Navigating the ‘Old Boys’ Club’ of Science, With a Friend

“It allows me to do my science better when I feel like I have a community.”

An illustration of two friends on top of a microscope looking at plankton.

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two scientists, one from the U.S. and one from the U.K., who both study fossils of the same tiny plankton and bonded over their niche research interest. They discuss the competition and the camaraderie in academia’s social scene, building a global community of colleagues, and the support they offer each other as two of the few women of color in their field of study.

The Friends:

Rehemat Bhatia, 28, a geoscientist who lives in Bristol, United Kingdom
Raquel Bryant, 26, a doctoral candidate in geoscience at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: Tell me about your research.

Rehemat Bhatia: My research focuses on the type of zooplankton called foraminifera. When they’re growing their shells in the water, they incorporate all the environmental conditions around them. I use the chemistry of their shells to understand the oceans and climate millions of years ago. The species that I work on lived between 56 [million] and 15 million years ago, during time periods that we can use as analogues for our future climate, because it was very warm and there was lots of CO2 in the atmosphere. I’m involved in science communication and diversity and inclusion initiatives as well.

Raquel and Rehemat.
Raquel Bryant (left) and Rehemat Bhatia (right) hiking in Edinburgh in June 2018. (Courtesy of Raquel Bryant)

Raquel Bryant: I also study foraminifera, but a little deeper in time, during the Cretaceous period, about 145 [million] to 66 million years ago. This period is [similar to] the worst-case scenario [for climate change], because in the Cretaceous, most estimates say there was two to three times as much CO2 as today.

I have this dual identity in science that’s incredibly important to me. Where I came from, science never seemed like an option for me. I didn’t know that you could get paid to travel and do research. So part of what I want to do with my scientific career is make sure we’re encouraging every interested and capable future scientist to join our ranks. For me, that includes being a role model, especially for other little black girls who are interested in science, but also just making the culture of science more inclusive, because it is still an old boys’ club.

Beck: How did you meet and what did you connect over?

A message exchange between Raquel and Rehemat.
The first messages between Raquel and Rehemat. (Courtesy of Rehemat Bhatia)

Rehemat: We met at a conference last year in Edinburgh that was all about foraminifera. It’s a massive, nerdy gathering where we just talk about forams all weekend. Somebody had put together a Facebook group of people who were going to this conference. I was looking for a dinner buddy in that group, because I didn’t know anyone else that had arrived early for the conference. So Raquel and I met for dinner. We bonded over our love of forams and diversity work.

Raquel: After that, we saw each other at a conference six months later. And we just hung out again in Australia at another conference.

Rehemat: We hung out most of that week. There was a dinner cruise around Sydney Harbor, which was really fun. We were playing music and dancing around on the top deck.

Raquel: I tend to bring a speaker wherever I go, because I’ve noticed that sometimes scientists are okay being in a festive room without music, and I’m not. I just don’t allow it. I started the music and I also started the dancing.

Rehemat: You brought your boom box to Edinburgh, too. That was great!

Beck: How do you find the social scene in academia generally, and in your field specifically? Is it friendly, welcoming, competitive?

Rehemat: In the U.K., there’s a really nice foram community. Everyone’s really friendly and people help you out. My [former] Ph.D. supervisor, who is friends with Raquel’s Ph.D. supervisor, organizes this thing called Foram Fun Day every year, where she, her colleagues, and all of us students get together, talk about forams for a day, and present what we’re working on. I’ve met quite a lot of people through that. There’s always competition, but I really like what I’m doing, [which makes] you kind of forget that side exists.

Raquel: In the U.S., at big universities like UMass, there is this hierarchy that makes you feel like you’re just lucky to be in the space. It doesn’t set up a system of accountability to be able to confront “bad apples.” One of the organizations I’m heavily involved with at UMass is Graduate Women in STEM, and something I gained from meeting other women in different subdepartments is perspective on my situation in the geosciences. Our field, compared to some engineering fields, or physics, or chemistry, is doing better in some respects. Part of it is that we’re all weirdos who like to camp and hike and look at tiny fossils, so there’s camaraderie. You go on a big hike together, you are out mapping together, and you have these bonding moments. It’s not as competitive, because you’re really encouraged to work together.

Beck: You both study a super-specific topic, and I think that’s typical of academia, to spend your career going deep into one niche subject. Does that lead to a pretty small community of people who work on the same thing? Do you see the same people over and over again?

Rehemat: You often see the same people who research the same time period as you. But if I go to a conference and there’s people [who study across] the whole timescale, there’s a whole new set of people. It’s quite a big community.

Raquel: The first time I did science internationally was when I went to the International School on Foraminifera, this little summer school that happens every year in Italy for a few weeks. I realized: Oh my God, there are other people studying this tiny little fossil. I was so excited to have foram friends.

At the end of those three weeks, of course, everyone goes back to the different countries they’re from. That’s when I started keeping up with people on Facebook, just checking in like, “Hey, how’s your research going? What are you struggling with?” There’s a distance, and the distance lets me be more vulnerable. Like “Oh my God, I’m stressed.”

When I met Rehemat, it was during a time in my life where I was reaching out and [creating] a more global science community for myself.

Rehemat: You create a support network. When something’s going wrong, people in your outside life might not get it at all, but people you meet at a summer school or a conference, they’ve been through it.

Raquel: Part of [what’s great] is having another woman of color in paleoceanography, because it’s such a white thing.

Beck: In your global network that you’ve built for yourself online, are there not many women of color?

Raquel: It’s just Rehemat.

Rehemat: Within the U.K., there can’t be more than 10 of us that I know of [in our field]. Whenever Raquel and I go to conferences, we’re definitely two of just a handful of women of color.

Beck: You guys live an ocean apart, but your lives have intersected in several specific ways. You’re studying this same niche thing, and studying it through the same lens of, How can this help us understand climate change? And you’re two of only a few women of color doing that niche thing. What does it mean to have someone in your life who understands all these aspects of your work?

Raquel: It’s comforting to have somebody who you don’t have to give all this background knowledge [to]. There’s not a prologue of having to explain what the research is. I can just say something and Rehemat will have the context to understand it and be there for me.

Rehemat: When stuff happens that’s racially focused or gender-focused, it’s nice to have someone who will understand the context of that as well. It’s good to be able to talk it through and work out if it’s something that you need to do something about, or whether you just need to know how to react next time. Having other women of color around me is super helpful.

Raquel and Rehemat presenting posters at a conference.
Rehemat and Raquel both presented posters at the International Conference on Paleoceanography, which took place in Sydney in September 2019. (Courtesy of Rehemat Bhatia)

Raquel: A small example: At this past conference, our posters were right next to each other. I don’t get nervous for a talk, but I sometimes get nervous for posters, because sometimes certain scientists will treat a student and their poster as a prey/predator situation. They can trap you at your poster and harass you about anything—how they don’t like your data or your adviser—and usually you’re standing there by yourself. Having a really dear friend, and someone I look up to [next to me] made me feel more comfortable talking about my science. Sometimes people say, “Okay, you’re connecting because you’re both women of color in science,” and it’s like, “Yeah, of course, but also it allows me to do my science better when I feel like I have a community.”

Rehemat: Normally, your poster is up all week, and this time it was only for three or four hours. So having a friend next to me meant that I didn’t spend my time floundering and getting nervous.

Beck: If this topic is something you’re going to study for your whole lives, then potentially you could be working together and seeing each other at conferences for your whole career. Have you thought about the future in that way?

Raquel: I haven’t thought about it until now, but we should definitely collaborate. Once I get a Ph.D., let’s get a grant.

Rehemat: We should definitely do that. One really nice thing about academia is if you make friends, you do end up seeing them over and over again, and you end up collaborating. It’s really cool.

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