Updates & Reflections from SciComm Collective

What we've been up to the past couple of months.

by SciComm Collective Members. Published on October 1, 2020.

It’s been a while. The last update we posted was all the way back in April, about one month into the full-blown pandemic. In the months that followed, we took a break from our responsibilities at SciComm Collective, as we all coped with the innumerable changes happening in our day-to-day lives. While life is hardly “back to normal” these days, our team has been itching to return to organising events, posting articles, and advocating for equity, diversity, and inclusivity through science communication.

But, before we resume activities, we wanted to share an informal update from all of SciComm Collective’s directors, to both acknowledge our absence as well as share our experiences and thoughts in regards to current events.

For most of us, projects and work had to be drastically adapted, if not completely interrupted in March. We dealt with changes and lockdowns by starting new hobbies, trying to find creative ways to stay occupied and to cope with the continuing uncertainty. We all grappled with mixed feelings of shock, anxiety, sluggishness, and loneliness. Then, in the wake of increasing protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality, these feelings were compounded with anger, frustration, and helplessness. The brew of emotions we all felt pushed each of us to individually take action in ways that felt most right, whether that was reflecting, learning, or organising (or all three). Our reflections have led us to further question the role of science in society, and to highlight where it is lacking in inclusive and equitable action. For some of us, science communication has felt like a useful tool to move through the social and political reckonings felt globally; for others, it felt better to distance from it. We are pushing for, and continuing to learn from, continued conversations on equity, diversity, and inclusivity. More concretely, we have developed internal Community Guidelines to apply and maintain these learnings. We look forward to building on these values to grow as a collective, and to produce new content and events in the future.

Read below for our individual answers.

What have you been doing since the beginning of the pandemic?

CF: At this point I feel like it has been a long time since the pandemic started and I had multiple chapters of my life during this time – finishing up my graduate course remotely, packing up and moving apartments, having my advisory committee meeting remotely, writing my thesis, taking a break after writing, getting back to research, packing up and moving apartments (again). Honestly, I haven’t felt the need to keep any more busy than I already am but I’ve been missing interacting with others a lot, so I’ve been calling my friends and family often, having virtual game nights, and making friends with the baristas at my new coffee spot.

EB: I’ve been trying to further my PhD project remotely. The pandemic interrupted what would have been an instrumental experiment and collaboration. However, I have still been able to make use of my time at home by taking a course to learn Python, and learning how to work with bacterial genomic data. Outside of working, I’ve mostly been walking around my neighbourhood, getting to know my roommate better, and doing a lot of reading.

EL: I feel super lucky to have a supervisor who has been unwaveringly flexible and understanding about my work – or lack thereof – since our shutdown in March. When we were in quarantine for several months, my sole focus was to get through the days, so I would switch between napping, reading, and taking walks. As the days got longer and brighter, I took up art and cycling again. The past couple of weeks have thus been an eclectic mixture of reflecting, non-stop Zooming, getting back into the lab, and transitioning to a new program. It feels like my brain is still stuck in the spring slush of April, but it’s slowly coming around.

DN: I’ve been trying to rest and survive, while simultaneously trying to complete my MSc and hopefully graduate in December. Since March, I have been working remotely, which involves a lot of Zoom calls, analyzing data, and reading/writing. More recently, I’ve been working on amending my research protocols and ethics to see what returning to the lab might look like. Outside of work, I’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing New Horizons and cooking/baking.

MS: My research project was adapted so that I can now work on it remotely. The nature of the project is a bit different, but I’m enjoying the work nonetheless. Outside of research, I’ve become an obsessive podcast listener. I’m subscribed to half a dozen news podcasts, and a handful of science, historical, and cultural podcasts. I’ve also picked up reading again – I borrowed a couple of books from a friend of mine, and the local library started up a contactless borrowing system. Overall though, I’ve been struggling to add back some structure and routine to my life.

VD: I work for an essential service, so I was lucky enough to continue working full-time throughout the pandemic. While it was hard to adjust to the changes in our structure at work, it was also reassuring to keep busy and continue a seemingly “normal” routine. But I still strongly felt the slow-down of life, and it gave me a chance to go back to a lot of hobbies. I’ve been reading more than I have in a while, go on surprisingly long walks, and cook all sorts of exciting treats (dumplings! naan bread! steam buns!). These days, I’m slowly seeing more people, going on more picnics, and getting back into a rhythm that is closer to life pre-pandemic.

How have you been feeling throughout the months, from the beginning of our shutdown, with the resurgence of the BLM movement, through other continuing crises, up to today?

EB: At the beginning of the pandemic, I was stressed and surprised at all of the fast changes that were occurring as everything shut down. I kept hoping it would end soon, but my hopes were constantly dashed. While I’ve adjusted, it’s been hard to see other people whose lives have been more negatively affected than mine. With the protests and anti-Black racism coming to the forefront, I became very overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. I spoke with a friend and reflected a lot to calm my anxieties and to make a personal action plan that I felt would make some sort of difference.

DN: As an introvert who loves working from home, I initially felt relieved I got to spend time at home working at my own pace. As I realized this wasn’t a two-week quarantine and that the world as we know it was falling apart, this quickly shifted to feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and mourning for plans and projects that are now lost. As I adapted to the new reality of staying home and not seeing friends in person, I started to feel more comfortable, but this was shattered again by the death of George Floyd and the subsequent surge in BLM protests and police brutality. This was a terrifying, infuriating and heartbreaking time for me, where I felt both angry and helpless. These feelings have dulled a bit with time, but are still there, combined with growing anger and frustration with how complacent many folks my age are being about COVID-19.

MS: There were some days when I just couldn’t focus my thoughts at all. Whenever I sat myself down to complete a certain task, my thoughts always wandered, I’d forget what I sat down for, and I’d wind up mindlessly scrolling through social media, not really retaining any information at all. This feeling of listlessness definitely worsened with media coverage of pandemic-related developments and the increased attention on anti-Black racism. I am now working on being more intentional with my media/information consumption, so that my attention and awareness towards issues of racism and other forms of discrimination are sustainable. I’m also learning to be more critical of the narratives that I do consume, and reflecting on how those narratives influence and contribute to the formation of my own opinions, beliefs, and behaviours.

CF: In general, I had been feeling lonely (I’m very extroverted, and was living alone for most of the shutdown period of the pandemic) and unmotivated with respect to my work (because writing a thesis is hard already and I didn’t even have a desk at home). Perhaps unexpectedly, I found myself more motivated in the wake of the protests following George Floyd’s killing. I found renewed motivation in seeing more people get involved in anti-racist work, and was able to find new groups to organize with. I am privileged to feel driven and charged right now rather than exhausted, as many of my Black and brown friends are, and have been trying to invest that energy into organizing, supporting, facilitating and learning with others.

VD: It’s been such a whirlwind of feelings. Adjusting with changes at work was hard – no one had a clear idea of what risks we were putting ourselves in, what safety measures were reasonable or not. The killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the BLM movement was another shock to the system, when it felt like work was finally settling. My first reaction was to fall back, and watch. I knew I needed to, and wanted to, take action, but I also was worried about doing it wrong. I learned and reflected a lot on the countless manifestations of anti-Black racism, and about my own intersections of oppressions and privileges. I’ve been listening and following the lead of Black friends. I am advocating, protesting, funding, supporting. I’m trying to do as much as it feels I should be doing, knowing full well that there will always be more.

EL: My headspace has shifted dramatically over the past six months. It was bewildering at first to see the evolution of the pandemic, the shortages of toilet paper, panic-buying at grocery stores, and the escalating number of positive cases in Montreal. When the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and others precipitated mass-scale protests, I was confronted with my own experiences of racism, as well as my own participation in perpetuating racism. I still feel conflicted about this opposing duality. I had to process my own trauma, my own feelings of oppression (alongside the intensifying protests in Hong Kong), while also recognising that I benefit from systemic privileges due to my light-coloured skin. And so altogether, I’ve been feeling very heavy trying to balance grounding myself and finding ways to uplift others. It’s still a work in progress; I’m learning so much as I go, and I really hope others who have this privilege do their part, too.

How was your perspective on science, and its role in our society, changed? How has your perspective on science communication changed?

DN: I’ve been sharply reminded that science as an institution is still thought to be separate from society by most of its members. This was most apparent following the murder of George Floyd, when few scientific institutions and science communication groups addressed the context of what was going on, proceeding with “business as usual.” While some awareness was raised through movements like Strike 4 Black Lives, this petered off. More recently, with the shooting of Jacob Blake, we can see that academics have not learned much, failing to respond appropriately again (at least from what I can see). The dangerous disregard for the collection of race-based COVID-19 data in Canada has also reminded me that so much more needs to be done to bring science out of a vacuum and onto the ground, where communities affected by the science can be consulted and have agency in the decisions concerning them. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve found my community as a Black scientist and budding science communicator. Over the past months, the move to online programming has allowed me to connect with people beyond my institution, whose values and goals align more with my own. Tragedy has also led to the birth of new communities, like Black in Neuro, which has brought me so much joy and support. I feel hopeful about my role as a scientist and science communicator going forward, as I feel that I’ve found the right network of mentors and allies.

MS: I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of science in society. Some of the questions I’ve been reflecting on:

  • What is the role of science in democracy?
  • What makes science valuable?
  • How has scientific knowledge been historically used?
  • Are we using it differently now?

It seems like scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly sought after or prized, especially since this pandemic seemed to turn everyone into amateur immunologists. But as much as I admire the curiosity of the scientific community and the rigour of the scientific process, I sometimes wonder if we’re expecting too much from science. I guess I’m just trying to remind myself that scientific expertise, although valuable, isn’t all that useful unless it’s paired with concrete action. I’m figuring out what an approach to science communication that accurately reflects the value of science, with all of its limitations, looks like.

VD: I had already been reflecting in the past year about the construct of Science (as an institution), and how it is inevitably shaped by the values and perceptions of our society. I wrote an article on the Philosophy of Science about just that. Being confronted with the increased advocacy against anti-Black racism, and having to think more critically about the white supremacist structures that perpetuate these injustices, solidified in me the belief that science is biased. I am more motivated than ever to look at science through a social and political lens, questioning the context in which research is done as well as its subsequent impact on marginalised communities. I think science communication becomes even more important in this case: not only to report and popularise scientific findings, but to push scientists and non-scientists alike to ask these important questions.

CF: I had been lurking around Science Twitter for a while before the pandemic, but I found myself engaging slightly more online during the pandemic as it became such a source of news, information, and connection with other scientists and stakeholders. I actually study viruses (but not closely related to anything SARS-CoV-2 at all!) so the general flux of info and interest in the field have felt really big. I definitely paid more attention to COVID-19-related science at the start of the shutdown, but then felt very overwhelmed by the constant reporting on the pandemic and ended up trying to shut out COVID-19-related news for a while. I also started to feel more uncomfortable talking about science with the non-science people in my life, because it started feeling like people were depending on me to form their opinions. In a time where science communication really matters and is being given more of a spotlight, I actually felt less comfortable communicating about science – and I’m not sure what that means for me right now.

EL: As a generality, my own relationship with science has surprisingly improved in the past few months. This positive development was in part due to having a safer space to operate within – a space that allowed me more distance from my deplorable master’s experience. Still, I find myself frustrated at the disjunct between science, science communication, and the communities impacted by both. I think there is a tremendous amount of inertia in science to consider populations affected by the research – whether graduate students working on the projects or patients with the disease of study or marginalized individuals who bear most of the burden – and to engage them in an ethical manner. In my opinion, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests synergised to highlight what is already sorely lacking in our social setup. Science and science communication can no longer remain in their white, cis-het-male, able-bodied, neurotypical-centric bubbles of operation. I have a lot of work to do myself in learning about how to make spaces safe and inclusive, and so I sit with many unanswered questions to contemplate.

What have you learned/are learning/would like to change?

EL: As a person of colour in a white society, I have always been lumped with other people of colour from different races/ethnicities. By extension, I’ve amalgamated each of our particular struggles into a neat package of “POC Problems.” The protests provided a very much-needed awakening for me in realizing that I hold many privileges because of my physical appearance and background (e.g., I have not experienced or really had to worry about racial profiling by police). I am realizing that I am ignorant of these privileges because I hold them, because they’re my only lived reality. Recently, I’ve been trying to be more conscious of the ways I’ve internalized what are deemed “normal” and “acceptable” in our society. I’m learning to question myself more, to challenge my own reflexes and assumptions, and to seek out scholarship that address the intersections of human identities and experiences. The biggest question I have for myself right now is how to balance this process with my own emotional baggage, which in and of itself can be a barrier to my learning. It’s still a huge question mark in my mind, but I’m hoping that letting them coexist will at the very least be an impetus for personal change.

MS: A lesson that I’ve been learning recently is the importance of staying humble. So much of the time, I do things with the intent of protecting my (fragile) ego, and I think that’s hindering me from doing my best. Ironically, my egoism manifests in shyness and an unwillingness to put myself forward, because I’m afraid that I’ll do something or say something that causes others to think badly of me. I’m working on accepting that I will inevitably make mistakes, that the important thing is how I address those mistakes. I’m learning how to respond to my own mistakes productively in a way that, again, does not serve to protect my ego, but focuses on how to redress the impact of my mistake and avoid making that mistake a second time.

DN: I am learning to take more space, to prioritize myself first, and to take time to process emotions instead of trying to fill my time with distractions. I’m also learning to speak to my frustrations and anger in a more productive way. Finally, I am learning to navigate how I am both privileged and marginalized, as a cis, biracial, able-bodied and financially secure woman.

VD: I am learning so much from my friends about the suffering caused by our existing oppressive systems, and about what can be put in place instead. I am learning so much about my own privileges–such as being ignorant of the extent of violence against Black and Indigenous people. I’m also learning to be better at using my voice and my privileges for advocacy. I am really driven to change the way that science is taught, because acknowledging systemic inequalities needs to begin within the system.

CF: I am learning about accountability as an act of kindness and forgiveness as a form of collective learning. I am learning more about abolition, not just of prisons, police and the carceral system, but as a system of thought and practice. They say the revolution starts at home, and I’m home a lot right now – so I guess I’m starting here.

*Image Description: Digital illustration of the colourful roofs (pink, blue and yellow) of Montreal apartments against a blue sky with pale clouds. Green vines creep up along the sides of the apartment buildings. Silhouettes of figures working indoors can be seen in the windows of the apartments.