hey, I’m super woke, see? I have my POC friends over here to validate that, but I told them to shut up and go along with it so I look immaculate. Can I get some funding now please?’”
Natalia Lopez Barbosa, a PhD student in chemical engineering at Cornell, expressed a need for a culture change within STEM. “We are used to things being black or white and thinking that answers can be found if you look hard enough,” Lopez Barbosa said. “But I think this feels different. It feels like there’s no one answer and no one thing that will just turn things around.”
Elsewhere: skepticism, wariness
Nearly half of those interviewed said they hadn’t heard of the movement, but commended #ShutDownSTEM and said they would have been interested in participating had they heard earlier. For others, the news was a less welcome surprise. Some questioned the motive behind what they deemed a sensationally named initiative, potentially driven by Russian operatives or anti-intellectual factions meant to disrupt scientific progress. Similar cynicism was reflected among hundreds of replies to a tweet by the journal Nature, which endorsed the movement on Tuesday.
Lopez Barbosa was skeptical about the shutdown and wary about it being viewed as just another day off. “However, I was really surprised by the strong response that I saw. People around me were being proactive in finding resources and calling for action,” she said. “I think that, at the least, it served as a way to start a conversation that was not happening, and to show us that STEM can wait for a day every once in a while for us to learn other skills.”
Neel Mukherjee, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado Anschutz, said, “We need to be sure this movement persists and is not used as an excuse to just do something on one day.”
Within his department, Mukherjee thinks #ShutDownSTEM “will be a useful catalyst for meaningful dialogue. Now, the challenge is how to incorporate something consistent within the lab.”
Melanie Ragin, senior director of HHMI-Cornell University Research Transfer (CURT) and Cornell University Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), thinks it’s hard to see how one day of reflection will help change if the necessary people are not engaged in the process or movement.
“I feel it is the harsh reality of the matter,” she said. “This is a big issue that will require countless hours of reflection, debate, discussion, energy, change, and uncomfortable moments. Schools taking time for people to reflect and for them to acknowledge the issues surrounding Black people is a good thing. However, if people are not actively engaging themselves with people of different backgrounds, races, sexual orientations, and beliefs, things will take a long time to change or won’t change.”
Jeff Pea, a PhD student in nutritional sciences at Cornell, also stressed the importance for personal and institutional reflection. “Traditionally science is viewed to be something that is apolitical, but in reality, the original structures of integrating race into science were purely political,” he said. “Being aware of these structures has made me reconsider the ways we conduct scientific research and how to promote underrepresented voices in STEM.”
A moment of vulnerability
For many researchers, #ShutDownSTEM was a moment of rare vulnerability and openness in which university leadership and research group leaders showed emotion and expressed feelings, a stark contrast with “business as usual” in these fields. However hard it may be, some professors have made a priority to talk about #ShutDownSTEM with their teams.
“People in my lab are taking this seriously.” said Narda Bondah, an undergraduate in science and technology studies at Cornell. “I feel supported because many of my non-Black friends, including my school and lab, have reached out to me to express condolences and solidarity in this fight against racism.”
The thought of promptly changing the daily routine was welcomed by some. Multiple interviewees said they were glad to “finally have permission to step away from doing science and engage with our communities.” But for non-white scientists who are already stretched thin with service work, repeatedly discussing the topic of systemic racism can be overwhelming.
Kristel Yee Mon, a PhD student in microbiology and immunology at Cornell, told us: “In a department of 50-80 people and often being one of two or three Black women scientists in a room, when people ask what being a Black scientist is like, they are looking at me.
“I feel pressure to work harder and make myself more known because I want to represent the Black community well and show that my institution is indeed pushing for inclusivity and investing in the potential of Black trainees,” Yee Mon said. “It can be stressful going to a place where nobody looks like you and you sometimes feel like you cannot relate to anyone.”
An expanded view of the work of science
In spite of this toll, the events of recent weeks have been energizing to activists working against racism. Anat Belasen, a postdoctoral fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, said, “Thousands of labs across the country have come together to share personal stories and actions. We are finally talking about a sense of belonging, and not just diversity in terms of numbers.”
She used #ShutDownSTEM as an opportunity to “counter-troll,” responding to troll attacks on Black women’s Twitter posts. She channeled her initial anger and frustration about comments such as “Science doesn’t have bias” or “We don’t cite Black authors because there are simply fewer Black authors in academia” into a strategic action that was designed to shield the original poster from the brunt of the comments.
Other groups are discussing how racism and colorism have global impact. Ana Maria Porras, a postdoctoral fellow in biomedical engineering at Cornell University and co-founder of LatinXinBME, is pushing for conversations about how racism and colorism affect Latin America as well. She remains hopeful that the shutdown will finally enable people to realize that talking about race and any other identity should be normalized in STEM. “Doing diversity and inclusion work,” she said, “is as important as doing the science itself.”
Some researchers saw the large-scale adoption of #ShutDownSTEM as an indication that the community is, in fact, putting social responsibility and research on equal grounds. Anna Hasenfratz, professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the first to publicly pledge her support for the strike, saw resounding support as many of her colleagues came together in full spirit for the movement. “The department had two events related to #ShutDownSTEM,” she said. “Both events had large attendance, 110-120 people – a mixture of grad students, postdocs, staff, and faculty.”
Just across the street from Hasenfratz, Irene Blair studies implicit stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination and chairs CU Boulder’s psychology and neuroscience department. She warned participants not to lose focus after the strike ends. “I think #ShutDownSTEM definitely opened the door for communication. The real moral failing here, though, is to disengage and stop trying because of comfort.”
Andy Sanchez (@MrSanduchez) is a Mexican-American writer and engineer who grew up in the Midwest. He received his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Texas A&M and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. He is currently pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering at Cornell University, researching a new way to detect Lyme disease. He is an advocate for reforming engineering ethics and communication training and serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.
Candice Limper (@LimperScience) is a first-generation college student who grew up in California, where she earned a bachelor’s in microbiology from Cal State Chico and a master’s in biology from Cal State LA. As a PhD student in immunology at Cornell, she studies the importance of the mitochondria in immune cells. While working to better understand immune cells, she also enjoys teaching others what she knows through podcasting for Excellsior.
Janani Hariharan (@jananiharan) is a PhD student at Cornell who researches the ecology and evolution of bacteria that live in the soil. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Anna University, India, and a master’s in environmental science at Ohio State. Janani has interests in science writing, podcasts, and facilitating dialogue to increase belonging in STEM.
J. Alex Grizzell (@Agrizz) is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder who studies the neural circuitry of resilience to stress and addiction, particularly in social contexts. He earned his PhD in neuroscience and behavior from the University of Tennessee, studying how the prefrontal cortex confers learned resilience to traumatic stress. Alex is also active in science communication outreach and serves as a co-organizer for the ComSciCon-SciWri2020 workshop.