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LISTEN: Women of color can navigate the field of environmental health as they navigate it

LISTEN: Women of color can navigate the field of environmental health as they navigate it

Former Agents of Change Fellows Dr. Lariah E. Edwards and Dr. Theresa Guillette talk about their experiences and offer advice to women of color who are trying to navigate the field of environmental health.

Edwards, a postdoctoral science scientist, works jointly at the George Washington School of Public Health & the Environmental Defense Fund. Guillette, an Environmental Scientist 2 at Arcadis, offers tips on how to take care of yourself and advocate for yourself in your early career research.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast, which is broadcast biweekly, features the stories and big ideas of past and current fellows as well as other professionals in the field. All past episodes can be viewed here.

Listen to their discussion below and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, SpotifyOr Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Today’s podcast features Dr. Lariah Edwards (a former fellow scientist at the George Washington School of Public Health, the Environmental Defense Fund) and Dr. Theresa Guillette (an environmental scientist at Arcadis), who talk about their experiences as women of color in the field of environmental health. Enjoy.

Lariah Edwards

Welcome to Agents of Change podcast. My name’s Lariah Edwards. I’m joined by my colleague

Theresa Guillette

Theresa Guillette

Lariah Edwards

We are both women of color and environmental health scientists in the early stages of our careers. I am a Black woman currently doing a postdoctoral research at GWU and Environmental Defense Fund on chemicals in consumer products and fast food.

Theresa Guillette

I am a Hispanic female in environmental science. I was a postdoctoral fellow at the EPA, and now I work in environmental consulting for PFAS remediation.

Lariah Edwards

We are both chemical students, and both are in the early stages of our careers. We wanted to reflect on the experiences we had as women of colour in the environmental health field. We have had many similar challenges, as well as some differences. It can be stressful enough to go through grad school and this first phase of your career. We feel that there are unique challenges we face as women, especially in a field dominated by white men. So, in our Agents of Change fellowship session, I recall Theresa first introducing herself to me as TC. She spoke briefly about why this was so. I still exchange emails with her Theresa or TC to this day. It just stuck out to my mind.

Theresa Guillette

Yes, that was a problem I had early on. I felt that publishing my name in publishing was a problem. I felt like switching over to a gender neutral name helped me with my peer reviews and grant applications. This really speaks to the double challenges that being a person-of-color and woman in this field face, as we both have to deal with racism and sexism. Lariah, in her Agent of Change essay, recently commented on the emotional toll people of color face while doing EJ work. Let’s talk a bit more about that.

Lariah Edwards

That is something that I would not have considered before entering the field of environmental health. I wish I had known that this was a very unique challenge, which can also be very isolating. It’s great that diverse businesses and organizations are trying to be more inclusive and equitable. But, just because it’s done doesn’t make it great. Sometimes it can be done poorly.

Theresa Guillette

Yes, I totally agree with your sentiments. I feel that these organizations often place everyone in the exact same box. It is important to highlight both our similarities as well as our differences when it comes to our careers in this field. We don’t all have the same backgrounds. Here are a few things we wish we knew at the beginning of our careers. I believe one of them is to create a community in an isolated environment. I went from an undergraduate university that was primarily Hispanic-serving to a graduate school with less than 1% Hispanic scientists. This was a big culture shock for me. It was not only the move from San Antonio, but also the change in South Carolina. One of the things I did was to keep in touch with my mentors and participate in conferences such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos or Native Americans in Science during graduate school. I tried to make my voice heard as a Hispanic scientist by seeking out multicultural events. Lariah, writer, it is possible that you had a similar, but different, experience when you moved from an HBCU into a different university to study at graduate school. Could you talk about that difference? Did it seem difficult to adjust at first?

Lariah Edwards

Yes, I moved from a historically Black college, North Carolina, to a private university, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts. It was very difficult. During my entire stay, I was the only Black PhD candidate. Although there was one Black faculty member in my department, there were a few Black staff members. Overall, it was lonely. Boston, as a place, doesn’t reflect all the diversity that exists here. I find it difficult to find a community that understands me as a Black woman both inside and outside school.

Theresa Guillette

Are there any organizations or conferences that you felt helped you to navigate in graduate school early enough to ease some of the isolation?

Lariah Edwards

For the first few decades, actually, there was not as much time. I didn’t reach out to conferences or organizations because there wasn’t much. I believe that BU did not create a diversity group for students until my first year. These students were mostly masters-level students who would leave the program after two years. There was always a rotating door of students of colour coming in. It was hard to be one of the few, if not the only, students of color in the PhD programs, and the only Black student in my own department’s PhD program. However, I do remember that I attended the annual Biomedical Conference for Minority Students before I joined grad school. Then I want to go to SACNAS one-year, which I believe you mentioned, Theresa.

Theresa Guillette

Yes, some really amazing organizations. I also want to point out that universities often try to impose all of their DEI initiatives on people of color. I would caution anyone who is committing too much to these initiatives. This is your job, so you need to put yourself first. You will be asked to do a lot of things, so it is okay for you to say no. Also, it is important to prioritize your own interests and what you are comfortable with. It is not our responsibility to fix a system that is broken for people with disabilities. Lariah, did you ever feel overwhelmed or told to do a certain task within universities that was just a little too much for you?

Lariah Edwards

Voluntold is an excellent way to describe this. But, you know, that’s not something that I can say I experienced. I didn’t take part in any diversity initiatives at graduate school because I didn’t know of any. When I started my PhD in environmental health at BU School of Public Health, I remember talking to another masters candidate. She said there wasn’t a student of colour organization and that she was starting one. So I went to meetings. As I said, it was mostly meetings for master’s students who come in for two years, then leave. I really missed that type of diversity program for doctoral students. My department didn’t create a diversity initiative or a department that focuses on inclusion and diversity until two or three years ago. So, while that’s interesting, it’s not something I can actually speak to.

Theresa Guillette

So, I think that another point that I wanted really to bring up was, which I think is something that speaks to everyone but especially for people of colour, advocate for yourself. This will result in a lot more comments and microaggressions. It’s okay for you to stand up for your rights. I know, I know. I was talking to different grad school in different departments when I first got them. One thing that they, a few people, would say is, oh well, you got this grant because you’re minority or because you’re this or that. It can really tear you down sometimes. But don’t let it. You can be honest and non-confrontational in standing up for yourself. The key to that is learning good communication skills. I have had the privilege of being white passing. This can sometimes be a double-edged weapon. People are often very honest and open with people of color, even if they don’t believe that anyone is listening. It is important to surround yourself with genuine and caring people, as these comments and other comments can really damage your self-confidence. Lariah, how did your research career help you to find support groups and people?

Lariah Edwards

I was fortunate to have good friends in the program, fellow doctoral students who went through the program with my. They were very supportive. Even though there weren’t many Black PhD students in the program I found support from that group. And I just wanted to say that you mentioned white passing and that being a double-edged knife. This is something I hadn’t thought of. When you talk about how you deal with confrontation, I think that when I address, attempt, to address competition like a workplace setting or a professional setting, I am constantly doing mental Olympics about you, you, how can I say this without, yelling and then everything I say is just ignored or brushed off as I’m being aggressive or being problematic. It’s fascinating that we all go through different experiences in dealing with confrontation and microaggressions in the workplace. How do you feel now that you are older as you start your new job? Are you more comfortable with these types of confrontations and how do you handle them?

Theresa Guillette

I do. I feel more empathic than I did when I was younger. I am trying to use that empathy to understand what these people think when they make careless comments. It can be hard, right? Because I also have the stereotype that I am hot and Latin. Sometimes it does happen. I have to go for a walk and just walk it off. I will come back to it at a later point, but I believe I have more patience than I ever thought possible. So, let’s get into it. What are some red flags you should be looking for when choosing a lab or workspace? Is it just a few offhand comments? Is it just a general feeling you get from people? What are some of the things you noticed about transitioning to other jobs or labs?

Lariah Edwards

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Yes, it is difficult to find red flags. This is because you should see them in the interview, and then never go back to a toxic environment. These are things I haven’t mastered. Looking back at my experiences, and the lessons learned, I see that I am not seeing people of color in leadership or other senior positions. To me, that can be a sign of a difficult environment that won’t support me as my career progresses. I think that when I hear offhand remarks about my hair, how it looks, and what I do with it, that’s a sign that this is not a place where I feel comfortable.

Theresa Guillette

I love green flags. This is definitely something I will be looking for going forward. Lariah, I’d love to hear your thoughts on some things that have helped during this early phase of your career.

Lariah Edwards

Yes, and you have hit on some really, truly great ones. Your last point about advocating on your own is a great way to link into one of my most important points, asking for help when you are in need. Because it’s an important part of advocating for yourself. It could also mean different things depending on your comfort level. When you realize that you are overwhelmed and feel like you’re drowning, it’s important to seek out help. Talking to someone you trust, or going to therapy can all be options. I didn’t have a group of people of color that I could talk to in graduate school. They will understand my situation. I needed help but didn’t know how to get it. It meant that I had to go to therapy, and it also meant that I had to talk to the dean of my program to help me navigate my mentors or figure out a better strategy. Do you remember any situations like that Theresa? When you felt like you needed extra support than you could give yourself?

Theresa Guillette

Absolutely, um, I believe graduate school is one of those difficult times in life where you have to question everything. You learn that too, right? Because you’re learning to question things. I believe that one of the best things I did early on was to find a community of support through shared hobbies. Photography is my passion. So I would invite a few of my friends to go with me and spend a weekend taking pictures of certain things. These were my escapes. They allowed me to connect back with myself and find support in nature. This is similar to how I find a lot my support. It can look different for everyone, but it is important to find what works for you.

Lariah Edwards

Now, that’s, yeah, that’s awesome. It sounds like you had support from people you could be yourself around and could reach out to. You can move on to your next career step as you transition or make a move. What will that look like? Have you identified people in your job that you can turn to for help when you need it? What do you think about this?

Theresa Guillette

Yes, the pandemic has put a pin in a lot of social aspects. In this age of remote, all, it’s been quite difficult to find these support networks. However, it is crucial to reach out for help when you are in need and to seek it out. Sometimes it takes just one email to ask for help. I would really appreciate some advice on X,Y, and Z. It’s hard to reach out. But once you do, and you start talking to people who are supportive, it’s a breath of fresh, clean air. It’s like a total body reset. So yeah, it does look different now. But um, I think everyone is learning their own thing.

Lariah Edwards

You’re correct, you know that. It’s true that reaching out can be hard. Which brings me to my next point. Celebrate each milestone and every step. Even if you just email someone to get a little help, each step towards your goal is important. When you’re in graduate school and you’re working towards a doctorate you often forget to appreciate the small moments between the big, between starting and defending. As a Black woman, this was a mindset that taught me that I had to work twice as hard to be half the good. That led me to hustle and work towards that angle. Okay, I have to defend this angle for a number of years before I can start thinking about my next steps. I am so focused on the end result that I forget about the little things in between. It could be as simple as someone telling me, “hey, you did an amazing job on the first intro of this paper or that first draft. Awesome!” or even a good performance at a presentation in my department. I didn’t celebrate those little things. I was forced to celebrate them by my friends and support system. How about you, Theresa. Did you celebrate the little things in grad school? But, you know, the step before that?

Theresa Guillette

It was definitely harder in grad school. My mentor was really great in this. He created this box where we could store happy moments. When he introduced it, I was so cynical. I’m kicking myself now. Because I was like, “Whatever,” and it was just another thing to do. And now, I look back. I’m like you genius! It’s a small thing that can be used to create happy moments. Then, you know, at my time in that lab, we opened the box and I was just as happy to see the things that the undergrads had placed in it as I was at seeing the things that I had put in there. It was like a self-reflection, like, “Yeah, you can, you have to celebrate, and you have to have a great time.” The world is already dark enough that you don’t have to add to it. That’s why I liked it. That was it, that was so much fun. It’s also true that sometimes, as mentors in our own rights, we sometimes do more for others then we do for us. One thing that I used to enjoy doing was buying a coffee for my graduate students or the undergrads. It was something I enjoyed doing. We’d go on a walk together, and I’d buy them a coffee or tea. Then we would celebrate together. These little moments are something that I can still remember, even in the hardest times. I can remember them doing the exact same thing, when I reached a milestone, like, they would be like “Oh, let’s get you a cup of coffee.” It’s so important to create a community of positive moments.

Lariah Edwards

Oh, absolutely. It’s because I love the box idea. That’s what I’ll use to mentor students in my future career. That’s, that’s great. It’s definitely harder now that COVID is here. I don’t. I’m not with my colleagues, we can’t just walk out for a cup of coffee. But I think as a postdoc I do a better job of taking care of myself. If I do a great job in a presentation or meeting with my advisors, and address all the points I wanted to, everyone feels that they like the plan I presented. I was like, okay. I was up all night. I’m going for a cup of coffee. I’m going for a walk. I will go for a walk and cut out work 30 minutes earlier today. Then, you know, I will start tomorrow morning 30 minutes earlier. It’s so important to take a moment to reflect on how far you have come. The last thing I want to emphasize is that it is something that I still need to work on. So do as I say, not as I particularly do. Make sure you have a life outside of the work. I think Theresa might agree with this. She may also agree that your work as an environmental scientist is meaningful. You’re trying understand how this chemical affects health and publishing that information to influence policy to make it more effective. It’s easy to get too involved in that and not have a life. It is important to find time for your hobbies or personal interests, especially to maintain a healthy balance between work and your personal life. This is especially important for people of color. We are often the only ones of color in our workplaces and often feel uncomfortable showing up as the whole you at work. This means that you are effectively hiding a part of yourself and presenting it to the world. It’s exhausting and it’s straining. It is good for your mental well-being to have a life other than work. It’s a good thing, I’m sure. It’s good to your mental health. It was hard, I was there. It’s very, extremely difficult. I did Big Brothers Big Sisters for one year. So I would meet my little sister at my apartment’s community center, where we would do crafts, talk about music, and paint nails. It was nice to have some time off from work. You mentioned that you were a photographer in graduate school. Do you still do that as a hobby or something that you do outside of work?

Theresa Guillette

Yes. Yeah. Photography is something I love. It’s almost like a guilty pleasure. I probably spend more time and money on it that I should. I believe it brings me a lot more balance. I’m trying to get a picture of a bear this season. Each year, I only like one species of bear that I want to photograph. I haven’t had much luck but there’s still time. There is still time. I believe that I love creative outlets because I was a music major prior to going into science. That performance art aspect of music is something I miss very much. It has been a great experience to explore creative hobbies. This has allowed me to have self-worth, and added balance to my daily life. I love your idea of getting out and being your full self. I think we have discussed our perspectives and tips on how to thrive in environmental health as both women and peoples of color. These tips have been very helpful in our early research careers. We wish we knew them before we started this field. These tips are not the only thing that will help you in your research career. We would love to hear from anyone with any tips. We’ll be sharing some of these tips on our social media channels. However, we encourage you to comment with your questions and suggestions.

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