Researchers call for support for BIPOC in ecology and evolutionary biology

Michelle Tseng, UBC zoologist. Photo: UBC.

Recently, a group of researchers from five different institutions collaborated on a commentary piece in Nature Ecology & Evolution, outlining strategies and support for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) in ecology and evolutionary biology.

In this Q&A, we speak with lead author Michelle Tseng, an assistant professor in the botany and zoology departments at UBC, and co-author Diane Srivastava, a professor in the zoology department at UBC, about why they felt this commentary was needed, and what life is like for BIPOC working in the sciences.

Why did you feel compelled to write this commentary piece, and how did it come together?

Michelle Tseng: I personally find it difficult to be the only person of colour in group meetings, in conferences, or in other academic settings. I worried that undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other early career researchers in my field were being discouraged from pursuing studies in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) because the field has so little diversity.

I wondered if other BIPOC in ecology and evolutionary biology felt the same way as I did, and I was interested in the tools they’ve used to navigate our racially homogeneous field. I’ve met more people of colour working in EEB since we started writing the commentary and I wish we could have included so many more voices.

Diane Srivastava: We actually started drafting this piece before George Floyd’s death and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, but these events certainly put wind in our sails. We felt that there had been a lot of attention paid to how to combat systemic racism in academia, but this was largely geared to a default-white audience. No one was actually talking to Black, Indigenous or people of colour about how to survive in the system, and we knew that this type of advice had to come from other BIPOC researchers. I think, for many of us, we were writing a letter to our younger selves.

How have recent race-related events, such as the racist incident in Central Park involving Black birder Christian Cooper, resonated in the BIPOC science community?

MT: Christian Cooper’s incident open people’s eyes to what BIPOC doing fieldwork face on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Fieldwork is stressful for a number of different reasons already, but for Black and brown ecologists this stress is compounded by racial profiling and/or the fear of potentially getting thrown in jail or deported for just doing your job. I’m lucky in that I’ve only been stopped by the police once—and probably my own fault as I was using a sledge hammer to smash through a frozen river to look for aquatic insects. On the plus side, the high-profile nature of Mr. Cooper’s case has led to an outpouring of support for Black scientists, and for Black scientists working in nature. Let’s hope that this support isn’t just a passing fancy.

DS: Part of the subtext to Amy Cooper’s reaction to Christian Cooper was that society sees being Black and birding—but not Black and criminal—as incompatible. That was brought home by the outpouring of shared experience during Black Birders Week, which was organized on Twitter shortly after that incident. I remember being stopped twice by police in Britain when I was searching for insects at the base of trees, once because a passerby reported me as “suspicious”. It is tiring to always deal with other people’s assumptions of our likely careers, and their surprise when they discover we study ecology or evolution. It is also tiring to be assumed by our white peers to be an expert on racism in academia by virtue of our “sample size of one” experience. I think many of us felt exhausted by this burden during the recent surge of anti-racism discussion in academia.

In the piece you note that the field of ecology and evolutionary biology has strikingly low levels of diversity. What immediate steps can be taken to address this?

MT: A stronger sense of belonging, more role models, and mentoring may help both with recruiting and retaining BIPOC in EEB. I think we need to take a long, hard look at the written and unwritten policies that we now use to recruit and retain people in our field, and we need to dissect whether these policies are discriminating against certain groups of people.

DS: We need to start working at all stages of the pipeline, starting in K-12. In the university system, we need to support BIPOC undergrads to gain mentorship and research experience in ecology and evolution labs. We need to actively recruit under-represented minorities as graduate students and postdocs, and we need to provide mechanisms to retain our talented BIPOC faculty. In Canada, we are well behind the U.S. in routinely collecting data on race and Indigenous status. We need to start documenting racial disparities in academia so we can actually monitor our progress. Finally, I think we need to start thinking about the intersections of many different forms of marginalization, rather than focusing just on silos of race or gender.

Your piece emphasizes the importance of prioritizing mental health for BIPOC in science. Can you describe why this is so important for BIPOC in particular?  

MT:  Most institutionalized policies have been created by the predominantly white majority. To speak out against racist policies is to speak out against the those who hold the most power. It is risky and emotionally taxing to pit yourself against the majority group because this is the same group that is reviewing your papers and grants. BIPOC achieve scientific excellence despite academic and everyday racism. It is also often BIPOC who are leading the charge to dismantle these very same policies. I have so much respect for the many—often Black, Indigenous, female—voices who are unapologetically aggressive about bringing these issues to the forefront. They are doing so much of the heavy lifting here and often bearing the brunt of the backlash.

DS: Fish that are always swimming upstream get tired. If you don’t easily fit in to a straight, white, male culture, then not only do you have to work that much harder, but you also are often excluded from the informal networks that many dominant-culture academics develop to support each other.

What would you tell a young Black, Indigenous, or person of colour considering a career in the sciences today?

MT: My experience is only with ecology and evolutionary biology. I would say that if you are passionate, that thirst for knowledge and bottomless curiosity can help you to overcome a lot of these barriers. I will also be cautiously optimistic here and say that we may be seeing actual change happening—sadly on the backs of those who are no longer here to see this change. There does seem to be a real drive to make science, and EEB, more equitable.

DS: I’d tell them: go for it! There are more and more of us all the time, and the more there are, the easier it is going to get. I am optimistic that there are many creative initiatives out there that should start to make a difference. A lot of BIPOC researchers are currently cheering on Scott Edwards, a Harvard professor who studies the evolution of birds, who is cycling across the U.S. with a Black Lives Matter sign, raising money for diversity initiatives in evolutionary biology. Just like I want to see Central Park flooded with Black birders, I would like to walk into an ecology and evolution department and see the same mix of people that I see getting on the bus every day.

It is also tiring to be assumed by our white peers to be an expert on racism in academia by virtue of our “sample size of one” experience. I think many of us felt exhausted by this burden during the recent surge of anti-racism discussion in academia.

Alex Walls
Media Relations Specialist, UBC Media Relations