environmental justice

LISTEN: Navigating the environmental health field as women of color

Two senior Agents of Change fellows discuss their experiences and offer tips for other early career women scientists.

Senior Agents of Change fellows Dr. Lariah Edwards and Dr. Theresa Guillette discuss their experiences and challenges—and offer advice—as women of color navigating the environmental health field.


Edwards, a postdoctoral scientist working jointly at the George Washington School of Public Health and the Environmental Defense Fund, and Guillette, an Environmental Scientist II at Arcadis, also give tips on how to practice self-care and advocate for yourself as an early career researcher.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to their discussion, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Alright, on today's show, former fellows Dr. Lariah Edwards, a postdoctoral scientists working jointly at the George Washington School of Public Health and the Environmental Defense Fund, and Dr. Theresa Guillette, an environmental scientists at Arcadis, take over the podcast to talk about what it's been like for them as women of color, navigating the environmental health field. Enjoy.

Lariah Edwards

So welcome to the Agents of Change podcast. My name is Lariah Edwards and I am joined by my colleague…

Theresa Guillette

Theresa Guillette.

Lariah Edwards

And we're two women of color, both environmental health scientists at early stages of our careers. I am a Black woman, currently studying chemicals in consumer products and in fast foods doing a postdoc at GWU and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Theresa Guillette

And I am a Hispanic woman in environmental science. I did a previous postdoc at the EPA and now I'm working in environmental consulting on PFAS remediation.

Lariah Edwards

So we're both studying chemicals, we're both early in our careers. And we wanted to take a bit to reflect on the experiences that we've had as women of color, navigating the environmental health field. We've had some similar challenges, but also some differences. And grad, school and this early phase of your career, can already be hard enough. But we feel like there are unique challenges that we face as women of color, particularly in a field that's largely dominated by white men. So in our Agents of Change fellowship sessions, I remember Theresa first introduced herself as TC. And she spoke a bit about why that was the case. And now to this day, I alternate back and forth between emails calling her Theresa and TC for no reason in particular, it just stuck out to me.

Theresa Guillette

Yeah, so one issue I felt early on was that using my name in publishing, I felt like switching to a gender neutral name kind of really helped with my grant and peer reviews. I think this really speaks to the double challenge that being a person of color and woman in this field, face because we're both dealing with aspects of racism and sexism. Lariah recently your Agent of Change essay remarked on the emotional toll that people of color face within this field while doing EJ work. Can you expand a little bit on that?

Lariah Edwards

Yeah, honestly, that is something I never would have thought about before joining the environmental health field. And I kind of wish I would have known that I'd face this really unique challenge that can also be very isolating. And while I think it's great that businesses and diverse organizations are focusing more on diversity and equity, inclusion, you know, just doing it doesn't make it great. Sometimes it can be done poorly.

Theresa Guillette

Yeah, I definitely agree with you. I think that some of these organizations really tend to put everyone in the same box: either you're a person of color or you're not. And so I think highlighting both our similarities and differences with regard to our career trajectories within this field as important as we really don't have the same backgrounds. And so, here we wanted to touch base on a couple of main points that we wish we would have known at the start of our early careers. One of them, I think, is to create a community within an isolating environment. I moved from a undergraduate university, which was a primarily Hispanic serving institution, to a graduate school that had less than 1% representation for Hispanic scientist. This was a huge culture shock for me, not even just moving from San Antonio to South Carolina. And one of the things that I did to try and mitigate this really kind of isolating environment was stayed in contact with my undergrad mentors during this time, and participated in several conferences like the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science during graduate school. I also sought out multicultural events and really tried to start to develop my voice as a Hispanic scientist. So, Lariah, writer, you maybe had a similar but different background with moving from an HBCU to a different university for graduate school. Can you talk a little bit about that difference? Was it really hard to adjust in the beginning?

Lariah Edwards

Absolutely, I moved from a historically Black college in North Carolina to a private university, Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. And everything about that transition was very, very hard. I was the only Black PhD student for the entire time I was there. My department did have one Black faculty member and a few Black staff members, but overall, it was just it was a lonely experience. And Boston as a city, I feel like, you know, Boston proper doesn't reflect the diversity that there actually is here in the city. So both within school and outside of school there, it's just difficult for me to create a community that really understands my experiences as a Black woman.

Theresa Guillette

Were there any particular conferences or organizations that helped you navigate early on within graduate school to help kind of ease some of this isolation?

Lariah Edwards

You know, for the first few years, actually, most of my time there, not as much. I didn't reach out to, you know, conferences, organizations, then there wasn't really much there. I believe BU didn't develop a diversity organization for students until my first year there. And again, those students were mostly masters students who, after two years of the program, they would leave, and so there was always this, you know, rotating door of students of color coming in. So it was just harder being one of the only, one of the only students of color in the PhD program, and the only Black student of color in my department’s PhD program. But I remember I did go to, you know, the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students as before joining grad school, so that helped. And then I also want to SACNAS one year, which I think you mentioned, you went to as well, Theresa.

Theresa Guillette

Yeah, some really great organizations. Um, one other point that I think I really want to bring up too, is that, I think universities really tend to pile all the DEI initiatives on to people of color. And so I would really caution people with overcommitting to these specific things. Really, this is your career, and you should always put yourself first. You're going to get asked to do a million and one things and it is okay to say no and kind of really prioritize yourself and what you feel comfortable doing. I think the burden of fixing a system that is broken for people of color does not solely fall on us. Lariah, have you ever felt overwhelmed or “voluntold” to do specific things within universities that maybe just became a little bit too much sometimes?

Lariah Edwards

“Voluntold” is a really great way to describe that. But you know, I, that's not something I can say that I experienced. I actually didn’t participate in any diversity initiatives in graduate school because there really weren't any, to my knowledge. When I joined BU School of Public Health for my PhD in environmental health in 2013, I remember talking to another masters student at the time, who said that there wasn't a students of color organization and that she was starting it. So I would go to meetings. But I think, as I mentioned earlier, it was mostly meetings for the very large, you know, class of master's students that come in and do their program for two years and then leave and so, I was really missing that the type of diversity program that was there for doctoral students. And it wasn't until maybe two or so years ago that my department actually developed a diversity initiative and a department to focus on diversity and inclusion. So I, that's, that's something that's interesting, but that's wasn't an experience that I can speak to at least.

Theresa Guillette

Yeah, um, so I think another point that I wanted to really bring up to was, and I think this is something really that speaks to everyone, but particularly for people of color is to advocate for yourself. Within this, you're going to have a lot of comments and microaggressions that come up. And it's okay to stand up for yourself. I know, I know, a couple of early ones I had was in talking to different grad schools in different departments. One of the things that they, a couple of people would say would be, oh, well, you got that grant, because you're a minority, or you got this because you're this and that, just really kind of like, it can tear you down sometimes. But don't let it. I think you can stand up for yourself in an honest and nonconfrontational way. And the key to that is really learning good communication skills. I've had the benefit of being white passing. But I think sometimes this can be a double-edged sword, because people are very honest when they don't think any people of color are listening. So surrounding yourself with supportive people that are genuine, and just really caring individuals, is just essential, because all of these types of things and comments can really hurt your self-confidence. So Lariah, how did you find some support groups or people early within your research career?

Lariah Edwards

I was fortunate enough to have friends within the program, other doctoral students who were going through the program with me that were very supportive. And there and there were some people of color in the program, even if there were more any other Black PhD students, but I did find support amongst that group. And I just want to say you're, you're mentioning about, you know, being white passing, and that being a double-edged sword. That is something that, you know, I have not thought of. When you're talking about how you addressed confrontation, my first thought was, you know, when I address, attempt to address competition, like a workplace setting, or professional setting, I am always doing these mental Olympics about you know, how, how do I say this without, you know, playing into that ugly stereotype of being like an angry Black woman who's just yelling, and then everything I say, is just glossed over or just brushed off as I'm just being aggressive, or, you know, being problematic. So it's, it's different that we, it's interesting that we have these different things we go through in terms of confrontation, and, you know, dealing with microaggressions in the workplace. As you as you move into your job, how do you feel like, now that you're older? Do you feel more comfortable addressing these types of confrontations?

Theresa Guillette

I do. I think I have a lot more empathy, than I did early on. And I'm really trying to, to utilize that empathy to get at, you know, what some of these people are thinking when they say some careless comments sometimes. That's hard sometimes, right? Because I also have the stereotype of being that like, hot, Latin anger. And sometimes that does happen. So I do have to go and take a walk and just, you know, walk it off. And just come back to it at another point, but I think I've learned more patience than I ever would have thought possible. Um, so into that, you know, what are some red flags that I think really come up when you're choosing a lab or a workspace for you? You know, is it some offhand comments? Is it the just general vibe that you get from people? Like what are some things that you've noticed when transitioning to other labs or jobs?

Lariah Edwards

Yeah, it's, it really is hard to find those red flags is because, you know, ideally, you would see them in the interview and then never step into a toxic environment or place ever again. And I, I can't say I've nailed them down. But I think reflecting back on where I've been, and how those experiences were I now I'm starting to realize when I don't see people of color or, you know, women in leadership positions or in more senior roles. That to me can be a red flag of a tough environment that's not going to support me as I, as I move up. And I think when, sometimes, some of the offhand comments as well comes about, you know, how I wear my hair, and when it changes and the different styles I put in, I think, people who are less quick too make a big spectacle of expectable, those are green flag signs for me that this is maybe a place that I could feel comfortable being in.

Theresa Guillette

Oh, I like that term, green flags. That's definitely one that I will look for, going forward as well. So Lariah, why don't you touch base on a couple of points, from your perspective, on things that have helped you during this early start to your career?

Lariah Edwards

Absolutely, and you, you hit on some really, really great ones. And then your last point about advocating for yourself, I feel like that's a perfect, like segue into one of my really big points is asking for help when you need it. Because I think it's important as a healthy part of advocating for yourself, is recognizing when you need more help than you can give yourself. So maybe that means, it means different things based on your comfort level. But seeking help when you realize it is, you're overwhelmed, you're a bit underwater, and you need it, and it's outside of what you're capable of doing for yourself is important. So that could mean talking to a friend, that could mean going to therapy, that can mean a lot of different things. And grad school, I didn't have, I didn't have that group of other, a lot of other people of color who I could turn to and you know, we can, they will really understand my experience. And I needed help and didn't know where to turn. So at times, for me, it meant going to therapy for me, it meant going to speak to maybe the dean of the program to help me figure out how to navigate my mentors or trying to figure out a better strategy for myself. Did you have any issues like that Theresa, where you felt like you needed, you know, extra support, more than you can give yourself?

Theresa Guillette

Oh, absolutely, um, I think graduate school in particular is just one of those difficult times in your life where you're just questioning everything. I mean, you know, you learn that too, right? Because you're, you're learning how to question things. But I think some of the things that I did early on was finding a community of support through shared hobbies. So I really love photography. And so a couple of friends of mine would get together and we would go and spend a weekend photographing certain things. And those really were my getaways, and how I could just kind of connect back to myself and find some support in nature, which is kind of like how I find a lot of my support. So I think it can look, it can look differently for a lot of different people, but finding what works for you early on is so, so important.

Lariah Edwards

Now, that's, yeah, that's awesome. It sounds like your support, were having people that you could, you know, be yourself around and could, could reach out to. As you transition or, and move, move on in to your career. How do you, is that gonna look different in terms of, have you identified folks that maybe in your job you can turn to when you need that bit of extra help? How do you feel about that?

Theresa Guillette

Yeah, you know, the pandemic has kind of put a little bit of a pin in lot of different social aspects. And so now, in this time of remote, everything, it's been a little bit difficult to find those support networks. But your point of asking for help when you need it, and going and seeking that out is so, so important. Because, you know, sometimes it just takes one email to say like, hey, would you have time for a five to 10 minute chat on Zoom? I could just really use some advice on X, Y, or Z. And honestly, the, the hardest thing is reaching out, but once you do it and you actually talk to people that are supportive, and finding those people, it's, it's like a breath of fresh air. Like it's just a whole body reset. And so yeah, it looks a little different now, but um I think like everyone, I'm just learning my own thing too.

Lariah Edwards

You know what, you're right. Honestly, reaching out can be, can be the hardest part of this, which brings me to my next point: celebrate every milestone, every single bit of progress. So even, even if it's just emailing someone that you need to speak to for a bit of help, every little step towards the end goal is very important. And of course, when you're in graduate school, you're, particularly in a doctorate, you're working towards that degree that takes years, you often forget to celebrate the little moments that happened between those big, between, you know, starting and defending. And I know as for me, as a Black woman, I, I was raised with this well-meaning but inevitably, you know toxic, you know, mindset that I have to work twice as hard just to be half as good. And so I think that oftentimes led me to hustle and always be working towards that angle, “Okay, I gotta defend by you know, this number of years” and then start figuring out my next step. And I'm always so focused on the end goal, I forget the little moments in between. Something as simple as someone saying, hey, you did a great job on that first intro of your, of this paper, or that first draft, awesome, or even doing well at a presentation in my department. Those little things, I, I don't, I had a hard time celebrating them. It was only when friends and people in my support system forced me to celebrate them that I actually did. What about you, Theresa? Did you did you celebrate the little moments in grad school, you know, not necessarily the paper being published. But you know, the step, the step before that?

Theresa Guillette

Yeah, in grad school, it was a little bit harder. But in my, or my first postdoc, my, my mentor was actually really great for this. He created this box that we would put like happy moments in. And when he first introduced it, I have like, I was so cynical. I like, kick myself now. Because I was just like, whatever, like, what just another thing to do, like blah, blah. And now I look back on it. And I'm like ‘you genius!’, like, that's a great little thing, to just like put in some happy moments. And then, you know, at the end of my time, in that lab, we opened up the box, and like, I was tearing up at some of the things that the undergrads had put in there, and some of the things I'd put in there. And it was just like one of those things of like, self-reflection of like, yeah, you got to, you got to celebrate, you got to have a good time. And this, like the world is dark enough, like, you don't need to add to it. So yeah, I really liked that part of it. That was, that was so much fun. As well as like, you know, I think sometimes when we become mentors in our own right, we sometimes do more than we do for, we do more for others than sometimes we do for ourselves. And one thing that I always used to like to do was, whenever the undergrads had like a great thing, or one of the graduate students, while I was a postdoc, like, we just, I'd go and buy them a coffee, you know, like a, like a happy thing. Like, we’d just go and take a walk, and I'd grab them a coffee or a tea, and we just kind of like celebrate together. And like those little moments are something that like, still really sit with me, um, during hard times. And I remember them doing the same thing of like, when I had a milestone that reached, like, they would be like, oh, let's go get you a coffee. And so just those like little things of creating that community of positive moments is just, I think it's important.

Lariah Edwards

Oh, absolutely. And it's, I love the box idea. If I ever mentor students in my career, gonna use that. That's, that's great. And I know, it's, it's harder now, right, during COVID. I, you know, I don't, I'm not with my coworkers, we can't just go step out for a coffee, but I think now, as a postdoc, I do a better job of treating myself. So if I just did really well in a presentation, or even a meeting with my advisors, where I feel like I did a good job addressing all the points I wanted to address, everybody felt that they liked the plan I proposed. I’m like, okay, great. I was up late. I'm going to go take myself for a coffee. I'm gonna go for a walk. I'm going to cut out of work 30 minutes early today and then you know, start 30 minutes early tomorrow to treat myself like this. It is so important, just to give yourself a moment to recognize how far you've come. And then my last really big point is definitely one of these things where I admit is still a work in progress. So do as I say, not as I particularly do. But create a life outside of your, out of your work. I think, and Theresa can probably agree with this, or she might agree with this, that you know, you as environmental scientists, your work is meaningful, it's for the public good, you're trying to understand how this chemical causes a health effect, and you're trying to publish to maybe persuade policy, to get it to cause change, and you can get sucked up into that, and not have a life outside of that. And so it's important, I think, to devote time to your hobbies, or your personal interests, particularly to create some balance that pulls you away from your work and keeps you sane and healthy. And then you know, as you know, a person of color, I think this is even more important, because oftentimes, and our workspaces, we are maybe the, the only, the, the only women, the only person of color, the only woman and person of color, and you often don't feel comfortable showing up as your whole self at work. And so you're effectively presenting a part of you and then kind of hiding away another part of you, which is hard, and it, it's mentally exhausting, and it's straining. So I think when you have a life outside of work, where you can be fully present and fully yourself, it is bound to be good for your mental health. I'm sure if I looked up studies about this, I could probably find something saying it's good. It's good for your mental health. I know in grad school, it was it was hard. It's very, very hard. But I did Big Brothers Big Sisters for a year. And so I would meet my little sister at the community center near my apartment, and we would do crafts, we would talk about music, we would paint nails, and that was just, that was nice, to have a little bit of time outside of my work. And, Theresa, you mentioned earlier that you did photography in grad school, is that something you still keep up with that’s kind of like a hobby of yours, or something outside of work?

Theresa Guillette

I do. Yeah. I love photography. It's like one of my guilty pleasures. I definitely spend probably much more time and money on it than I should. But I think, I think it brings me a lot of balance. This year, I'm trying my hardest to get a photograph of a bear. So every year I do basically like one species that I want to photograph. I haven't had much luck, but there's still time. There's still time. So yeah, I think for me, I really love creative outlets, because I was a music major before going into science. And I think I still really miss that kind of performance art aspect of, of music. And so kind of delving into some creative hobbies, for me has been really great. And just adding a lot of self-worth and balance to my life that work can't fulfill all the time. And so I love your point of like kind of getting out and, and really becoming your full self. So I think here we've definitely discussed our perspective and tips to thrive in environmental health careers as both women and people of color. So these specific tips have helped us throughout our early research careers and are some things that we wish we would have known before jumping into this field. Obviously, these aren't the end all be all and following up, we would definitely love to hear from people on their tips for guiding people of color in research careers. So we'll be dropping some of these on our social media pages. But please comment with any questions and tips of your own.

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