Women in STEM Series – Amelia-Juliette Demery, Ph.D. Student

Meet Amelia-Juliette Demery, a Ph.D. student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She is the second of four women of color we are featuring in our blog series, dedicated to highlighting the complexities, struggles, and beauty of being a woman of color in STEM.

Amelia’s interview gave us honest and raw insight into the realities of Black women in the workplace, particularly in ecology and evolution, and the importance of mentorship. Her eloquent words leave a lasting impression that challenges us to reflect on the often-overlooked intersection between race and gender. 

Amelia is working toward her Ph.D. in an evolutionary ecology lab. She is interested in why different organisms look the way they do. She became interested in biology and ecology during her undergraduate years at California State Polytechnic University where she studied survivorship in fence lizards within urban and rural environments. From there she made the leap to birds, looking at broad-scale evolutionary patterns of beak morphology for tanagers, one of the most diverse groups of songbirds. Her current projects are focused on beak color in birds, which can communicate health, dominance, and even sex appeal. She studies one of the most common birds on our planet: European Starlings. Starlings are especially interesting because they change their beak color throughout their life: in the breeding season, they have bright banana-yellow beaks but in the non-breeding season, their beaks turn black. To understand what triggers these changes, Amelia puts starlings into an experimental setting and tries to trick them into changing their beak color. So far, the experiment revealed that changing beak color in starlings is not related to hormones. Now the question shifts to what genetics factors are at play, and how are they connected to other aspects of starling life history.

Below is a partial transcript of her interview describing her experiences in a predominately White field. It has been edited for clarity.

What excites/inspires you (the most) about your field of work? 

Oh definitely telling stories. A lot of my hobbies are in telling stories or just getting that adrenaline rush of just not knowing but wanting to find out anyways. And then being able to synthesize it in a way that excites people, and make them want to ask more questions… my success is really directly correlated to my level of excitement and just having a good time. No one else in my lab is doing this kind of stuff—I’ve never done this stuff ever in my past degrees. So it’s that kind of excitement of like ‘Whoa I get to just jump in and figure it out’ and then I get to tell people about it. 

Do you usually do that through writing papers or like going to conferences? What does the storytelling part look like?

I’ve only first authored two papers right now so I’d say most of my experience in storytelling comes from going to conferences… I have way more fun talking about science to people who are not a part of science or at least didn’t grow up with science because I didn’t grow up with science. I got really excited about science once I was just exposed to it and someone wanted to talk to me about it in a way that would capture my imagination. I think that is more of a challenge due to the academic bubble. It’s so easy to get stuck in the jargon all the time and it’s hard to jump out of that, but jumping out of that is very refreshing. 

Were there any people you looked up to or experiences you had growing up that influenced your decision to pursue a career in STEM?

Oh no. So my mom doesn’t even have her GED, she’s actually going back to school this year to get her high school diploma. She comes from a small farming village in France and then she immigrated over here not knowing a lick of English. My dad was an academic, but he wasn’t in my life. When I was like 13 [he passed] from cancer… But he was a wine salesman and so my dad was probably the closest person to me when it comes to higher education. But there’s no one around in the natural sciences. I didn’t even hike until I went to college. The only thing that inspired me was literally Animal Planet. 

It was just wanting to go out somewhere and be able to be Steve Irwin and just talk about snakes and be in khakis. So when I wanted to pursue a career in STEM, it was my ornithology class in my junior year of college and being really inspired by birds. Not because I’m a bird nerd; it was more like “Oh my god look at how all these people react to birds, like you could really use this to really do some good.” Because everyone has access to it and everyone really connects to birds in a way that they may not connect with other animals. Then my professor, Dr. David Moriarty, was one of the first people who didn’t come from my background, was a position in authority, and really wanted to develop my interest in birds and made me feel like I could do research and I could get paid to do research. So my undergraduate work with the lizards was through my undergraduate advisor Kristopher A. Lappin where I took his herpetology class. It was my first time being like ‘Oh wow I can get to work on this project. I could get paid to do this. All right let’s try this out’… I didn’t get the confidence that I have now until I was in my third year of my master’s. Having the people who not only you can model after or be like ‘Wow I kind of want to be like them’ but make you feel like you have these strengths and you should really pursue them instead of just being this unachievable dream. I really think that back and forth communication and support are really important. I was really fortunate to have that, not so young but to me, it was really timely.

What was your inspiration behind your paper  “Safe Fieldwork Strategies for At-Risk Individuals” that you co-wrote with Monique Pipkin?

Monique had just had a conversation with her advisor about safe fieldwork practices and she had called me and asked what I did to be safe in the field. We were trading our experiences and just saying like ‘you know it really would be important if we made this for our department” and so we went to our respective advisors. My advisor sent me a paper about sexual harassment and said “you know if you’re going to talk about being a minority in the field, sexual harassment is also a conversation that occurs too and you folx should think about this.” So we started working on something that was originally just supposed to be for the department and then through our professional networks we solicited feedback. We got so much feedback from other students and from our department that we decided there’s an opportunity for us to really make an impact for a lot more people than our bubble, so let’s just go for it. It turned into this very universal paper stripped of all institutional specificities so that this could be something that someone could put in their lab resources document and just mandate that everyone in the lab reads to facilitate that conversation, but also send a signal of intention without the pressure of ‘who am I excluding by including,’ because this is for everybody.

What challenges do you face because of your race and/or gender in your workplace? 

First off, thank you for addressing intersectionality because I think when we essentially walk into a space where there’s some kind of institutional practice or language about diversity and inclusion there’s rarely any intersectionality that’s acknowledged or appreciated. I definitely think there’s some challenges with the intersection of that. I’m mixed and I’m Black; in America my mother’s heritage would be White but I didn’t grow up feeling White because my mom’s an immigrant from poor France, not even like Parisian France. So I’ve had a lot of things like walking between different worlds or being perceived as passing for another identity or being the darkest person in the room, and how all those dynamics create lots of different situations.

I’m just going to focus on the challenges in my space right now, for my workplace I haven’t been the first person of color in the space but I’m definitely the first Black person. A challenge is being able to feel that support without asking for it, and without advocating. Especially as a woman of color that pressure has been on our shoulders for any type of advocacy and continues to be with no credit or just some awkward conversations.

It’s different pressure; in the workplace talking about DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), it’s uncomfortable. Or having to vent but with that back thought of ‘Is this person going to vomit some White guilt because I’m trying to vent, and is that worth me venting right now’ or should I just go home and just scream at my best friend who understands. My field site is at Hartford, New York which is like 25 miles away from campus, but when I drove through a back road because I wanted to shave two minutes off my commute, I saw a heritage site and looked at the sign and it’s a mass slave burial site. I look around at different local insignia and I can put two and two together and think about how these people might have been raised or the culture they come from– I’m never driving down this road again. And the follow-up question is: who can I talk to about that? And actually have a deep conversation where they want to dive into it and come out with some solutions. There’s really not a lot of people that I can do for that. During the protest last year, Monique and I really leaned on each other talking about this stuff because she was the only person that I could talk to. I’d never had a person of color that I could speak to this freely even growing up too because my dad passed away. It was crazy to feel like some door had been opened and so the challenges are chronic. Sometimes it can be really microaggressive, sometimes it’d be really severe like seeing the sign.

Does it detract from the quality of work in your field?

Absolutely because the sense of what research should be pushed and what is considered novel is highly dependent on who did it first. A lot of the time for research that is seen as “too niche” it is because it’s looking at a different society, a different culture, a different demographic. And it’s like ‘oh well that has been done before’. No, it hasn’t been done before because there’s a lot of evidence that proves that these results vary by species and birds. It’s going to vary by demographic in humans because we’re so diverse. Then when we think of mentorship there’s not one good way to be a mentor, especially if you’re seeing everyone as the same. My advisor is of the generation of many advisors who are used to having one type of student. They’re White, male, privileged and you change any one of those and all of a sudden there are different challenges. To his credit he leaned into and is growing from it but I consider him an outlier. For most people of any minority identity, whether it’s easily visible or not visible— like a disability or an expression orientation— there’s just that isolating factor that is just chronic all the time because STEM is so homogeneous. 

You just have to persist through it and you have to ‘work twice as hard for half as much’. When I grew up with that I was thinking to myself like “Oh it’s only because like I’m Black and I’m not gonna have a fair fight. I just have to work harder’ but I think it’s also the additional mental strain. You’re really trying to hit a status quo that a lot of people can reach easily because they don’t have to think about this every night. They don’t have to judge how their actions are going to be interpreted. The amount of times I have to think to myself ‘Okay when I read this email, do I sound angry? I think I sound direct but how much of this is me trusting that the audience on the other side doesn’t have these biases?’. I think the challenges are huge and for people of any minority identity or combination of identities, they’re like numb to it. The shock comes from someone who has that privilege. 

What do you think needs to change in academia/STEM in order to create a more inclusive environment? 

The change needs to be top-down, so that if someone wants to have a comprehensive mentorship style, inclusive thinking, and consideration… in these positions of power… that’s not only expected, that’s required. Some institutions have required diversity statements for faculty or for students and I think there needs to be more than that. There needs to be concrete evidence and requirements for getting funding, not just for specific individual labs but for entire institutions. If they want to get some of this federal funding they need to have things in place that promote recruitment but also retention instead of just throwing money at people and then expecting them to just figure it out, or be happy that you’re at an Ivy League. That doesn’t mean anything if you want to leave as soon as you graduate. So I definitely think we need some top-down accountability to know that there is a safety net for the people who want to get a foot in the door instead of just helping them get their foot in the door and then walking away.

What advice would you give to parents and teachers to support young BIPOC students interested in STEM subjects?

So there’s a podcast I listen to called “Hidden Brain” and it goes into how people think, but why they think that way. It is very soothing and has really helped me with just processing just why the world is so bad. I experienced that with my mom because I have four degrees more than my mom right now. There was a time when I – a graduate student – was making more than my brother and my mom combined. For BIPOC students more often than not the parents may not fully understand what those students are going through. Listening to that podcast there’s a realization that could be better communicated between both of them [parents and students] to keep that love there and keep that support. So many students are coming into STEM thinking it’s this objective, progressive place and it’s usually just worse and no one tells them because their mentors don’t look like them. 

First of all, teachers just deserve to get paid more but they really have a responsibility to be so much more than just an hour-long lecture. As a TA at San Diego, there’s some times where I had to really check myself and think ‘what is that person going through’? And more often than not they were going through some serious stuff, and at Cornell it’s no different. It ties to this kind of threat of isolation that I’ve been talking about. BIPOC students are raised to work a ton, to not expect as much, and to do it on their own because if they try to get help then that’s another type of stereotype threat against them. If they do have friends more often than not there’s going to be some type of awkward conversation because of differences and the tumult that’s like going on right now. I think teachers are at the front edge of really learning through exposure, one-on-one time, and just through a need to really be there. It’s inclusive teaching, it’s not just students who need to learn how to interact in that diverse classroom. Teachers have to do that too and there’s a power dynamic. I’ve had teachers who have said some things that stick with me like my calculus teacher telling me ‘I know you can do better’ and it was that tough love and empowerment. Or like Dr. Moriarty in Ornithology, where of all the people, some of whom looked a lot more like him, I definitely was getting special treatment because he knew that I could do something more. He was one of the first people I told I got into Cornell… especially for someone who’s BIPOC, they don’t have someone who’s been encouraging them since they were six, who’s been telling them they can do things. They haven’t been seeing people who look like them doing those same things. Teachers have this really incredible but equally weighty opportunity. The odds are they’re not going to be coming from the same background and it’s an insane amount of power that they should leverage to be supportive. It’s incredible to see what someone can do if you just give them that encouragement or at least let them know that they don’t have to figure things out alone. 

Is there anything you want to add or share?

There’s a last song in Logic’s latest album called “Obediently Yours” and there’s a steady beat, momentum, and tempo in the words that are just ‘what you have, you use for the good of people who have less’. The stuff that I like to do, I always want to share it so for people who might read this and take some form of joy out of it: my creed is that ‘what I do I’m doing for the next generation after the next generation’ and it really empowers me to put my all into it knowing that I will probably never see the actual like results and that’s okay because I’m not doing it for me. I’m not doing it so I could bear witness. It’s knowing that something will come of it.

[Last few lines of the song: 

Our children’s children are the ancestors of a free people
To the generations: the fight is worth it
And that just about means that my time is up
When my time’s up, I remain as always, obediently yours]

I listen to that driving from the field and just be like ‘yeah this is why you’re doing this.’

______________________

If you are interested in reading Amelia and Monique’s paper about safe fieldwork practices for minorities, you can access it here.

Additionally, Amelia and Monique hosted a webinar regarding their paper that also featured a discussion with interdisciplinary professionals in fieldwork, diversity, and inclusion. Watch a recording of the webinar here.

Thank you to Amelia for being willing to share her inspiring story, and to Cornell Lab student employee Victoria Varlack for conducting the interview and drafting this post!

Monique Pipkin will be featured in our next blog… be on the lookout!