“Oh, good! The translator is here.”
I looked up from the stack of papers I was holding to see an older white woman beaming at me. She had a stethoscope wrapped around her neck, and she wore a white lab coat with the University of Chicago Hospital crest neatly stitched onto the top pocket. It was about my third week working at the hospital as a clinical research assistant under a Yale Alumni Community Service Fellowship.
I quickly looked around, but seeing no one but nurses and visitors bustling about, I looked back at the doctor.
“Oh, I’m not a translator,” I told her, looking pointedly at my ID card, which clearly marked me as a research assistant. Her eyes followed my gaze. She paused, nervously, before she let out a short and awkward laugh. She quickly apologized before turning back to the medical students standing around her.
I continued on my way, my dark, tan skin and black hijab contrasting harshly with the sterile white of the hospital. This was not the first time my position in research was questioned because of the color of my skin and my hijab. Entering Yale as a prospective Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry major, many of my peers back home saw me as a product of affirmative action, a minority woman entering a male dominated field, a convenient narrative for an elite institution.
The lack of diversity within STEM at Yale did not necessarily surprise me, but the complete lack of support for students of color, particularly woman of color, in STEM did. My inability to find support for myself was not merely the result of representational issues. Though, indeed, I did find myself losing interest in STEM as I lost the ability to see myself in it. I ultimately decided to leave MB&B because of core issues with how the discipline defines itself as an objective field.
The belief that science is divorced from concerns of identity is, quite frankly, false. Gender, class, sexuality and religion are all characteristics of a person that vastly impact their ability to succeed within the field. The course “Being Human in STEM” that was offered in Fall of 2016, took a look at this issue. It surveyed students in STEM and found that women reported having more negative experiences in STEM than men. More so, women of color found that their negative experiences within STEM were not isolated events, but these experiences actually applied to a large number of women. Why was this so? To me, these results highlighted systemic issues within elite institutions, like Yale, where women of color are tokenized but conversations about how to support these women aren’t even addressed.
At Yale, I have experienced this lack of support time and time again. I found myself in a string of introductory courses taught exclusively by white men. I had difficulty communicating with these professors, some of which expressed that their course was intended to weed students out, and other professors who made their students seem secondary to their research. I missed Islamic holidays for labs that could only be missed via a dean’s excuse — a dean’s excuse that would only be recognized by the lab if a family member or I were sick. I eventually wound up sitting in the emergency room of Yale New Haven recovering from a debilitating panic attack after a string of labs, midterms and problem sets became unmanageable. This instance resulted in the only dean’s excuse I got that semester.
Science is not an apolitical field, and it is irresponsible to continue approaching STEM classrooms as objective spaces. Professors and professionals alike need to acknowledge this, and foster more honest conversations with their students about what an inclusive community looks like. Instead of ascribing low retention rates of woman of color in the field to successful “weeding out,” professors should consider why some students feel that their only option is to leave. They should consider how the needs of their students exceed beyond sick days, and must further consider how mental health is just as valid a reason to not finish an assignment as the flu. White professionals must recognize that microaggresions are just as damaging as other forms of racism and should be cognizant of the white privilege that accompanies their white lab coats.
More than anything, acknowledging that a problem exists in the first place needs to be spoken about candidly. I deserve to be legible to the scientific community for the work I have done in STEM, and I deserve to be seen as more than the sum of my appearance and language skills.
Noora Reffatis a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .