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Science is more than the sum of research 

Posted by , on 10 August 2023

When are you stepping down from the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association (HMPA) Chair position to focus on your science? This recurring question posed by a few colleagues over the last two years of my term has led me to introspect what I consider to be science. For some, it may be a fair question, as postdoc is crunch time to make or break in competitive academia, so engaging in academic community activities can be considered a futile distraction, no matter the purpose. While solely focusing on the research and getting published might be the pragmatic and effective strategy to secure a faculty position and reinforce what it means to be a successful postdoc, I see a larger disconnect with the purpose and practice of science–the dichotomy of academic culture. 

Engaging in community service during my postdoc is neither my first involvement nor the first time when doctrinaire questions are posed to me. I am passionate about social justice and have been an active community member in leadership roles since high school. However, at every academic stage–B.S., M.S., PhD, and Postdoc–I have been made to feel I am not doing enough scientifically. I have been told community engagement is an extracurricular, a hobby, and an interference. I have been told to focus on my science because it is a rare opportunity that I have gotten to better my life. I have been told I am just a social butterfly. I have been told I could do ‘all this stuff’ once I have a faculty position. No wonder I feel trained to experience guilt and remorse for engaging in the community. I have constantly struggled with the expectation to fit in the academic binary–choosing academic scholarship for career progression over social justice in the academic community. I have felt the quality of my scientific work is in question because of my involvement in the scientific community. I must work harder to prove my scientific interests or let community work go. Some of my friends and colleagues feel similarly. A Black friend who is also a postdoc and actively involved in the community was recently told by their postdoc mentor that their academic excellence is not enough, meaning they are not good scientifically. It makes me think, what do we value in science? What does success mean in science? While some may argue about the extent of engagement or time management during postdoc or any other academic stage, I posit what it means to be a postdoc or rather a scientist today. 

The practice of science is not just the human pursuit of knowledge and truth with rational analysis in isolation. It is a social enterprise–with diverse ideas, identities, and experiences–embedded in larger social and historical contexts, thus providing direction, substance, and meaning to our discoveries. The leaps and quests to understanding the natural world, such as cancer or water on Mars, are immersed into humanity. Therefore, the purpose of science is dynamically linked to society and its people. But what exactly is the role of scientists, then? Is it only conducting objective research and sharing the findings with the scientific community? Is it also engaging with the scientific community, policy, decision-makers, and the public? It reminds me of popular debates such as ‘Should scientists be activists?’ and ‘Should scientists be value-driven and opinionated?’. To me and many other people, science has inherent political dimensions. Indeed, science and technology studies argue that such epistemological boundaries of science and activism are problematic. Like any other social organisation, we are embedded in orderly structures of power and inequities irrespective of our rationale and logic. For example, the decisions of who gets to be an author on a research paper or which lab member goes to a conference may have influences of relative hierarchies or wealth like any social organisation. We have decades of data to support that hierarchies and biases exist in the academic system. We understand that systemic discriminatory policies and practices exist that perpetuate imperial legacies and need change. However, we let Western epistemological boundaries and frameworks shape practices, policies, and behaviours discouraging scientists from engaging in community activism. Such systemic dissociation between scientists and community members inhibits effective accountability, transparency, and responsibility in our academic system. In my understanding, cultivating, and propagating a system where we systemically continue to set the narrative for students and early career researchers (ECRs) that scholarship matters and not the community is flawed. Unuttered narratives of research priority over shared responsibilities to decolonise academic structures are flawed. The definition of scientific success is flawed.

Recently, Holden Thorp, in his remarkable editor’s blog on ‘It Matters Who Does Science’ brought up an important fact which resonated so much–scientists are conspicuously humans and we, as scientists, should embrace our humanity. Thus, instead of waiting for community engagement and conversations of bettering academia when we reach tenure, shouldn’t we set the narratives that research and scholarship are important at any academic stage, but so is community engagement–who and how do we do science? Shouldn’t we create conditions for more conducive work in meeting the needs of our people who drive science and limiting disparities that hinder the inclusion of marginalised scholars?

One of my colleagues, friends, and mentor, Akankshi Munjal, a faculty member now, supported me once during a guilt trip. She said, you should not see your postdoc as just biological research. Addressing important issues of equity and inclusion in our academic spaces is difficult work that is long ignored. You should see it as a part of your holistic postdoc experience. With shifts in academia, we are starting to see the light, where we have started to consider community work, for example, during faculty recruitment. This conversation helped me redefine my postdoc and restructure my expectations as I was constantly feeling guilty before and was considering myself a failure for not working hard during my postdoc while I was. Although I have always thought, support from Akankshi and my introspection helped me register that being a scientist is more than science itself. 

Finding a mentor and community who identifies you as human and then kindly supplements you with scientific direction, community engagement, professional space, and other unique needs to be the best version of yourself can be life changing. I am fortunate to have Sean Megason as my mentor and, among others in other departments, a champion of my community work. I now take pride in doing community work in academia along with research–what I call science–and resist obstinate notions of science. I am vocal about compensation and incentives to normalise such work, so it is not disproportionately carried out, especially by marginalised identities. I do not know if I will pursue a tenure-track faculty job, but I am happy with where I am now and what I perceive of science. To be honest, I would love to teach, mentor, and conduct research. But I am finding it hard to navigate a faculty position that values my skills, expertise, and experiences, not just my academic scholarship.

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