Women in STEM Series – Dr. Irene Liu

Meet Dr. Irene Liu, a Story Researcher and Associate Producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She is the last woman of color we are featuring in this blog series, dedicated to highlighting the complexities, struggles, and beauty of being a woman of color in STEM.

Irene’s interview spoke to the importance of working toward inclusivity and equity in the workplace in addition to diversifying staff and faculty. She poignantly expresses how the undoing of structural racism is a collaborative effort that requires commitment from everyone involved.

Irene currently works at the Lab’s Center for Conversation Media. The Center’s mission is to use the power of targeted media to help conservation partners advance their initiatives. She provides research support and helps ensure films are scientifically accurate. She first earned a B.A. in Spanish Language and Literature and a B.S. in Zoology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Afterward, she pursued a Ph.D. in Biology at Duke University. Her interests in science and communication have brought her to her current position at the lab.

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

Conservation Media’s model is very impact-driven. We find partners or partners find us, from within the U.S. or across the world. Partners are on-the-ground conservation parties that are doing their own campaigns which might benefit from communications resources. We learn about the audiences they’re trying to reach and the outcomes they’re trying to achieve, and then we work with them to co-design that media according to their strategic communication plans. I enjoy making these focused, tangible products that I know will be seen by their target audiences.

I really like that I get to work with people who come from all different fields of expertise. My coworkers have worked at places like Sesame Street, Discovery Channel, and the feature-film industry. We all understand the material differently, and it’s been really nice to learn from them, especially coming from a specialist background and training. 

Irene gives more insight into the process of communicating science to audiences in an effective way. 

My former colleague used the phrase “narrative transport,” and I instantly knew what she meant. When you’re experiencing something with a narrative component, there is empathy that comes when you really delve into a world and its characters, real or fictional. Even if you’re consuming a short piece, you’re briefly immersed in that mindset or in those issues, and you have that temporary investment. You want to find out what happens. 

We always try to have a call to action at the end. So if you found yourself responding intellectually or emotionally, you know there’s something you can follow through with. 

The other part about narrative power is that we’re often talking to people who haven’t read the scientific literature. So bringing in elements like data visualization can help people understand how much range a species has lost or how its population has declined. We’re able to bring that science in a pretty readable format to audiences that might not have seen it otherwise. That’s the narrative. It’s science, but you’re communicating it in a way that is easily understood by the people you’re trying to make sure know about it.

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

When I was 12, a male Northern Cardinal landed in a bush that was very close to a window in my house. I was like, oh my gosh! I knew what it was, but I hadn’t really seen one so up close. I come from academic privilege—my parents are both teachers—so they had a lot of random books around for me and my brother to read. One of them was a Golden Guide to birds. Nobody in my family was a naturalist, but the book’s presence meant I had a resource to start learning about birds. And as I grew up and decided to study science, the access and the opportunities were there. I started my research career in college and had two very influential senior thesis co-advisors. They opened doors for me and invested in me as a scientist. That was super pivotal.

What challenges do you face because of your race and/or gender in your workplace? Does it detract from the quality of work in your field?

I’m actually going to say no. I thought about why I haven’t had a lot of barriers or at least why I haven’t perceived them, either as a person of color or a queer person. Coming from academic privilege, I have that capital that allows you to belong to a community like the one at the Lab. The way that I speak, my immersion in the ornithological field, the skills and the interest I brought fit with the dominant culture. But I am aware that not everybody who is at the Lab or really any workplace finds that sense of belonging. Another factor is that I’ve always worked with supportive people. I’ve not gotten any messages from managers or colleagues remotely like “you don’t belong here because of your race or your gender or your sexuality.” 

There’s some intentional choice too, because as a queer, interracial couple, my spouse and I definitely thought about places where we did and didn’t want to live. And then there are structural factors like having access to good health insurance and access to personal finance resources. The stuff that gives you foundational security and lets you focus on what you’re brought here to do. Sometimes it feels like I threw a lucky roll of the dice, and that bothers me because it shouldn’t have to.

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

I find great meaning in doing DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] work, and I treasure the relationships and opportunities that come from this work. But I also know about the greater trend that there is an imbalance in who’s doing the labor. Frequently they are people from underrepresented communities. You want to make sure the people doing this work are supported and don’t feel alone in their efforts. And you want to get outside help, as I’m proud of the Lab for doing, to provide expertise that no one here has. 

I think the Lab is at a crossroads of trying to translate words, intentions, and commitments into action. Of course the action is the hard part. There are risks we have to take, and we will be uncomfortable. Different people have different risk thresholds and different understandings of the issue and ways of approaching DEI practice. Everybody, including me, needs to be more open to listening to those perspectives because they’re very closely held by each person. You have to work from a space of trust so that people react with inquisitiveness and not defensiveness. So that’s why the dialogue is important, but at some point, you also need to shift to action. The Lab needs to hold itself accountable for both top-down and bottom-up cultural shifts. 

I console myself with thinking this situation is not unique to our institution at all. So many institutions are grappling with hard DEI questions, and it’s just really difficult because we are working within a larger system that was designed to uphold the inequity we’re trying to correct.

I often think of this quote from Nikole Hannah-Jones. Speaking about racial justice, she said this on Fresh Air in 2017. “What I always say is we somehow want this to be easy and simple, and it never will be. The systems that and the actions that created this inequality took a lot of effort and a lot of time. … And to undo that, we feel like no one has to give anything up or there’s not going to be any tension or it’s going to be easy, and it simply won’t. One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating the segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it. And that’s the problem.”

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

I thought about that from a couple different ways. A practical one is to encourage them, just like you would encourage anybody who shows an interest in something that you know about. I would consider it self-evident to give any student access to networks and opportunities. Help them with the resources that you had access to, because it’s all about paying it forward. 

The other prong is—this is not just parents and teachers—gaining and applying knowledge of colonialism in Western, European-derived science, and understanding how the foundations of our success has rested on a system that benefits some people and not others. Being aware of all of the levers that have brought us to where we are. Practicing answering the negative-space questions, like “Who’s not in the room? What questions are not being asked?” Being aware of that and modeling that you’re understanding that part of DEI practice helps to make the room inclusive for everybody, especially BIPOC students. 

For a peek at the awesome work that Irene creates, take a look at this powerful collection of personal testimonials from Black, Indigenous, and Latinx ornithologists from the 2020 North American Ornithological Conference. In each video, individuals answer questions such as “How do you envision a more inclusive and equitable ornithological community?” in a candid and impactful way.

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