This is part of a series of blog posts explaining our push for centering mentoring in academia. We are organizing a meeting in Chicago in June 2019 to take action – you can learn more about the effort here.
This is a guest post by a member of the FoR Board of Directors, Juan Pablo Ruiz.
I became interested in the systems in which we train scientists early on in my PhD. While I was lucky to find myself with supervisors who did not perpetuate abusive or egregious behaviors and were supportive of my passions and interests, I also found myself working really closely with colleagues who were in abusive environments where they were continually harassed and taken advantage of. My biggest frustration (and anger), came when I realized not only how institutionalized and prevalent these toxic behaviors were, but how indifferent those at my department were towards the issue. Those with the power to do so, while aware of the problems, were unwilling to step in and put an end to the behaviors, despite having had various folks make official complaints and knowing all trainees from that lab had either left academic science or scientific careers altogether. The psychology term to describe the attitude I found at the institute was “learned helplessness,” where not a single person, at any level, thought they had a power to bring about change.
Through a Peer Support training program at Oxford, in which I was trained to offer mental health support to other students at my college, I also realized the degree to which my colleagues were suffering from mental health issues. I myself was dealing with depression and anxiety, though it didn’t become unsustainable until much later in my training. I was having many conversations with fellow trainees about these issues, and decided to start a blog, www.Labmosphere.com, to provide a space in which PhDs and postdocs could not only provide anecdotal evidence of the many problems systemically present in academic training, but could also find solidarity and support in their suffering and discuss ways to bring about effective change.
It became clear to me that the reason many, especially those from underrepresented minorities, were leaving science was cultural and systemic, as opposed to a lack of trainees from these demographics entering the system, and that many funding agencies were trying to fix the problem from this angle. The perfect analogy for this is a fish tank in which all the fish are dying and, rather than changing the water in the tank, the owner keeps putting fish into the tank, and studying those who died, claiming that there was a need to increase “resiliency” in these populations (credit goes to the HelloPhD podcast for this analogy).
The more involved I became in the topics of mentoring, mental health, and academia, and the more conversations I had with trainees, the more I realized that there was a need for direct attention and efforts to bring about change, and there were those interested in these topics out there. At this time, I became involved with Future of Research (FoR), eventually ending up on their board of directors, and served on an NIH working group for the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI). Working in this sphere and trying to drive change has had its share of frustrations, especially because there is much to do in a system that is deeply entrenched in its ways and continues to support those who would produce flashy, copious data at the expense of the careers, mental health, and creativity of their trainees. But it has, ironically, given me the most interesting scientific question and challenge I have had the pleasure of coming across: how to drive systemic change in a data-driven way. Which is why I consider myself privileged and blessed to be starting a Postdoc with the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) to study mentor/mentee training environments, as well as continue to work with FoR to drive these much needed changes.
Two weeks ago, I told Dr. Francis Collins and the rest of the ACD publicly that I, like many, refused to be a part of a broken system and was leaving academic biomedical science, in this case to try to fix it from the outside (as outside as academic social science can be considered), contrary to much of the mainstream advice I had received in the past, urging me to bring about change from within. It hit me then that I demographically fit the statistics of those who left quite distinctly: Latinx, queer, first-gen, and on the autism spectrum, I represent an intersection of populations that leaders in STEM education are even now trying to figure out how to retain. For how grateful I am for my experiences at the bench and in advocacy, they’ve also shown me how much work is needed. Hence my new career track. Until leaders of funding agencies, institutes, and professional societies alike recognize the kinds of changes that need to be made, I can produce and publish the data that informs decisions, efforts, and ultimately, the change that is much needed.