Juan M. Barajas - Bringing yourself to work: Embracing our Identities in STEM

Asking what I do or where I come from is a loaded question. I am currently a graduate student studying RNA biology at The Ohio State University, but I am also a brother, friend, son, scientist, fiancé, fruit grower, and Mexican. All of these identities directly impact how I view the world, and how I do my work. Recently, it has become more apparent that the further I advance in my career, the more difficult it can be to balance all of these identities. As under-represented minorities (URM) in STEM, is vital for us to celebrate what makes us unique and diverse and stop ourselves from leaving behind these identities just to fit in with what we expect a scientist should be or how they look.

Identity crisis is something that URMs constantly struggle with as we progress in STEM fields. These feelings often force us to speak and portray ourselves differently in the lab than at home. This phenomenon feels like hanging up your identity when you walk into work. My first real struggle resolving my identities occurred early on in graduate school. I was the only URM working on our lab’s floor. At the time, I felt like there were very few moments in the lab when I could express my Mexican side, and if I did, it could feel very isolating. For example, when the White House decided to phase out DACA, I was the only person on the floor with a family member directly impacted by this decision. Members in my lab could not relate to this the way that I did. It quickly became more comfortable to not include these conversations, along with other aspects of my identity, in my life as a scientist. I continued to “check out” my Mexican-ness at the door. Even though I did not feel direct pressure from my peers and mentors to change who I am, the lack of representation indirectly contributed to my feelings of inferiority in science. I value my Mexican identity, so I felt like this was not the right approach to becoming an excellent Mexican scientist and took proactive steps in an attempt to correct this.

Recently, I have begun to be more vocal about my experiences and tried to include some of my identity in the lab. When possible, I listen to Mexican and other Latino music and I have decorated my workspace with items that remind me of home, like my day of the dead calavera mug and a picture of my family from our most recent trip to Colorado. I also sometimes end my lab meeting presentations with a little bit of my personal life, where I include things like pictures of my vacation, books I have been reading not related to science, or my activities over the weekend.  I was surprised how interested other lab members are in learning about my culture. Also, reaching out to mentors and other Latino scientists that look more like me has helped tremendously. For example, SACNAS is an incredible organization and community that has connected me with other mentors and given me the opportunity to reach out to students that may be facing a difficult time. My SACNAS chapter has bi-monthly meetings that usually include a social event. Having this personal connection to other URM scientists has been crucial. Additionally, Twitter and LinkedIn have also been incredible resources for connecting with and reaching out to other scientists.  These platforms enable direct contact with a community of scientists from all over the world who would otherwise be out of reach.

A great role model of mine once told me that me that identities do not subtract from but add to who we are. We are all of our identities, and for this reason, they should be a part of you in everything that you do. I believe diversity initiatives have made an admirable effort and many excellent programs help lift minority students towards successful science institutions. However, that only covers half of the equation as long as there is inadequate support and diversity is not celebrated. What good is to look different if we all feel pressure to act the same? It is an advantage to have our unique experiences that offer new perspectives on how we approach everyday problems. I believe we are on the right path. As we continue to look for opportunities for improvement, images of what great scientists look like will begin to include more of us.


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FEATURED AUTHOR

JUAN M. BARAJAS

He was born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He and his family immigrated from Mexico to the United States when he was just a year old. They settled in Colorado where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Colorado Mesa University. During his undergraduate training, he was introduced to research at The Saccomanno Research Institute through a work-study program. Juan is currently a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. His thesis work focuses on studying RNA biology in liver disease. He is currently a member of The Ohio State SACNAS chapter, mentor for the Discover-PREP and Aspire program, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Gilliam Fellow.