The Prosaic Mosaic: Michelle Barboza

The Prosaic Mosaic is a series highlighting diversity in science, you can learn more about it here.

Michelle Barboza and I found each other in the Twitterverse as we both embarked on projects to showcase underrepresented scientists. I had recently started The Prosaic Mosaic and Michelle had just released the introductory episode of her new feminist history podcast, the Femmes of STEM, which brings to life women who have always been a part of the past — but have not always been a part of Science, Technology, Engineering, and/or Math history. I was lucky enough to be invited on a guest episode of her podcast to discuss the legacy of aquatic biologist/environmental advocate Rachel Carson, and Michelle graciously agreed to discuss her experience as an early career female scientist of color.

As a new graduate student in paleontology, Michelle was frustrated by the the lack of diversity in STEM fields and that barriers women and minorities faced in the past continue to persist today. In the pilot episode of the Femmes of STEM, Michelle invokes Toni Morrison to describe the motivation behind the podcast, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it — well this is the podcast I wanted to hear that hadn’t been made yet. So here I am.” Her interest in shining a spotlight on lesser known female contributions led to reflections on female erasure and the “Western” lens through which we learn about and conduct science.

Michelle’s ultimate goal with the “Femmes of STEM” podcast is to highlight female minorities from science’s past that she wants to see in science’s future. “As a Latinx woman in science, representation is really important to me. Even though minorities have been and continue to be in the sciences, our presence is not acknowledged.” The term erasure describes the suppression, negation, and removal of a subordinate group by a dominant group. It also representsthe passive or active “practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible”. The erasure of women scientists has been termed the “Matilda effect” as their work is often overlooked and attributed to male colleagues (see: Rosalind Franklin). Thus, Michelle hopes to join recent efforts to write women back into science history (e.g., Hidden Figures, The Queen of Code) and ultimately reduce the gender disparity in STEM.

When Michelle first entered the field of geology, she assumed that its underlying uniformitarian principles and global scope organically facilitated international participation. “When I asked why there were so few scientists of color in our curriculum, I was told that science didn’t really exist prior to the European Age of Enlightenment.” Although there are numerous examplesthat disprove this statement, Michelle realized that science culture is strongly biased towards the accomplishments of the “Western” world. For example, we are all familiar with the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s flawed system of classical elements (earth, wind, fire, and water), but never hear of Persian philosopher Rhazes’* discoveries of important chemical compounds such as alcohol and kerosene. Similarly, the foundational works that influenced my Master’s thesis were largely authored by white men, with the exception of a compendium on Pacific algal species by Isabella “Izzy” Abbott**, the first native Hawaiian woman to receive a PhD in science. Omissions of how other cultures contribute to science likely affects the latent assumptions young students, especially girls, make about scientists, but also prevent us from fully comprehending the culture within which modern science has been cultivated and conducted.

“Even though minorities have been and continue to be in the sciences, our presence is not acknowledged.”

Contemporary science aspires to improve the society we live in and the knowledge with which we operate. However, it is difficult to do so without recognizing the ethical and cultural missteps our predecessors have made in the name of advancing science. Whether it was the overt application of natural selection to the controversial theory of eugenics, or the unscrupulous use of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells for medical experiments without her permission or compensation for her family, the hegemonic infrastructure initially imposed by colonialism infiltrated the institution of science, and in some ways, continues to persist into the present day. As a vertebrate paleontologist, Michelle recognizes how her field of geology has upheld colonialism in science. “Geologists decades before me used science and technology to extract fossil fuels from protected native lands and today are transporting those fossil fuels across the same sacred lands using pipelines. Ironically, other geoscientists today are describing the negative consequences of burning fossil fuels, which indigenous people are most vulnerable to.” In hearing this, I was reminded that the climate science I conduct is rooted in the exploitation of natural resources and native lands. Though we are now in an era of post-colonial science — colonialism is no longer actively practiced — we must be cognizant that our science does not and never has occurred in a vacuum. We must actively work to decolonize science.

As Michelle embarks on her career as a graduate student with the Florida Museum of Natural History, she intends to infuse her research, science communication efforts, and science education modules with diversity. In addition to the Femmes of STEM podcast, she will be featured in a documentary on women at the FLMNH and co-lead a diversity workshop at this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. Michelle hopes that these projects will help bridge cultural disparities in science. “I’m very much at the beginning of my career right now, but I hope to continue these efforts to expand how scientists are viewed inside and outside of academia.”

* “Rhazes” is the Latinized version of his true name Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī.

** Izzy Abbott was born Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona, which means “white rain of Hana”. Her father was ethnically Chinese and her mother was of native Hawaiian descent. She married her colleague Donald Putnam Abbott.

Michelle Barboza is a graduate student in vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. She is the writer, host, and producer of the Femmes of STEM podcast. She also finds and provides support in The STEM Squad Facebook group, which is open to all who identify as girls/women in STEM.

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