Dismantling The System: Black Women In Neuroscience
Hey FemNeuro readers! I’m Lauren Edwards, 25 years old, and am a Black, female, Neuro-scientist. I started Emory’s Neuroscience PhD program back in the summer of 2016. My thesis lab is clinically focused and we examine motor recovery and learning after stroke. I loved it as I’ve always wanted to be a physician-scientist. The ability to work with patients in a hospital setting was the highlight of my degree pursuit and reaffirmed for me the desire to pursue my medical degree after graduate school. Outside of my daily school activities, I absolutely love reading; writing poetry; and I’m also down for a good twerk or two as well.
Pursuing Your Passions
It was not difficult to pursue this career path for me. I fared well at science early on and started in research the summer after graduating high school and stayed in research all throughout college. I began as a biomedical engineer but once I discovered that math wasn’t my forte, I switched to neuroscience. While many others love the heart as their symbolic organ of all their feelings, I truly am in awe of the brain and fell in love with learning about it. The brain is more responsible for our emotions than the heart, but people aren’t ready for that conversation.
I’m sure gender discrimination may be so pervasive that it may be harder to pinpoint how often it has impacted me. Currently in the field of neuroscience, I know women are outnumbering men in graduate school, as was the case with my incoming cohort. However, in academia as a whole, women are typically outnumbered, underpaid, and less likely to be tenured compared to men. There are discriminatory discrepancies that I know are coming because of how the system is set up to reinforce deterring women as much as possible. Furthermore, as women were subjected to stricter expectations on appearance and the unnecessary policing of our bodies and images as acceptable. I do believe it is harder for us women to show up as ourselves. I am fond of the fact that I have piercings and tattoos and keep 4 different colored lipsticks in my purse for different occasions. Presenting as ourselves at all times allows us to also change the image of what a stereotypical scientist looks like.
I believe that the intersection of my race and gender have much more of a bearing of my facing discrimination than my gender alone. I work with human subjects and there have been times that they have said inappropriate racist or sexist remarks in the setting of data collection. I have been passed up for awards or opportunities I was certain to be one of the best candidates for. In those times, I must choose between my identity as a scientist and my identity as a Black woman. There are times that serving these identities are indeed mutually exclusive. I have had to learn to pick my battles under the realization that if every macro or microaggression was addressed, it would hurt my career trajectory. I have learned to differentiate the stances I can let go and those that I must stand up for in order to be whole within myself.
I have settled comfortably in the identifier as not only a scientist, but very specifically, a neuroscientist. I studied neuroscience in college, but graduate school has made me more intimately aware of the role of a researcher. I think more critically now; I am better able to analyze gaps and propose how to fill them. I value my scientific thought process, and while it is a continuous process of learning and growing, I appreciate it. And if I had to do it again, I still would have chosen neuroscience, even if my overall path looked differently.
Family Vs. Career
I have regular discussions about family planning and school. I’m in a more unique position in wanting to pursue medicine after finishing graduate school such that I won’t be finished with school until after the age of 31 years old but will still have to complete years of residency. I always believed I wouldn’t have children until I was settled in a career but that isn’t realistic with my career pursuits. I have not felt pressured though to choose between having a family and a career. I acknowledge the limitations that exist in having both, but generally, the idea has been well-received. I also was intentional about surrounding myself with women in careers that I aspired to, who also had children and learned the balancing act enough to share it with me.
It is not enough for me to see white women; I specifically want to see women who look like me and in that case, neuroscience (and most of the sciences) are in desperate need of diversification. The gender and racial disparity in science is visible and it is because of this that I joined the non-profit organization 500 women scientists. I currently am the Director of the Fellowship for the Future, developed to recognize and amplify the crucial role of women of color in STEM.
The biggest lesson I have learned in my career thus far is that it is okay to walk when things no longer suited me. That is okay to take a detour and that it isn't a terrible reflection of me. I've learned that being happy and mentally whole takes precedent over being successful and that success will come, even if it looks different from what was initially imagined.
I do not think girls should have to defend themselves against gender-bias in their school and college careers. I think we should focus less on telling women how to survive a tainted system and focus more on how to dismantle the system, so it is better suited for them.