Women in STEM Series – Monique Pipkin, Ph.D. Student

Monique Pipkin holding a bird
Photo courtesy of Monique Pipkin

Meet Monique Pipkin, a Ph.D. student at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She is one of four women 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.

Monique’s interview gives us valuable insight into her experiences as a black woman selecting a graduate school, working in the field, and navigating the workplace. Her powerful words invite us to consider how each of us has a stake in making STEM environments safe and uplifting for women of color.

Currently, Monique is a Ph.D. student in Maren Vitousek’s lab at Cornell University. She characterizes herself as a behavioral ecologist who dabbles in physiological ecology, looking at the drivers and outcomes of feather coloration and adaptive functions of feathers. Recently she has been interested in exploring how song and feather coloration function in bird communication. She spent her undergraduate years at Western Michigan University where she did sound ecology research about how Chipping Sparrows and House Wrens respond to human-produced noise. She also worked on a project about treatments for white-nose syndrome, a fungal pathogen that’s ravaging bat communities. During her Master’s degree at Penn State University, she studied how physiology affects behaviors. She is on track to defend her dissertation later this year.

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

What excites or inspires you the most about your field of work? 

I think it’s that I like puzzles for the sake of puzzles. When you go out on a walk, you can look at an animal or a bird or a squirrel, whatever’s in your backyard, and you can ask yourself the question “Why is that animal behaving that way in this location at this time?” And the answer to that question could be different depending on the animal you’re looking at, the time of year, the time of day. It’s just fascinating to understand the world around you and I’ve always been interested in that. So it’s kind of understanding or learning for learning’s sake is what really drives me. That, plus I love getting really excited when you realize that someone has a finding and then seeing the domino effect of how many other people that got inspired by that finding. That’s also a very exciting feeling to “Oh my god! you got inspired by this person, who got inspired by this person, who got inspired by this person, who got inspired by this person.” Or you saw this talk and now you have all of these ideas and now that undergrad is a professor here. All of those exciting tracks to see not only how science progresses throughout time but with how people can be affected and inspired by the past work. All of that is such an exciting pathway to follow.

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

Visiting the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, MI, my local natural history museum, definitely influenced my pursuit in STEM. My parents are from New York City and they are not what I would call “outdoorsy people.” So I got into nature or the natural world really through watching Animal Planet, Magic School Bus, Steve Irwin, and Zoboomafoo. My entry point was never “Oh we went camping every week!” It was learning the bugs in my backyard with the flashcards that I had. It was my mother indulging me and understanding “Oh, she really likes this so I will spend my Friday evenings at a natural history museum, again.” 

In the previous blog post Amelia shared about what inspired both of you to write “Safe field work strategies for at-risk individuals.” Can you share more about the effects afterward, the feedback you have received, and how it has inspired you to move forward with more projects?

It started with a question where I asked Amelia, “What do you do to stay safe in the field?” We began to write guidelines just for our department but we had people of different identities and at varying professional stages review the guidelines. These colleagues began to ask, “Will you publish this somewhere? Can it be somewhere more accessible?” Our advisors said the same thing, so we made it into a preprint. During this process, Nature News contacted us to speak about our efforts and that was the encouragement we needed to officially submit our paper.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has started to implement the suggestions we made in the paper. Based on what I’ve seen on social media from people’s responses to our paper and webinar, many departments now have begun a conversation about field safety, and are creating safety plans and codes of conduct. It’s really encouraging to see that so many people are thinking about field safety now. We can track metrics of a paper and I remember from very early on it has been shared on every continent minus Antarctica, at least once. 

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

Additionally, last month Amelia and Monique hosted a webinar regarding their paper that also featured a discussion with professionals in fieldwork, diversity, and inclusion. Watch a recording of the webinar here. Almost 1000 people attended the live event! 

I think my biggest fear was that no one would care what two graduate students had to say about field safety, but having those four panelists [Dr. Hendratta Ali, Dr. Meredith Hastings, Dr. Christopher J Schell, & Sara Souza] corroborate what Amelia and I wrote, and share the actions that they’re taking to be safer in the field. I recall Meredith Hastings posing to the audience, “Can we change norms in the field to make people feel safer?” Christopher Schell shared he set aside money to hire multiple people so that people weren’t alone in the field. The panelists reinforced what was in the paper with their own experience and expertise. Their contributions made me feel more confident and legitimized the work Amelia and I have been doing. I believe now people can implement the strategies that we’ve suggested. 

I think the reason why it’s had so much of an impact is because people want to help, but they had no idea how to start. So our paper was a quick guide of things you can start doing right now. You can just start making changes today if you decide to do so. 

Currently, there are plans to write a follow-up paper with our panelists to address some of the questions or themes from the dozens of questions we were unable to address in the webinar.

When you were writing this paper and afterwards doing the webinar, did you ever feel like the work that you and Amelia did may not be taken as seriously because you are Black women? 

Honestly, no. I probably should have considered that. I think my concern was us not being trusted or our suggestions viewed as legitimate because we were not doctors or professors. But it’s interesting when writing this paper, I wasn’t really thinking of myself because I know if I go into the field I could deal with situations on my ownif something bad happened I feel like I could handle it, but I want to make sure that no one has to deal with the struggles that I have faced. When I think about my “little” cousin, who is now a teenager and loves birding. We’ll talk about it sometimes. I get so excited and then also so scared. All I want to do is make the culture safer so those behind us can come up in a place where they can have an equal starting place when it comes to fieldwork and know what it’s like to go out to a field site, how to be prepared, what to expect out there, what’s okay, and have people warn them of any type of potential issues or how they should go in groups because you don’t know the people around you or how to report issues if someone in your own group even is harassing you.

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

One thing I would love to change, and this is across the board at institutions, is this idea that just because we’ve done something one way, we should keep doing it in that way. Tradition is no reason to continue a behavior or continue a pattern or continue a methodology if it can be improved upon. If an institution is not getting the increased diversity or retention, you’re seeing that something is wrong with the process. I feel like that it’s really what encompasses a lot of things, which either people are resistant to change, or think “I’m not the problem”, or think it’s because ‘oh we’ve done it this way so it should be fine, or well let’s just increase numbers and increase funding and that will solve all of our issues’. No, the entire way the system has been brought up is faulty. As Amelia said on Wednesday [in the webinar], it’s a colander that has systematically excluded individuals so we need to change the process to actually make it a safer environment that is more accessible to everyone.

What challenges do you face because of your race and/or your gender in the workplace and do you think that it detracts from the work that your field’s abile to produce or perhaps, what you would also be able to produce?

I will say being a woman doing fieldwork alone is inherently scary because if you are approached by a man in the field you tend to be physically smaller. I have had friends and colleagues who have been approached in the field by men, even ones who did not intend to do any harm. It is an instantly terrifying moment because if they decide to do anything, you could be physically overpowered. One way I try to mitigate this issue is that I try to always be in the field with someone or at least check in with someone so they know where I’m going to be at any given time. 

Being Black and doing fieldwork no matter where you are is really scary because, as someone from the 1920s said, these pristine landscapes were not made for us. It’s all the history of Black people in nature. We’ve been out there forever, but it’s [scary] going out there alone in predominantly White areas in rural environments. While I lived in college towns for my research career, the areas around my field sites have not always been welcoming. You don’t see the Black Lives Matter signs you see around downtown Ithaca. You can see Confederate flags. You can see signage of political parties that show that you’re not welcome. And it is intimidating. It’s scary when you have a police officer all of a sudden do a U-turn after they see you and pull into your site, and then drive away moments later. That happened to me this summer. It’s nerve-wracking when you have to approach people and tell them they can’t be on certain property, and they respond that they have permission. Who am I to them? And especially in an area that they may feel more of a right to because that’s their community and I’m an outsider. Not only because I don’t live there, but because I also look so different from everyone else in that community. So Black people in nature and Black people outside alone are outsiders in many respects. I don’t want to even have to quote all the police stories about what happens with vigilante “justice”, with police pulling you over and ‘oh no something happened in jail we don’t know what about’, I’m talking about like Sandra Bland in that case. Talking about Ahmaud Arbery who was out running, people followed him, and then murdered him. Everything from society plays into what you do in the field, and you are leaving the safety of your bubble when you’re going out into the field. 

In terms of a workplace specifically, I have worked very hard at finding places that I knew would accept me. I have been told I ask very difficult questions when I was interviewing for grad school. I was never going to only ask faculty to tell me about their research. I want to know about scandals or tragedies that happened at the institution and how it was handled? Now, let’s talk about diversity here. I always find one of the few Black people, and ask ‘how is it to be Black here’? You would find someplace quiet to talk and people would tell you. Then when going to Cornell I was excited to see more than one black person in this department. It’s also sad but when you go to predominantly White institutions, you are so excited to see someone else who looks like you, who does the work similar to what you do, in any aspect, in any way. But you have to ask difficult questions early on. It’s important to know that you are not only interviewing the institution, but also interviewing your peers. 

I will say it’s frustrating when you are asked to do all the diversity and inclusion work because you are a diverse person. I’ve been advised at conferences to ask if workplaces will add to your workload by assigning you all DEI efforts which can be a distraction from the work you were hired to do and an uphill battle to make change, if you are a junior member of the staff. There are consultants who have made it their job to train and implement change and I hope institutions would use these firms to make change. 

After considering all these things that need to be changed in your workplace, if you were to put together a perfect picture, what would the perfect workplace look like?

If it was perfect, when challenged everyone would immediately say “ I had no idea what I was doing. Let me change my behavior right now.” My perfect world can happen. After people are challenged they’re likely going to be hurt by seeing injustice that they’ve been perpetuating themselves in ways that they were unaware or believed to be inane. Yet then they would rally and consider “Well what can I do right now to make it better?” All you have to do is try now. It’s not gonna be perfect on day one and don’t expect it to be, but don’t wait to make change until it’s perfect. It’s gonna be imperfectcome to grips with that. Throughout your life you will continue to be corrected when you make mistakes even when you’re trying, and you should take it, accept it. Then say all right let’s change it, let’s try again and do better the next time. It’s a continuous process, just like how science is a continuous process. Someone starts, you add on, you improve, someone else says oh well this is interesting but I don’t find it in this system or whatever else, but it’s a continuous process that you keep building upon. So just start now! Action todaythis is what I would love to see right now! And changing of hearts and minds, but that’s harder to do. It always bothers me because you [White people] have so much more power than I doI cannot reach the people you can reach because they might not listen to me, but they will listen to you because they know who you are and they trust you based on your identity, so use it! I don’t pass. I can’t go behind closed doors and I cannot recommend they change their behavior or actions because they don’t want to hear from me. 

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

COVID makes everything difficult, but I will say there are definitely programs out there, especially for K-12, right now that are trying to help Black and Brown kids go out into nature. I think of Outdoor Afro, but find the programs in your area and find the camps. Just let them explore nature and go out with them, that means a lot too! I remember the first time I took my dad on a walk in nature. He bought a walking stick and I said “Dad, we’re in a park that’s just not manicured, you don’t need a walking stick.” It was an exciting moment to go and try to sample some plants with my family for a class. The best advice I would say is just encourage them, go with them, let them ask a lot of questions because asking questions is like the bread and butter of my entire career. Being inquisitive and persistent is fantastic!

Know that there are scholarships if you want to get your child or students of any age into camps or programs. Apply if you feel unqualified and even when you don’t think you will be selected. I applied to scholarships and I got to where I am.

If you want to diversify your classroom, there’s an entire list that Corina Newsome has put up about the people, specifically Black scientists, who’d be happy to talk to your high school or to your kindergarten class.

Is there anything you want to add or share?

My biggest thing that I would end with is: do what you can now and then confront behavior when you see it, especially if it’s somebody who you are close to. Dr. Hendratta Ali said that at the webinar. If someone you know is doing something wrong, it is going to be uncomfortable but you need to point out bad behavior. So doing what you can right now, in the moment, because all of that action, even if it’s a small step, is progress and important.

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