Danielle N. Lee: Working twice as hard

As a woman of color working in science, Danielle N. Lee has always encountered challenges. But she doesn't expect the email she receives one morning, or the events it sets in motion.

Dr. Danielle N. Lee is a biologist and outreach scientist. Her research areas include animal behavior, behavioral ecology, and mammalogy; She is currently examining individual behavioral differences and natural history of African Giant Pouched Rats, Cricetomys ansorgei. DNLee (as she is known online) specializes in informal science outreach to urban youth audiences and the use of social media technology to engage broad audiences in the understanding of science. She focuses on relevant, accessible, and experiential-based lessons -- formal and informal -- to engage diverse audiences in science. Her blog, The Urban Scientist, discusses urban ecology, environmental science, and STEM opportunities (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as well as diversity in the sciences.


Episode Transcript

Early in high school, as I was getting ready to go to college, I knew I was ambitious.  I went to a college prep school.  I can’t remember who said it exactly but I remember being told, “Be ready to do twice as much work, work twice as hard to get half the credit.”  If you're a fan of Scandal, you may have remembered Papa Pope telling Olivia that when she was in the midst of a pity party. 

The truth is, for women who look like Olivia Pope and me, that is truth.  It’s real hard truth, especially if you're ambitious and it’s very true in my game, in science. 

And I learned the hard way as an undergraduate student when we were pairing off for labs.  I was at a predominantly white institution so that it was only about three percent of the student body that was African-American.  It was a Science and Engineering school so everybody there, for the most part, was nerdy and there to take care of business.  But it was like the kid who didn’t want to get picked at the football game or on the team.  That’s how it was with me at lab or projects. 

It became clear to me that my classmates and some of my TAs and even some of my professors had amazingly low expectations of me and other students who looked like me.  I had a biochem professor who outright refused to answer questions.  He would see my hand up in the air.  And when he would answer, he would always be smug as hell and accuse me of not reading even though I was asking a question because I needed clarification. 

So it was that type of stuff that I dealt with.  My favorite, and by “favorite” I mean it’s not my favorite at all, passing out tests and everyone would look over.  Like, “What’d you get?  What’d you get?”  If I made lower than my classmates, it was just confirmation.  But if I did better, you're talking about guys - because it was mostly guys, white guys and some Asian guys - who would lose their shit.  “How’d you do better than me?  How’d that happen?” 

It became apparent to me that this was a world that expected me in a certain place, and that place was below them. 

I went on to graduate school and little by little, you still experience some of that.  It’s a little bit less but you still get the surprise, like, “Wow.  You passed your qualification exams.”  Really?  You accepted me in this PhD program and you didn’t think I could pass my quals?  Why are you so surprised?  Smugass. 

But you learned to deal with it, sadly.  You learn to start brushing it off.  The micro-aggressions become so common that you don’t take it up, you don’t call people on it.  Because one of the other things you learn the hard way is that calling people out isn’t as simple as a “not cool”.  It always becomes a big deal, a blow out. 

I learned that lesson my senior year at college when my SoLS professor walked in and just started naming all the historically black colleges in the state and a couple of the other metropolitan universities which had a noticeably very large African-American population.  And then he looked me in the face, the only black face in the lecture hall, the only black person enrolled in the School of Agriculture at that time and to my knowledge since, and starkly says, “You have to do real work here.” 

What the hell?  I didn’t know what he was talking about, first of all. 

So after class, I called him on it.  I told him that his remarks were out of line.  And his response was a disaster.  He ended up chasing me across campus screaming at me, insisting he was not a racist because he had a black roommate in college.  And that turned out all bad. 

So you learn to just let things go.  You don’t call people in everything.  It becomes second nature. 

And it’s because you have things to do.  I've got science to do.  I don’t have time to be sidetracked.  I’m already struggling to keep up in a race that I’m struggling in, I don’t have time for these sidetracks.  I’m already just trying to keep up. 

So in addition to doing science, I also share my experiences online.  I’m a blogger.  I write a blog called The Urban Scientist where I use my experiences as a woman, as a kid from the south, from the inner city, and I use pop culture and hip hop references to deconstruct science concepts.  I also talk about the highs and lows that I've experienced in sciences and I talk about it.  I try to demystify the entire experience. 

So that makes me very visible.  And visibility can be a good thing, but it’s always problematic for a junior scientist.  Even more so when you’re a woman or a person of color or someone like me who lives at the intersection of those things.  Because remember their rule, you have to work twice as hard to get half the credit.  Well, now you've made it just more visible so now you're going to be scrutinized even more.  So that’s life. 

So I think it was in late September or early October this year, I get an email from a guy who I only know by the name of Ofek from a website I had never heard of: Biology-Online dot org, asking me if I would love to blog for them.  “We have over ten million viewers a month.” 

I responded, “Well, tell me more about it.  What are you expecting?  How often?  Do you just want someone to write once a month, all the time?  And how much do you pay?” 

He responds, “Oh, you have this opportunity to write for so many people.  We have so much exposure but we do not pay.  Even Dr. blah, blah, blah who is the head of his blah, blah, blah field doesn’t even ask for money.” 

All this exposure, and we know that, about that exposure, right?  “We would want you to write every month for a year.” 

I responded, “Thank you very much for responding, but no thank you.”  I thought that was it. 

So early in the morning, Friday, October 11, I’m still wiping the sleep out of my eyes.  I see I have a response from him.  I’m like what?  What more was there to say after that? 

He was like, “Because we don’t pay for blog entries?  Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” 

I’m shocked.  I sit up in bed.  I wipe my eyes again because I’m convinced I did not read that right.  And I look at it again and I read it again and I quickly pound out a response in all caps. 


And I shoot it out.  Nothing. 

I kind of ranted a little bit on Twitter that day and people were like, “What the…?”  “Who?  Tell me.”  “Who?”  “What?” 

I had other things to do that day and I calm down.  I thought about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to frame it, and I made a video response.  Then I blogged a little bit about it and I put it up on my website. 

People were talking about it.  It was getting a lot of traffic on Twitter.  And about an hour later, it was taken down.  People were telling me they couldn’t open it up.  I thought it was technical. 

Within a few minutes of that hour that it had been taken down, I got a note on the backchannel saying it had been made private.  No explanation.  Nobody explained anything to me.  I thought it must have been technical.  But as the night wore on, I began to get worried.  I started racking my brain.  Like what did I say? 

And I did the thing that I've gotten used to doing.  I started scrutinizing myself because it’s easier to come ready.  If I’m ready, then I don’t have to deal with the scrutiny of other people.  So to my knowledge, I didn’t say anything that would get us into legal trouble.  I didn’t do any name-calling.  I called no one any names.  Nothing like that.  I even made a point to make it about not me.  I made a point to be calm and quiet and emotionless as much as possible, and to not even focus on my experience. 

I just used my experience as a springboard because I learned early on that nobody really listens to you when you're a woman and when you're the minority in the department.  That when you have an issue and I have an issue, I've been treated as if that’s your problem.  You get dismissed.  And so I learned very early that if I need to be heard, I had to make sure that the person I’m trying to get to listen to me can see themself in the issue. 

So the next morning, I finally get a call from the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, and she explains to me, and her remarks to me were the same that she made to the outlets that she interviewed with and that she tweeted about.  That blog post verged on the personal and Scientific American is a publication for sharing science.  That was not science.  That is why we took it down. 

And when we hang up from each other, I’m in tears.  Because once again, I feel like I’m being treated poorly, that I’m not being heard.  I’m being told that my issues don’t matter to science, to science communication, to higher Ed.  I’m being told to shut up, keep it to yourself, yet again. 

All these years later it’s frustrating.  It’s no other way to put it.  I was upset.  My feelings were really, really hurt.  I didn’t understand what was going on because I just needed to be listened to. 

I didn’t realize it immediately but the truth is people were listening.  My blog post, even though it was taken down had been mirrored or cross-posted at several other sites.  I’m still not sure how many people graciously put it up and they spread the word and it got tweeted. 

It made the news.  It made it on BuzzFeed.  It made it on Aljazeera America and ABC News.  I trended on Twitter. 

And when Monday morning rolled around, I panicked because I was like, I don’t think I can keep my mom and dad from finding out now.  I was worried about that.  Of all those things, that was what I was worried about, my parents finding out and getting upset. 

But we did get it resolved.  It did go back up.  And the editor who made the insult was fired, I’m told.  I got an apology from the company, from the head of the company that owns the website.  But I still catch myself doing what I've always done, what so many folks like me who have gotten used to being the only one, who’ve gotten used to being quiet regard ourselves, we watch ourselves, and you still occasionally get remarks. 

I mean, even on my blog post now that it’s up, someone was great enough to remind me how I was ruining my career potentially for speaking up and defending myself.  I thought to myself, you know what?  That’s bullshit.  It’s bullshit and I’m tired of it.  If that is what I must accept to be successful in this field then I've lost my appetite for it.  I’m tired of that bullshit.  I don't believe that I have to accept mistreatment in order to just get a chance to sit at the table, particularly when we already know within these fields that they have diversity and retention issues.  If that is what we truly say we care about and we've got new people coming to the table I think we are beyond time for a menu change.  Thank you.