Black Lives Matter – an interview with Professor Crystal Rogers

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In the latest instalment of our series discussing the topic of race in academia, we spoke to Professor Crystal Rogers.

Crystal is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Cell Biology at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Her research is focused on the molecular mechanisms underpinning neural crest development in vertebrate (chicken, quail, and axolotl) embryos.

1. In our last posting on this topic, we asked BIPOC/BAME scientists for their “MySciMoment”, the event that inspired them to pursue a career in science. What was your MySciMoment?
I have had a few. I have always loved science, but I thought that to pursue science you had to go to medical school. I was pre-med in college, and did not do very well in my classes. When I took my first genetics class, I fell in love. I found it amazing that our genes have so much say in our phenotypes. When I made it to graduate school, I rotated in three different labs, but it was the developmental biology lab that really made me fall in love with research. I watched Xenopus embryos develop from fertilized eggs to froglets and I was hooked.

2. Since the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, many academic institutions were quick to release statements on racial inequality. Do you think the initial response by academic institutions is fading away? If so, why?
Yes. Unfortunately, I think that academia is generally reactive and rarely proactive. For example, many institutions will keep people who are known harassers on staff until there is enough uproar and shame to force them to remove an individual. With regards to the issue of racial inequality, it seems as though some institutions are really changing their whole structures to address the issues, while others are reinforcing an antiquated system that created the current situation. Without social uproar, it is much easier for schools to fall back into the old way of doing things rather than using their power for change.

3. What could academic institutions do to make a difference?
Create environments that are actually inclusive. Don’t recruit people of color to locations that are toxic or unsafe for their general demographic. Try to put themselves into the positions of the scholars they are trying to recruit. Don’t recruit people of color and then leave them to flounder without support or community.

4. What kind of actions can all academics take to make a difference?
Really take a good look at your own department, college, institution. Make quantitative assessments about who you are, and who you actually want to be. Then hire someone from the outside to help you make strategic moves to get there. Doing the same things that have been done for the last 100 years is not going to make the system more inclusive or diverse.

5. Do you think academia is really a meritocracy?
Of course not. There are plenty of amazing people in academia, and there are plenty of people who had amazing access and opportunity which allowed them to flourish. I believe that academia is quite exclusive, and there are many scholars with potential that we push out. If you can’t fit into this system the way it is, it is difficult to succeed.

6. What kind of behaviours – especially microaggressions – do you think we should all be calling out?
The assumption that diversity is mutually exclusive from excellence. When sitting in meetings making big decisions about whom to hire, whom to include, people need to call others out for assuming that by increasing diversity, the level of success, productivity, or intelligence goes down. That there is one way people should dress or behave to fit into the academic bubble. The idea of “professionalism” is ridiculous because it has been established based on one culture. That there is one way a scientist should look. We all come from different backgrounds and yet people of color will routinely tell you that colleagues are surprised that they are also scientists.

7. It is often said that Black people are gaslighted their entire lives and just learn to be quiet. Do you agree with that, and do you think it’s changing?
I know that I learned how to code switch very early on in my academic career, and sadly, I believe that it has helped me to get where I am.

8. What kind of subliminal messages did you feel you were getting about academia early in your career?
Work hard, keep your head down, focus on the science, be a part of the in-crowd, and the success will follow. These messages are not wrong, but they are incomplete.

9. Did you have any role models that you could look up to early on in your career? What advice would you give you young BIPOC scientists who are looking for role models?
I have had a number of strong women role models that have done well in academia. Developmental biology as a field has more than 50% women scientists, and so I have been very lucky to have senior mentors, peer mentors, and mentees that I look up to. Advice that I would give is this: academia is not diverse, so don’t focus on finding a mentor that looks like you because you may be searching a really long time. Rather, try to find people that will support you throughout your career and people who will sponsor you when you are out of the room. No one mentor can be everything, but a network of mentors will really help you progress.

10. What advice would you give to young BIPOC scientists on the first stages of the career ladder?
This job is difficult and consistently heartbreaking, but if you love the science and the mentoring, it can also be worth it. Know what your limits are and stick to them. If work/life balance is crucial, make sure you have it. If family time is important, make sure you set aside time for that. Know your boundaries and try to save a little time for yourself.

11. Did you watch “Bridgerton” over the summer? Do you think more historical dramas should be featuring colour-blind casting?
Of course I watched Bridgerton. It was super fun! Also, yes, more color-blind casting would be nice. Growing up, it was really rare to see people who looked like me on TV outside of the single token character in most shows. I remember that watching Bridgerton was a little jarring at first because it was unclear whether the setting was a purely fictional world where Black characters were simply cast for novelty, or if there was some logic in the casting. However, as the storyline evolved, I appreciated that they addressed some of the obvious racial issues, like how Black people were given titles, etc.

12. What are your feelings about the new White House Administration?
Hope. The last administration brought out the ugliness that still exists in the US. Ask people of color and we always knew it was here, but a lot of people were able to ignore it since it did not affect them directly. The social and racial justice as well as pro-science stances of the Biden Administration really make me feel like there is hope.

13. How optimistic do you feel right now?
That depends. I feel optimistic about the vaccinations for Covid. I feel like my grant writing is improving, my lab is getting back to work doing cool research, and I feel like life is starting to get back to normal. However, it is difficult to maintain optimism in a system that is built to push you to your limits. Constant rejections, not enough funding for everyone, endless competition, and 60 hour work weeks can be tough. However, I love science, and today, I am optimistic about the outlook of academia, my own career, and the scientific community.

Other postings in this series:
MySciMoment – BAME scientists share their inspirations.
An interview with Professor Derek Applewhite.
An interview with Dr. Calvin Tiengwe.

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