Advice for BIPOC individuals working in ecology and evolutionary biology

A co-authored article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, an online science journal, outlines career strategies for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) researchers working in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB). The article, “Strategies and support for Black, Indigenous, and People of colour in ecology and evolutionary biology,” highlights the low rate of racial diversity in EEB and offers advice on how BIPOC students and researchers can navigate their wellbeing and career advancement in academia.

The authors are Michelle Tseng (University of British Columbia), Rana El-Sabaawi (University of Victoria), Michael Kantar (University of Hawaii at Manoa), Jelena Pantel (The American University of Paris), Diane Srivastava (University of British Columbia), and Jessica Ware (American Museum of Natural History).

As Black Lives Matter (BLM) has gained increasing momentum, they note that BIPOC scholars have been tasked to help non-BIPOCs to “educate themselves, to write statements of support, or to guide their research groups in discussions of racism.” As they observe, “the focus, ironically, has been on how to help the majority.”

Diane Srivastava, professor in the zoology department at UBC. | Photo courtesy of UBC News

Tseng explained in an interview with UBC News: “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.”

The authors want the article to serve BIPOC students and researchers in EEB by providing strategies and resources solicited from BIPOC scholars working in the field. The seven strategies are: take care of your mental health, be realistic with what lies ahead, speak up, strategically, choose your battles and pace yourself, ask questions, know that you can inspire and effect change, recognize your own privilege and trust yourself.

The survival toolkit emphasizes that, despite all the obstacles facing BIPOC students and scholars, it is important to prioritize wellbeing, set boundaries, and seek support from allies and mentors. The article concludes that although BIPOC scholars often face bias and have to work twice as hard in academia, research passion and survival instincts will help combat the struggles.

Michelle Tseng, assistant professor in the botany and zoology departments at UBC. | Photo courtesy of UBC News

When asked about the importance of mental health, Srivastava told UBC News that “fish that are always swimming upstream get tired.” If students and researchers do not fit into the dominant culture, they not only have to work harder but can potentially be excluded from the networks of support geared towards and designed for the majority academics who “fit.” Srivastava’s observation echoes Tseng’s suggestion that “a stronger sense of belonging, more role models, and mentoring may help both with recruiting and retaining BIPOC in EEB.”

While institutional racism affects BIPOC individuals working in academia, as the authors suggest, the survival toolkit also calls for BIPOC researchers to constantly reflect on their own positions in society. The authors note that: “when you are working and communicating with the non-academic community, and especially with other under-represented communities, you may not be viewed as a minority group, but rather as a member of the ivory tower.”

Thus, it is imperative for BIPOC researchers to recognize their privilege, be mindful of their own biases, and continue to educate themselves in order to break down barriers between academia and the general public. “Think carefully about the ways that your community can be both the victim of discrimination and still perpetuate discrimination against
other BIPOC.”

When asked about immediate steps to address low levels of diversity in EEB, Srivastava said that recruitment and retention of under-represented minorities should start at all stages of the educational pipeline: “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.”

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