Needle In A Haystack: Being a part of the STEM Minority
Hey FemNeuro Readers! My name is Lietsel Richardson, I am 27 years old, and I am a mechanical engineering PhD student at the University of Central Florida. I conduct research at the Biomechanics, Rehabilitation, and Interdisciplinary Neuroscience (BRaIN) Lab. We focus on neuromechanics, which combines biomechanics of movement and neuroscience to better understand human locomotion. We think that rehabilitation might involve more than just biomechanics, so we look at the brain dynamics during different walking, cycling, and stepping exercises using an EEG system.
Read about my experience as a black woman in STEM below :
Needle In A Haystack
How difficult was it for you to pursue this career?
It was very difficult, but only because I have been misguided by bad mentors and faced microaggressions that are typical in an engineering environment. Engineering is a male-dominated field that often lacks racial diversity in bigger programs like the one I graduated from. I have experienced racism, sexism, and was not taken seriously as a future engineer. After graduating with my Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering, I found a female adviser to work with for my PhD in a positive lab environment, which has drastically improved my mental health. There will always be obstacles to overcome outside of the academics, but having good mentorship can make a world of a difference.
How has gender discrimination played a role in your career path thus far?
If I were to remain in academia after my PhD, I would be privy to engineering departments, which tend to lack diversity the most. Engineering in academia AND industry has a retention problem when it comes to women, but most critically when it comes to women of color. It should also be noted that the pipeline in engineering is very leaky in the early stages of education, so the output of women in the field is miniscule despite the increase in women engineers over the decades. There are several instances when women are hired in positions of power, they are not taken seriously by their male counterparts, they are not promoted as quickly, and experience harassment.
When was a specific moment you realized you were viewed differently in the scientific world because of your gender?
The first time I showed up in a classroom dressed in a floral dress, cute shoes, and red lipstick, I was constantly ridiculed by my male classmates. They said things like,
“who are you trying to impress?” and, “the professor might bump up your grade if you show up like that every day”.
The second notable moment was in my senior year of undergrad. I had experience harassment so often that I had had enough, so I cut off all of my hair and dressed in muted colors, so my classmates would focus more on my work and what I had to say and not what I looked like. A classmate came up to me and said:
“why would you cut off all your hair? Boys won’t like that.”
How has Neuroscience helped shape your identity, how have you grown within this field?
My first brush with neuroscience was when I started my PhD in the UCF BRaIN Lab with my new adviser. I had never felt passionate about engineering research until I started working in a lab that explored interdisciplinary approaches to rehabilitation. I have learned so much about how the brain works, about brain imaging and EEG, about coding, and about myself. It was the first time in a long while that I felt comfortable being myself in my environment, and I was able to get more involved in initiatives like Black In Neuro (www.blackinneuro.com). As a Black, biracial woman in STEM, and particularly in my field, I had not had the bandwidth to think about my identity in this space until now. I have learned that I actually do belong in STEM, and that I am passionate about making STEM, but specifically neuro-related fields, a more inclusive and safe space for everyone.
How many women do you see/are familiar with in your line of work? In other words, is the gender disparity between men and women in science visible to you?
This disparity is glaringly obvious and in my face. My adviser is one of maybe 3 or 4 other women in a large department of men. This is also true in the student demographics in engineering. Outside of that, I have used social media to connect with other women of color, and just women in general, in my line of work and I have been lucky enough to network with them. Nothing is more validating than seeing another woman who looks like you succeeding in your line of work.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career thus far?
The biggest lesson I have learned is to not lose sight of who I am and my identity. STEM can be very competitive and it is so easy to forget who you are and to try to mold yourself to fit the narrative of what a scientist is or looks like. But you don’t have to do that. If you look in the mirror, what you see is a scientist. You don’t have to change who you are to become one.
What advice do you have for girls who feel discouraged from pursuing a career in stem/neuroscience because of their gender?
My advice is to not compare yourself to the boys/men in the room. They have the privilege of being in STEM and belonging immediately, and may have had access to opportunities to succeed that you may not have had access to. That does NOT mean you don’t belong in STEM. Find someone who can advocate for you, mentor you, and provide you with the tools you need to succeed. Mentorship is the biggest weapon you have against the burden of gender bias! And it is also okay to have more than one mentor. Next, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself because although there may be “allies” among you, they won’t often speak up and defend you against gender-bias because doing so puts them out of their comfort zone. Look out for the signs of gas-light aka men telling you that you are overreacting or the ones who make excuses for the offensive things they say. Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out. Lastly, stay optimistic. The women who are now scientists in-training or who are early-career scientists are all working so hard to make STEM a better place for girls.
What is your favorite thing to research and/or study about science!
I love learning about neurons and action potentials! I have a blog where I talk about neurons, as well as my research. It’s definitely the topic I love most about science. My favorite neuron fun fact: some neurons can conduct impulses as fast as 120 meters per second! This is accomplished in part because some neurons are insulated by myelin sheaths, kind of like how wires are insulated to conduct electricity (safely and quickly!)