papers, please

Yesterday we held an event for new faculty in the Mellon College of Science. Here is roughly what I said:

In the spirit of Nikki Giovanni, the poet who spoke here on campus Monday, I want to share a story about one of my experiences as a young scientist. I’ve hardly ever told this before.

When I was an undergrad at Cornell, I loved being a scientist: my senior advisor taking us to Souvlaki House for pizza every Saturday, working in the lab, exploring the library stacks, just wandering the corridors and seeing what everyone was doing.

When I moved to Berkeley for graduate school in chemistry, my experience was quite different. Everything felt tight, starting with the rush to pick a research group and advisor in the first six weeks.

One afternoon I wandered the top floor of Latimer, peeking through windows, reading research posters. Someone, a junior professor at the time, rushed down the hall and confronted me: What are you doing? I want to see what kind of research is happening on this floor, I replied. Are you a student? Yes, I’m a new grad student. All right then, who is your research advisor? Birgit Whaley, I told him. There have been a lot of thefts around here: show me your ID. At this point I was nervous, trembling as I fumbled in my pocket, and finally produced the document. He gave it a very hard look, tossed it back at me, spun around on his heels, and left me alone, speechless. The message was quite clear: someone who looks like you doesn’t belong here.

I’m not telling this story merely to say that the Berkeley Chemistry Department was always a bad place for me in the mid 1980s and early 1990s – although it often was.

I’m telling this story because we professors, here at Carnegie Mellon in the year 2018, have to remember that we have an enormous impact on our students, our advisees, among ourselves and within the entire scientific community. We need to remind ourselves how much our words and actions affect others.

None of us is innocent. We have, all of us, committed wrong as well as been wronged throughout our lives in different ways, sometimes thoughtlessly: we all have implicit biases, somtimes most strongly and strangely against members of our own gender or ethnicity.

As the Assistant Dean for Diversity, I believe the best solution is to throw open the windows, be willing to be vulnerable and share a bit more about each other, to listen and to learn from others.

And then I described some of the resources and opportunities available to them in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

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