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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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The Grad Activist: Becoming a Scientist-Activist

Strategies for getting involved as a grad student.

January 23, 2020
 
 

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

When I applied for PhD programs in 2015, I had one career goal: to use my platform as an engineer to promote science literacy through outreach and education. I made this goal after four years of pursuing an undergraduate degree in engineering and writing for the science section of my undergraduate institution’s newspaper. In that time, I interviewed dozens of researchers about their work and the politics surrounding it, learning about the behind-the-scenes work that brings research out of the lab. I covered things like barriers to clinical trials for drug and funding cuts from the federal government. 

Through writing, I discovered a platform to share a love for science by sharing research work with my alma mater’s community. I often focused on the stories behind the science, highlighting the patience and struggle it took a PI or group of grad students to publish a recent finding. This approach offered a perspective on STEM that I didn’t have from my classes, which traditionally focused on lectures and problem sets. So often when I talked to my engineering friends I heard things like, “Who cares about that? Who cares about journalism? This is why we’re scientists—to stay out of anything but the science.” I’ve always believed, though, that science is at the service of society—without that perspective, our work would go ignored, or be misguided. 

In 2016, like many people, I felt the need for change—I didn’t think that writing was the way I wanted to use my voice. It didn’t have the urgency I felt after the election to do something. When the March for Science was announced for April 2017, I knew I had to go and be in the street and call for a better future for scientists and science. My original career goal started to feel small: it wasn’t just about science education, it was about taking that education to create a better future.

I was hesitant to embrace advocacy at first, but despite a common fear, advocating for political positions has not damaged scientists’ credibility. The scientific community is changing; just the other day the editor-in-chief of the medical journal Lancet said, “‘scientific journals in the 21st century, if they are to survive – if you want them to survive – must be more than simply journals…[the journal’s mission is now to] gather the very best scientific evidence, [and] to then think strategically about how that evidence fits within the overall trajectory of scientific and political policy in the world.’” Nature Energy has started publishing monthly policy briefs based on submissions to their journal. And of course, given the urgency of the climate crisis, more and more scientists are embracing activism

And activism  doesn’t just have to involve going to marches or civil disobedience. Not everyone has the privilege to engage in activism in this way, and, as I’ve been learning, there are ways to engage in activism as an academic from within my workplace. Here are some ways to get involved:

Join or partner a local or campus chapter of an organization. Many organizations like 500 Women Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists have local chapters with ongoing projects to join. If you’re part of a local organization, partnering with these groups on events or initiatives is a great way to build your science advocacy network. Starting a campus chapter is also a way to receive steady funds for your advocacy work and build a community of other students, staff, and faculty.

Reach out to your local chapters to see what they need. Often, as a student, I’ve found myself with access to resources that advocacy groups need and that I’ve often taken for granted, like regular meeting spaces/event venues and infrastructure for data management and conference calls. If your department can offer these things to local organizations, it’s an easy and simple way to help out!

Lots of organizations also ask for help with outreach. When I’ve been able to, I’ve spent my lunch break or time between experiments sending e-mails and flyering for local events, or casually sharing them with my lab group. You never know who might be interested!

Write an op-ed or letter to the editor in your local or campus newspaper. As scientists, we’re writers! And often in our peer-reviewed articles, we begin by introducing our work in the context of its broader impacts and contribution to society. When our work intersects with what’s happening in our communities, we can speak up through writing. Sunrise has a great outline for writing letters to the editor that they built for their Climate Debate initiative in 2019.

Lend your skills as a scientist to causes you care about. As scientists, we’re trained in unique skill sets and have access to scientific research often hidden behind high paywalls that can be useful in advocacy. The Scientist Advocacy and Action Network is a group of scientists that offer pro bono science consulting to non-profit organizations that often have legislation in the pipeline. They perform literature reviews and data visualization that they share with the public online. They’ve also lobbied with organizations and spoken on their behalf to local elected officials. One of my favorite tools of theirs is a waterfront justice map that they created with NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. The map shows how New York City policies encourage the placement of polluting infrastructure, including waste transfer stations and energy facilities, in areas populated by low-income communities and communities of color. 

Across these, the most important thing to do first is to listen. Focus on issues that you care about, and reach out to communities working to find solutions. Attend their meetings or build a community of people committed to working with you—it can start as simply as going to a community board meeting in your neighborhood. Think about the skills you can offer as a scientist and the resources you have as an academic, and get to work!

 
What strategies do you have for engaging in activism as a grad student or academic? 

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