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 racially 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 work 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 underrepresented Black and brown students and their intersecting identities carry both an invisible and visible workload that many of our cis, white and white presenting peers do not share.

I share examples from my own lived experiences as one cis, able bodied, biracial Black woman with invisible identities, 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 the unequal and invisibilized labor in our STEM fields. In this article, we will go through these questions one by one and dissect them together:

  1. In our collective efforts to diversify STEM, make higher education more equitable, anti-racist and just, who have we seen largely leading these efforts and pouring invisible labor into these initiatives?
  2. What does political turmoil, racism and chronic discrimination do to the cognitive load of Black students who are constantly subjected to this additional mental processing? (Especially years before the ongoing global pandemic?)
  3. Why is the task of educating our uninformed peers largely burdening underrepresented students, especially Black and/or Indigenous students (including Afro-Latinx, Indigenous Latinx) and their intersecting identities? Why is this urgency lacking in our cis, white/white presenting peers and others who are fully capable of sharing this workload?
  4. What happens to students of color–particularly Black, Indigenous and/or nonwhite Latinx 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 presenting peers are often able to opt out? What enables white, white presenting and other peers to often opt out of directly supporting our most marginalized?
  6. How does this affect our ability to retain, recognize and promote Black students, faculty and other severely marginalized racial groups and their intersecting identities 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 with most of these victims being Black Trans women (91% in 2019, specifically). In many cases, the murders are never fully investigated.

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 anti-Black racism from white people and non-Black people of color and learned of disproportionate murders and systemic violence 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 80 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 disproportionately affecting Black &/or 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, crowdfunding to directly invest in my communities, 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 visibly 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, who benefits from my efforts and in what ways do I opt out or contribute to this work? In what ways have I been insensitive or unaware of the labor of my peers, declined to educate myself, centered whiteness in my advocacy or efforts, or failed to 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/or Indigenous people), go above and beyond when it comes to directly investing in the community and educating others about racial 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 presenting peers focus exclusively on their science or leisurely learn about feel good topics like “inclusion,” which do not disrupt structurally oppressive systems. 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 scholars, who have already disproportionately been affected by decades and centuries of legalized racism.

The privilege of being able to “just focus on science” is not always an option for so many of us, especially Black, Indigenous and/or nonwhite Latinx 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, questioned existing in our own lab spaces, seen our families struggle, etc. Some of us cannot abandon our lived experiences with poverty, violence, or societal injustice and focus exclusively on ourselves.

Important: Here, I need to pause and mention three things: 1) even if Black and underrepresented brown students are able to just focus only on science, cognitive reserve might still be hampered by chronic microaggressions and alienation in predominantly white and East Asian academic spaces; 2) many Black and visibly 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; 3) Black and visibly brown people are not a monolith, not all have experienced poverty or violence, but historical context and current day outcomes point to this disproportionately being some of our realities, specifically for Black, Indigenous and/or Latinx communities.

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, think action is joining an all white book club or white affinity space, etc. These things and more I am actively aware of, but my white and white presenting peers don’t even recognize or consciously process this. That unintentional ignorance is stressful to be surrounded by daily.

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

Advocating for university policy changes, directly supporting Black scholars, education and anti-racism work does not and should not solely be carried out by underrepresented students of color (though, for the tempo of these movements, I recognize the importance for melanated, Queer, Trans, Nonbinary, Neurodivergent and Disabled leadership.) Cis white and white presenting 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 or hear these voices? Why is there such a high tolerance for inaction?

My best guess is that many of my cis white and white presenting 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/or Indigenous 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, centering whiteness 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 efforts for racial justice.

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.

  • EDIT: It is also important to acknowledge how race intersects with every other identity; Disabled, Queer and/or Trans Black and/or Indigenous scholars are the most vulnerable, further highlighting that if we focused on our most marginalized, everyone would benefit. Black Disabled students are 1.5x more likely to drop out of school than white Disabled students, face more disciplinary action, have the least access to healthcare (and treated more poorly by healthcare workers), have been left out of Disability efforts, and do not have the same intergenerational wealth of their white Disabled peers. Black scholars with intersecting identities are often pushed to the side while LGBTQIA2S+, Disabled and other communities center the whitest and lightest voices in their activism.

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 (though it is important to note that Hispanic is not a race; one can be white and Hispanic, benefiting from white privilege both in the US, US territories, Latin America and beyond.) 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 visibly 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 visibly 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 underrepresented 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. “Sister Outside” by Audre Lorde
  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. “My Life, My Love, My Legacy” by Coretta Scott King
  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, Maggie Yeung and Briana Wellen for their editing and feedback.

The Importance of Grant Writing in Graduate School

Image description: a cartoon illustration of a Black man sitting at a desk while reading a book. In his environment are shelves with books, a plant atop the shelves, a globe atop the shelves and a clock on the wall.

As early career graduate students, we are often dissuaded from focusing too much of our time on anything other than courses, milestones and research. While these are undeniably important and essential for our academic progress, there are other skills students may also want to prioritize. Students should keep in mind what their own specific career goals and passions are and what other types of engagements will help with these personal, short- and long-term goals.

For example, my ideal career path when starting graduate school was to become a professor and PI at a research institution. I am also a founder of a nonprofit organization called MUSE. Knowing how important writing is for both nonprofit work and academia, I knew these were skills I needed to master and that I should start building these skills early in graduate school. As someone who has been employed since I was 14 years old and worked throughout high school and college, I am also acutely aware of how money provides more time and thus energy to invest in the things most important to you.

Image description: a cartoon drawing of a brown skinned person with a red backpack and white shirt has an idea, illustrated with a cartoon lightbulb drawing to the right of their head.

In my first year of my PhD program, I applied for 11 different funding opportunities ranging from small conference travel grants to national fellowships. In year 2, that number has surpassed 20 different grants, fellowships and opportunities with most of them being rejected. As a past rock-climbing athlete who used to spend weeks, months and years trying even just one rock-climb at my physical and mental limit, I know that failure is uncomfortable, but essential for growth. Every failure offers a teachable moment if we focus less on the outcome and more on the process of refining our skills and seeking a sense of mastery.

Often, if we do not receive a grant we label the entire effort a failure. Below, I’d like to reframe this thought process and highlight (1) a few reasons why grant writing is an important part of graduate school, (2) advice for how to deal with frequent rejection. I also compile a list of resources at the end which may be helpful for students, particularly severely underrepresented students, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and other programs as well.

Why focus on grant writing throughout graduate school?

Writing and storytelling are skills that need time and effort to build and improve upon. For those interested in careers in academia, science policy and outreach, writing often makes up a disproportionate amount of the work we aspire to. As early career graduate students, writing and storytelling are also heavily a part of our own jobs as we write our dissertations, research grants, manuscripts and also give countless presentations. While writing that first manuscript or grant may be an agonizing process, with practice it may result in future efforts taking a fraction of the time. Frequently writing about your work may also lead to more confidence in your ability to tell a story about your work, communicate its importance and explain why your work is deserving of funding.

Image description: a Black woman with glasses writes in an agenda or notebook while sitting in front of their computer.

Reading and compiling literature early in your graduate career is essential! When you have a grant writing deadline or goal, it encourages you to stay current on the literature and do a deep dive of your field. In order to appropriately frame your research question, you need to understand where the field has been and what are the current, gaping holes in the field that you want to address.

Networking can be a really valuable part of applying for grants and fellowships. For example, you may be able to find professors at your university who served as grant reviewers and can offer invaluable feedback. You may have an idea that necessitates collaboration with multiple labs, or form a peer-review group who can offer feedback on drafts. While applying, I also took advantage of UMass Amherst’s Office for Professional Development (OPD) where previous fellowship winners would talk to students looking to apply. I was able to network across fields and find amazing individuals who were knowledgeable and offered to help review statements (Note: Twitter is a great place to ask for help too!)

Scientific outreach and being able to share your science with an audience who may know nothing about your subject is such an important skill. For fellowships, often your reviewers will be random and outside of your field. You will be required to write in a way that is both accessible to someone with no prior knowledge of your research and communicates the importance of the work. For other fellowships and grants, you may have someone very knowledgeable about your research topic. It is wonderful when you have the flexibility to speak about your research in a way that is accessible to everyone as well as experts in the field. Every application asks something different of you and gives you new challenges of how to discuss your work in a limited amount of space. This exercise will serve you well.

Feedback from reviewers may be tough, brutal and often unfair. When the reviews are valid, there is value to having someone more senior pick apart your research and freely offer advice that would help you better frame your ideas in the future. Maybe folks are critical of your study design, limitations, didn’t quite understand the way you framed the problem, and/or saw gaps in your proposal that even your colleagues didn’t see. This feedback, gleaned over time, is truly invaluable.

How to reframe and sustain your efforts despite frequent rejections?

Define success by your own metrics. These skills are not lost even if we face frequent rejection. In a world that loves to see everything in a binary way (e.g. success or failure) sometimes we may have to identify our own metrics of what it means to be successful. What do you value? What skills are important to you? How can you celebrate and validate yourself outside of the way academia traditionally celebrates and validates individuals?

Caption and image description: A photo of the author on a climbing project, or rock-climb at her physical and mental limit. A brown skin woman with muscles and an afro is struggling to reach a hold to the right and climbing on granite overhanging face in the pacific northwest.

Set smaller, attainable goals to improve confidence. As an athlete, if I didn’t find success on a project (again, a long-term climb at my physical limit that I would try for months) I would try to take away something I learned from each session. Additionally, I would try to have smaller projects that were more attainable to improve my confidence (e.g. pick a climb you are certain you’d have more success with and work that into your schedule as well). For grant writing, this might look like applying to travel awards, internal awards and smaller fellowships that may have a higher acceptance rate than national organizations in which tens of thousands of people apply from all over the country. Additionally, accumulating smaller grants and fellowships helps considerably when applying for those larger pockets of money.

Identify your application weaknesses. Where in your application are you strongest? Where are you lacking? Look very closely at the application details and criteria, and ensure that you are doing everything you can to be a well rounded applicant. *IMPORTANT NOTE: please do not do outreach or DEI work if you are only doing it for your applications. Marginalized students, especially hyper-marginalized students deserve so much more than to be a bullet point on your CV. Do not engage in DEI work if you are not doing it first and foremost for the affected communities.

Separate your identity from your rejections. You should be proud of the efforts you put into any venture or application and, with time, you will have a great application that ranks well. However the greatest lesson we can learn early on is to separate our identity from our rejections. Do not internalize a rejection, especially when SO many factors go into a rejection that are beyond our control. For example:

  • You may have different reviewers than your peers.
  • Your application could be at the very bottom of a stack when reviewers are more tired or already have their favorite applicants in mind.
  • You could be part of a racially marginalized group (Black and/or Indigenous people) who are the most underrepresented and less likely to get funding compared to their white peers.
  • The research topics they are most interested in funding may not be your research topic even if you yourself are a fantastic candidate and have a great idea.
  • Your letter writers did not thoroughly read the criteria and wrote a subpar letter of recommendation.
  • Ivy league schools disproportionately receive funding and awards…..a massive issue that needs reform.
  • Your application may be ranked less because of an old GPA (happened to me!)
Image description: Four Black and brown cartoon characters placed at four different locations of the drawing (top, bottom, left, right). The leftmost character is a darker skin woman pointing to a whiteboard and appears to be instructing. The bottom character is a brown skin girl looking at the whiteboard. The character on the right is a darker skin woman with headphones on and typing on a laptop. The topmost character is a brown man typing on a laptop. Assumed to be in community learning with one another.

The list goes on. The take home remains: you are so much more than your academic successes or failures. You are a multifaceted human being with goals, dreams and hopes beyond validation from the ivory tower.

Talk with your team. If you received a rejection, talk with your team (PI, collaborators, etc) and consider finding different funding opportunities. Have a conversation with them about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. Maybe you need to slightly tweak the grant and apply to a different opportunity that is more targeted to your research.

Advocate for yourself when it comes to letters of recommendation. If a subpar LOR is a fear you have for the next application; take the guesswork out for your letter writers. It is common to send your letter writers emails saying exactly what they need to say, what points they need to emphasize, and provide them with a recent CV. Tell them what their deadlines are and any formatting rules that letter writers need to follow. Although it is more work on the students, our advisors are incredibly busy and this just helps make it as easy as possible for them to write us a great letter without having to dig for the answers.

Resources for UMass Amherst Students

1. Center for Research on Families (CRF) (<- link)

The CRF is dedicated to family research, but many might be surprised what qualifies as family research! If you can make an argument that your research could help families in any capacity, you should absolutely apply for their awards and programs. For example – my research focuses on age-related cognitive decline and effects of estrogens on synaptic homeostasis. While on the surface, that does not seem tied to family research, I argued that Alzheimer’s disease affects families, caretakers (who are disproportionately women) and the disease also disproportionately impacts women and other communities. Whether you research molecular and cellular science, policy, marginalized communities, psychology, mathematics, engineering, etc I am sure you can find a way to relate it to family research.

The CRF offers dissertation awards, travel awards and a program that was invaluable for me: the Graduate Student Grant Writing Program with Dr. Bekki Spencer. Bekki is an incredible mentor who has been extremely successful when it comes to applying for grants as well as mentoring students. They are especially looking for folks who are underrepresented. While many of the applicants may be white or white-presenting, the CRF stresses that they want more racially underrepresented folks to apply!

2. Office of Professional Development (OPD) (<- link)

OPD is an INCREDIBLE resource for every graduate student. They offer a wide range of events that focus on grant writing, inclusive teaching, TAing for the first time, finding careers post-graduation, public speaking, writing accountability groups and so much more. When I was applying for my grants, I heavily relied on OPD grant writing workshops, panels with successful awardees and peer-review workshop. You can also schedule a one-on-one consultation with Dr. Heidi Bauer-Clapp and get personalized feedback on your fellowship or grant applications!

3. Blackademics / Black in CNS

*Website coming soon* but for Black graduate students at UMass Amherst, this is a great way to find community as well as work on grants together, ask for example statements, etc. We have NSF GRFP winners, Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral & Doctoral awardees, HHMI Gilliam scholars, CRF scholars, and more who are a part of our community and eager to help with your applications. Email me or comment below with your email address to learn more.

4. International Student Community Conversations

There is a need for community among international students and support when it comes to discussing your research (especially if in your second, third, etc language) and how to apply for funding. I would highly suggest joining the Community Conversations with International Students (click here) as well as contacting the International Student Coordinator in Graduate Student Senate, Sohini Banerjee. Please do not be afraid to voice programming or events you need to be successful in graduate school. These folks are here for you! Also keep in mind that while many fellowships are not open to international students, internal awards and those offered by societies (e.g. Society for Neuroscience) often are!

Resources for ALL students!

1. Fellowship Finder (<- link)- a searchable database for finding grants and fellowships.

2. Open Grants (<- link) – a repository of successful and unsuccessful grant & fellowship applications. Some common ones are the NSF GRFP, Ford Foundation, etc.

3. Shadow CVs! What’s a shadow CV, I hear no one ask? Shadow CVs are basically a CV for all of the things folks *didn’t* successfully do. Often our CVs paint this unrealistic picture that we are constantly succeeding and doing well when, in reality, we succeed like 20% of the time. Here are some examples of Shadow CVs:

4. MUSE Mentorship (<- link) – an organization I started to provide representation and mentorship to severely underrepresented individuals in STEM fields. We are working on offering mentorship in person as well as virtually for the Fall 2021 semester. Stay tuned to learn more and follow us online http://www.musementorship.org and on social media @ MUSEmentorship

5. Cientifico Latino (<- link) – an organization that has countless incredible resources on their website as well as cohort mentorship for students applying to graduate school. Additionally, they offer amazing webinars for various funding opportunities to demystify the process. Support them on social media and follow their work!

6. BlackinNeuro (<- link) – an organization that has truly offered so much to the neuroscience community. They have many resources on their website for funding opportunities at any career stage. Please check them out and support the invaluable work they are doing.


(For example: how to work grant writing into your normal schedule and make it a goal to apply for one or several opportunities each semester, how to make a 5 year roadmap or funding plan for your graduate career, etc.)

5 Ways to Take Action for Racial Justice

“Racial justice is the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. Racial justice — or racial equity — goes beyond “anti-racism.” It is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures.” [AECF]

There are a plethora of good intentions when it comes to racial justice. However, good intentions are inadequate without consistent action that challenges our biases and directly benefits our most marginalized communities. Often, as a biracial Black woman with invisible intersecting identities, folks lament to me online that they would become more active if only they knew how they could help. I’ll be perfectly honest: this frustrates me to no end even if I can see the genuine desire to help. I see this as a complex circumstance that derives from algorithms–making our online presence as racially segregated as our immediate environments and relationships often are–coupled with ignorance, unintentional bias, and white or white-passing defensiveness when people of color (especially Black and Indigenous people) share truths that most would prefer not to be confronted with. Additionally, it is worth noting that no one is asking for help in the form of charity; we are asking for your collaboration and co-conspiration as if this struggle and pain was yours, too.

Another comment I often get is this: “instead of criticizing or judging us, tell us what to do!” If you feel judged by what I say, that deserves reflection as to why you have such a strong, negative response to my words. Often, some truths that are pointed out to folks are so painful to confront that it causes people to protect themselves in the form of avoidance, demonization of the person delivering the message and, in some cases, overt aggression. If the words of Black people feel condemning, evaluate whether we are actually condemning you or if your own actions are the source of that condemnation. If the shoe fits, don’t demonize the person who told you when your own actions made the shoe fit.

Additionally, I grow frustrated that so many Black and Indigenous people feel responsible for the education and action of our peers and strangers on the internet. For example, I am a Neuroscience PhD student who would love to focus solely on my work, but that has never been a luxury afforded to me in higher education. Lacking urgency, action and a focused approach for our most marginalized communities is a privilege many cannot afford to take. Because our survival is tied to one another, as Audre Lorde stated, it is critical for us to collectively take on this work. We cannot afford to have our most marginalized constantly carrying the weight of racial justice alone. In the words of Angela Davis, “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.” These oppressive systems impact all of us and our unique, intersecting identities, even if the impact is often most severe for Black and Indigenous people and their intersecting identities. It is extremely important for all of us to come together, support one another, do our part and share in the fight for racial liberation as if it were our own.

Here are some resources I hope will help those who have genuine desires to help, which include challenging your assumptions that you are free from bias solely because you have good intentions or a Black coworker you are cordial with. For this post, I focus on Black and Indigenous people in the United States, due to the unique and longstanding histories in the US (and beyond) with racism and disproportionate current day outcomes. Race also intersects with every other marginalized community, creating for the most severe outcomes for Black, nonwhite Latinx and Indigenous people in other communities (e.g. LGBTQIA2S+, Disabled, etc which routinely fail to talk about the intersection of race.)


One tangible way of showing up for affected communities is to donate to groups, organizations and families. Here is a list of groups you can donate to.

You can also donate to GoFundMes to support Black families who have lost innocent loved ones due to police violence and murder. Here is an incomplete list of GoFundMe’s to support families, legal costs, etc for Black people murdered by police in 2020.

You can also educate yourself about race and police brutality by looking at data from MappingViolence.Org & the Washington Post Police Violence Database. Additionally, please look to the Human Rights Campaign for statistics and names of Black Trans women who were murdered in 2020. Black Trans women account for over 90% of Trans fatal violence in 2020 and this trend has been consistent for years, another reason why intersectionality and a focus on our most marginalized is important for communities in which Black people are disproportionately targeted (e.g. LGBTQIA2S+ community).


Last week, the Black community mourned the loss of Brandon Bernard, who was peripherally involved in a crime at the age of 18 and was sentenced to death at the age of 40. Black people are 4x more likely to receive the death penalty compared to white peers and account for over 1/3 of death penalties while only making up 13% of the US population. Additionally, while Black people account for nearly 50% of murder victims in the US, the death penalty is overwhelmingly served to Black people when the victims are white.

  • You can sign petitions on websites like Change.org and follow petitions pertaining to racial justice. For example, please sign this petition for Julius Jones, a 19 year old wrongly accused of a crime and currently faces the death penalty in Oklahoma.
  • You can also call or email our representatives, even if they are not in your state, and voice your concerns. This is a great article by Andrea González-Ramírez on how to contact your representatives, which demystifies the process if you do not know who your representatives are. It takes less than a few minutes to do all of these things.


I have witnessed for years as my Black and Indigenous peers in the outdoor industry and academia have consistently taken the most risks with advocacy and action for racial justice. Being outspoken is not easier for Black and Indigenous people. Many of us are shy, uncomfortable being outspoken and would prefer to be silent to avoid attention. Again, it is such a privilege to remain quiet in the face of ongoing injustice. The constant action and outspokenness of Black and Indigenous people comes at a cost to our health and lifespan; this should not always be carried out by those who are most impacted in our communities.

  • Amplify the words of Black and Indigenous people in your communities (e.g. STEM, outdoors, etc) offline and online. Evaluate who you are most comfortable listening to and learning from; if Black voices make you uncomfortable, reflect and ask why. Follow and value Black and Indigenous perspectives on matters outside of racial justice (value Black and Indigenous people as people who don’t have to teach you solely about race and settler colonialism), support people who center Black and Indigenous joy, Black and Indigenous artists, Black and Indigenous scientists and athletes, etc.
    • YOU DO NOT need a large online following to amplify Black and Indigenous voices, and if you have a large following please recognize how much power you have to raise awareness, raise donations and be vocal in your community. Do not be more afraid of losing followers than doing what is right for our collective community.
  • Hold your universities, diversity committees, workplaces, and partnering organizations accountable.
    • In the Outdoor industry, you might ask brands if they hire Black and Indigenous influencers or athletes, ask to see better representation in events and social media posts, ask brands to show outward support for Black and Indigenous communities and organizations, and donate to organizations like Climbing For Change, Vertical Generation, Melanin BaseCamp, Outdoor Afro, Indigenous Women Hike and so many others. If you are an athlete or partner with brands, ask what diversity, equity and inclusion efforts they are financially backing and implementing; what is the long-term plan and how are they holding themselves accountable? How are they making the sport more accessible? How many Black people serve on their board or have positions of power within the company? Is there transparency in the pay structure for Black and Indigenous athletes and employees?
    • In academia, you might ask what measurable action diversity committees have made which center and directly help Black and Indigenous people and their intersecting identities. You could ask that programs track specific underrepresented domestic groups, namely Black (African American, African, Carribean, etc), Indigenous, nonwhite Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander instead of lumping everyone under the umbrella of “URM” (the same could be said for international students, who are overwhelmingly white [white Latinx, white/light-skin Asian, white European] and ask about diversifying international recruitment efforts).
    • You might also support orgs like Black in Neuro, Cientifico Latino and MUSE mentorship. If you are an administrator, how are programs prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion without overburdening Black and Indigenous faculty and students? Who do you see largely leading and guiding these efforts? You can advocate for paid expertise to assist in antiracism and racial justice efforts instead of letting this burden constantly befall Black and Indigenous peers.
      • If you are a teacher, you can be mindful of the burden Black and Indigenous students face, offer support and flexibility, educate yourself on discussing race in the classroom (or how not to discuss race) and incorporate inclusive teaching practices. Students are all severely affected by the pandemic, and many are further affected by the ongoing trauma to the Black community.


Every single one of us grew up & currently live in a racially unjust society. This affects every aspect of our lives, from where we live and grow up, whether or not our families own a home, who we befriend, how much money we make, what fields or hobbies we had access to and/or are supported in pursuing, how we access information, how much representation is available in a given career or hobby, access to basic accommodations and resources, daily feelings of safety, etc. It is up to every single one of us, especially those who are white/white-passing, and non-Black/Indigenous, to self-educate on the historic and current day struggles of Black and Indigenous people. It is also critical to look in the mirror and ask how your unintentional bias is at play. We cannot cram this in a month, year or several years. It will take a lifetime of patiently learning and unlearning that we can work into our daily routines.

There are several antiracism reading lists available online, which center Black and/or Indigenous people and Queer and/or Disabled Black and Indigenous people. There are books appropriate for any age, from adults to children. If Black and Indigenous children are young enough to experience racism (especially racism coupled with homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc), your children are old enough to read about it. (Bonus: buy from a Black or Indigenous owned bookstore.)


Laura Edmondson has an entire gift guide on her Instagram highlights for Black and Indigenous artists and organizations you can buy from over the holidays and all year round! You can also visit websites like We Buy Black to search for items you can buy from Black owned businesses. Indigenous artists’ work is also highlighted on Laura’s page, though Indigenous work is often appropriated (e.g. beadwork) and sold by non-Indigenous people. Please make sure you are buying from an Indigenous person if someone is claiming to sell Indigenous (or “Indigenous-inspired” artwork).

Many of my friends and I work all of these things into our weeks/days, knowing that we will constantly learn how to do better with more education and action. It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is possible to work, enjoy hobbies, do self care and prioritize racial justice efforts in your life. As a PhD student who works two side jobs, started a nonprofit with friends, mentors seven students, has a partner, owns a pet and has hobbies (and just wrote this blog post for you all) I hope that being busy can stop being used as an excuse.

Tips of what NOT to do:


  • Center yourself in discussions about race if you are white or white-passing (e.g. “I grew up poor!” “I have faced discrimination too!” “But I’ve faced hardship too!”) This is not relevant when we are having discussions about hardships which are directly related to a person’s skin color and/or the unique histories for Black and Indigenous people in the US.
  • Randomly ask Black and Indigenous people for free education or to “pick our brains” about diversity. You are likely one of dozens of people doing this, while we are disproportionately doing DEI work, working 2x as hard as our non-Black or Indigenous peers, and navigating daily racial trauma. Please pay us for our time or do not ask.
  • Cherry pick the Black and Indigenous people by only supporting those who make you comfortable in your immediate environments or online. Ask yourself who you are most comfortable learning from, listening to, and most often seek relationships with and why?
  • Take on a “white savior” mindset. Please google this and read more to avoid feeling like a savior in racial justice efforts. An example of this would be white women and men traveling to other countries to help Black and Brown kids with their disproportionate wealth, yet they routinely ignore, demonize and do not listen to Black and Brown people in their own country of origin, let alone have close relationships with Black and Brown adults without a savior-type relationship being at play.
  • Be afraid of making a mistake. You will. I will. We all do. How you respond and move forward is the most important thing. Do not make a mistake, ignore or lash out at Black or Indigenous people who call you in or out, and fail to really reflect or change. Changed behaviors are the best apology. The worst thing that will happen if you make a mistake if that someone will tell you. The fear of making a mistake or the anger of being told you made one should not be stronger than the desire to be outspoken or do the right thing.
  • Don’t message Black and Indigenous people talking about how much of an ally you are in a private direct message. (aka “the behind closed doors ally” instead of risking your social capital to speak up.)
  • Do not tone police Black and Indigenous people; racism is emotional for people who have a lifetime of experiences navigating it. Don’t center your discomfort and allow Black and Indigenous people to express themselves. Many of us already change our tone and behavior around white/white passing people; authenticity needs to be prioritized in these spaces.
  • Do not ask Black and Indigenous people if “all Black and Indigenous people” agree with everything we say or do. We are not a monolith and we are not representative of every single Black or Indigenous person. You would never hear something a white person says and ask “do all white people believe that too?”
  • Do not try to befriend us because of our race alone. Relationships must be mutually beneficial and both parties must be genuinely, mutually desiring the other’s friendship. Please do not try to force relationships thinking that one or two Black acquaintances makes any person anti-racist.

Reader recommendations:

  1. One Anti-racism Action / Day (Subscribe)
  2. Social Justice Toolbox
  3. Thread on Hiring DEI experts (instead of forming endless DEI committees)
  4. Random House antiracist reading list

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.