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Cognitive Reserve and Racial Privilege in STEM

It is often said that STEM is changing for the better and, in many cases, this assertion holds true. There are efforts to diversify our fields and to acknowledge the importance of inclusivity in ways that might have been unimaginable a decade prior. Universities widely engage in efforts to provide educational outreach and be more mindful of the homogeneity in our environments. In some ways, it seems we are slowly parting from the notion that great scientists must focus solely on their craft, distancing themselves from political and community involvement. However, one area in which we still lack understanding is the effect of our slowly changing environments on underrepresented students in higher education. Staff, faculty and college figure heads may pride themselves on the recent changes while simultaneously failing to recognize that the labor which created this progress was born by their most marginalized. Most importantly, academia is failing to recognize the ways in which students of color and other marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by this labor and the national climate in which they are working in.

Cognitive reserve is often spoken about in the context of brain pathology and one’s susceptibility or resilience to disease trajectory. When I refer to cognitive load or reserve in this post, I am speaking about cognitive flexibility as a form of currency. I am speaking about the mental freedom that comes with not fearing for one’s safety or the safety of people who look like them in a given society. I am speaking about freedom from worry and discrimination; freedom to focus exclusively on one’s craft without a chronically festering need for vigilance, action and change.

Simply put, this “cognitive load” is regarding race and oppression in the United States and how Black and Brown students and their intersecting identities carry both an invisible and visible workload that many of our cis, white and white passing peers do not share.

I share examples from my own lived experiences as one cis, bi, able bodied, biracial Black woman, however the reader should keep in mind that I do not speak for all Black women everywhere nor are my experiences and thoughts universally shared by all people of color and their intersecting identities. As scientists, this should already be at the forefront of your minds while reading any one person’s work.

In this blog post, I want to challenge you today to earnestly consider the following questions about unequal labor in our STEM fields. We will go through some of them and dissect them together:

  1. In our collective efforts to diversify STEM, provide anti-racism education and make spaces more inclusive, who do we see largely leading these efforts and pouring invisible labor into these initiatives?

  2. What does political turmoil, racism and discrimination do to the cognitive load of students who are constantly subjected to this additional mental processing?

  3. Why is the task of educating our uninformed peers largely burdening students of color? Why is this urgency lacking in our cis, white/white passing peers and faculty who are fully capable of sharing this workload?

  4. What happens to students of color–particularly Black, Indigenous and Hispanic students who are the least represented in STEM fields–who navigate homogeneous environments and systemic racism both in our country at large and within academia? Especially if / when they are working overtime to better their communities in higher education programs?

  5. How do we acknowledge what these students experience in higher education and that they are doubly affected when we task them with fixing our ‘diversity problems’ while our white and white passing peers are able to opt out? What enables white and white passing peers to often opt out?

  6. How does this affect our ability to retain, recognize and promote Black students and faculty and other marginalized groups in higher education?

To start, I want to discuss events that took place this past week.

This week, the Black community mourned the delayed justice and murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed and Nina Pop.

Arbery, a 25 year old Black man, was jogging in a neighborhood when a white father and son deemed him suspicious, attacked and shot him. It was only until a chilling murder video was released that public outcry demanded action from authorities. Two months after Arbery’s death, police pressed charges against the two white men and convicted them of murder. For two months–and seemingly forever if not for that video and public awareness–his killers walked freely without punishment.

Reed, a 21 year old Black man, was in his car on May 6th live streaming on Facebook when police pulled him over. The video shows a terrified Reed asking his followers to please come and help him. Reed gets out of the car and begins running, still filming, and gun shots fire over one dozen times at his back.

Pop, a transgender Black woman, was found stabbed to death in Minneapolis on May 3rd. She was the 10th Trans murder just this year. In 2018, data from the Human Rights Commission shows that 82% of Trans deaths are women of color and most of these are Black women. In many cases, the murders are never fully investigated and the perpetrators walk freely.

While the rest of the country expressed shock or indifference, the Black community sat with our disparate reality: that police brutality, white supremacy and anti-Black racism have long been unaddressed and untreated, continuously festering in our nation’s collective psyche.

I sat with this heaviness all week, vacillating between depthless sadness and anger. Everywhere I’ve lived, from the south to the northwest to the northeast, I have experienced racism and learned of disproportionate murders that plague my community. I hastily finished my final semester coursework, then channeled these emotions into a project I started as a first year Neuroscience and Behavior PhD student called M.U.S.E. (mentorship for underrepresented STEM enthusiasts.) M.U.S.E. aims to provide representation and mentorship to underrepresented students in STEM. Although I have poured over 60 hours into initially building the site and countless more hours managing it with our Board of Directors, I managed to succeed in my coursework, present at conferences, spearhead 2 new experiments, apply for 8 fellowships/grants, do outreach events and mentor several undergrads in my lab in my first semester. Managing M.U.S.E is something I have chosen to further the path of others like me and will continue even with a full summer schedule and the current global pandemic (which is disproportinately affecting Black & Indigenous people.) In addition, my outspokenness online has resulted in hundreds of students asking me for advice on navigating academia as first generation or underrepresented students; I spend countless hours answering every single message.

Whereas the bulk of my weeks are spent working on neuroscience coursework and research, my evenings and weekends are spent doing a different sort of labor–vigilantly following the news, donating the little I have, educating myself and others and volunteering in a variety of roles. This has been the norm for years, though I have unique privileges in terms of time and money that not every Black or Brown person has. I started my PhD program at 29 years old; enough time to build wealth, work several jobs for 7 years and gain influence as an athlete.

Now that you have read about my personal experiences and level of involvement, I want to go through the questions I posed earlier and briefly discuss them, inviting you to constantly ask yourselves “what is my role in social justice efforts and in what ways do I opt out or contribute to this work? In what ways have I been blind to the labor of my peers and not educated myself or shared in this workload?”

In our collective efforts to diversify STEM and make spaces more inclusive, who do we see largely leading these efforts and pouring invisible labor into these initiatives?

In my experiences, I notice that students of color, especially BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color), go above and beyond when it comes to bettering their communities and educating others about social justice. For many of us in academia, this is unpaid labor on top of trying to thrive in higher education. We are praised for being champions of diversity while our white and white passing peers focus exclusively on their science. This chronic workload, though commended and sometimes expected from people in positions of power, makes me wonder if academics fully register what toll this might be taking on Black and Brown bodies who have already disproportionately been affected by decades and centuries of legalized racism.

The privilege of being able to “just focus on science” is a thought that has haunted me. I love science with my entire being and on so many weekends I crave being able to sit with my science books and read them cover to cover, but I cannot turn away from all that is happening in our country and to my communities. That is not an option for so many of us, especially Black, Indigenous and Hispanic people in STEM fields, because we have lived and seen these horrors firsthand; because we know what it is like to be called racial slurs in public, harassed by the police, followed extra closely at stores and assumed to be stealing, seen our families struggle, etc. Some of us cannot abandon our lived experiences with poverty, violence, or societal injustice and focus exclusively on ourselves. It is important to mention two things: 1) even if Black and Brown students are able to just focus only on science, cognitive reserve might still be hampered by chronic microaggressions and alienation in predominantly white academic spaces; 2) many Black and Brown students may be told to opt out as a survival mechanism or to ensure their own successes to reach the desired level of power before investing in the community.

What does political turmoil, racism and discrimination do to the cognitive reserve and health of students who are constantly subjected to this additional mental load?

For many of us I imagine our mental health and cognitive reserves are struggling while we pursue demanding work in our PhD or higher education programs. Research has shown that allostatic load–the wearing of bodies exposed to chronic stress–may be a contributing factor to the disproportionate aging and health outcomes that plague Black communities. (Forrester et al 2019.) From my own experiences, I can say with certainty that every single day my mental health is affected by my race within and beyond academia. My non-Black peers infuriatingly share shock that racism still exists, seem confused when I share that students confuse me for the only other Black woman in my cohort, fail to notice when all of the Black and many Latinx people always sit together during seminars, say nothing when murders and injustice befall the Black community, etc. These things and more I am actively aware of, but my white and white passing peers don’t even recognize or consciously process it. That unintentional ignorance is stressful to be surrounded by daily. That alone adds to my mental load aside from constantly experiencing microaggressions and absorbing a steady stream of news that white supremacy continues to become ever emboldened by our current Commander in Chief.

Why is the task of educating our uninformed peers largely burdening students of color? Why is this urgency lacking in our cis, white peers and faculty who are fully capable of sharing this workload?

Education and anti-racism work does not and should not solely be carried out by students of color (though, for the tempo of these movements, I recognize the importance for POC, Queer/Trans and Disabled leadership.) Cis white and white passing peers lack an internal urgency for this work, but they do not lack our capability of opening up a news page or Google tab. This is where my empathy wanes, because I do not identify as Trans, Indigenous, Physically Disabled or any number of identities underrepresented in STEM, but the information is there and people are screaming to be heard. How is it then that so many of my peers do not share in this workload? Why is there such a high tolerance for inaction? My best guess is that many of my white and white passing peers, aside from having varying degrees of comfort and built in privilege with the current levels of white supremacy, do not have many Black and Brown friends or leadership in their environments who stress the importance of action; this might make news stories easier to dehumanize and complicity seen as tolerable. When you or those you know personally struggle in a like domain, perhaps it is easier to humanize events and people instead of constantly opting out or pointing to the one Black or Brown outspoken person as an angry outlier. Regardless of the cause, this is a privilege that needs to be challenged. There is danger and something unforgivable about those with the most listened to voices, institutional power, disproportionate wealth and time opting out of social justice work.

How does this affect our ability to retain, recognize and promote Black and Brown students and other marginalized groups in higher education?

One fear I have is that, in recognizing how unequally this workload is carried by marginalized students, that our generosity of time and money will hinder us in the long run. Studies already show, for instance, that Black families hold 10 cents to every $1.00 a white family has. Looking at the effects of years and years of legalized racism, we can see that different racial groups have very different starting points when they enter higher education. In addition, underrepresented racial groups are sometimes burdened with providing for their families; the wealth they build is distributed among many people in the family whereas more privileged persons can keep and build upon that wealth for generations.

The numbers today of racial diversity among STEM faculty is appalling. In the general field of Biology (in 2018) it was noted that 0.7% of professors were Black and 3% were Hispanic. No data exists to my knowledge for Indigenous STEM faculty across the United States and I can only imagine what these numbers are for underrepresented groups in my field of neuroscience. We already have a problem supporting and retaining underrepresented students of color and their intersecting identities in STEM. Just one potential cause I can think of is being disproportionately burdened with work and–though getting praised–not with tangible increases in salary, recognition or promotion. These environments may be further hostile to BIPOC and students of color, who then opt out of pursuing academic careers altogether.

Our extracurricular involvement in higher education is central to some of us, yet this may be a reason some of us fall behind in higher education, are passed up for promotions, build wealth slower than our white and white passing peers, etc. It is not hard to see that focusing exclusively on oneself and being less thoughtful with one’s money could lead to greater success and financial security, especially if one starts from an already elevated place in society.

We invite Black and Brown students (and their intersecting identities) into spaces that are not equipped or educated enough to support them. Our institutions profit from their continuous labor and we fail to recognize the disparity in cognitive load that these students may experience. This is not to only focus on marginalized people who are hypervigilant about addressing JEDI work; we often fail to recognize how hard it is to simply exist as Black and Brown students in a society that is treating us disposably.

There are many more questions we can ask about the inadequacy of STEM fields to fully tackle their biggest questions without a diversity of thought and how intersectionality of identities creates for even more horrific outcomes in STEM. The takeaway I hope you leave with today, in addition to becoming better at asking yourselves these questions on your own in the future, is this:

I asked you all questions about addressing our varying cognitive loads in academia and why this burden seems to rest predominantly on students of color to educate our peers. I challenge you all to ask yourselves: how often you think about race in a given day, how often do you take the initiative to educate yourselves, what anti-racism work you have done within yourself and in your community, how much privilege do you have to focus exclusively on your STEM field and how do you plan to share in the load that your peers of color and their intersecting identities take on every day?


Book resources to begin anti-racism work and education for yourselves:

  1. Me and White Supremacy Workbook
  2. “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad
  3. “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Iljeoma Oluo
  4. “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander
  5. “White fragility” by Robin DiAngelo
  6. “Eloquent Rage” by Brittney Cooper
  7. “Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race” by Renni Eddo-Lodge
  8. “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  9. “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde
  10. “An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  11. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X Kendi
  12. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  13. NY Times Anti-Racist Book List
  14. Aljazeera “Know Their Names”
  15. A list of Black Owned Bookstores across the US you can financially support
Click here to see original article and think about our collective roles in social change

Special thanks to Michelle Abunaja, Hehewutei Amakali, Kate Otter, Maggie Yeung and Briana Wellen for their editing and feedback.

Tone Policing: why a more preferable tone will not make the truths of Black women more palatable.

You already know. Blog post coming soon about how the perfect tone, timing, or way to talk about white privilege and white supremacy does not exist; uncomfortable subject matter is the cause for defensiveness and aggression–not the tone of people advocating for the acknowledgement of rampant inequality and injustice.

Barriers in STEM

Blog post coming soon highlighting the many barriers to higher education (including but not limited to) financial barriers of college education, particularly for those who work full/part time and are required to have as much research experience as their financially secure peers who have more time and cognitive reserve to dedicate to research; standardized tests (e.g. GRE) which are prohibitively expensive and not a good marker of capability of intelligence; costs to move to a new state/area after college which only allows the most privileged students to do immediately after college with no life experience or savings; lack of representation for Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Queer, Trans, Disabled and other underrepresented students; debt for students who do not have the privilege of being debt free in/after college; and so much more. Coming soon.