Highlighting different experiences in palaeontology. This issue’s palaeontologist, Lee Hsiang Liow (University of Oslo), gives career advice from her perspective as a “lucky” and “unique” scientist.
Diversity. The meaning of the word is simple enough. It means variety or the condition of having different elements. We are all different – in age, gender, age at first reproduction, age of mortality, geographic area of origin, home range – to use some typical traits studied by ecologists. Variation is the natural state of biological (and geological) systems.
We are all different. Yet, it is easy for one to associate with others with similar age, research topic, skill sets, interest, cultural background, alcohol-tolerance level etc. This clustering, while natural, may have (very) negative consequences for individuals and communities if unchecked.
I have always been the ‘outsider’, the one data point that is hard to cluster with others naturally. Most of the time, I love being different. It makes me feel unique. I was the only student from South-East Asia in my Masters cohort in Sweden and also in the cohort of PhD students across all disciplines at the University of Chicago. Amongst the palaeobiology community at my alma mater I was one of the few females (and Asians and expectedly the only one from Singapore, a tiny country). When I graduated from my PhD program, I worked as a postdoc on soft money for about 10 years in a biology department in Norway. You guessed it, I stuck out like a sore thumb both among ‘real biologists’ and white Europeans. I am still working in Norway and I still stick out, every single day.
Do I or did I suffer from being different? Honestly, I would say mostly not. Am I lucky for my lack of suffering as a minority race/nationality female scientist? Maybe. I have heard so many negative stories from other ‘unique’ people that I am forced to consider the hypothesis that I am again ‘unique’ in not having suffered as much.
So I should perhaps share with you why I did not suffer much. I had really good, considerate and thoughtful people around me throughout my career. Each of them positively contributed to my happiness as a female academic. I cannot name everyone that has helped me but below are some examples I think we can all learn from. And I’ll name names too, because these are real people.
Grad school in Chicago was hard, also in ways that were unexpected to me. I knew that the academic work was going to be challenging and I was ready for that. What I was not ready for was living amongst Americans. I thought my time as a foreign student in Sweden prepared me and that I understood American culture from all the movies I watched. But my expectation did not match reality. This mismatch was momentous, and not in a positive way. The details of this mismatch are unimportant, but suffice to say I was lost and shocked for a couple of years. Then, Paul Harnik, now at Franklin and Marshall College, appeared in my life. Paul is one of the most thoughtful people I know. Paul challenged me to understand the diversity of American culture as it is (and not one-sidedly understood from my watching of Hollywood movies and uninformed judging of people whose behaviours do not match movie characters). We argued a lot, but our disagreements strengthened our friendship and deepened our understanding of our different cultures and genders. Because I had the support of Paul and his wife, my mental health as a graduate student improved greatly. My advice here? Find your own Paul Harnik or be a Paul Harnik to someone and your world will be better, wherever you are and whatever career stage you are currently in. Be what Paul is to me to someone else: listen, empathize deeply and share your own understanding of the world in a constructive way.
Life after grad school can be very uncertain. Many of us may do from one to several postdocs before either giving up on academia or landing a position. I was no different and worried about my academic future, my next pay cheque, my visa or residency status in a foreign country, for what felt like the longest time. I was again incredibly lucky during this uncertain and nerve-wrecking period of my life. Nils Christian Stenseth was my postdoctoral mentor. Nils is a typical white male senior scientist, privileged and confident, but he was adamant in helping junior scientists, not least foreigners and women. So he did. And his mentoring style fit me perfectly. Nils was supportive and never questioned my academic decisions or scientific authority and always pushed me beyond what I assumed was my limit. If I wanted to submit a paper to a good specialist journal, he would make me try Science first. And if I thought I should try a small local grant, he asked me to apply for European Research Council Funding instead. Not that I always succeeded in going beyond the assumed limit, but his trust in my abilities and my science gave me mental strength. He introduced me proudly to his international colleagues in other fields, knowing that networking is key in academia. He shouted “keep up the great work Lee Hsiang!” at me in the corridor on a regular basis, even during periods of time he didn’t really know what I was working on. But the positivity is infectious and his support, priceless. My advice here? Associate with people who can give you positive energy and be that source of positive energy to your colleagues.
Most people who land permanent academic jobs will tell you that life does not get easier or more relaxing with that permanency. I agree. I often wish I was a postdoc again even with all that uncertainty of where my next meal will come from. If it was difficult for me to identify role models amongst more senior academics when I was a student, it’s even worse now. But you can build a hybrid role model from multiple people. My mentor from Singapore, Navjot Sodhi, was a wonderful (foreign) group leader, humorous, relaxed, yet firm and resolute when guiding his group’s research on tropical birds. As a foreigner in Norway I take from Navjot how to guide my group of European and mostly Norwegian scientists from backgrounds as diverse as physics, palaeontology and molecular phylogenetics, to conduct research on bryozoans. Scott Lidgard, was the best Ph.D supervisor I could ever have. He gave me time and attention, and demanded a tremendous amount from me that showed me that my work mattered. I take from Scott how to advise my own students and hope I can give half of what he gave me. My closest current colleagues include Russell Orr and Kjetil Voje. They are incredible scientists, but that is not what I want to emphasise here. The simplest, most powerful thing they do is to give positive support and say thank you to me and others around us, every day, not taking anything for granted. From Kjetil and Russell, I am learning to be less stingy with praise (it’s harmless!) and be more generous, in sincerely and outwardly expressing gratitude. It makes a world of difference at the work place to know one is appreciated.
And yes, you realize by now that there isn’t a single female in my narrative here. I did not do this on purpose. The fact is that there are fewer females in our field than males, especially in my generation, and I really did not have female mentors. But while we try to actively minimise discrimination, we should also realize that mentors can be found in all genders, colours, ages and nationalities. Let’s help more people who are different from us to improve the science we love.
You can read more from Lee Hsiang on diversity issues in her blog piece Bias, Role Models and Women in STEM.