Bring the scientists, the policy makers, and the diplomats together

Published! is a series of chats between GWIS member Lauren Poppi (@laurenpoppi) and women-identifying scientists who have recently published their work as first or corresponding authors. If you, a colleague, or someone you know has recently published, you can get in touch via Twitter (@laurenpoppi) or email <>.

Dr. Lyndsey Gray is a recent Ph.D. graduate at Colorado State University who has spent the last few years studying mosquito-transmitted malaria in West Africa. Lyndsey is a Sustainability Leadership Fellow, a P.E.O. Scholar, and the former President of the Northern Colorado GWIS Chapter. Lyndsey's master’s training in public health majoring in infectious disease epidemiology, together with her time in the Peace Corps, sparked a dual interest in science and policy. Along with several co-authors, Lyndsey penned a commentary in Science Magazine titled, “Integrate US science and diplomacy”. You can read the article here

I caught up with Lyndsey to chat about parasites, the diplomacy issue surrounding ivermectin, mosquito saliva, and why it is critical going forward to have more scientists in policy-making and diplomacy spaces.

Congratulations on your published letter in Science Mag! Could you tell us how it came about?

It was the most fun writing experience that I’ve ever had. The authors all work in U.S. foreign affairs or are interested in going down that route. We shared the belief that policy (from foreign affairs to local government) should be evidence-driven. We need more scientists at the decision-making table when it comes to designing U.S. policy. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one example of a global issue that requires science driven solutions. There are many more, such as climate change, the arctic, space diplomacy... We also wrote this article to acknowledge that scientists need to be banging at the door of their local government, saying, “I am a constituent. You need to listen. I have data for you to consider.” Scientists need to be working not just in academia, but inside the government. The infrastructure needed to get scientists out of the academic pipeline and into government, and to retain them there, is still lacking. That is what we were calling for. This is what the world is going to look like moving forward. We need scientists in the cubicle next door, not just in a lab over at Utah State or at Cornell without security clearance. They need to be your direct office neighbor. How can we make that happen? That’s what we were trying to address.

It seems obvious that we need scientific data to play a bigger part in how decisions are made… we are clearly not there yet!

You’re right. It seems like a given! It shouldn’t be something we need to convince people of, but the argument still needs to be made. Even within academia, people have their peer groups and there can be a very distinct lack of overlap between those groups. We need to figure out how to communicate in a less labor-intensive way. The same is true for scientists and those who are more rigorously involved in policy. These two groups don’t naturally interact, and there is a very distinct difference in world views and professional approaches to problem solving that can lead to conflict. Policy makers need to be privy to the science and use science to inform decisions, but scientists, to be fair, often don’t understand the stakes and the cultural finesse that is needed to be operative in a policy and diplomacy space. For these reasons, there can still be a lot of hesitancy when scientists and policy makers are working together, even though it seems like an obvious choice to make.

So scientists and politicians/diplomats… not an organic mix?

I wouldn’t say it’s quite to the level of ‘oil and water’, but if we’re going to use a science analogy here... let’s say there is some homogenization required to get scientists and diplomats working together! I understand why the infrastructure for getting scientists into government-making spheres is lacking, but we have to address that. The need for crosstalk is only going to increase in the future.

I’d be really interested to know your thoughts on what we could benefit specifically from having more scientific voices at the forefront of diplomacy?
Science can be a means of communication when other lines of communication fail. A great example of this is the SESAME facility in the Middle East. SESAME is a particle accelerator like CERN. While diplomatic relationships in the Middle East can be tenuous, this facility provides a safe and reliable means of communication and positive relationship building, even when it seems like the outside world is falling apart. Scientists provide a safeguard for multinational collaboration that can then stem into other forms of relationships within hard-core diplomacy spaces. We can start from a place of allyship as opposed to antagonism. Scientists come with specialties. Using COVID as an example, it is essential to have someone with a background in immunology or virology close by when you are designing a pandemic response. Scientists and policy makers approach problems differently. Scientists tend to be more risk-tolerant and are better at forecasting, because that’s what we do in our research. We get a result, and then we say, “OK, what’s next? What does this mean? Where is the next avenue for me to pursue? Where will I apply for my next grant?”. We say, “Go big or go home!”, because that is where discovery is made. Conversely, those who work in policy and diplomacy tend to be more risk averse. They are looking for approaches that are guaranteed to work, to avoid spending millions of municipal dollars on a program that fails, harms constituents, and then puts them in trouble when elections come around. Having a scientist on your team who is looking 10-15 years into the future is an asset. You need a diversity of thought processes on your team to design stronger solutions. These are two examples that really stick out to me as to why these two groups of people need to be working together more.

You are interested in policy and diplomacy, but you’re a scientist by training, so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your research and how your interests intersect?
It was an easy transition for me. The science that I do very naturally bleeds into diplomacy because it is centralized in global health. If anyone feels like their science does not relate to policy or diplomacy, I would challenge them to look a little closer. There really is no point where science ends and policy begins. Whatever area of science you are in, whether it’s quantum computing or neuroscience, you are impacting and are impacted by diplomacy and policy.
I have a master’s in public health, majoring in infectious disease epidemiology. During my master’s training, I worked in a disease ecology lab that focussed on mosquito-transmitted viruses. My work was centered around dengue and zika virus transmission dynamics, particularly in Latin America. My home base was the Yucatan Peninsula, in Mexico. I soon realized that I wanted to work within the global health realm and focus on keeping vulnerable populations safe from disease transmission. This meant that I needed to develop a specialized understanding of the nitty-gritty science driving these diseases. That’s why I started a Ph.D. in microbiology. I still focus on mosquitoes, but now my 'bread and butter’ is malaria. I went from studying viruses to a parasite, which is a big jump! It never ceases to amaze me how complicated malaria truly is - it is one nasty disease. 

I’m currently working on a multi-year, double blind, randomized clinical study out of Burkina Faso, Africa. We have villages that we have worked with for years, that we have built relationships with. We coordinate with community leaders to run the study. Some people receive a drug, some receive placebo - we have no idea who is receiving which. The drug in question is called ivermectin. It is listed by the WHO as one of the world’s most essential drugs - up there with ibuprofen and penicillin. We’ve known about ivermectin for a long time, and it has been traditionally used in livestock as a deworming or anti-parasite medication, or in humans, particularly in West Africa, to treat really nasty parasitic diseases. 

Ivermectin has a serious impact on any blood feeding insect, so my lab investigates how it affects mosquito-transmitted illnesses. Malaria, dengue, and zika are all transmitted by female mosquitoes when they blood feed on humans. When mosquitos feed on someone who has taken ivermectin, it is very toxic to them. The drug binds to a special kind of neurotransmitter-gated channel that is only found in invertebrates. If the mosquito receives a lethal dose of ivermectin, she is then removed from the disease transmitting population. If she just takes a sip and leaves, a sub-lethal dose, it still has profound impacts that will make her less likely to survive or to transmit a disease to another person. This was a cool finding because we desperately need innovation in malaria transmission control. 

Unfortunately, malaria parasites are becoming more and more resistant to chemo-preventative drugs in humans, which is our best option for treating malaria right now. Mosquitoes are outsmarting bed nets that are sprayed with insecticide by learning to bite more during the day, and even by developing resistance to the chemicals in the insecticide. We need new approaches because the population that is the most vulnerable and is the hardest hit by malaria are children and pregnant women. This is what I research - how the mosquito population has been shifted or impacted by this drug study, and how that relates back to malaria transmission. It is a really fascinating job. I work with everyone’s most reviled creature. No one likes mosquitoes… including me!

Lyndsey, that is so cool. Ivermectin is the drug that people have been talking a lot about this past year, right?
Ohhh yeah. You asked me how my research ties into diplomacy? Big picture: malaria is a devastating disease that 50% of the world is at risk of getting. It’s a major international problem and has huge economic and health impacts. It also contributes quite significantly to gender inequality. It is going to require more than just science efforts to battle and control, it’s going to require effective policy as well. In the time of COVID, this has become even more political. 

For a period of time, there was an idea that many malaria medications including ivermectin could be potentially used to prevent COVID-19 transmission. This quickly became a very big issue. It was rapidly shown that ivermectin isn’t effective against COVID-19, and actually resulted in some health impacts that aren’t really worth considering in terms of a drug rollout. But it was a pandemic. A once-in-a-lifetime plus event and way before a vaccine was coming down the pipeline. Understandably, people were scared. A lot of institutions and individuals started hoarding ivermectin and taking it without any evidence available that supported its efficacy or even safety to use with COVID. This had two major consequences. First, people were popping pills willy-nilly, without any idea of what this drug was going to do. Scientists and clinicians were pleading, “Please don’t do that until the science is out!”. Second, ivermectin plays a crucial role in keeping millions of people safe from onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis. These parasitic diseases result in either blindness (in onchocerciasis) or elephantiasis (in lymphatic filariasis). If these diseases are not properly treated and controlled, they can result in lifelong debilitation within very vulnerable populations in West Africa. The hoarding of ivermectin for COVID-19 meant that people who really needed the drug couldn’t get it. It caused a big scare among the malaria community, because malaria is still going to be here after COVID-19, and so are these other diseases. We have to ensure that these medications are getting to people that truly need them, in cases where the evidence is sound. We cannot be hoarding it out of fear for COVID-19. It became a very big diplomatic issue.

I had no idea that there was this whole other layer to the ivermectin story! Thank you for explaining that to us. It's a great example of how your research and international diplomacy intersects.

So, we clearly do need to better integrate science and diplomacy. How did you go about writing the letter to Science Magazine as a team? 

One of the reasons I love my field is that it is very interdisciplinary. I work with sociology and anthropology specialists, medical clinicians, entomologists, pharmacologists… the whole nine yards. I get to work with a cool and diverse team of people! My background is in epidemiology, microbiology, and entomology. Amrita has a cellular and molecular biology background. Kathy is a nuclear chemist. Ben is an astrophysicist but is now working full time within the State Department. Bob (or Ambassador Pearson) is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and several other countries. Giovanni is the head of the diplomacy program out of Duke University. We had an academic head, an ambassador, and scientists of many divergent flavors all coming together. 

The scientists met through an organization called the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). The NSPN aims to support early career scientists in their transition to science policy and diplomacy, whether it is being an advocate from academia or working directly in government. We reached out to Duke University because we wanted to create a strong force of advocacy. We basically said, “We are really passionate about the same things, you have more experience, you have more strict policy makers and diplomats in your arsenal… let’s combine forces!”. We started with regular Zoom meetings, and we realized that we had a mutual interest in shaping the U.S. State Department - the main diplomatic core of the U.S. We then asked, “What can we do together?". Some of us understand the minute details of the State Department and some of us understand the science. We brainstormed ideas, and then we ‘virtually wrote’ together. That was an interesting process because scientists and policy makers have very different writing styles. It was a joy to do. It started as a fun conversation over Zoom and ended as a fully-fledged conversation piece in Science Magazine!

I have never written something as a part of such a multidisciplinary team. How did you draft the article with so many different voices in the room? Was it difficult to get your message across in such a small space?
One of my favourite quotes is by Mark Twain. Talking to a friend, he said, “I sat down to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have time so I wrote you a long one instead”. It is much more difficult to write a strong, enjoyable, and articulate document that is short than one that is long. I am a very verbose writer. I love all the flourishes and twirls… even when I’m writing a scientific manuscript! My PI tells me, “You use way too many adjectives!”. 

We first decided on the main idea and the main points of our argument. We then spent a good amount of time making sure that we agreed on what those main points were. The worst move you can make in a collaborative project is trying to correct for different visions for the piece after the fact. If everyone is on board right at the beginning, and everyone understands the goals, then your lives will be very easy! We established a clear outline, and those with a policy background did the first pass at expanding the outline into actual sentences. Despite my tendencies, a scientist is really good at smashing a foot-long sentence into one that is 5 words long, because that’s what we have to do for manuscript writing. We condensed it down to an op-ed format, ensuring that the meaning wasn’t lost. Then, we added ideas from our perspectives as scientists. We ensured that there was one narrative voice - to avoid it seeming like one person wrote one paragraph and a different person wrote another. We wanted it to be one seamless story. This process also highlighted some of the cultural differences between scientists and policy makers. Scientists see deadlines kind of like ‘guidelines’ or ‘suggestions’ more than anything else (laughs).

Guilty (laughs)!
This is not the case in policy and diplomacy. If the deadline is today, it’s done today. It moves very fast, and as a result the letter was put together very quickly. The writing took about a week max from when it was finalized, submitted, sent to an editor, revised, and submitted again. It was a great learning exercise and fascinating from a scientist’s perspective. We are used to sending something to a reviewer and hearing back in a month, something like that. Instead, we had to keep our eyes peeled on our emails. There was constant communication and it required responses within the hour.

I think I could learn something from people who honor deadlines (laughs). Deadlines help me to order my priorities, but I’m not as scared of them as I probably should be! Primary research manuscripts, textbook chapters, review articles, op-eds… They are all such different writing experiences!
Writing takes a lot of creative energy! I’m a bit of an oddball, at least within my immediate environment. I would much rather write, than sit down and do a bunch of math. I love math, but I would much rather tell the story behind the math and present it than be the number cruncher. Writing outside of academia has a very different rhythm, it is at a pace and rigor that you don’t expect, and it can be a little shocking!

Do you remember a specific moment where you realized that you wanted to be a scientist?
I’ve always been a scientist, ever since I was a little girl. That is how I identified. There was a brief time in which I didn’t want to be a scientist, back in 1993 or 1994 when the movie Flipper came out starring Elijah Wood. I wanted to be a dolphin (laughs). Other than that, it was always a scientist. The type of scientist changed, but from as early as I can remember, it was always science. At one point, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I decimated my mother’s flower beds looking for dinosaur bones. My mom is an avid gardener so that did not go well! There was another period during middle school where I wanted to be a nuclear scientist. Other times, I wanted to be a chemical engineer.
There were some key moments in middle school or early high school that led me to biology. I was really inspired by Michael Crichton's work, who is most famous for writing the Jurassic Park novels. I wasn’t that curious about biology until I read those books. Around the same time, the Human Genome Project erupted, so I began to think about chemistry within the context of biology. I went to college thinking I wanted to be a protein biochemist, but I soon realized that the pure research realm wasn’t for me. Despite my introverted tendencies, I wanted to interact with people more, in a multidisciplinary space. I have studied Spanish since I was little, and in college I minored in Spanish and Mandarin. I thought, “I love travelling and languages, and I don’t want to be at a bench with a pipette. This completely disrupts my plan for my life. What do I do?”. An advisor asked me, “Have you considered public health? That seems more like the environment that you’re wanting.” I had never heard of it before, but I thought I would give it a shot.
I was getting close to the end of my college degree, and I wanted to try working in public health before jumping into graduate school. I joined the Peace Corps and served for two years. That was a hands-on, grass roots experience in public health. I loved it. I came back to the U.S., got a master’s, and that’s where it all went! As a Ph.D. student, I became interested in science diplomacy. I ended up realizing that even though I was approaching the end of my time as a research scientist, I still had a love for science communication and being more of what’s called a 'knowledge broker'. A knowledge broker shifts knowledge and skill sets between different groups, like a translator. I realized that’s where my greatest strengths really lie. At this point I asked, “Well what on earth do I do with that?”, because again, I didn’t see a way to do that as a full time job. A peer of mine asked me, “Have you ever heard of science policy?”. It was the same kind of awakening I had with public health. Science policy and diplomacy? What are those? I started doing my homework and I joined the NSPN. I realized that this is where I can do everything that I love: international science, working and navigating across cultures, foreign languages, translating and disseminating science knowledge, and problem solving. So science diplomacy, that is much more recent. Scientist, however... since forever!

I loved that story, and it’s a story that’s still evolving, you’re still figuring out where you are going to go next and that’s exciting.
It is really exciting. The journey is never done. There is always going to be continual learning about the world around and about yourself. It can be hard for graduate students to come to terms with that while surrounded by people shooting for tenure. Their role models don’t want to be changing careers, they’re in for the long haul of life in a university! It can be a scary thing to realize that tenure track academia is not what your journey is going to be, and to not necessarily have senior career specialists around to provide you with a guiding light.
I identify with that a little bit. During the final stages of my Ph.D. training, I was curious about careers outside of academia, and unfortunately at that time there were not a lot of resources nor room for questioning things.
Exactly. It’s very paradoxical in some ways - there is a both a fluidity and a rigidity to getting your Ph.D. Two people could be in the same lab and one person’s Ph.D. is going to look very different to the other person’s Ph.D. There is a lot of fluidity in what your journey is going to look like, depending on your science, who you are as a person, and what type of lab environment you’re in. There is also a rigidity, with all of the expectations that are placed on you. Whether it’s the official outlined expectations of your graduate school, or cultural expectations like ‘publish or perish’. It is really hard to buck up against if you’re not wired that way. In some ways I have to conform and abide by these expectations, but ultimately, that’s not me and that’s not the future I want for myself.

It’s great that you know what you want at this stage of your career. A lot of young scientists are unsure about themselves and their strengths. They might know that the academic path is maybe not for them, but they can’t manage to parse out exactly what they’re good at outside of the strict academic rubric for success. It can take a long time to develop that, so it’s awesome that you have that vision for yourself now.
I appreciate that, that’s a lovely compliment to give me, so thank you!
Do you have a fun science fact that you would like to share with us?
Colorado State has one of the best veterinary schools in the United States. I meet a lot of researchers that focus on one animal, insect, or fish… and they love their creature of choice! If they study wolves, for instance, they have posters of wolves in their office, little wolf stuffed toys on their desk... all that kind of stuff. They are dedicated fans of the creature they study. By contrast, anyone who studies mosquitoes will say, “I hate those things!” (laughs). I technically do have a little stuffed mosquito toy on my desk… but for the most part, we acknowledge that no one likes mosquitos. We have the luxury to see mosquitoes as a nuisance - they ruin your picnic, etc. From a different perspective, they are fascinating. 

Mosquitoes are highly specialized and diseases have adapted to be efficiently transmitted by them. They facilitate transmission in the most bizarre ways. Believe it or not, mosquitoes spit! Their saliva is the main vehicle for transmitting diseases. There is a misconception that blood drunk by the mosquito directly transmits disease from one person to the next, but that’s not the case. Often, parasites like malaria shimmy their way out of the digestive system up to the salivary glands, and they are spat out by the mosquito. Mosquito saliva is the weirdest biological solution. It is full of different chemicals and proteins that prevent clotting. There are numbing factors so that you can’t feel the bite straight away, and immune-suppressing factors. This protein cocktail in their saliva has evolved over time to stop you from noticing that you’re being fed on, which allows the mosquito to feed undisturbed. Diseases then take advantage of that. The mosquito provides access to the human bloodstream, and diseases adapt to take this wild ride from one person to the next. It is not something I appreciated before medical entomology was my niche. There is still a lot that we don’t understand yet. We are seeing evidence to suggest that when pathogens are introduced to the bloodstream via mosquito saliva, it results in more effective infection than if you were to just load a syringe and jab someone with a virus in an equitable dose. There’s something very interesting about that facilitation process. Scientists often have this 'Art of War' mindset, an appreciation for their enemy. We have to always reset ourselves and look at the disease outcomes. These are not just numbers on a page - these are real people who have families that are being impacted by this. We have to be very mindful and respectful of that.

Science can be stressful – what are some of your tips and tricks for managing this?

I wish I could say that I had a silver bullet. I do not. The thing is, getting a degree of any sort is a hard journey. There are different difficulties unique to every type of degree, but it is no joke. I emphasize several key things to people. One, you must be very aggressive in maintaining your work-life balance. Every instinct in yourself, every cultural norm, and societal expectation for Ph.D. students, is to not have a life - but you really need to have one. Science is important, but your health and your life is too. No person is one thing. Your Ph.D. is a part of you but does not define you. You need to protect those parts of yourself by giving yourself breaks, and by having a community around you that ideally isn’t immersed in academia that can give you reality checks, like, “That’s crazy that someone expects that of you! You have to say no to that!”. Protect your mental health. I would encourage people to find the strength to say, “Yes, I need help.”, and to have those resources at the ready when you need them most. For example, seeing a counsellor or therapist, or just having safe people that will listen to you. Mental health is so important and unfortunately, even the most progressive programs still aren’t providing the support that graduate students need. 

Another important one is mentorship. There is no person on this earth that doesn’t need mentorship in one way or another. Sometimes you are lucky, and that mentor is your P.I. Realistically speaking, it’s going to be more likely that you have to find those resources elsewhere. You need mentors that can help you move forward. No matter how independent you are, you need support systems. I would strongly encourage any Ph.D. student to consider support systems and mentorship as much as the ‘coolness’ of a project when they are deciding whether to join a lab. In your Ph.D., you can do something radically different to what you did your degree in. It may not seem like it because it’s so specialized, but you really can. Mentorship is so key for succeeding in graduate school.

Totally agree. You can be focussed, talented, and have every resource at your disposal but if the mentorship isn’t there... it makes things really difficult.
There is so much difficulty and complexity in getting a Ph.D., it is an endurance race. Having someone who can help guide you makes things so much easier both during your Ph.D. and afterwards as well!
What is your take on work culture in America – especially within academic research?
This is a fascinating question, I’m really glad you asked it. How we view work is a huge part of culture, period. I have also been really fascinated in exploring this as I have worked in several different countries. Work cultures can be radically different to the one we have in America. Here in the U.S., we prioritize industry. There is a lot to admire about the industriousness of American work culture, and it is a huge part of our identity. When you talk to an American, what’s one of the first questions they ask? “What do you do?”. We identify so heavily with our work identity. Who we are, what our professions are, and how good or not we are at doing that are all intertwined. In some ways, I think that is very beautiful. I have identified as a scientist for a long time, at least partly because of the mechanics of being a scientist and what that means. I really see it as a key part of American identity. That being said, it can get very toxic very quickly. Particularly in situations where there is a power dynamic amongst the people who are trying to embody the industrious work/life culture. We see that play out very clearly in graduate school. Unfortunately, the academic structure in the U.S. is such that graduate students still have very little power. If something goes wrong in the lab, if a P.I. does something ethically questionable, there still is not enough infrastructure to protect graduate students and keep them safe from the blowback. Often they’re the ones to get unjustly punished rather than the real perpetrators of that problem. When we think about what that means in terms of identifying and basing your worth, what you produce or what your job is, that means that graduate students can unfortunately suffer from that. 

Research has shown that human beings are only able to work so much. Despite cultural expectations, it is really hard to have results produced after 40-50 hours a week. And yet, there is still this unspoken expectation amongst graduate students that you need to be working 24/7. Produce produce produce. I was following that dynamic for a while. I was working insane hours, and then I would go home and dream about researching. It was this continuous thing where I couldn’t tell when I was awake and when I was dreaming… it was constant tension and anxiety. I remember confessing to that and I would hear things like “Ah! Now you’re a real Ph.D. student!”. I’m not going to swear on camera here, but that is insane! Let’s be honest, that doesn’t produce good science. It doesn’t. Science is a creative as much as it is an analytical process. It’s a different type of creativity to painting or sculpting, for instance, but there is a creativity that needs to happen there. You can’t be creative if you’re going on your third day of no sleep. There definitely needs to be more of a limit to the U.S. work culture, especially when thinking about science and graduate students. I think right now, unfortunately, a lot of the cultural expectations are unhealthy, and while they might produce some publications, they don’t produce the type of science that we really need.

…you can’t problem-solve when you are exhausted, or at least I can't!
You can’t! When we think about some of the most world-shifting discoveries that have happened within the past few decades, more often than not, they’ve come from a scientist who was on a walk, staring out their window, or in the midst of doing something that wasn’t strictly research-oriented. They had the mental space needed to see a problem from a different angle. It can be an uphill battle to get that space in American culture and I wish that we could learn from folks in Latin America and Europe who have appreciated that rhythm a little bit more. It doesn’t have to mean abandoning our industrious 'gung-ho' attitude. It is something so ingrained in American identity and while I do love that, I think that we need to be a little more tempered in how we express that around science.

What would be your advice to a junior scientist aspiring to do a Ph.D. in your field of research?
I think that a good scientist should be defined not just by their research excellence but also how well they partner with the societies they are trying to serve. There is a long and disappointing history of colonialism in the realm of tropical medicine. The phrase ‘tropical medicine’ itself is a colonial one. It’s this idea that we parachute into countries that have diseases that we don’t have in the U.S. anymore, or never had. We treat these individuals in these communities from a knowledge-deficit model where they essentially know nothing, we know everything. We unload our knowledge on them, we extract the data, and then we leave. We don’t invest in those communities, we don’t partner with those communities, we don’t acknowledge that they actually know way more than we ever could about what those diseases look like. 

For anyone emerging into this field: we need a cultural shift from a diversity-equity-inclusion and justice standpoint. We need to stop treating our collaborators and the communities that we serve as subjects. They are our partners and we have to stop thinking from that colonial perspective. I would encourage aspiring Ph.D. students to identify where in their thinking frameworks they still hold onto those colonial perspectives around science because we all do – it’s inescapable. Identify them, actively work to break them down, and work in a partnered fashion to stop these diseases. Otherwise, we are just going to be repeating the same ineffective cycles that we have in decades gone past.
Even in recent times, we know that partnership is the approach that we should be using. But when the rubber hits the road, people fall back on ye olde standards, because of the mounting pressure to get the data, the publication, and more grant funding. I am really encouraged by the fact that more grant providers are now stipulating, “Hey, you want this grant money? You need to provide evidence that your research team is going to be composed like *this*, and that you are going to be approaching science in *this way*. You need to provide reporting, or you’re not going to get this money”. Without those kinds of structural changes, it’s so easy for people to revert to old, bad approaches.

What is it like doing your Ph.D. in the beautiful state of Colorado?
It really is quite a lovely place to live. I have lived all over the place, within the U.S. and abroad, and I’m grateful that Colorado is where I landed for my Ph.D. Academia still has the same problems here as everywhere else, but people really believe in work-life balance here. They are working hard in the lab because they want to get outside. They want to go rock climbing, hiking, backpacking… and so when they’re gone… they’re really gone! There is a peace that comes with that. It’s not as much work to convince people that I want to be a good scientist and a healthy human being. That is a huge blessing. 

People in Colorado are generally very relaxed, calm, and friendly. In addition to having this beautiful outdoors, there are beautiful people too. When I was interviewing for my Ph.D., I thought, “Alright, I’m going to wear my nice dress shirt and my hair is going to be put together”. We got on the Zoom call, and there was the head of my microbiology department in a flannel shirt, hiking pants, and Chacos. It really set the tone (laughs). We are at conferences in flannel and that’s how we do it. There’s kind of this mantra of “I’m going to wear my nice hiking pants today!” (laughs). It was an adjustment at first, but it has made for a really fun, nice place to be.

So Lyndsey, how do you hope to see the scientific landscape change for women-identifying scientists going forward?
I am so proud of the progress that we have made in the past 5-10 years in getting women into science and making it more accessible to women-identifying scientists. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how far we still need to go. NASEM just came out with a report basically showcasing the ‘brain drain’ that we have had. Women-identifying scientists have suffered more from the pandemic, and in many cases have had to leave academia because of it. The infrastructure is still not in place to provide the community and the mental health support needed. There is little space for those providing caregiving for children or other relatives. Women-identifying scientists are more-often faced with decisions about whether to be in the lab, or be at home for their child’s birthday or something along those lines. There are still so many expectations within academia that are so exclusionary towards women. At the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that academia was built and founded as a male-only institution. Everything we are doing now is to adapt a system that was purposefully designed not to work for us. That is a historical legacy that we have to acknowledge. 

If I had to just say one thing, I hope to see a change in the ‘publish or perish’ culture. We have to get rid of it. We can’t continue to adhere to this because it is disproportionately exclusionary for people of colour, first generation scholars, and women. It is so hard to publish science even when everything is going well, even when you have landed in that sweet spot of having the project that lets you publish. Often, there are going to be things that are out of your control. That expectation is so damaging and so disparaging to self-worth and the ability to professionally grow for those that don’t fall within the standard demographic boxes that academia was designed for. We need to shift the weight from that. We have to value negative results as much as the positive ones. We have to value scientists and if we must base our worth on what we produce, it should also more heavily weight metrics like mentorship in addition to publication history. We have to value the ideas that we generate, the lines of inquiry that we facilitate, and the different ways that we communicate and publish science. It doesn’t just have to be manuscripts, it could be op-eds, outreach, or teaching. We are upholding a standard of measuring excellence that is catered to a very specific group of people. It makes it easier for people who are outside that group to leave academia, and it prevents them from bringing the best parts of their identity to science. Why try to make people fit into a box that is too small for them? Make it bigger.

Shift the metrics! It’s long overdue.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?

I want to acknowledge my whole writing team. They are the most supportive, incredible, and passionate people. They are working to make the world a better place. I want to give a special shout out to the two women who wrote alongside me - Amrita and Kathy – who are great friends and great support systems. They are both so passionate about taking science out of the laboratory and shaping policy with it. I’d also like to thank my local GWIS chapter. I am stepping down from being the President, and Katie Rocci is now taking the lead. The GWIS community was a source of support and encouragement, not just as I explored what it meant to go into science/diplomacy but also in navigating the bumps and hurdles of graduate school. They have always been there for me. I really encourage anyone to invest in your local GWIS community or find one that can fill that support role, even if it’s not GWIS.


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