Experience and Environment: One Neuroscientist’s View on Belonging
These days, I eat lunch in empty conference rooms. I run experiments without inquisitive undergraduate or high school mentees peeking over my shoulder. I pass masked colleagues in the hallways at a distance—just making out their faces before narrowly missing the opportunity to wave.
I think most of us have experienced the unique emotions of isolation and loneliness at some point, at the very least throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout my life, I wondered what makes us feel and act on emotions like loneliness. As a middle schooler, during an outreach program’s Neuro Night, the answer was placed in my hands: the brain! It was a plastinated human one. I soon also discovered that I could study it as a scientist.
My curiosity led me to my current graduate neuroscience research. Through this work, I learned emotions aren’t something that just happen to us but are more like the brain’s manufactured response to the current environment based on past experience.
This year, we have all been confronted with the devastating effects of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the much older, persistent threat of systemic racism against people of color. Faced with these threats, I spent time contextualizing my loneliness based on my environment and past experiences.
My scientific journey has been riddled with times I’ve felt alone navigating a system that was not inherently built for people who look like me. I felt alone when a senior scientist questioned if I belonged in my former lab’s lunchroom. A similar feeling emerged when campus police stopped me while walking in my undergraduate dorm complex. I’ve learned being both Black and a woman while on this journey involves feeling alone.
Our institutions and systems were conceived for exclusion — we cannot afford to socially distance from this truth. It is something that becomes apparent to me in every instance I am made to feel I don’t belong where I actually do. We who embody the institutions have the moral obligation of promoting equity and justice, not only based on race but also country of origin, education, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, religion, class, socioeconomic status, and other aspects of visible and invisible identity. Providing positive experiences of sciences is not enough we must change the environment — the community must collectively usher in tenets of not just inclusion but belonging and purpose.
Although I’ve published peer-review articles, presented my research nationally at conferences, and was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, it wasn’t until recently I finally claimed my title as “neuroscientist.” I initially blamed my hesitancy to claim this title on impostor syndrome or low confidence, but in my case, it was much deeper.
I have confidence in my abilities and accomplishments. But no amount of positive self-talk, assertiveness, or fellowship awards could prevent me from being stopped for the crime of taking up space. It is the environment that consistently required me to me to prove myself, and it was the environment that fraudulently deemed me as not worthy of the space I take up.
How do we change the environment? As with all scientific endeavors, an inclusive scientific community starts with curiosity and requires a team. My question is: What would happen if alongside our push for diversity we, as a scientific community, also actively encourage students and trainees to exist as their full, authentic selves?
Some things mentors could do to improve sense of belonging are:
- Advocate for their trainees
- Create a welcoming environment within the lab space (e.g., draft a code of conduct for the lab and stick to it)
- Introduce trainees to colleagues in their field and like-minded peers
- Nominate trainees for awards or to speak at conferences
- Reduce financial burdens whenever possible (e.g., mindful or limited use of reimbursement systems, paying research assistants who cannot afford to volunteer, etc.)
- Support trainees in both scientific and non-scientific endeavors
- Check-in with the progress of trainees along their scientific, career, and life journeys
- Get to know trainees as unique individuals who are members of their respective communities (not as representatives or stereotypes)
These are some of the positive things my past mentors have done, and I try to do with my undergraduate and high school mentees. Changing how those who are underrepresented in science experience their scientific journey starts with changing the environment. It began for me with reframing my hesitance to call myself a “neuroscientist” as not purely an internal struggle, but a much more deeply entrenched external one. Although the external struggle is more challenging to tackle, there are actions we, as a community, can take.
As research ramps up and we begin to eat lunch with our peers again, I do feel the pull to return to “normal,” but let us not ignore our responsibility to change our institutions for the better.