Written by Debora Kamin Mukaz, M.S., Ph.D., postdoctoral associate at the UVM Larner College of Medicine
Recent events have me reflecting on what it means to be Black, woman, immigrant and scientist. In my young years, science provided a safe space for logic and integrity (how naïve of me), a reality that was often lacking in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The many socio-political issues that plagued my country did not stop my Black teachers from making sure I got the best education possible. However, I recognize that my reality was not that of many Congolese children.
My father is a mechanical engineer who works for one the largest mining companies in Africa. As a child, we used to have long discussions about physics and maths. My class privilege also allowed me to attend one of the best schools in the country and to be a laureate to the national high school exams. However, loving science as a Congolese woman came at a price; I didn’t fit in. Despite a middle class background that valued education, women/girls were still expected to fulfill gendered obligations and aspire to marriage. My dreams were different; I cared only for science and books. Coming to the U.S. allowed me to escape the instability of my country and helped me become the researcher I am today, an opportunity denied to many brilliant Congolese girls.
In the United States, I came to understand what it meant to live at the intersection of multiple identities. My experiences in college and graduate school were often laced in micro and macro aggressions because of my accent, skin color and gender. Being a Biology major was often an isolating experience. The department did not support me, and my teachers and peers ignored me. Had it not been for one female professor, I wouldn’t have gotten my first research experience. Graduate school was not better. Getting a Ph.D. is often a painful experience, but doing it as a Black immigrant woman was excruciating. I do not know a Black graduate student who did not go through traumatic experiences. For Black people, isolation, lack of support and abuse are common currencies in academia. A few of my peers gave up because they couldn’t take it anymore. That is why spaces that cater to Black people in academia are so important.
Recently, I participated in an Instagram campaign called #Keepsharingthemic. #Keepsharingthemic is the academic extension of #sharethemic campaign, which was started by the entertainment industry to magnify Black women’s voices and allow them to share their work from white female influencers’ platforms. During my #keepsharingthemic conversation, I talked about my academic and research journey with Indira Turney, a cognitive neuroscientist doing her postdoctorate at Columbia. Indira and I got acquainted through our women of color writing group. The group meets every week remotely to keep each other accountable in our writing and help each other with our research. We also have a Whatsapp account where we talk about professional and personal issues. Every other Saturday, we have a virtual happy hour that often lasts for four hours or more. These amazing women have become part of my network, and they have helped me realize that academia could be a nurturing space. I also belong to a few other communities catering to people of color or Black women. For instance, Stemnoire, a research and holistic wellness community for Black women in STEM, recently organized a virtual, weeklong event. On Twitter and Instagram, we shared our academic stories using hashtags like #ThesisThursday or #stemnoirestory. Other activities include a guided meditation, a sip’n paint event and a cooking class.
Spaces like Stemnoire, UNITY (another group of people of color in academia), and my writing group are needed to thrive in academic environments that were never meant to include people who looked like me. My communities remind me, despite the misogynoir I constantly face, that I matter. Yet, for systematic changes to happen, larger institutions have to commit to doing anti-racist work. Black scientists deserve to be treated with respect and they deserve to have their contributions recognized.