When I grow up…An Unexpected Path Into Science, Academia, and Single Parenting

By BRiDGE Committee Member Mariela Garcia Arredondo

Our last BRiDGE2Impacts event of Fall 2018 ended with a deep and intimate look at the academy and the barriers it poses on members of our society from becoming part of & contributing to our scientific community – specifically, single mothers. Dr. Samantha Ying made the academic trajectory personable by discussing her own life story with us. Professors are always recognized as scientific innovators and intellectual leaders but rarely are we provided the chance to see the human side of their stories. Dr. Samantha Ying broke down this wall with her event where she took the time to take us through her background and academic life story.

BRiDGE Committee members & Dr. Samantha Ying (Mariela Garcia Arredondo, Dr. Samantha Ying, Benjamin Kiesling, Nigel Golden)

Dr. Samantha Ying was very brave as she took the time to share her personal history, revealing to us that although she is currently a professor at a U.C. Riverside, and is someone whom we would consider having “made it,” she never had the original intention of forming her life into what it is today. She revealed to us her tumultuous start in college and how, just like many young adults, she felt lost and unsure of what she wanted to do with her life. As an undergrad she had low grades, struggled to keep up with classes, and eventually had to drop out of school. She told us that only Hot Topic would give her a job back then, and how she always saw herself as a below average student, and how she struggled to find her footing and then return to school. She wanted to take the time to share her story with us as she does with many of her students at her institution to reveal the human side to her identity as a professor. “Not everything has to be perfect for things to fit together or for you to be successful, you can’t hold on to your childhood ideals of what it is your life should be like and expect it to go exactly as planned, you can’t plan for life…” Her story is meant to help provide hope to students who may feel that their current struggles in the academy may disqualify them from leading a successful life or to a better future. Dr. Samantha Ying proved that these earlier stages in your life may help build you into who you are, but they do not define you or your path forwards. After going back to school, Dr. Ying graduated as a double major from U.C. Santa Barbara and successfully applied to graduate school from which she gained acceptance into Stanford University’s Earth and Environmental Science Ph.D program.

Within her Ph.D. she faced several immense obstacles. Obstacles that would have deterred many of us currently in a graduate program. She had to learn how to be a research scientist, and a single mother on a graduate student stipend in one of the most expensive places in the United States while having an unsupportive research advisor that was verbal in his disapproval of her having a child. Throughout all of this, she remarked, it was the presence of an ally in a high place within academia that helped her from getting lost to the leaky academic pipeline.

Dr. Samantha Ying “There’s data on the numbers of single women, married fathers, and married mothers that are driven out of academia – but where’s the data on single mothers? I’m pretty sure the leak is even greater for this group…”

This ally, whom later became her new research advisor, reveals not only the immense weight an advisor can have on their student’s trajectory and achievements – but the dramatic difference they can make in helping seal the leaky academic pipeline. As reflected throughout Dr. Samantha Ying’s life story and in a recent letter to Science by #academicmama Dr. Calisi Rodriguez “Got Milk, Must Conference” – “We need more allies … to advocate for resources to help level the playing field.” These people are capable of changing the future face of science and the kinds of contributions and perspectives that are given space within academia (a place where we further our society’s understanding about the world around us)! These allies can help by just voicing the needs of their students at their committee meetings and helping their students by meeting them where they are!  The success of the academy requires representation of all members of our society and we need these allies to stand strong and recognize the power they have in helping make this change.

Single mothers are members of our scientific society that are immensely underserved and disadvantaged in our academy’s “business as usual” model. Dr. Samantha Ying discussed how her newly found, and supportive advisor helped her troubleshoot her schedule to balance research, motherhood, and coursework. Although this made a huge difference for her, she discussed how she still was disadvantaged due to the lack of resources for single parents with one child on Stanford’s campus and how vital academic events, like seminars, field work, & conferences just didn’t make space or provide any flexibility for a single mother to partake in these events. In fact, so many of these career changing events in academia, like conferences, have been noted to be unwelcoming spaces for academic mothers. In fact, recently Dr. Calisi Rodriguez & other Academic Mothers published an opinion article in PNAS on “How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum” to help bring to the surface some of these very barriers that have kept academic mothers from attending conferences to the general scientific community. This goes to show that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to sealing the split sides of our academic pipeline.

These op-ed articles and our BRIDGE2Impacts event, as discussed throughout my conversations with Dr. Samantha Ying, are part of one of the most important things we can do to help fix these problems – we need to talk openly about these issues. We need to reveal the human side to the academic trajectory which includes the falls, the trips and struggles. We need to bring up the barriers that make academia inaccessible for members of our community and work to help dissolve these. The more visibility we provide, the more of a platform – a space — we can provide for these members of our community the better the conversations & scientific solutions we can arrive to at the table.

To hear more about Dr. Sam Ying listen to her interview

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