This is a guest post from Sarah Hasnain, currently a PhD student in ecology at Queen's University. Sarah did her MSc at the University of Toronto with Brian Shuter on the interplay between environmental and evolutionary processes underlying thermal response in freshwater fish. Sarah was an office mate of mine for a while at the University of Toronto, and we had some interesting conversations about balancing cultural backgrounds and academia.
By the time that I was nine years old, I already knew that I wanted to do something in science. By the time I was eleven, my grandparents had patiently explained that in order to be a research scientist, I need to complete something called a PhD. And by thirteen, after brief flirtations with physics (which seemed cool at the time, and still is), mathematics, and history, I had decided to pursue a career as an ecologist.
My family supported me in my goal of being a scientist, even though they didn't know what an ecologist was. And as an undergraduate in Canada’s largest, most multicultural city, I didn’t stand out from my fellow classmates, who similarly came from all over the globe. And yet surprisingly, in addition to the usual student woes about finding scholarships, funding and the right academic advisors, the fact that I am a Pakistani female (and until recently a Hijabi) always seemed to play a role in how people responded to my goals. I continue to be asked to explain my career choice and my passion for science on a regular basis by colleagues, faculty members and visiting scientists which was and continues to be emotionally exhausting. For example, a senior faculty member followed me to the lab that I worked in as an undergraduate research student, to confirm that I actually worked there. People always came to my posters at conference poster sessions, but a number of them wantied to tell me that they are very glad to have someone “like you” here. One of the determining factors for which PhD labs I wanted to be in was that during the interview, at no point did the potential supervisor asks what made someone from my cultural, ethnic and religious background decide to pursue ecological research. This actually knocked a few labs out of the running.
I understand that my career choice is interesting, considering that ecology is not a field that has historically attracted many Pakistani women. And it’s undeniable that these comments and questions are about people wanting to be open and accepting and welcoming to me. But I can’t help but feel that the constant questions about my background insinuate, probably unintentionally, that my ethnic, religious and cultural affiliations are more interesting than my research. As an ecologist belonging to a minority group, these questions can have the opposite effect – instead of feeling accepted by their interest, I feel like I am constantly justifying my existence in this field. I imagine that for many minority ecologists, the underlying message is that they don't belong here.
Of course I don’t represent all minority, or Pakistani female ecologists. Probably some individuals would appreciate this interest in their background. But others, like myself, may not. Regardless of ethnic, cultural or religious affiliations, ecology is not the expected career choice in North American society. Why is someone like me interested in ecology? Because I like it. Just like everyone else here.