Robert Neubecker

Raising my voice as a scientist and an advocate

At first, I was confused by the 17 exclamation points in the subject line of the email from my master’s thesis committee member. But a crater formed in my stomach as I read the message. The professor wrote that he was offended and disappointed by our class graduation picture—an informal tradition in our environmental science program. Creative props are encouraged, and some fellow students and I had held up signs that read “Sustainability requires social justice” and “Dismantle white supremacy in the environmental movement.” These issues were part of why I was pursuing these studies; highlighting them was important to me. But so was graduating in a few weeks, which would be in jeopardy if this professor didn’t give me a passing grade on my thesis.

To make matters worse, he had sent the email to my other committee members, my advisers, an assistant dean, and nearly a dozen of my classmates. I was terrified.

I had never viewed my advocacy as separate from or incompatible with my research. They both stemmed from the same drive to make the world more equitable. Through my work with youth delegations to United Nations climate negotiations and a decade of community organizing, I had witnessed the impact of climate change on marginalized and vulnerable communities. These experiences shaped my research. As an undergraduate, I was inspired by graduate students who combined rigorous climate research with advocacy. Following their example, I did ecological research while leading a fossil fuel divestment campaign on campus. And I was lucky that my advisers supported me in being my most authentic self, regardless of whether we shared the same world views.

But upon reading the professor’s email, I realized that many academic institutions are not designed to accommodate the social engagement that makes me and many other young researchers passionate about science. For the most part, our success is measured by our research output. Any political engagement is, at best, tolerated. At worst, it can be seen as compromising the integrity of our research. As a productive researcher, I was the ideal graduate student. As an advocate, I was the worst graduate student. Many administrators and faculty members didn’t know what to do with a student who was both.

As news of the email spread, other faculty members, classmates, and alumni offered advice and support. The experience brought home just how important it is to find an academic community that nurtures every part of my identity—climate organizer, first-generation college student, and a woman in science. (A male classmate pointed out that, even though he had participated in the same demonstration, he had not been called out.)

Caring about justice doesn’t undermine my ability to conduct rigorous research or cloud my conclusions.

I eventually resolved the issue with my thesis committee member, graduated, and moved on to my Ph.D. program. (I had accepted the offer just a few days before receiving the email.) I am now at an institution where public engagement is encouraged. I have conversations with other graduate students about the kind of equitable world we would like to build through our research. Students in my program write opinion pieces in newspapers and online, informed by our research findings. I speak with faculty members about climate research that is “hopeful”—that both gets at the root of environmental problems and paves the way for solutions. I take part in an informal campus discussion group about science and social justice. My colleagues and I don’t always agree, but we support one another’s right to respectfully share our views.

I recognize that, as I continue working at this nexus of research and policy, I may get pushback from the academic community for my public engagement. But caring about justice doesn’t undermine my ability to conduct rigorous research or cloud my conclusions. For me, fighting climate change means persevering with both my research and my community organizing. I am grateful for the communities of young scientists who, rather than tiptoe around the edges of wicked problems, step right into the fire.

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