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Little Science Talks: Season 1, Episode 2

by | Aug 27, 2021 | Little Science Talks Podcast | 0 comments

The first season of the Little Science Talks podcast focuses on generational influences in STEM. Little Science Co Founder, Heidi Gardner will be joined by her co-host Anna Kebke, along with a different guest for each episode.

You can listen to the episode in full using the Acast player above, the full episode’s transcript is below if you’d prefer to read along.

In our second episode we are joined by PhD Student, Diana Githwe. Diana’s research looks at how bacteria in the human gut microbiome break down sugars, and she joins us to share her career so far, and where she might go next. She explains how her mum wanted her to get a good education, and after moving the family from Kenya to Scotland, Diana hit gold with a biology teacher that encouraged her to pursue a career in biochemistry. We explore how the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed in the summer of 2020 impacted Diana, and why she specifically chose to work with a Black female therapist to help her navigate the microaggressions and barriers that she will likely face as a Black woman in STEM. Diana discusses the importance of backing yourself, and why it’s important to remember that while everyone may have 24 hours in the day, there’s no need for you to spend it in the same way that Beyoncé does.

Heidi
Hello and welcome to Little Science Talks. Today we are joined by the wonderful Diana Githwe. Diana, do you want to give us a little introduction about yourself?

Diana
Sure. Hi everyone. I’m Diana. I was born in Kenya and based in Glasgow, I’m now in Newcastle, studying microbiology at the University of Newcastle and I guess, what else I do, I’m a blogger, I blog about science, social justice, just lifestyle kind of wellbeing. So, I do a lot of things on Instagram, and I also have my own blog and platform called An Abundance of Melanin. I dance as well. I love to dance. And I guess yeah, that’s pretty much it. There’s a lot more I guess about me, so we’ll discover a bit more in the episode.

Anna
I love your blog name!

Diana
Thank you!

Heidi
I love you’re just like ‘I do this. I do this. I do this. And I do this.’ Oh, not much else. A million things!

Anna
Just casually being a superstar.

Heidi
So, you’re in Newcastle at the minute?

Diana
Yes, I am

Heidi
And you’re doing your PhD. So what made you want to study science, to begin with when you were, you know, choosing probably undergrad, I’m guessing or even A-Level before that?

Diana
Yeah, I guess a bit of background in the sense that I actually emigrated from Kenya, when I was seven, to Scotland. My Mum was quite traditional in the sense of like, she wanted my brother and me, after we moved to the UK to have a good education and also get a good job in terms of sustaining ourselves and having good money, etc. and just being able to have a good life. So the kind of subjects that she thought would have that related fields to Medicine, Law, Literature, etc. So that was kind of drilled down to us, you know, aspire to these kinds of ambitions. But I didn’t want to be a doctor. I just thought it was too much. I wasn’t a big fan of lots of blood and, yeah, it just seems a lot to me. I toyed with Law a little bit when I was younger, but I just found that ultimately, I hated reading lots of books and writing lots of essays, and it was quite boring to me. And then it actually wasn’t until i was 14/15, and had to choose my subjects at school, and then start thinking about university that I was like, uh, what do I actually like? So, I guess the privilege that I had in terms of the upbringing that I had was that, because my Mum had moved us over to the UK, I got to choose something that I actually enjoyed. And she wasn’t, really pushy as a Mum, she didn’t really care necessarily what we did, as long as we did things that were sensible. I loved biology at school, and my biology teacher was amazing. And she really kind of encouraged me to do the subject, but I didn’t see anything that interesting as a career option with just biology, and then I saw biochemistry and I loved that idea, so kind of fast forward a little bit into school, I applied for university to do a Master’s in biochemistry. Then I did my final exams in school and then got into my undergrad, I think it was more because I love asking questions, I used to always ask my Mum, why does that happen? You should have an answer. And then I’d ask why is that? And why is that? I was always quite a curious child and quite a curious teenager as well. So I love that aspect of Science, that there was never a done deal with an answer. It’s always more to discover. And the fact that I did quite well in it as well, obviously, that helps when you do well on subjects, you know, that does help you think, okay, I could do this in future. I had a great teacher as well. So that also piqued my interest in choosing that subject. So yeah, I guess that that’s where it started. That’s why I am where I am.

Heidi
A good teacher always helps. In our school, one teacher would be amazing and another one wouldn’t and then suddenly, it was like the good teacher’s subjects that everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe I could do this’. So, what sort of influence did they have? Did they introduce you to new areas of science? Or was it just like a sort of general? Like, ‘yeah, you can do this’ sort of thing?

Diana
Yeah, they just had a lot of time for children. And I think a lot of teachers, you know, get 20 years into the profession, and just can’t be bothered doing the same thing over and over again. And they just seem quite curt and just don’t really seem to be that interested in teaching anymore, the actual fundamental aspects of teaching children, whereas she was quite new, and I guess in her career, she was quite young. And she kind of had a different way of teaching, and you could tell that she loved us, genuinely loved being able to spark an interest in everybody. And so I love her, and especially if you did well in her class or, even if you don’t do well in her class, she’d still have time to kind of, help you through a few different questions that you’re struggling with. Or if we had exams, she was always available and ready to support us to study. So I think it was just that time and effort that I have seen, that allowed me to explore science a little bit more as a child.

Heidi
And what are your plans for the next step, because obviously, PhD is a pretty massive thing. I’m almost certain that you’re probably sick of people asking you what comes after the PhD. But, what is coming after the PhD?

Diana
I know, we always think about these things, but as soon as we start a job or whatever it, we’re thinking, Okay, what can I do next? What’s the game plan? and I think I have a kind of future care destination more than an immediate one. So my kind of biggest aspirations and ambitions have to do with a policy in healthcare, but I really want to get hands-on in terms of actually how healthcare places are decided and how they are brought about into government etc, maybe here in the UK, and also in countries in the south. So particularly, of course, Kenya, where I’m from, that would be amazing to see how that can translate and how we can create collaborations between Kenya and here, because they are such a huge country that is developing so quickly, and they have the expertise, it’s just the opportunities aren’t there. So I’m if able to, kind of, be that bridge between here, we have the resources, and over there you’re lacking the resources, that would be amazing. And then within that as well, trying to sort of like inspire young kids, young black girls as well to be able to show, you know, maybe you can do something in science as well because if you can see someone doing that, so kind of creating maybe scholarship. So I don’t even know, just something that is practical and help people that were in my position when I was younger that I didn’t have. So to do that I realised having a PhD would absolutely help with that, so understanding the research aspects of science as well. And then I can move around different industries and science, go-to tech as well. Even just normal industry kind of go-to jobs as well, maybe academia a little bit further, but I don’t know, but just trying to jump around in science and healthcare as much as possible so that I can get a feel for everything. And then everything can be tied together when I’m older and wiser and can do a lot of things that will be great!

Anna
Love that!

Heidi
It’s cool, isn’t it? Because I think with science, you can have a game plan of like, this is the puzzle I’m going to put together and then eventually in like 10 or 15 years time, this is what it’s gonna look like. And this is where I’m going to go and I love that about science because I think it means that the people kind of at the top that can influence stuff, can have such a diverse mix of skills and experiences and stuff is such a cool way to I don’t know, I guess, do stuff.

Diana
And I feel like people don’t really understand, I guess, that there are many aspects that come with science as well like, and there’s just so many different parts to it that you think when you think scientists, you think someone is sitting on their bench all day and doing experiments with funny looking liquids and gases everywhere. But there’s just so many moving parts to it. And ultimately, you know, we’ve seen with what happened with COVID affects our day to day life so much more. So yeah, there’s, I can’t wait to just see what’s out there.

Heidi
Yeah, that’s a nice outlook as well, because there’s a lot of people, like when I was doing my PhD, we all kind of had like, this is where we’re going to go and it was like a straight line. And then like the further along you get your like, actually, I needed to wiggle a bit so that it’s any use, like if it is just a straight line you never really get like the experience and that diversity of experience to make the proper difference and to like understand different perspectives and stuff. So you’re like bench base now on you?

Diana
Yeah, definitely.

Heidi
So what does your day to day look like? What does your day in the lab look like?

Diana
So busy, usually. Normally, I come into the lab and I normally have a little checklist of things that I want to do from the day before, but it’s all dependent on all the microbiologists and it’s all dependent on your bacteria and how they grow and how they’re behaving. So if I’m doing a lot of things, which involve, kind of bacterial rights, then I’ll kind of have to make sure that the other things went smoothly the day before. So that kind of determines a lot of my days as well. But normally it’s kind of just like running experiments, doing a lot of reading as well since I’m in my first year. So a lot of things as well as kind of like everything’s quite new as well. And obviously, it takes a lot longer to understand certain techniques as well and making sure that I get them right. So I spend a lot of time as well on the computer, just making sure that I am getting that understanding and knowledge behind all my experiments and kind of thoroughly researching properly. And yeah, then I’ll have a coffee break, and then more experiments. Honestly, busy days feel like five minutes. That’s the amazing part about lab-based  PhDs, it doesn’t feel like I’m working. Sometimes it feels like I’m just having fun. Speaking to my supervisor and she’s always like, No, you are working, people can’t do what you’re doing. And I’m like I know, I know but it just seems like I’m just messing around with a lot of different equipment. But I love the variety of it, even though obviously things will take time. And certain things won’t work the first time, so you kind of need to try them over and over again. I love that experiments can take five minutes up to, like, five days, you know, and there’s always a kind of moving puzzle and things we can you’re always doing different things. But they’ll all kind of merge together and create this again, like, where you’re saying, Heidi, this puzzle of what it’s supposed to look like, but there’s just so many different moving aspects. Yeah, a day for me is just random. It’s just all over the place. But I love it.

Heidi
When you talk to your Mum, I always ask people this question. When you talk to your Mum, does she know what you’re talking about?

Diana
Absolutely not. She just learnt the name of my degree, maybe I think the other day, honestly.

And no one really, I feel like nobody really knows. And it’s funny because when people like, you know, meeting someone new for the first time that’s not in my, sort of family or you know, my circle of friends. And someone asked, oh, what do you do? And you get to see that person try to explain. You’re just like, Oh, no, like, that’s not it, but good for you for trying. Yeah. No one gets it. Even when I explain it everyone’s like, oh, amazing. And then you hear two months later, What is it you actually do again?

Heidi
Yeah, that’s kind of like the peak of, we’ve made it now. People around us have absolutely no idea. We are the transponder.

Anna
We are just too complicated for words.

Heidi
Yeah, pretty much we’ve managed to confuse them into thinking that we have proper jobs, it’s wild.

Diana
Exactly, exactly. And it’s so funny. It’s always just like when they can’t explain it, it’s just we do something that’s really clever. I’m like, Yeah, I guess so.

Heidi
Because I remember my partner ages ago was like, you know, you’re one of the cleverest people I know. And also the most stupid, like, I’ll do stuff, I’ll put the dishwasher on and forget to put a dishwasher tablet in it, and he’s just like how do you how have you got this far? I don’t know.

Anna
There are just too many things going on in our brain

Heidi
Yeah, man. We all just need like nannies or something to do all of the like, the basic life functions for us. 

Diana
I know. That would be amazing. Oh my goodness, I would get so much done. Yeah, ever since moving, even moving out of home I’ve just noticed how much goes into just like, living! You have to come home and you have to cook then you have to wash dishes, then you have to get ready for the next day. Then you have to clean. Oh my goodness.

Anna
How do you balance it all? You know, if you have a really long day at the lab, obviously, you’re doing the science communication, you have to be creative, you have to do all this. And then you have to function as a human being. How do you do it?

Diana
I honestly do not know. I’m a lover of lists and to-do lists and reminders. So I normally would just kind of write things in a diary and like try and like make sure that I get things done and you know, in the time I’ve allocated and if I can’t, I’ll set myself a reminder. And honestly, I feel like there have been times with blogging for example that I’ve just said, I don’t have time for that right now. And frankly, it’s not the most important thing in my life right now. So I’m just gonna give myself time to live you know and actually function as a human being. We can get absolutely you can get so wrapped up in trying to be superhuman, but we’re actually not and the more you do that, the more you burn out and the more you end up hating what you’re doing anyway, so I just tried to check-in as well with myself like every so often and be like am I actually enjoying what I’m doing right now? No. Okay, like backburner and focus on what you need to do if that’s work or if that’s seeing your friends and making sure that you get to go home and spend some time even just by myself watching trashy TV shows. Check-ins are the thing that I use the most.

Heidi
So important as well.

Anna
I love Heidi’s Checklist with the how to say no.

Heidi
Oh, yeah. I think everyone needs that in their life. It was like someone had written it was a girl called Alex who had written a blog post for me and she was like, oh this is the technique that I use to say no to people, I was like, how have you not? Like made this like what are you talking about how you don’t need to know this? So I was like can I make it into a notepad? and she was like yeah if you want, like just so you know if you ever need one just come to me. I’ll give you them for free so I said I like five of them. She’s like, can I send one to this person? And this person? Oh, this person never says no to anything said one to them. Okay, great. So we like, post bombed them these little gifts from us. You need to just say no more often but after that I was like, this is an absolute freakin brainwave that this woman has had like how? How does no one ever coach you on how to say no, because, particularly in academia, you go through your undergrad and if you do a PhD, like you’re taught to say yes to all of these different opportunities, and like, look good for your CV, and all that kind of thing. And then you kind of carry that into adulthood, and then you just burn out. You don’t have enough time physically to do all of those things. So you have to draw the line somewhere because you have to have a life.

Anna
It’s toxic productivity, I think that all of them do that. And I saw you wrote a blog post about it, which I actually bookmarked, I love it. But yeah, it’s weird how that works.

Diana
Yeah, it’s just insane. It’s like, even though you know, you’re doing so much and probably much thing you should be doing, seeing someone else checking off a task on their list is like, Oh, my God, I need to do more, but you really don’t and it’s just such a cycle of constantly feeling that you’re not good enough, or you’re not doing enough work, or that you’re not gonna get your dreams and aspirations. I hate those like quotes and memes of like, you have the same hours in the day as Beyonce

Anna
Oh Bull!

Heidi
Beyonce has 24 hours, but she also has like a million other people around that also have 24 hours to do the stuff like, yeah, does my nut in.

Diana
Absolutely and even then I don’t want to be Beyonce. You know, it’d be amazing, but also like, I mediocre and average is, sometimes it’s okay, it’s needed. But everyone is built up to be like, these, you know, these people who do extraordinary things. That’s why they are in these positions. So yeah, I think the toxic mess of overworking is bull.

Heidi
I think like when you’re trying to write your thesis and stuff, obviously, your first year, I don’t want to scare you. You’re writing a thesis, my boss would always say to me, a good thesis is a done thesis, it doesn’t need to be this magical, life-changing thing. It just needs to be done to a point where someone else says like, yeah, that’s not rubbish. And then you can move on to the next thing, it’s not crap. So you’re fine. Move on. You need to put in as much time as you have, rather than as much time as you think is, like necessary for it. So yeah, totally get you with that whole toxic productivity thing. It’s, it’s a frickin nightmare.

Anna
Absolutely, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you went into your PhD from your undergrad?

Diana
So my undergrad was kind of became mixed, so it was a combined Master’s. So I did four years of biochemistry and microbiology. And then I did one year just a master’s in microbiology, but it was like the undergrad sort of. It wasn’t a separate Master’s. And then I went into my PhD.

Anna
Cool. How do you think that prepares you for your PhD? Like, was it a big jump? Or was it more of an ‘Okay, this is kind of a continuation of what I learned’?

Diana
I would say it’s kind of half and half. The only reason I say this is because I did an internship in my third year, which was industry-based. So I never really had a lot of lab experience apart from my teaching labs at university. And if anybody does teaching labs at University, they’re not great. You know you get an hour a week or something, I don’t know, three hours a week or something. And you don’t really learn much because obviously a lot of these are kind of like simulations if that makes sense, to kind of makeup experiments that are supposed to work If it doesn’t work they kind of give you the results you’re supposed to get. And so you don’t necessarily learn much, you know what it feels like to be in a lab and doing research. It’s kind of just trying to validate the knowledge that you’ve learned in class. So I don’t really do a lot of lab work. And so after my internship, I was really interested in industry, like industrial science. So for my fourth year, my honours project was an enterprise. So it wasn’t again, lab-based at all, it was actually kind of to do with business and science, which I absolutely loved. And the reason I chose that was because I knew that I’d have my Masters which is completely lab-based. So I had a set of sessions in the lab, which were amazing. I think that really prepared me for my masters. And that’s what made me choose to do a PhD anyway. So I was dead sure I was going to go straight to industry. And then I then completely changed my mind and chose to do a PhD instead that was lab-based. So they prepared me in the sense of I felt ownership of my project and masters level. And I got to understand how it feels like to kind of work you know, nine to five in a lab and do experiments etc. But the other Flipside was because I didn’t have as much experience in the lab, as others might have a didn’t prepare me in that sense. And also, my project is completely different. So wasn’t necessarily continuation in terms of knowledge. So again, I had to kind of like reverse and kind of learn what my new project is. So half and half, but I am still glad I did my masters. And I’m glad for the path that I took to get here.

Heidi
Yeah, I think that you pick up different things from whatever, like job or choice and thing you make. And particularly with a PhD, like you need all these different skills all the time. So even the skills that you don’t think you need like you’re going to pick them up from different areas. So like, even if you work a part-time job, in a shop,  those customer service skills are really helpful when you’re trying to argue with someone who doesn’t seem to understand the scientific point, all of it is going to help.

Anna
A piece of advice, honestly, to just even in like job applications, PhD applications, everything, you have you lived a life, you learned so much from you know, all the different things you do in your outside life, and people are so scared to talk about that. But you can have so many like, you learn, even if you had to argue with someone, and even have the same point, they thought the earth was flat, and you were convincing them that the Earth was actually round. Do you get my point?

Heidi
It’s a good point. Good point. It is it’s just like, you pick up skills all the time. And I think even Instagram, stuff like that. I think a couple of years ago, maybe a senior academics might have thought like that was kind of not a waste of time. But they might not have said those words, but they may have thought them like why are you spending your time doing that sort of, like communication online? And like why are you on Twitter and all these different things? And I think the longer it goes on that the longer they’re probably thinking like, Oh, right, that does make sense. Their arguments are more solid or they’re more developed and the communication skills are better and that kind of thing. And it helps as well with just like building a network like having like friends that know what’s going on in your in like the PhD life is a freakin lifesaver. Like, I remember a bad day PhD wise, like I’d come home and try and explain it to my partner. And you just you try and get it but he couldn’t because he hadn’t done it. And then I’d like put it on Instagram. I was like had a really annoying day like my results weren’t coming through and my data was really bad. And someone else would be like, Oh, yeah, that was me last week. But this week, it’s fine. Like, keep going, you’re cool. It was like little things like that always helps so much just to pull you, pull you through make sure you actually get to the end of it.

Diana
Absolutely. And I think especially like the past year, my first year was mostly in lockdown as well a quick, I got to go into the lab but this wasn’t what I was expecting. My first year is completely different to this sort of social aspect that I was excited about at PhD and even just the novelty of it kept me going for so long. But then it kind of obviously it kind of dissipated and I was just like oh my goodness this is all I do this is all I work is just life. So seeing people and Instagram, you know kind of talking about like their bad days. I mean even their good days as well kind of gave you that motivation, keep calling. And also made me realise I wasn’t alone at all, even though I have people in the lab that are going to does that same thing. It’s sad in a way but it’s nice to know people are also going through the same thing be it good or bad. So Oh my goodness. Yeah, the network aspects of any job or any PhD or whatever it is you’re doing is so important.

Heidi
Yeah, definitely. And do you think that makes more of a difference? Do you like seeing as though you’re sort of, like first gen and STEM sort of thing like the people like your family and stuff might not have had that same experiences? Is that like being more of a comfort for that reason?

Diana
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Because my Mum, you know, she doesn’t really understand and you know, she knows exactly what I’m doing, if that makes sense, she knows I’m still working, etc. But she doesn’t really understand what science is and that it can be frustrating. And that it is, it’s hard in it in a sense, you know, people think, oh, you’re clever, it must be quite easy to kind of do science or it also clearly must work, you just kind of get to, again, play around with equipment all day. But when you’re working on something that you don’t know, the answer to as you mentioned, Heidi, it’s so difficult to kind of keep your motivation and be like an actually made for this is this. Am I the right person to do this? So yeah, it’s quite hard to kind of like say, I’m having a bad day because of this, because they’re just like, Oh, well, it’s okay. Like, hopefully, you’ll get better. I don’t know. Well, but it’s, it’s hard.

Heidi
You don’t want to hear that.

Diana
Exactly, because no one really gets why the bad day was a bad day. Yeah, unless they actually do a lab-based PhD, or they just did a PhD, you know, and in general.

Heidi
It is funny, like trying to explain, like, I remember getting home one night and being like, well, I lost my USB stick. And I’ve lost five documents that took me this many hours to do, my partner was like, why don’t you save it on a hard drive? Like, that’s not the answer, like do not take that away from this. How did it take you this long to do five documents was like, You have no idea. But it is like you talk about it. And it just it’s not it doesn’t hit the same as to like the person who has had the same experience. And they’re suddenly like, Oh, yeah, you need to order Chinese food and like, lay on your sofa and not think about it. That’s the response I want, rather than like, oh, I’ll be fine. You’re like, shut up. I know, my rational brain knows I’ll be fine. I do not need to hear that from you.

Diana
Yeah, I want them to just grieve with me.

Heidi
Yeah, yeah, totally get you. I wanted to delve a little bit into it, like some of the blog posts that you’ve written? Yeah, basically, because I’m addicted to it. So I just go back, I have literally bookmarked so many of them be like, that is such a good point. I need to remember that.

Anna
You are the Fanclub.

Heidi
Literally, so good.

Diana
That’s so nice to hear, thank you.

Heidi
They’re so easy to read. Like, I’m just, I’m just going to fangirl over you for a sec. But to get to the bottom of the blog post now, like, Oh, actually, like, I understand something that I wouldn’t have understood without this. But it didn’t feel like that, you know, like, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading some like big educational thing. You’re just reading, like experiences. And this is what it’s like for you and that kind of thing. And I don’t work in the lab anymore. So I think I even you’re, like snapshots and stuff on Instagram of like, you’re going into the lab, and this is what you’re doing. Like that sort of stuff is completely over my head now because like my brain, it just falls out at the end of it. Like my PhD wasn’t in a lab. So the last time that I was, like 10 years ago, and it all just fell out. And now someone says Western blot. And I’m like, I don’t know what that is. When you explain it. I’m like, I get it. Totally. Yeah, I can do that. But yeah, anyway, after my fangirling moment, one of the things that you’d written about on your blog was like, it was talking about, like, microaggressions that you might have experienced. And one thing that really struck me was like, Oh, God, I didn’t even think of that was like language barriers. So in well, in the world of science, I guess the language of science is English, right? And you’d written on your blog posts, when you were younger, that your Mum was speaking to you in Swahili outside, and like, you were kind of embarrassed by that. And you’re like, Oh, don’t like English outside the house sort of thing. And I just wondered whether you could say a little bit more about, like, how that experience and how, like being bilingual might have changed your views on STEM or, like helped your views and stuff? Like how, how has that changed your experiences?

Diana
It’s a really good question. Actually, you know, I think a lot of immigrants kind of go through that whole phase of well, it’s sad that they do go through that phase of not wanting to have their culture anymore and kind of you know, try to assimilate and try to kind of get to the norm of at all, but I think I didn’t see science as a thing that I could do not until you know, I kind of was told by my teachers, I could do it. And that it seemed quite interesting because 1. my Mum never talked about it, obviously, because I didn’t know any scientist growing up, I didn’t know anybody that science anyone who studied science, so it was kind of all either traditional routes, or it was just get a job that can sustain your life. And that was good enough. So that wasn’t really a thing for me. And then when I can have obviously seen, I thought STEM was and I thought what scientists look like, it wasn’t anything like me. So that was, it was a hard thing to kind of like think of can I actually do it? Is it for me am I made for it? The language barrier was actually not too bad because luckily I got to learn English and when I was kind of firstborn in Kenya, we learn pretty much English in school as well. So in that terms that weren’t that difficult it kind of like get to know to learn a different language in that sense. So in that respect it was fine, but in terms of I guess, like your in a completely new world and having to kind of adjust to people thinking that you’re not made for something as well it’s quite difficult because you feel that you’re yourself that you might not be made for something. And then to kind of have other people thinking, oh, wow, like, whenever I would say something, and I used to have a part-time job at a supermarket, and people would obviously have, you know, make small conversations with you. And they would ask what I do, and I’d be like, well, I’m at university, they go, Oh, wow. Okay, what do you do? And I will tell them, you know, biochemistry and microbiology, they play Oh, wow. Really? I mean, you know, and it wasn’t just, it wasn’t a more like, Oh, well done. It was more like you are doing it, you know, and you could feel it. And it just, it does kind of break you down a little bit. Because if, yeah, because it’s a double. It’s a double-edged sword at the end of the day, you don’t think you’re good enough and then other people don’t think you’re good enough so are you really made for it? But luckily, it’s better now.

Anna
For you, you went to therapy right at the beginning of your PhD?

Diana
I did. Yeah. I did some therapy. Yeah.

Anna
Did you get any tools like to work with?

Diana
Yeah, I did. I think luckily, as well, I asked for a Black therapist as well, a Black female therapist, so and that was really important to me, because especially after last year, with what happened with the BLM movement, I realised the importance of having someone who is who understood your struggles, so that even in therapy I know that, you know, you’re not supposed to have the therapist isn’t supposed to necessarily bring their own experiences into it. But I knew that if I was talking about something, and someone didn’t understand it, how could they necessarily give me the tools and resources to kind of combat what was going through. So that was really important. And I think I’ve talked a lot about kind of that feeling of this even larger than imposter syndrome that can feel in all they know that people are out here to catch me out and make sure that I don’t excel. And even though it’s not being as unfair now like lead, not to know, to where I know, it’s gonna get harder and harder as I as I grow older, and the higher up in STEM that I go. So I kind of talked a lot extensively about this to my therapist, and, you know, I think, again, it’s that whole point we’re talking about earlier, but someone getting it, when you’re going through something bad. And it’s like, she wasn’t necessarily saying, Oh, it’s fine, you’ll be fine, you’ll get better. She was like, I know, it’s not gonna get better. She’s don’t sugarcoat anything. She validated my experiences, my feelings will develop because she says, you know, no, it’s not going to get better. But what are you going to do about it? So that gives me that kind of, I guess, motivations kind of say, Well, yeah, actually, well, I can moan about it all I like, and I’m not moaning, but you know, I’m, I can express how I feel as much as I like, but at the end of the day, yeah. What am I going to say about it? Am I going to make it better? Or am I going to fold and say, Yeah, okay, you win, you don’t want me to be in STEM? So I think that kind of constant thought of what you’re going to change about this situation? And what can you do to make it better for you and everybody else around you that are going through the same thing? That was the biggest tool that she gave me, my therapist gave me in terms of being a Black woman in STEM and how to combat certain issues.

Heidi
And that’s so important as well, like, when you’re going through anything STEM-related. Like, you’re always like pushed back, because that’s what we do. Like that’s the nature of the work. So you push until you find something that doesn’t work. And then you go back and troubleshoot. And then you push again until you find something else that doesn’t work. But when you’re doing that, it grates on you. And if you’ve also got a higher thing above you that say, like, yeah, you will find something that won’t work. Yeah, you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do that. Like that is a massive thing that I think at the minute stem in the UK is just not it hasn’t really acknowledged that it’s happening. And there’s a few like pockets of people who are like, right, we need to do something about this. Obviously, I’m a white woman. So it’s, I’m not trying to say like, you know, I’m centring it up, but I just I find it really difficult to get to like how, how have we got to a point where at universities are not they don’t have like a programme or some way to connect black women in STEM to other black women in STEM to be like, Look, we need you here we need, we need to make sure that we’re lifting you up for the whole time because the system is pushing down on you. So how can we like contribute to making that better? And it is like it’s just an ongoing issue that I think we just have to chip away out. And that sounds easy. And it’s easy for me because I’m not in the position of being pushed on but constantly having that on you is an awful lot and I think the fact that you’re so open about it is amazing. Like there’ll be well I know that there is because I’ve spoken to people. There’ll be young black students looking at your Instagram and being like Yeah like she’s absolutely nailing it. Like, why can’t I do that? Cool, I’m gonna go do it like, let’s do it, man, like and you get that like inspiration from you and you’re the content that you put out. It’s, there’s always like a series, it’s like, look you need to know about this but there’s always like a bit of optimism and a bit of let’s pull together and let’s change it I think that is why as soon as I found your page, I was like oh my god I need to like befriend this girl, I can’t even be cool about it anymore!

Diana
I guess why we connected as well as because I could see you doing the work too. And I think a lot of people get really nervous to kind of feel like they’re centring themselves on an issue that doesn’t necessarily impact them. But we’re all an issue. And at the end of the day, we’re just different points of it. So that’s why a lot of you and your page, because you acknowledge that I knew you say, Well, this is what I’m doing about it. Join me, you know, and it’s not necessarily about saying, because as much as we can, can all acknowledge the fact that there is racism and xenophobia and misogyny etc. in science and in STEM. acknowledging it is it’s okay, it’s just okay. And it’s just at the cusp is that a cusp with them, because if we don’t do anything now then it’s just gonna be a thing, we can chip away at it, we can demolish it, we can then build from that. So that’s why I think we did connect really well because I could see the work that you’re doing, which is so important, and that you support the work that I’m doing as well. And that at all, we’ll just build up into something much greater.

Heidi
We’re just like having a little love in here. Yeah, is it’s just like, for me, it’s about trying to get other white people to recognise that we’re usually the majority in a room and I said to someone the other day that I was sick of women in STEM initiatives because they’re always aimed at white women in STEM. And I stepped back from a couple of like, the events and stuff that I was doing, because I was like, all I’m doing here is perpetuating the problem, like, under the guise of it solving the problem, but it’s not solving the problem, because all we’re doing is bringing in more women, but they’re all white women. So is that really helping? Because I’m pretty sure that in like biology and life sciences and stuff because I’m in health sciences, I’m pretty sure that we’re majority women in a lot of cases, it’s just when majority white women, and that’s kind of the diverse bit where everyone’s like looking over it. And they’d be like, Oh, this woman in science event, I’m like, cool. We all grew up on the same freakin street here lads, it’s like, well, we all have the same references and yeah, nothing is, there’s no diversity when it’s just all the same white women in the room all the time. I think that as well as like, the thing that I think is really cool about Instagram is, the number of diverse faces and diverse voices that you hear because it’s not like I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these like, you know, 15 women to follow in STEM things. They’re not all white, because they never are like, it’s a diverse group of people. Because you want to hear from different people. Like how is that revolutionary? I don’t know, at this point. But that’s where we’re at. I think like the, as you said, like the Black Lives Matter movement and stuff, had really drawn attention to it. And yeah, I’m hoping that there’ll be change. Have you seen any sort of like change and things within like your programme or your university or anything of things that they’ve might have done to strengthen what should be happening?

Diana
Kind of, there was actually an open letter, I think that was written to the university before I even got there. I think about their lack of diversity and just what they were doing. And I think they had got a response back. I never read all that because it was one of those ones where like, basically, they took like three months to write a response to something and they said what they were going to say, but I don’t think it was anything really that concrete, you know, there’s plans etc. In terms of my close lab, we talk about things quite a lot, actually, my supervisor is quite open and talking about you know, issues and race which is actually really good because it makes me feel comfortable that I can raise my concerns etc. And I don’t ever feel like I’ll be kind of ostracised or feel embarrassed to kind of come up just to say anything, or if I’ve got an issue to kind of raise that I think it will be dealt with quite quite quite well and quite quickly within my close lab group. But other than that, not necessarily anything huge. I wouldn’t say I always feel like it’s just again, it’s always just like, yeah, this is what we’re required to do, but it’s never actually made them to anything useful.

Heidi
Yeah, there’s a lot of talking. Do they ever get off their emails and just do the thing?

Diana
Exactly. I never really actually address it well, by not talking to people that are faced by these issues, they don’t really talk to the Black people in STEM or even other ethnic minorities. It’s all kind of like, they’ll decide what’s best moving forward, but then how is that going to ever impact the people that are actually been impacted by it. So I haven’t seen anything huge, necessarily. But I hope I hope soon, at some point, I think once I get my feet into my PhD as well, and also kind of solidify, you know, what I’m doing my PhD and everything, I’m gonna definitely start doing some more initiatives as well, like, that I can do personally within the university, and in my programme as well to help that.

Heidi
Yeah, I think it’s nice that you’re willing to do that because it’s not your job. I remember, there was an ad going around at uni a couple of weeks ago, saying if you want a mentor younger people and stuff, and it had particular groups that you’d be happy to mentor. So there were loads of people, people like women, being like we’re happy to mentor young girls and I said would be more than happy to mentor someone who doesn’t look like me. So whether it’s a Black boy or an Asian girl or a non-binary person from Spain, I literally, I could not care as long as they don’t look like me and I got an email back and she was like that wasn’t like on the sheet, like, it wasn’t that wasn’t one of the options, you were meant to tick a thing. And I was like, yep, moving on, moving on. It’s like computer says no at every point, it just doesn’t work. And I remember speaking to a girl a couple of weeks ago, who’s she’s from Malaysia originally. And her names, because they’re not Western names, they don’t fit in the university system because her passport name is not the same name as it is on like maybe her birth certificate or registration documents. And she had to come up with all these different like pages and pages of stuff and be like, Hey, so these six things are all my name – that is all me, and the university administrator was just like, Hmm, not sure about that. Your system doesn’t work for me. You have to change the system. Don’t expect me to put myself in the system. If something massive has happened after last summer, maybe we, all would have been a bit like, Hmm. What’s this about like a bit suspect because you don’t just want one massive thing. It needs to be sustainable as well. So yeah. Well, something huge might have been good. It will be better if there’s like 15 huge things, one after another, you know what I mean? Rather than this one kind of gesture

Diana
Absolutely. Yeah. Cause that’s the thing, a lot of institutions and companies try to do this big, massive gesture. But if you tell that it wasn’t genuine and it wasn’t sustainable, as you mentioned, it wasn’t ever going to want in the long-term because they were just trying to show face and that. It’s not that it’s not what they actually intended to do. So yeah, absolutely. Small steps toward genuine steps will definitely that’s the big picture.

Heidi
Yeah and I think that’s all over the next, maybe five or six years, we’ll start to see people like you, like coming out of your PhD programs and like holding a position of power where you’re like, yeah, you can call me doctor, come on, let’s do this. I’ve earned it. And now what can I do? Like which role can I go into now? And then. I think I keep going back to Instagram, but I just think it’s so powerful that people like those have all kind of come together and be like, we all got to change something. Like we might not be in a position where we’re hiring people yet, but at some point, we will. And at that point, the hiring practices are going to change to how they are now because they’re not working for anyone. So yeah, I’m, I’m cautiously optimistic that we are going to have like. I always say like when all the white, old, white professors die, but I don’t actually mean not just me one at a time.

Diana
I hope so. But then also the good thing about social media, I think as well, is that, that, that when you do get a copy of the big ball, when are you, when you am, have even a smaller one, but when you have an audience of any capacity, people are listening to what you’re seeing. So that, that will subconsciously kind of change the way you think anyway. Um, and make you question a lot of things that you hold true to yourself where you kind of had a belief about it. So you might change that. So that will, I think, impact as well, the professors and the academics and the same, you know, the people power that we have in future because I think if we all kind of just sit in our own little silos, we would have just had exactly the same beliefs and everything would just take over as it has been. So that’s, that’s going to be amazing to see it.

Heidi
Yeah, definitely.

Anna
I was just curious about – because you’ve talked about having an audience and like an Instagram following and then obviously there’s a lot of people out there reading your blog posts. Do you have any like plans for developing this communications side further?

Diana
Yes, I do. And I think it’s all just if I’ve got the time and honestly, I’ve got so many ideas and so many things I want to do, but it’s sometimes I’m just like, it’s okay. You know, just focus on one thing at a time, but it’s actually coming up to my one year anniversary on Monday, which is going to be so exciting. I’ve kind of recapped what’s happened in the past year., what I’ve loved and what I haven’t loved so much. And what my ambition was was to have an online magazine sort of thing as well. So what I’m planning to do in the next year or so it’s definitely kind of more collaborations kind of trying to get more people on the blog, like guest posts and kind of understanding how we’re all interlinked and try to get different perspectives from different women in science and non-binary people as well. Just trying to kind of open up a network. I want to, I want it to be a welcome platform, but it’s not for me necessarily, but for people just to kind of see different perspectives and during the conversation and, you know, kind of raise a topic and say, what do you think about this? And to kind of get that engagement interaction going on. So that’s kind of one thing. And then also one thing that I’ve had in the back burner, but I’m going to definitely do. Is a little series called Diana lab bench and, like mini little series,  kind of like follow me around in the lab, seeing different techniques, kind of open up that world of microbiology that people don’t necessarily know just showing what it’s like to be scientists, and make an accessible for people. Because I think one thing that I’ve seen a lot of people doing in science communication and I’m a victim to it as well as try to make science accessible, but it’s not really still. People still don’t understand what the, what you’re talking about because you’re using scientific terms or you think that your audience is more scientific as well. You think they understand you but they don’t really, and even certain science might not be. Biology, you know, so trying to open up and what I do to more people so they can see like, oh, I can do that. You know, yes, it’s hard, but every job is hard if you think about it, so you know, you might not have the skills to do whatever the person’s doing, but if it seems accessible, then it can be.

Heidi
It’s a cool way to kind of nudge collaborations as well. So I’ve been doing lots of inward swearing at the lack of like social scientists and stuff in the field that I work in. I’m like, I just need to find this person. So I keep finding people and being like you, I need to speak to you. And then I’ll email them. And they’re like, why do you want to speak to me? You do nothing that’s related, but it’s, if you know their methods and you know, how they do stuff, then other people can like translate it into their own sphere. So even if you’re like explaining how to do a Western blot, which clearly I’m obsessed with today, I’ve just got like scarring from like my undergrad dissertation, – which we had a, complete side note, but, me and my friend, Anna were in the same lab and we were trying to do this Western blot and it was in the middle of February. And our hand-in date was like, end of March and we just cried for the entire day, but it got to the point where you were like crying, laughing, crying, laughing. But yeah, someone else look at it and be like, oh, she’s doing that, I could use that in my research. I think that cross-collaboration can make science, so much stronger than it currently is because we’re not, we tend to work in very heavy silos of like you do health stuff, So you’re over there, you do microbiology. So you’re over there. And like you just said obviously, the methods are hard, but you use the same methods that your professor and the people before you have done. And we’ve kind of lost that like crosstalk between different areas where you’re like, Ooh, they do that, maybe we could tweak that a bit kind of making that a bit more open and stuff I think is a really cool idea to try and even just to be like, right, you don’t have to do microbiology, but this is how I do this.

So, we always ask our guests a top tip or Pearl of wisdom for you to give our listeners. So is there anything that you, like you learned and then you wish that someone had told you like earlier or something that you’re like, everyone needs to know this, if they’re doing like a career in STEM?

Diana
Well, it’s nothing revolutionary, but I don’t think any pearls of wisdom really ever are? They’re just reminders to keep on going. So the one Pearl of wisdom that I would give is to back yourself because I think when you are, especially for students or are in STEM, you always feel imposter syndrome. You always feel like you’re not really made for something, and people will be quick to push their excuses on you and say, maybe you shouldn’t do this. They will think they know you better than you know yourself, but at the end of the day, you have to live with your decisions. So if you feel something in your gut and in your heart that to do something just back yourself and that’s what you’ll have to push you through. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. You know, life moves on and you get to change and you get to move on, but stop letting your excuses or other people’s get in the way. Have faith in whatever you’re doing.

Heidi
That’s so important. Perfect sign off right? Back yourself to the extent of a mediocre white man.

Diana
You’ll get anywhere in the world.

Heidi
You will probably be the prime minister at some point anyway, politics. Obviously, we’ll leave your blog links and stuff in the show notes so people can go and follow them. Is there anything else that you want to share?

Diana
Just remember that there are other people in STEM that aren’t as privileged a possession as you are. So just keep pushing, keep pushing for accessibility at all levels. And that’s not necessarily just ethnic minorities. There are people who don’t conform to the same gender that you do. There are people who have disabilities, et cetera, et cetera, the list goes on. So just keep pushing, make sure that as accessible as possible for everybody.

Heidi
Yeah, it is, and we shouldn’t need a reason for it, but sometimes you need a reason because people disagree. So we need diversity. We need a completely different melting pot of what, what science should look like because otherwise the science then doesn’t apply to anybody. If it doesn’t work for everyone, then it doesn’t work for anyone.

It’s like what I’m trying to hammer in, in my like day job life, because when you go through the categories, I think particularly in like stuff related to health and like microbiology of what we fit in here as well, like. W when you say like, oh, it doesn’t work for pregnant women. It doesn’t work for older people. It doesn’t work for Black people. It doesn’t work for people whose first language is not English like this huge, huge, huge list. And what you’re left with is a massive thing where it’s like this group, it doesn’t serve. Or this one group writes privileged, you know, fluent in English, white middle class, probably retired. Versus everybody else. And you’re like, how did we get to the point where there’s one group and it only applies to them. So it literally doesn’t apply to the rest of the world and the rest of the world in this case, or a majority. So do something. And I was like, make it work, make it make sense. And then make it work.

I just think it’s like, it’s a group of us just chipping away. Like your blog, like educated me without feeling like I was being educated and we need more of that. Like we just need so many. And like pay people. Like you shouldn’t have to write a blog that’s free and put your time into it and stuff so that I can be educated. Like, geez, man, come on. People should be paid to be in that position. Like, why don’t we have universities where they’re like, you should be blogging for your uni to be like, look, this is what it’s like in this situation. Not pointing at Newcastle cause I’m a northerner and we love you

So at the end of every episode, we always allow our guests free space to plug, if you want to give us a rundown of the things where people can find you online?

Diana
Awesome. So you can find me on Instagram at An Abundance of Melanin. My blog name is also An abundance of melanin.com and my Twitter is just my full name.

Heidi
Thank you so much for being our guest!

Diana
Thanks so much for having me on it, was so much fun!


Find out more about Diana and her work here:
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anabundanceofmelanin/
Blog: https://www.anabundanceofmelanin.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/dianagithwe