Inaugural #BlackWomenCompBio Meet & Greet: What We Learned
The Network hosted the Inaugural Meet and Greet on Sunday, June 28th, 2020 where new members tuned in from at least 5 countries to orient and organize themselves around the new community. These attendees included mostly trainees, though several faculty and staff scientists were present, which allowed for excellent stories to be shared. Amongst "getting to know you" activities, the members engaged in a much-appreciated discussion about their individual experiences being a Black womxn in computational biology.
Firstly, what brings us all here is our excitement for our science. Several people shared they enjoy the interdisciplinary and flexible nature of computational biology, while others echoed they are interested in being able to combine coding with data analysis to work to solve complex biological questions. Not all members had wet lab experience, therefore, they found computational biology to be a welcoming field overall with “room to grow as a scientist while you try new things”. Many agreed that the field has a tremendous opportunity to be diversified.
On that note, members were asked about the current demographics of their immediate and extended scientific networks. All individuals reported around 1-2 other Black people in their department/lab; all reports were the single digits; a significant number of people reported being of the very few (if not the only) Black womxn computational biologists in their current working environments. No one knew more than 2 Black womxn in computational biology before joining The Network, and the remaining small group discussion time was spent reflecting on the experience navigating their environments with this identity.
When asked if they felt supported as a Black woman in this field, one member responded, "not in the past when I worked in health tech environments. It has only been recently that I began to feel support. I now work in the university and I feel immense support." Another added "[I feel supported] now more than ever. I am noticing allies that want to understand without putting me in the spotlight." These responses are very telling about the current climate of conversations on minority experiences in STEM and speak powerfully to what it actually means to be an ally. On one hand, they both depict an amplification in support as a Black womxn, while on the other hand, one reveals a glaring truth of the double-sided effects of feeling "targeted" in some way as a Black womxn in their working environments. So, what is it like being a Black womxn in this field? One member told one of the most important stories of the virtual session:
"Not fun (but I did not train as a comp bio person- [I] have had to make a path for myself), a constant battle against experimental biomedical scientists and convincing others that collaborative work has value and it is an equal partnership. But former collaborations have been fruitful (Note: all my current productive, joyful collaborations are with POC women or non-binary people). But [I] have just landed a new position for which I was specifically targeted for my comp bio vision by someone who 'gets it'. Yay! But I’ll still be the only black woman."
Some expressed that it is already difficult convincing experimental scientists that computational biology is useful (and not just a service) and has the same amount of rigor and seriousness as any other field. With the added pressure of navigating academic environments and collaborations both on an interdisciplinary and multicultural front, this story depicts the multiple layers of personal experience which many members added they were all too familiar with. "Not well supported, often listened [to] in terms of me asking [administration] for pro-Black/Brown efforts but never implemented. [The administration] was always 'too busy'," shares a graduate student. "[I] worked in environments that were mostly male and mostly white which turned out to be hostile environments for me in the end," shared a recent doctoral graduate. This could speak to why this Network serves individuals of a specific intersection. This member further contributed to the idea that womxn want to be in environments where they feel supported and welcome and not constantly defensive. They want to feel as though they are thriving and not that they have a target on their back all the time.
Other members shared experiences reflecting barriers within academia which can hinder growth in the field as Black scientists across the diaspora. A common experience was being denied a professional opportunity because educational qualifications were not earned in that particular ("westernized") country. Another topic of discussion stemmed from the unique experiences of the African constituents in the meeting who, presumably, study and work in predominantly Black environments throughout the continent of Africa. They come from nearly entirely Black training programs in computational biology, but still do not earn greater visibility within the global STEM community. How might geographic locations of earned qualifications hinder or propel certain scientists from the opportunities they deserve or from fully participating in the global computational biology community?
Members expressed various sentiments of excitement for joining The Network. Many wanted to be a part of a network dedicated to collaboration and conversation, which they felt was especially necessary for the field of computational biology. Others shared they felt "rejuvenated" by this group and had faith in the power of coming together through an advocacy perspective to push for change for “the greater good”. Some were excited about the resources being accumulated and noted the various documents, databases, and other pathways to success that would find their home on the online platform. One member shared that if they decided to take on more mentees they would already have an established base of scientists to refer them to. Finally, every member echoed the excitement of being part of a community made by and for people that look like them from so many diverse backgrounds.
Most of all, members are grateful and excited that a network like this exists. Despite the geographic distance, many members were able to find solace in so many of the commonalities in experiences that were shared during this time (virtually) together as if we were right in each other's homes. This is just the beginning of the type of community we will be working towards building--meaningful and lasting connections with people across the globe who understand and celebrate you for you.