A Job is Not an Ethnicity

In the 1950s, the first birth control pill, Enovid, was tested on Puerto Rican medical students who were told that they would not be allowed to graduate unless they participated in the trial. Poor and under-educated women were also included in the program. The trial was supported by Margaret Sanger, the eugenicist who founded Planned Parenthood (yes, that one), run by the eugenicist Gregory Pincus, and funded by the eugenicist Clarence Gamble (of Proctor and Gamble).

And yet, I am Puerto Rican, and I use birth control.

The birth control pill was strongly advocated for by eugenicists, who believe in using genetic concepts and ideas on humans in order to “better the human race.” I am using present, and not past tense, because eugenics is still alive and well. Practices and ill-understood studies are being incorporated into white supremacist narratives.

I would be lying if I claimed that I don’t think about this history every morning when I take my dose, but I still take it. The benefits which birth control has given countless people cannot be overstated. A science founded on Puerto Rican bodies, steeped in colonialism and eugenics, has also provided innumerable benefits to the human population.

The same can be said for my field as a whole: genetics.

I am a geneticist. I have sequenced DNA and created a “family tree” of my fungus. I have genetically modified bacteria and fungi using gene editing, deletion, insertion. I have manipulated chromosomes. I have submitted my DNA to Ancestry out of curiosity. I get excited when I see DNA designs on shirts, and I have genetics-themed stickers on my laptop and personal planner.

But modern genetics was founded on the pillars of eugenics. Millions of dollars have flowed into genetics in support of eugenicist studies, and those studies were in turn used to support eugenicist laws and policies.

My field is sluggish to respond to this charge. Every year, geneticists are becoming more willing to openly discuss these realities, and scientific societies are beginning to reckon with their past.

My career is in part founded on racism via eugenics, racism via outright exclusion of Black and other minorities, racism in the funding patterns, racism in the academic gate-keeping of higher education.

So I know that there’s a problem. Now what do I do?

My role as a geneticist, if I truly believe in the potential of the field, is to listen when indigenous peoples tell me ancestry kits are ridiculous. My role is to read up and learn the history of my field and understand why particular ethnic populations do not trust medicine generally and genetics in particular. If I truly believe that genetics has a worthy place in society, then my role is to work with my fellow scientists to face our past and present, to press and work and strive for a better future. My role is to sit down and shut up when the person who knows more than me is speaking, and to take a stand when I’m the only one in the room who knows at all. My role is to openly speak of the oppression which Black people, Latinx people, indigenous people, genderqueer people, disabled and mentally ill people have faced and continue to face because of my field.

My role is not to declare #notallgeneticists. My role is not to ignore the discrimination, the outright harm and death which have been forced on populations because they were deemed genetically unfit. The continued arguments for sterilization of the poor and unfit, the continued insistence that certain ethnicities just aren’t as smart, aren’t as hard working, aren’t as human. My role is not to insist that it’s impossible to imagine a world without eugenics, that the blatant patterns cannot be overcome, that genetics needs more funding in order to truly combat internalized racism and eugenics concepts.

If I decide one day that I can no longer face these difficulties, that I can no longer stand being rightfully criticized by the wronged peoples of society…then I can quit. Genetics is my field. Genetics is my job. I am passionate about genetics, and I love my science. But in the end, when the paycheck comes in, genetics is a job I can choose to walk away from. Even with how deeply I love this field, even with how hard I worked and continue to work – I can always walk away if it becomes too much. Many geneticists of color have before me, and until the culture of the genetics field changes, many more will in the future.

At the end of the day, when I turn off my laptop and stop working as a geneticist, I am still a Puerto Rican. I cannot choose not to be a Puerto Rican. I cannot opt out of my heritage and the historical and modern oppression that includes. I cannot pretend that Puerto Rico isn’t undergoing colonialism right now, as you read this, and has been repeatedly traumatized by the colonial mainland which currently claims it. I cannot pretend that my parents didn’t experience direct outright racism, that my brothers and I have not, that my nieces don’t have difficult conversations with their peers and teachers.

This reality is not something I can opt out of. I cannot turn off my laptop and stop being Puerto Rican.

But if I felt genetics got too hard…

If I felt that I couldn’t take the constant criticism, the call-outs, the political calls to defund science…

If I truly, honestly felt that everyone pointing out eugenics was wrong, ill-informed, focusing on the wrong topic…

If I could look at Black and other populations who have been hurt and continue to be hurt by my field and say, #allgenesmatter…

I could just, you know.



Reading and Viewing List

Puerto Rican Birth Control Trials:








Modern Eugenics:

Outright Eugenics in the New York Times:

A response:



White Supremacists Using Genetics:




The “Rise” of Race Science (it never went away):


My “ethnicity estimate” and why it doesn’t say what you think it says:




Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Session from The Allied Genetics Conference





How do you explain microaggressions?

The Example

A few years ago, I worked with someone who would steal snacks from my office desk.

As a graduate student, my time and money are limited. There is only so much I can set aside to purchase snacks, even when visiting the Dollar Store. In fact, the very reason I visit the Dollar Store for cheap snacks is because of the low amount I can afford to pay. The person who stole these snacks from me was a former graduate student, and so had a background which seemed to mean they should understand why this was a problem, but they still stole my snacks.

I didn’t notice at first because they would only steal when I wasn’t in the office, and I had never thought to take inventory of my office snacks. I ran out of them faster, but assumed this was my poor memory. I just forgot how much I had eaten and needed to buy more sooner than expected.

One day, my officemate texted me to say they were eating some of my snacks. I asked them not to and said I would prefer they not take my snacks in the future. So now, we both knew they were stealing my snacks, and I told them I would like them not to steal from me.

But they didn’t stop.

Now I was buying snacks more often and worrying about them stealing my snacks. I adjusted my budget to account for buying snacks more often and asked them to help pay for the snacks. They didn’t offer to help, and even though they kept stealing, they never contributed to new snack purchases. They even began to rely on my snacks for their lunch, and even stopped eating their own lunch depending on what I had in my desk.

One day as I walked into the office, they were in the process of stealing at that very moment. They leapt across the office back to their seat and looked guilty in their chair. I was fuming, and it took me the rest of the day to calm down from catching them in the act. I decided to stop buying snacks altogether, and until they left for another job, had nothing in my desk for when I forgot to bring lunch or needed a snack in between meals.

I expressed my anger to another co-worker, who found the entire circumstance funny, particularly how angry I was about what was happening. This co-worker was also a victim of the thief, but a higher income gave them more leeway to find humor in something that had dramatically impacted my life. I asked them if they had changed any of their behaviors in regards to keeping food in the office, and they said yes. I told them all the ways I had changed my own behavior, and how this impacted my finances. They still found everything funny, although they at least said they hadn’t thought of the changes over time being a problem before I pointed this out.

To this day, these events anger me. When I think about walking into the office, after having specifically asked the thief to stop taking my snacks, to see them caught in the act and leaping across several feet of space to try and pretend they hadn’t been caught stealing, a part of me reacts viscerally and wants to confront them about this all over again, even years later.

This is something I think about every time I buy snacks for work: do I need to worry about another co-worker stealing from me? Are these negative memories and feelings going to go away one day?

I think about this every time I see the snacks I normally buy in stores, sitting on the shelf. I’m not buying them, but there are memories associated with them now.

And every time I open my drawer for a snack, I’m reminded again of the anger I felt. I’m reminded that outright asking for them to stop stealing from me didn’t work, and that I spent money to feed them for months, which they never offered to repay in any way.

I carry the memories of losing money, food, and time to someone who wasn’t concerned with how this impacted me, and my behavior continues to reflect these memories. I am hesitant to buy snacks now. Instead I try to bring them every day from home, which requires me to remember to pack them and remember to bring my lunch bag when I leave my house. I rarely offer to share anymore, as I know this can be seen as an open invitation to steal from me. This has nothing to do with my current co-workers, who would not behave this way and who I can trust not to rummage through my desk when I’m not at work.

But, my memories whisper, they might. And so the caution remains.

This is similar to how microaggressions work.

I present this story as a metaphor to explain to those who don’t understand what microaggressions are, why they are a problem, and how they can impact someone’s life in ways which you cannot see or may even find to be an overreaction.

Small insults, little hurts. These accumulate over time and lead to changes in your behavior. You change your behavior to prevent someone from stealing what seems like small amounts of your patience. Others don’t even see the problem, or treat the problems as though the immediate small impact is the only impact. They can’t see how deeply offended you are, even if someone is stealing actual possessions from you. Or they find your anger funny and laugh about the situation. So you also spend time explaining that these small amounts actually contribute to a significant amount of time, anger, and behavioral changes on your part.

And you remember. For weeks, months, years, you remember how you felt, how you tried to ask them to stop and they didn’t, how you tried to explain the problem to someone who just found the entire circumstance funny, or thought you were oversensitive.

And so the caution remains.

If a woman has done a good job, in a role that you consider “feminine,” how does that make you feel?

Sometimes the frustration builds up, until I am shocked into complete silence.

I spent the past year working with a science communication and outreach student group as the president, building up the program into something sustainable and ultimately passing this project on to a new team, including the vice President stepping into the role of President. My team worked hard, sometimes putting in 10-20 hours a week of their own volunteer time because they believed strongly in the mission of the organization. We have a strong, diverse team of leaders, and when I passed on the torch the team consisted of four women and one man, who happened to be my VP and who more than earned his place as the leader to keep the momentum going.

I am proud of this achievement. I am proud of the team who took on the cause behind me, and I am moved to tears when I see how hard they continue to work, how successful they continue to be, and how much passion and drive they are willing to show for work which they receive no compensation for. The outpouring of support from these students has inspired me, and has also touched the hearts and minds of the public with whom they speak.

There was an incredible amount of time and effort spent to run this organization, and that work mostly involved women. So imagine my surprise when it was a woman who claims to be a strong proponent of woman-led initiatives who dismissed the work we had done by saying this when I talked about how excited I was to have such a strong representation of women in the leadership team which followed me:

“There’s a lot of women in science communication, huh? I guess the patriarchy said that women are allowed to do outreach.”

I wish I could say that I replied strongly, that I said no, actually it was our hard work that built this. But I stood in shocked silence, unable to process what she had just said. Dismissing my and my team’s work as “women’s work” in a strangely passive-aggressive, circular way. This white woman, saying to the face of a woman of color, that the only reason her work had been allowed to have value was “the patriarchy.”

These types of comments are not uncommon. Recently, a piece published in Science called Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach touched on the same sentiments: women are doing this work, and therefore is it inherently less valuable than other work they could be doing. And similarly to the comment above, the piece and the emotions behind it originated from a white woman, and the piece directly named and stigmatized a woman of color who is doing science outreach using multiple social media platforms (follow her at @heyscienceSam !).

There have been other women who have spoken eloquently on why this is an issue, who I will link here. This is not intended to replace their words, or add to the wonderful outpouring of support for women, especially women of color, who do science communication and outreach. This is merely a frustrated sigh, a rolling of eyes. This is the same anger I feel when I hear women dismiss other women who serve in administrative roles, as secretaries, as “traditionally feminine” roles which are critical to the workforce.

I pose a simple question, which I would like for every woman of every ethnicity and background to sincerely ponder:

If a woman has done a good job, in a role that you consider “feminine,” how does that make you feel?


STEM Graduate Students Do Not Stand Alone

I would like to share the email that I have sent to both of my congressional representatives. I encourage my fellow STEM students to remember that we are not the only students who will be affected by this change. Graduate students must stand together, regardless of topic of study.


I would like to share an experience I had yesterday. I received notification from the director of my graduate program that my monthly stipend was increasing. I immediately began to budget these extra funds into paying down my car loan faster, paying toward student loan interest while I’m in school, paying off credit card debt that much sooner. But then I visited https://benjaminackerman.shinyapps.io/GOPtax2017/, did the calculation, and realized that I would not see those additional funds should the new graduate student tax increase be reconciled into the final version of the tax bill. Instead, I will see my tax burden increase from 8% of my total earnings to approximately 13% of my total earnings. 

Similarly, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a full fellowship this year through the Graduate Experiences for Minorities (GEM) program. This fellowship offsets a portion of my cost as a student, and assists with future costs by subsidizing my school fees moving forward. These fees alone approximate $1800 a year, which once again, could be used for various other costs or savings. Instead, once again, I will not see the full benefit of this reduction of my cost as a graduate student.

I will, in essence, break even. However, I am one of the few fortunate students who will not see a significant decrease in my earnings due to implementing taxation on waived tuition as income.

Today, I write to you on behalf of fellow STEM students who receive less in stipend payments and have no fellowship to offset the increased costs. There are numerous students in my own institution who receive $11-20 thousand per year to work over 40 hours a week, with no employee benefits, in order to further their education and better our country’s future. These students are an essential work force, and help to push our nation’s scientific and engineering progress forward.

I write to you on behalf of those studying history, who provide clarification of our past and context for our present.

I write to you on behalf of students studying the social sciences, who provide compassionate service in the benefit of our citizens.

I write to you on behalf of those studying the arts, who provide the music, media and games which give clues to the heartbeat of society and entertain our children for generations to come.

I write to you on behalf of students who are far less fortunate than me, who cannot attend graduate school without tuition waivers and stipends, and who provide funds to their families despite receiving less than $20 thousand a year to support themselves.

Please fight for these students. We cannot continue advancing as a country without their hard work and dedication to their subjects of interest, and academic and research institutions cannot function without the crucial work force which graduate students provide.

Thank you for your time.

Reading Comprehension Test

In honor of science in the media, I would like to share Scientific American’s science survey for the presidential candidates. Unfortunately, Gary Johnson’s campaign has not yet replied, but if they do the answers will likely be added into this article.

As you read the answers provided, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What does this answer have to do with the question posed?

2. What is the evidence for the claims made, if any?

3. Is a longer answer inherently a better answer?

I’d love to see some discussion based on this survey!  What do you think?  Which is your favorite answer, and which is your “favorite” answer, if you get my drift?

On Family – Part 2: In Defense of the “Ignorant”

I would like to discuss the importance of family support, and in the spirit of this blog, the additional importance of recognizing those who lack this support and helping them along their journey.

I thought of this entry over the weekend, as I listened to a young científica tell a story about how her mother, a small-town lady, had tried to catch a lizard to add to her insect collection. The girl explained the difference between lizards and insects to her mother, and was laughing about the story, and I had to smile to myself. It would be easy to think on the mother’s naivety, or criticize and roll my eyes at her apparent lack of scientific education. But instead, all that I could think about was how a parent was trying to support her daughter’s entry into the scientific world. She might not have contributed in a way the daughter could use, but she *did* contribute – so excited to help her daughter’s journey that she was attempting to catch lizards for her!

If you have ever caught lizards, you know this is often a challenge.

I’ve reflected many times over the past few weeks on our fellow scientists, both men and women, who lack this kind of support. It is a position that I cannot relate to emotionally, as my family are all loving, supportive and proud of my achievements in life, even if they don’t agree with some of my decisions – but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the need to bouy these people up. It is sometimes easy for me to forget that my situation is in many ways unique – I have a loving family, and two parents who love me unconditionally, as I am, and supported me daily, even if they didn’t understand what I was doing.

Pay close attention to those around you. Many in our field may have not only faced troubles in their journey, but from home as well. Lift them up as you lift yourself up. We are all related by science, after all!

On Family: Part 1 – Sharing IS Caring

There has been quite a delay between my last post and this.  As you read, the reason will become clear.  This entry is going to be extremely personal and discuss the difficulty of loss, and for that I apologize upfront.  This topic is a two-parter because there is a story and additional thoughts I would like to share, and I will do so separate from this post.

Both of my parents are generous, loving people, and as such are generous with their love. This is how, over the course of my life, I have come to call quite a few people my brothers and sisters, even though we are not related by blood and in many cases haven’t lived in the same state (or even country) for years. I am fortunate in my family, both immediate and extended, and I am grateful every day for the family I was given to.

While my mother is supportive of me, my father is the one who loved the sciences. He was always extremely excited to hear about whatever new protocol I’d learned, or discover new techniques and machines with me. I brought him pamphlets that explained how some of the extremely high tech machines at work function and he gobbled up the literature. I sent him my scientific papers so that he could read about what I was doing, and every day would find something new to share with him as I continue my journey into the sciences.

My father passed away last month. Stubborn to the end, he went in exactly the way he wanted, by his choice: surrounded by family, quietly and peacefully in his sleep.

The first day I returned to work after he passed, we had a demonstration with a machine that I had been telling him about nearly every day, and I had been excited to take pictures and show him the actual machine, and explain what it did. There were quite a few times when he, an industrial engineer, looked me in the eye and said, “that sounds like magic!”

The next day back I listened in on a meeting while new approaches were discussed and hashed out, ideas and science that I couldn’t wait to tell him about, and the week following I went to an amazing conference where I learned all sorts of new information that I was excited to get his feedback on.

Obviously, I could not share these things with him in person. It makes science both exhilirating and difficult. As time continues I catch myself less during the day, as I encounter something else which draws the immediate reaction of “Dad will love this,” followed by a quiet personal reminder.

While losing my father has been a difficult adjustment, I am grateful beyond words that I was able to share my journey with him.  My final meal with him was a dinner to celebrate my having gotten into the PhD program I wanted.  His support gave me strength, and it’s the kind of strength that I hope to pass along to others as they start, continue on or end this wonderful thing we call scientific discovery.

So my advice, fellow científicas, is this: share the love you have of the sciences with someone close to you, often and without inhibition.  They may not know how you do what you do, but they will appreciate your willingness to share, and you will brighten their day when you tell them the “magic” you do every day.

And hug the ones you love the most as often as you can. You never know when you might not be able to again.

Crossing the Bridge Between Art and Science

Yesterday I met a woman who majored in theater. She then went on to get her PhD in nuclear physics. She introduced herself as one of the few extroverts in her building. I was so excited to hear her background, I nearly missed the rest of the tour.

Let me explain.

My first degree is in English, and my second is in microbiology. When I tell people this, I nearly always get the following reaction:

“Wow, that’s quite the switch!”

It’s an interesting reaction to me. The arts and the sciences are considered completely opposite fields – an odd consideration, seeing as many universities actually combine the two into one “arts and sciences” college. The two I attended certainly did, and it’s a common practice to refer to the arts and sciences together. And yet there were science students who felt deeply that the arts majors couldn’t possibly be doing hard work, while the arts majors often simply allow that science education is “harder.” I’m not going to argue that interpreting Chaucer is as challenging as computational science, but ask yourself – could you do it, and do it well? Would you understand the historical context of the work, and where the sarcasm and seriousness separate, without training and linguistics?

Think about all of the authors, actors and musicians who have a scientific education, or the various scientists who also produce art, either on the side or in their work. Music is known to improve a student’s performance in math. Teachers use tracing, coloring, model-building and music to teach science and math (My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas – anyone remember what that’s for?) There’s an inherent connection between the arts and sciences, and they are less divided so much as different ends of the same spectrum. A different skill-set might be required for the ultimate output, but consider:

In science you generate, analyze and interpret data to discover what it means (conclusion). In the arts, you generate, analyze and interpret a piece of art to discover what it means (symbolism). You determine patterns, and in many cases may see patterns that no one else can without intense scrutiny.

In both areas, there are intense debates over the true meaning of data/artwork, and many will consistently point out that one interpretation does not mean that no other interpretations are possible.

Is the Hubble photograph of hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies not art because it was taken by a satellite instead of directly by a human hand? Does the Cosmos series not contain scientific information because it won four Emmys?

Having majored in both, I see the similarities more clearly than I see the differences.