I forgot about science on July 24, 2019.
Since the morning, rumors swirled around social media that the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló, would resign. A few weeks before, Puerto Ricans took to the streets demanding his resignation. The catalyst was a leaked private chat that included offensive messages between Roselló and other government officials, but the underlying unrest had been developing for years. Being thousands of miles away in Philadelphia, I was glued to my phone waiting for updates the whole day. Roselló resigned close to midnight while I watched on my computer.
During the first few years of grad school, I frequently visited Puerto Rico. But soon I realized that all those years, I had neglected to stay engaged with what was happening back home. Science had consumed most of my time and my priorities. It was only until I took the time to focus on what was happening that I realized that science had taken over my life.
Similarly, even though I loved outreach and science communication, I always did it with apprehension and during the first years of grad school I never really explored it as a serious career option. Even in my social media, I would think about my role as a graduate student. Would sharing my opinions on social media regarding the movement or science communication undermine me as a scientist?
It took almost five years of graduate school for me to come to terms with this.
I had just attended the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago to present my graduate work. I was presenting a poster on my research regarding HIV-associated cognitive impairment. But I was also going as a writer. This was the first conference that I was going to attempt to “cover”.
I devised a plan to split my two identities: I would dedicate one half of the day to talks and posters related to my research, and during the other half I would attend the “big story” science talks and wander around posters waiting for something interesting to catch my eye.
By the end of the first day, I felt like a sham. It was next to impossible to do both.
On the third day of the conference, another identity was thrown into the mix. Daniel Colón-Ramos would become the first Puerto Rican to give a presidential lecture at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. As a Puerto Rican, I felt immense pride seeing somebody from our little island giving one of the most important talks in the neuroscience field. Again, for some inexplicable reason, I felt like I had to be the serious graduate student I was trying to be and hide these emotions.
Now the question came: How would I be able to juggle these different identities—graduate student, writer, and Puerto Rican— without one infringing upon the other?
I never figured it out. I spent the rest of the conference clumsily trying to balance everything without any success. Weeks later, I was still grappling with the idea of having to fragment myself into different pieces. Or worse, having to choose one. But it was only until talking with Colón-Ramos a few weeks later that I finally answered my question.
How would I be able to juggle these different identities—graduate student, writer, and Puerto Rican— without one infringing upon the other?
He told me, “Being Puerto Rican is a very important part of who I am and it's a non-negotiable part of my identity… And I am a scientist.” He emphasized the and. “All of these identities are ‘ands’, but for some people where they only have one identity, and it is the dominant identity, the identity of the majority, it's hard for them to conceptualize those identities as ‘ands’. They become ‘ors’. And when they become ‘ors’, some people want you to choose so they can kind of box you in”.
Academia and graduate school, either explicitly or implicitly, often caution against exploring anything outside of science. Once we get into graduate school, research and science take over our lives, leaving little space for the rest. I realized I had been choosing science over other things that I loved, as if it had to be a choice.
I realized it did not have to be like that. These different identities did not have to be ‘ors’, but rather they could co-exist peacefully within me as ‘ands’, as Colón-Ramos advises. I could explore my love for writing and science communication while still conducting high-level research. I could do outreach and advocate for an increased presence of Latinxs, Puerto Ricans, and other underrepresented minorities in the sciences and be a successful graduate student at the same time.
These different identities did not have to be ‘ors’, but rather they could co-exist peacefully within me as ‘ands’, as Colón-Ramos advises.
I encourage fellow graduate students and academics to discover, explore, and embrace other parts of our identity we may have been ignoring — become politically engaged, prioritize your family, advocate for issues you care about, explore different career options, pursue that hobby that you have always thought about but never actually tried. At the end of the day, ‘scientist’ is just one of the many identities we carry, but it is not everything.