The Science Boy’s Club
Reflections on Being a Hispanic Female, Conservationist, and Diversity and Inclusion
I came late to the party-- finished my first masters at 35 and the second now at 40. To be honest, I knew I was a conservationist and a scientist at seven. I spent that summer at camp and then went to the Grand Canyon late August. The female park ranger stood on the edge talking about its grandeur and I hugged her leg. She didn’t look like me (a hybrid half Mexican and half Bohemian girl from outside LA), but she spoke my song. I wrote a secret life list that autumn:
Live in an orchard on a farm.
Have four kids (two boys and two girls).
Save land like John Muir.
Life didn’t go as planned for a long time. In undergrad, I joined the outdoor education and environmental science departments. My small graduating class of eight was all Southern Caucasian males and then me, a Latina from Southern California. We spent our junior year in the woods for 180 user days and nights. We would come in from the Appalachian Trail, the river, a Tennessee cave, or the coast Tuesday through Thursday for ecology class and lab. Then we were back-- canoeing whitewater, rock climbing ledges, or hiking gorges and getting lost in thick rhododendron. When we went to partner up, the boys would say, “Who's going to take Bates?” As the only female, they turned my name male and gave me my father’s Caucasian last name as a label. Eventually they morphed Melissa (a flower that attracts honeybees) into Mel, too. I found living with eight boys in the woods and learning science alongside them invigorating and painful. As they continually reminded me, I could not rescue them if they needed it, I had to paddle harder to keep up with them, I was overly passionate, too outspoken, too vulnerable and sensitive, and not as powerful. They did not mean to hurt me. They were just boys being boys.
Over the years I lived with their truths etched into my bones. Like the middle school girl trying to find a table at the party I searched the world for a place to sit down. I had things to say, land to save, and dreams to be made. At 28, my mentor from my old environmental science department asked me to be the female science educator on an ecology trip out west to 20 national parks. I taught inner city middle school and gladly took the summer gig. After the trip, the college asked me to T.A. in the biology department as a lab instructor.
I joined five bearded Southern Caucasian men with PhDs and became their lab girl. I set up bio lab and ecology lab, made sure there was good sustainable organic coffee in the break room, and cleaned up muck boots after field studies and pig dissections after anatomy. The Mexican genes in me never complained. I felt it was a miracle that I was there at all. Most days I got to teach the lab by myself and the students loved my creative and innovative methods. I worked harder to keep up with the guys. I was still overly passionate, too outspoken, too vulnerable and sensitive, and definitely not as powerful.
At some point, after adopting two daughters I finished my first masters in environmental education. Our interim dean at the time had seen me work since I was 18 years old, and offered me a full time position lecturing and instructing six classes a semester. I was ecstatic to have benefits, be able to take my girls to the doctor, and make $35,000 a year. It was 2014 and I had never seen so much money, even though I had taught for thirteen years and had a masters degree. No one had taught me to negotiate and I didn’t know that many of my male colleagues started at $45,000.
There were four female professors at our institution out of 120 faculty and one Hispanic male that taught Spanish. I learned quickly that most of my coworkers thought I was overly passionate after a faculty meeting where I presented my research on neuroscience and green spaces. A male faculty member stated, “I am so glad that you shared today. We all knew you were passionate, but none of us knew you were smart”. It was a compliment that felt like a machete. A microaggression as “they” call it. However, I call it an ignorant compliment. Much like when other colleagues approach me to tell me that I have a “killer tan”. “Thanks”, I reply, “I am Mexican”. My mother tried to “mejorar la raza” (cleanse the race) and married a blue eyed blonde haired Bohemian German, but I still have olive skin, black hair, and golden brown eyes. It confuses my friends because I don’t speak Spanish (my grandmother refused to let my mother teach us) and with no accent I’ve become pretty good at code switching.
It took my department head by complete surprise when I talked to him about his political statements concerning the border wall during Trump’s election. He was even more disillusioned when I reported him to the new academic dean and human resources. He toted his Penn State trained ecology PhD and then argued that Mexicans were the reason for drugs and prostitution in America. When I confronted him, he couldn’t believe that I disagreed. During our “reconciliation” meeting with the dean, I explained that his statements were hurtful to a race and to me. The dean stated that I took things too personally and that he considered my department head’s political thoughts part of academic freedom. I told them I adamantly disagreed.
Then, I asked what the plan was for the next year. I had just finished a certificate in Natural Resource Management from Harvard University. Since, I was teaching full-time and had a 15 year old daughter at home, my classes were online until summer when I traveled to Boston. They explained that they were moving me back to the biology lab to prep and teach first year students (which I had heard rumors of the month before). I swallowed hard and said, “My end of course evals show that students are extremely happy with my courses. My biology lecture fills before anyone else’s, my previous department head wrote me a glowing evaluation last fall, and I have taken our department from 10 majors to 21 majors and 27 minors in two years. You are moving me to a position that a graduate student does as a T.A. when I have a masters degree with 18 graduate credits in environmental science and another 18 in education from your institution, and then 16 graduate credits in natural resource management from Harvard?”
The Dean replied, “We are not sure that your credits are valid”.
“My credits from your institution that I have been at since I was 18 years old are not valid? Or Harvard’s are not valid?”
“Harvard’s”, he stated. “They were online.”
“Yes, sir. We have an online program, too, are those credits not valid?”
“Well you were at Harvard University’s extension school, and those are not graduate credits”.
“Actually my transcripts say that they are graduate credits”.
“Extension schools are for working adults and not for graduate students”.
“So, is our graduate program for working adults not granting REAL graduate credits”.
“Well, your transcripts were opened so we can’t verify what you are saying”.
I turn to my department head, “You have taught me since I was 18 years old. You were my ecology professor and I became an ecologist. You think that I would forge my transcripts? Would you like me to get Harvard to send you a sealed copy?”
“Yes”, they co-replied.
“Would, you like me to get Harvard’s dean to verify that they are giving out valid credits and that they started their extension school a hundred years ago so that they could provide a Harvard education to working women?”
“Yes”, they co-replied.
I left the office wide eyed-- had this really just happened. Over twenty years I had spent $100,000 at this institution gaining an undergraduate and graduate degree. I had taught beside them for eight and half years. These colleagues had been at my wedding, adoption parties, and birthdays. But, I was not one of them.
I had never complained, because I was just happy to be in the room with them. As a Hispanic woman, I learned at a young age that you are grateful to go into big fancy houses even if it means you are cleaning it (which I did all of high school). So my journey in academia never felt that different. I had a handful of men that I worked closely with-- they formed research groups, consultant teams, spoke at conferences together, and wrote manuscripts that they published. I was never invited to the party and that was okay because at least I was in the house. In my mind and heart, I told myself it was because I didn’t have a PhD and instead was a mom who taught science. I was a great mom and fabulous science teacher, so that role was okay by me. In fact, a dear male friend in our science department once said to a potential new colleague, “This is Mel. She does all the work around here. And watch out because put her in a room and she can out teach any of us.”
The Science Boy’s Club had let me teach beside them, and I wasn’t worried that no one wanted me on their team. I was used to paddling by myself and had gotten quite strong at it. Over the years, I even learned how to rescue men when they needed it. They would call me in when they had a problem-- scientific or life. I was still extremely passionate, too outspoken, too vulnerable and sensitive, and maybe not as powerful as them.
For my first masters, I had written a thesis on ADHD children’s neurobehavioral outcomes after walking on a greenway. My new dean and department head had said that it was too social science-oriented and it was not “real science”. The sample size was too small (though it was exploratory) and it would never get published. I was floored two years later when a P.I. for Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health asked to interview me about my study that I never turned into a journal article. They found it fascinating and thought the methods were quite innovative.
My reconciliation meeting had left me un-reconciled and I decided between that and the new Trump-like mission/vision of our institution, I would resign. I went back to teaching middle school, kept taking Harvard classes online with Jane Goodall’s former R.A., and spent the summers in Cambridge researching and writing alone in Widener Library and Harvard Yard. In December 2018, I found a thesis director with The Wilderness Society to guide my national park study and he asked me a shocking question, “Why don’t you come to Montana? We can work together?” “Ok, cooI”, I think I replied. Was he asking me to come sit at his table? Was I going to the party?
In late January 2019, I went to Montana and over the subsequent three months I pounded out a thesis. It was late nights-- working from 3:15pm when the school bell rang till 2am. (Okay, I lie, I occasionally worked on it a lunch, too, when my students were at recess). My thesis director had set up a computer for me at The Wilderness Society office and I could remote in to the data I needed without long download times or glitches with the Harvard ESRI license. I had moved to the Caribbean to teach underrepresented STEM students and to get away from the South and Trump’s America. Technology, WiFi, and most days electricity were spotty. Our grid was not rebuilt until Bloomberg and the Clinton Foundation stepped in.
Who knows if my thesis director knew the gift he was giving me in asking me to work with him, but he lit a fire in me. I had always been a hard worker, but something about being at the party made me paddle faster and stronger. At one point he called me a “Stud”, knowing it was the wrong word, we both laughed and laughed. I said let’s say, “Thoroughbred”, but we knew that didn’t fit either. Rocky-in-training? Probably not. Is there a word for a woman who is pounding out her existence and trying to save the world? What about for a mom, who teaches science, and then suddenly goes to Harvard?
Last week, I met with a potential doctoral advisor. After an hour of grilling questions he said, “Why don’t you come to Montana? We can work together?” ‘Wait, is he serious’, I thought, ‘Another party, this is unreal’. I am a total nerd, and suddenly, I am with the cool kids at the table, in the big house, and jamming hard to something that feels like Pearl Jam and Dolly Parton all at the same time. The Science Boy’s Club has invited me to be a ecologist alongside them and neither of them said, “Who is going to take Bates?” Okay, I know that in two weeks I will be a Harvard grad and that I won the Dean’s Award for top sustainability thesis. I get that my work has the potential to help reach E.O. Wilson’s half-earth and that it is actually quite aspirational, innovative, and creative.
But, this is Melissa. I have always been this girl. I knew her when I was seven on the edge of the Grand Canyon next to my dad and the female park ranger in that gorgeous slate green suit and brown felt hat. I am living my “Number 3” and saving land like John Muir. Why did no one notice her before when she was cleaning the house? Teaching and raising the kids? Or making sure that the rest of their work got done? She was the female in the room the whole time. How come I did not see her? As a hybrid Hispanic woman whose birth did not clean the race, I can say, “It’s because I had no idea who I was”.
My worth was tied to what men said about me, and most days that was that I was not a scientist, but a great mom and a hell of a teacher. My thesis director reminded me that I get to make up my own mind on who I am and what I become:
He honored that I paddle harder than anyone.
Believed that my passion was quite inspiring.
Let me be outspoken— interrupt him and disagree with him.
Listened when I was vulnerable and sensitive, and didn’t try to fix it.
He let me be a Hispanic woman and a scientist. And I found my power. I am just a little late to the party. But, I would expect nothing less. It is the Latin way.
End note: Harvard University’s Dean of Sustainability at the Extension School wrote my employer to verify I was enrolled in a REAL graduate program that was highly rigorous with Emeritus professors. My sealed transcripts were sent to the deans office and his administrative assistant refused to put them in my file.
Melissa B. Wilson, M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog www.ecotheologist.com. She graduates from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at www.melissawilson.net.
Photo by: Getinthegrove.com