With Science March mere hours away I feel a reminder of the human bits involved in science is necessary.
Imagine being a Bengali girl of 14 when you fall in love with genetics.
All the scientists you can name are white men with the exception of Rosalind Franklin. And you only know of her not because of the science text books, but by a passage for your English O levels.
You then stumble on to Dr. Abed Chaudhury. He is from your country, but even more importantly he is a geneticist. He is a geneticist from your country. You wonder which combination of those words pushes you ahead.
And that is what your mom tells you to aspire to be. A scientist. You still have that newspaper clipping somewhere in your parent’s house.
It’s two years later that you find out about Jagadish Chandra Bose. And there’s that thread of excitement and the voice telling you, that maybe you too, can do this.
There’s a palpable change in confidence when you find out about these people (and much more). Despite being separated by arbitrary geographical borders and the flow of time, you share a common history, a passion and for a while, that’s enough to inspire you.
You are 18 when you move to another country.
You are 19 when you find out about Barbara McClintock and you are still in love with genetics.
You hesitate because you have to keep reading between the lines. No one is telling you outright that you do not belong. But, it’s there. Sandwiched in between the second glances and the fleeting surprise on their faces. It’s there when you are told to curb your ambitions by self-identifying well-meaning people in your life. It’s there when exchange students moan about the English pronunciation of the lecturers and critique their decades of work based on just that. It’s there when your fellow students call the professor who is open about her high expectations “butch” and “trying to be manly”. Your next four years are peppered by small incidences like these. But you also meet the professor, who surprisingly from your home country, takes the time to encourage you. You find a generous supervisor who approaches you with respect, honesty and treats from Japan (they are delicious).
You graduate top of your class.
Mildly confused and mostly terrified of ‘real’ life, you decide to apply to Ph.D. programs around the world. You can’t apply to most projects in the EU you find interesting. It’s disappointing, but you move past it. You briefly think of going to the States and then realize you have to sit for GRE that are held in a different city in your country once a year and cost an exorbitant amount. You can still afford it thanks to the privilege of being born in an upper middle-class family with parents who value higher education. But the thought of sitting for an exam despite proving yourself in the last degree doesn’t sit well with you. Then there’s the whole political thing to worry about. Xenophobia is on the rise and your Arabic name coupled with brown skin tone will keep your parents up at night. It doesn’t matter to anyone else that you have been out of the atheist closet for the last two years. You consider changing your name for a second. Your name means praise the daughter of noble blood.
You hear back from a couple of universities around the world. Then you remember you have been sharing your mind with squatters like clinical depression, anxiety disorder and a mild case of seasonal affective disorder. Sweden gets scratched out, it hurts a bit to joke that you are a summer’s child.
You go through a relatively painless visa process. It doesn’t hurt that you already have two foreign degrees to your name.
You start the Ph.D. journey at a snail pace with a remarkably understanding supervisor. You don’t know why you struggled in the beginning.
You still get told by people how “good your English is” as though you haven’t been speaking in this tongue since you were 9 years old. But only after they have played the “guess where she is from” game. They rarely get it right. It’s still funny to see the stereotypes dance in their eyes. It’s funny how the same people who understand the complexities of learning a different coding language expect to fully grasp the finer enunciation of names rooted in Sanskrit, despite not having the ear to tell the difference.
It stops being funny when you have to soothe their bruised ego in this game of twisting tongues. It stops being funny when you get asked to say hello in Punjabi when someone finds out you can speak in Hindi. It stops being funny when someone waves their hand after you correct them that you are not from India. It stops being funny when a man tries and fails to explain your field back to you. It stops being funny when all the opportunities advertised remind you that by virtue of your birthplace you are not eligible, even if you meet their merit requirements. It stops being funny when a man automatically assumes you will not understand his project on global warming. It stops being funny when you remember how perilously close to sinking your country is, due to the threat of climate change and global warming.
It’s 2017 and you are told Science has to be above “identity politics/labels” to be considered worth fighting for. You remember the Jenga of things that have lead you to this place. And you wonder, if you slice away enough of who you are, does that mean you have finally made it as a ‘scientist’?