LettersNextgen Voices

Unique identities

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Science  05 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6435, pp. 22-24
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax2457

The scientific enterprise benefits from diverse perspectives. We asked young scientists to Describe your unique identity and how it contributes to your scientific work and community. Respondents from across the world shared their unique backgrounds and how those experiences shaped them. These scientists described their drive to help their communities, overcome obstacles, embrace multidisciplinary work, answer questions raised by their families and childhood, and approach their research with a spirit of inclusion. Read a selection of their responses here. Follow NextGen with hashtag #NextGenSci. See all NextGen Voices results at http://science.sciencemag.org/collection/nextgen-voices. —Jennifer Sills

Drive to help others

As a multiracial female in engineering, I can show the students in our research group that anyone can be an engineer, not just the figures shown in popular culture. The presence of minority women in engineering, especially in fluid mechanics where my research lies, is essential for ensuring that groups working on engineering and physics problems have contributions from a wide range of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. I hope that my presence in this field will inspire others to pursue fluid mechanics and come up with innovative solutions to real-world problems.

Theresa B. Oehmke Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA. Email: toehmke{at}berkeley.edu

I grew up in a village in South China where people used wood stoves for cooking and suffered regular electricity outages in the summer. I learned firsthand how important it is to have access to clean and reliable energy, so I have devoted my research to clean hydrogen production and CO2 reduction. Like other first-generation students, I am always eager to learn, and I empathize with those in need. I help organize service trips to local food banks and homeless shelters, activities that inspire us to work on research topics that benefit humankind.

Xiao-Yu Wu Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA. Email: xywu{at}mit.edu

As a trans woman in STEM, I never saw myself represented in academia. I thus created my own organization to promote authentic mentorship and experiences between queer high school students and queer academics and professionals. We are instrumental in academia because finding community often requires us to step outside of our own fields and comfort zones to build unique scientific collaborations centered around our shared identity.

Juliet Tegan Johnston Queer Science (http://queerscience.umn.edu) and Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. Email: joh12031{at}umn.edu

A child of Mexican immigrants, I was raised in South Central Los Angeles during the most violent period in the city's history. Most nights, my siblings and I slept to the sound of gunfire. By the time we graduated high school, too many friends had lost their lives to gang violence or incarceration. Today, I'm a scientist—the first in my family with a doctorate—because of the Federal TRIO Programs, which provide educational after-school academic outreach programs in underprivileged areas. For me, science outreach is a passion borne from the personal knowledge that such programs not only work, but are truly a matter of life and death for many poor children in the United States.

Christopher Gutiérrez Quantum Matter Institute, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada. Email: christopher.gutierrez{at}ubc.ca

Most people who pursue a Ph.D. weren't raised in a motel room with their grandma and siblings. I've seen firsthand that the burden of removing systemic barriers to academia falls too often on those most affected by these oppressions—all while we're held to the same standard of academic excellence as our more privileged peers. This self-defeating system leads to burnout and a reduced retention of such individuals in science. To address this, I've initiated small-scale and department-wide inclusivity projects. I've led workshops on addressing implicit biases and microaggressions, identified programs to better support undergraduates in need, and worked to broaden the conversation so that we're all working toward a more diverse and inclusive scientific community.

Dhruv Patel Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA. Email: dpp47{at}berkeley.edu

My identity as a scientist who researches biodiversity's impacts on water management in agricultural soils is inextricably linked to my identity as an African-American male who grew up in an underresourced public education system. This system has too often failed to introduce students to topics such as agriculture and soils. Soils education is far too important to personal and environmental health to be systematically ignored.

Eric Britt Moore Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA. Email: ebm256{at}iastate.edu

My identity as a college student on track to be a neuroscientist was put in flux on 14 February 2018, when I learned about the shooting at my old school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where my sister was finishing her freshman year. The tragedy led me to question my place in the world, how I should use my skills, and what direction my life should take. In the year of heartbreak and healing since the shooting, I have expanded my career goals to encompass possibilities that would allow me to work directly with people, supporting them through their own difficult times. Regardless of the scientific path I take, my work will always be infused with the knowledge that the people it affects are both valued and fragile.

Elizabeth Lanzon Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University, Jupiter, FL 33458, USA. Email: elanzon2016{at}fau.edu

Resolve to overcome obstacles

I have an auditory limitation that means I can't hear frogs that have high-frequency calls, yet I chose to study bioacoustics and frog behavior anyway. I consider my limitation a challenge to overcome, and my enthusiasm for the field has helped create a collaborative dynamic among my lab group.

Michelle Micarelli Struett Department of Zoology, Federal University of Paraná, Curitiba, Paraná, 81531-980, Brazil. Email: michelle.mms91{at}gmail.com

Ecologist Michelle M. Struett, undeterred by an auditory limitation, researches the calls of frogs.


I immigrated to the United States without legal status. I completed my bachelor's degree but could not work or obtain a Ph.D. until getting Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Once I was in the Ph.D. program, I became a permanent resident, making me eligible for NIH funding. Most studies in my field only include Europeans, but my identity and experiences led me to incorporate populations from African, East Asian, and South Asian descent to study the genetic changes that affect the metabolism of tobacco carcinogens. My background has also made me a better problem solver and more resilient, allowing me to overcome obstacles in my research.

Ana Gabriela Vergara Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Washington State University, Spokane, WA 99202, USA. Email: ana_vergara{at}wsu.edu

I come from an impoverished family of 12 from a rural village in Nigeria. I grew up without basic necessities such as food, clothing, education, and security. Between the ages of 10 and 12, I worked as a house-help without pay. Thanks to my passion for academics, I earned a scholarship to study abroad. Because of my background, I have an exceptional drive to succeed, to create opportunities, and to motivate others to reach their full potential. Most important, I have empathy for those dealing with challenging circumstances. If I can make it, so can they.

Thomas A. Agbaedeng Centre for Heart Rhythm Disorders, South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute, The University of Adelaide and Royal Adelaide Hospital, Adelaide, SA, Australia. Email: thomas.agbaedeng{at}adelaide.edu.au

Flair for multidisciplinary work

My experience as a Zimbabwean immigrant in China has taught me that there are considerable similarities between navigating cultural and language barriers and conducting multidisciplinary research. Each discipline has a set of unique practices and language. To succeed in multidisciplinary research, one has to be humble and willing to learn the different and sometimes conflicting norms.

Edmond Sanganyado Marine Biology Institute, Shantou University, Shantou, Guangdong 515063, China. Email: esang001{at}ucr.edu

Home is a difficult concept for many military children, but one advantage of moving every 2 or 3 years was exposure to many different worldviews. Whether in Japan, England, Korea, or America, I found that everyone has a valuable perspective to offer. This was a lesson I carried with me as I transitioned into a career as a physician-scientist. Science is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary; being able to collaborate with researchers who have diverse backgrounds is critical for success. In my lab, I have found that being open-minded has helped me build relationships with my colleagues. By sharing my own expertise and valuing the contributions of others, I can make the most of this scientific community I now call home.

Jonathan Joon-Young Park Department of Genetics, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. Email: jonathan.park{at}yale.edu

Broad and inclusive perspective

I was a first-generation student. I know what it's like to feel lost, intimidated, passed over, and left behind just because I didn't know how to navigate the system. I also had to work my way through school and missed out on research opportunities that I learned about too late because my focus was on picking up enough shifts at work. Having graduated, I still feel like I'm playing catch-up. As a result, I push for accessibility in my field. I challenge gate-keeping. I use alternative publishing methods, like social media and my blog, to share information and research instead of restricted-access publishing. I encourage outreach. And I share my experiences and what I've learned to help other first-generation students make it through.

Stephanie Jan Halmhofer Richmond, BC V7C 5K3, Canada. Email: bones.stones.books{at}gmail.com

Due to my father's work, my family often changed residences around Greece. Having to frequently restart from zero defined me, and I learned to rapidly observe my surroundings and people in order to understand my new environment and become a functional part of each local society. Being exposed to regularly shifting norms prepared me for anticipating reactions that ranged from friendly to hostile when I expressed myself. I learned to identify the roots of each reaction in order to fight potential assumptions, a skill I apply when I investigate scientific questions today.

Athanasia Nikolaou German Aerospace Center (DLR), Institute for Planetary Research, Department of Planetary Physics, 12489 Berlin, Germany. Email: athanasia.nikolaou{at}protonmail.com

As a child, I moved from Siberia to California, and I still carry on the language and traditions of my family. Only through the lens of American culture have I been able to learn and truly appreciate pillars of Russian culture such as figure skating, embroidery, and baking. What's old is new again, much like scientific theories. I'm reminded to look to the past and learn from previous theories and transcultural experiences for my own scientific training.

Sasha Mikhailova Center for Neuroscience, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA. Email: smikhailova{at}ucdavis.edu

Sasha Mikhailova's embroidered glial cells illustrate her fusion of Russian heritage and scientific work.


In forensic anthropology, scientific works and communities tend to ignore the possibility of intersex individuals when estimating biological sex from human remains. As a member of the LGBTQI+ community, I know that biological sex is not binary and that intersex individuals exist. Drawing from case studies and previous intersex research, I hope to redefine how forensic anthropologists see and define sex.

Kristy A. Winter Skeletal Biology and Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD 4000, Australia. Email: ka.winter{at}qut.edu.au

Intrinsic motivation to research

Born and raised in Fondo Grande, a 25-family Dominican village bordering Haiti, I learned to grow all of our food, from rice, beans, cassavas, and maize to coffee and cocoa. Thanks to family and Jesuit friends, I studied agronomy during high school. My special interest in botany and genetics led me to a position with a local Taiwanese scientist and eventually to Taiwan, where I earned my Ph.D. I have been investigating the evolutionary genomics of the fungi that cause blast disease in cereal crops. The subject is personal to me: My uncle in Fondo Grande consults me when his rice farm suffers from disease.

Luis B. Gómez Luciano Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica, Nangang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan. Email: lbien{at}sinica.edu.tw

At 5 years old, I survived the 1998 China flood, which destroyed my hometown. While doing research for my Ph.D., I learned that one of the main reasons for the flood was unusually high precipitation in upstream areas. Therefore, I am currently studying how to use artificial intelligence technology to predict downstream water flow based on meteorological data from upstream areas. I hope that my work will protect others from the kind of disaster I experienced as a child.

Zhongliang Yang Lab of New Generation Network Technology & Applications, Department of Electronic Engineering, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China. Email: yangzl15{at}mails.tsinghua.edu.cn

My journey into higher education and science was new territory for our family, as I moved away from our rural Minnesota community to pursue a B.S. degree in horticulture and communication at the University of Minnesota in Crookston. After working for 3 years, I left a stable career to pursue a Ph.D. in sustainable vegetable production, which was a leap of faith that worried my parents. I see rural communities as key to improving our food system, and farmers are the reason I engage in science. I also hope to be an inspiration to women who want to work in agriculture as we move the field toward greater gender inclusiveness.

Kristine Marie Lang Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA. Email: kneu{at}iastate.edu

As a Vietnamese-American, son of refugees, and family caregiver, I am shaped by ancestral, cultural, and religious heritage. From listening to the story of my mother's harrowing trip across the South China Sea on a wooden boat, I learned gratitude and perseverance. From caring for my grandfather with dementia, I learned compassion and patience. I draw from these lessons of humanity and peace as I approach molecular and computational neuroscience. By investigating Alzheimer's disease progression in different populations, I hope to develop tools and treatments to empower personalized care for all. Dementia prevalence is rising substantially in developing nations like Vietnam. Because precision management and treatment are unique for each population and person, biomedical science must be diverse. With my dual heritage and life lessons, I embrace the love of my ancestors and duty to help patients and their families.

Michael Tran Duong Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: mduong{at}sas.upenn.edu

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