Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On class and race issues, and their relevance to my scientific career, or not.

This image provides an appropriate setting for the daydream described below.

Warning: the following post contains ramblings and daydreaming. Please comment if anything needs clarification.

I just finished watching a 4 part PBS/BBC documentary called
America Beyond the Color Line, by Henry Louis Gates Jr. It brought me back to things I haven't thought about as much as I used to since my current graduate program. This film examines the state of black Americans 100 years after W.E.B. DuBois said that the problem of the 20th century would be "the problem of the color line". Gates travels through black America in this film (from Hollywood to wealthy black neighborhoods in Atlanta, to inner city Chicago housing projects and much more) and elegantly communicates a very complicated situation - race relations in America having come incredibly far since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, but still having far to go. The film identifies a growing gap between inner city disadvantaged African Americans, and the growing African American middle class (and very wealthy) that have "made it". Much of the film asks questions about where to we go from here and how do we bridge this growing gap. There is no easy answer (obviously) and many interconnected approaches ranging from political changes, to localized mentoring and education programs, to a need for bigger dreams and belief that better is possible are all discussed.

So what does this all possibly have to do with me, a white graduate student studying deep sea microbiology? I am not totally sure, but the segments of this film that interviewed educators and high school age students resonated with me, and reminded me why I went into teaching rather than more grad school 3.5 years ago. It is easy to get sucked in to the world of research and academia and never look out. This is understandable given the amount of work and time required of a career as a professor or even life as a grad student.

I have worked with underprivileged students of various ages in a few different mentoring/inspiring/extra help/outdoor experiential ed programs, and it is something I love doing. I sometimes wonder whether I would have a bigger impact doing the science I am doing now (and whatever comes out of that) or through a career of teaching. I am honestly not sure I could hack it as an inner city teacher, and I sometimes feel guilty about that. I do know that I love working with kids, and really enjoy talking to them about how cool science is, and would like this to be part of what I do when I "grow up" (I like to live in a bit of denial-land where I am not yet an adult). I had so many wonderful opportunities growing up that inspired me to study science, and I would love to be able to provide similar experiences for youth who won't get them otherwise.

Back in October I wrote about a workshop I attended about how scientists communicate with The Public. One of the things that got brought up is how outreach-type activities are typically not valued in academia (at least not when it comes to hiring and/or tenure decisions) and that this is a reality that scientists like me (who think it is our responsibility to communicate not just with peer reviewed scholarly papers) have to deal with. Maybe I am cut out for academia and maybe I am not, but here is a day dream of a program that Future Me has started...

Located in the woods somewhere with water (maybe a lake or a river, but ideally a rocky sea shore) on a large tract of pristine land, but within a couple hours drive from a major metropolitan area (read - bad inner city school system) lies a campus that looks part farm, part school, part summer camp, and part laboratory. There is a ropes course, kayaks and/or canoes, camping equipment, cabins, and maybe a big fire ring. There are lab facilities with plenty of salt water tanks and touch tables housing a rotating selection of organisms and a good set of microscopes, and plenty of room to set up experiments. There is a garden that provides local organic produce and maybe even chickens for out kitchen and also provides educational opportunities. This is a property that I (or some very wealthy and dear friend) own and have built up. Hey, its my day dream so maybe I even built some of the buildings.

This campus is home to a variety of programs that have the following goals 1. bring urban youth into the wilderness, 2. get youth excited about science, 3. preach academic excellence, and 4. provide underprivileged kids with role models and connections that last a long time. I can many different types of programs occurring in this facility from a college semester or summer program to weekend or day trips for school groups. The coolest program offered is some type of collaboration with a program in the nearby city that targets a group of youth in elementary school and works with them through their college years on tutoring and mentoring and uses my facility for regular (annual? Monthly?) gatherings or mini-courses… who knows?

There are many programs that do things like this. Someone I know started a program of this type on his own that is particularly impressive. Some day I hope to go visit and learn how he pulled it off. I guess the point is that I am going to eventually want/need to be doing something other than pure science. This film reminded me of things that were definitely a priority at one point in my life that have become more of a passing interests/side project over the last few years.

In some ways it is all about your perspective. Being a geologist taught me to see things in very long time scales, time scales at which global catastrophic climate change might matter, but probably wont change Earth itself all that much. From this perspective, environmental issues are not about saving the planet, but about preserving our ability to live on it, and the environmental issues are the most pressing for humanity to tackle because all the social issues will be irrelevant if we are dead. ON the other hand that type of perspective can allow many of us (ie me) to ignore social issues that just seem too difficult to tackle.

I can’t help comparing two potential contributions that I could make to humanity: one being the creation of a wonderful program that is some fraction of what is described in the day dream above and the other being whatever cool scientific tidbits I might discover along the traditional track lying ahead of me in Academia. Depending on the perspective I look at these options with I can make arguments that either is somehow better. It is hard to know where I would have a greater impact (which is how I like to think of success). I remember as a child having very definitive opinions about just about anything (ask anyone who knew me before I was 18), but much of that certainty has vanished as I have seem a plethora of possible roads to travel (I have written about this before too). Maybe clarity will come, or maybe opportunities will arise, or not, and that will determine where life takes me.

1 comment:

  1. "From this perspective, environmental issues are not about saving the planet, but about preserving our ability to live on it..."

    Bingo! This is key for me in how we talk about environmental issues. We need to frame them in the context of people, because ultimately that's what people are most concerned about.

    I love your idea. I could totally get on board with a place like that. I still haven't figured out how best to reach a broader audience with my research. I've got to make that a higher priority this year.