Being Brave: Having a marginalized identity in STEM

by Emma Corcoran

As a mixed-race, queer woman with an invisible disability, I always have a hard time feeling like I belong anywhere. Over the past four years, I have suffered two traumatic brain injuries that have left me with permanent symptoms including chronic pain, fatigue, and anxiety. There are days when I feel pretty good, and I can go about my life without many issues. On other days, the pain gets so bad that I have to turn off all the lights and lie in silence for hours, with nothing to distract myself. However, none of these struggles that I face are apparent on the surface. Most people meeting me for the first time assume that I am a perfectly healthy individual, leading them to make harmful assumptions about what activities I can do.

When I arrived at graduate school, I quickly became isolated and adrift. It was incredibly hard for me to form meaningful friendships in a social scene centered around drinking and overworking oneself, and it was difficult for me to find someone that I could identify with. It was only through the tremendous support of my girlfriend and my family that I was able to persist through the first few years of graduate school, and I was very fortunate to have those people around me. While I do believe that certain facets of my identity made my experience in graduate school more difficult, I also believe that they serve as one of my greatest strengths. I bring a unique viewpoint whenever I enter any room at my university, and I can relate to the experiences of the undergraduate students that I teach in ways that many of my colleagues cannot.

One of the most affirming moments of my entire graduate school career was when I received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2018. I worked for many months on that application, including taking part in a peer review group with other graduate students applying for the fellowship. A frequent refrain that I heard among some members of my peer review group was that unlike me, they had nothing “unique” about themselves that they could “use” on their applications. The implication to me was clear: they believed that I was using my marginalized identity in my application to help me get the fellowship.

As I sat there listening to one of the straight, cisgender white men complain about his privilege, I wondered if he had any idea what it would be like to live a week in my body. They had no idea the journey that I had been through to get to where I was, nor the pain and disparaging behaviors that I endured every day. Earlier that year, my girlfriend and I had been honked at and followed by a car down an empty street for several blocks when the man driving it saw us holding hands. It was the middle of the day, but I was afraid for our safety, and how that small sign of affection could cause us to be targeted. The year before, I had almost given up on pursuing a career in research when multiple students and professors at my interviews suggested that I was lazy for being unable to work longer hours, and that I would never succeed with the accommodations that I require.

Due to their comments, I began pushing myself past my physical limits, which only made my health decline. On the day of this peer review session, I remember vomiting in the bathroom from the physical pain I was in and the anxiety about whether I would be able to make it to the session. Perhaps if these students in my peer review group understood my experiences, they would see how my identity shapes everything about me, and was important to discuss in my application.

In the end, I was awarded the fellowship and they were not. I briefly wondered if those students would think that I received the award because of my scientific capabilities, or simply because of my marginalized status. Nonetheless, I felt invigorated by the fellowship committee’s response to my application. For the first time since I entered graduate school, someone in a position of authority had told me that my story matters, and that these parts of myself that had caused me pain also gave me a perspective that would be a valuable addition to science.

I spent a long time trying to hide certain aspects of my identity for fear of how I would be treated and of experiencing negative consequences to my career. I can’t deny that I am treated differently when people find out that I am dating a woman, or when they learn about my chronic pain and fatigue. But at this point, I have decided to be open about my life, because it could help someone like me who is looking for a role model or mentor, or simply to find a friend that can relate. At the same time, I believe that our institutions need to drastically improve their policies towards the recruitment and retention of students from marginalized communities. There is only so much that we can do to protect ourselves from the emotional toll of marginalization at the individual level, and to make scientific communities more accepting of marginalized identities that come after us.

I don’t know whether my choices to be vocal about my identity and my experiences will harm my chances at a career in academia. I would be lying if I said that I was not discouraged by how few scientists from marginalized communities, especially women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities, I see in positions of authority. But I know that I would be overjoyed to have access to a single scientific mentor with a background at all similar to my own. I hope that I can be that person for younger scientists, and give them the advice that I wish I had received. Because of them, I have decided to be brave.


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FEATURED AUTHOR

Emma Tung Corcoran

Emma is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University. She received her bachelor’s degree from Brown University, where she discovered her interest in plant molecular biology. She currently works on plant epigenetics and is passionate about mentoring students from marginalized communities. In her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing, and watching competitive cooking shows. Feel free to reach out to her at emma.corcoran@yale.edu.