A few days after having started my new job I was still shinning with curiosity and energy. And pride. I was the new Commercial Toxics Associate for the City of San Francisco, Department of Environment, and as part of my diving into the new world of science based policy I was heading into a public hearing on pesticide regulation. It sounded like a bureaucratic dry event, but I didn’t know what to expect, so I was amazed when I walked into a regal ballroom, packed with chairs filled with people. The state regulators sat cooly at the front of the room at a long table, far from the crowd, often staring down at their note pads. The event had started when I arrived so I sat on the first chair I could find. As I scanned the room I noticed I was close to a podium and microphone, and also noticed a group of women on on the other side of the room. I noticed how they seemed to be supporting each other. I noticed they looked like me. They were standing and many of them had scarfs around their head, reminiscent of how cancer patients cover their heads after chemotherapy.
The hearing continued, but before I could grasp the full context of what was being discussed one of the women from the group was called to the podium. As she got closer I thought that she reminded me of the women of the neighborhood I had grown up in in Mexico City. I looked down to my hand brown hands, up at her brown weathered hands. Her posture, the cadence of her voice — it was all familiar. She spoke through a translator to the State’s regulatory body. At first a bit overwhelmed, but fiercely determined she shared that she was the mother of a boy with neurodevelopment delays. I didnt need the translator, Spanish is my mother tongue, but I knew that the anger and courage in her voice did not need translating.
The boy was there, maybe 8 years old, a few steps behind her and being cared for by another woman as his mother described how through out her pregnancy she was exposed to the pesticide in question. Working and living close to an agricultural field this pesticide was everywhere. Often without previous notice she would hear the the “avioneta” nearby and feel the drops of pesticide wafting in the air touching her skin. She spoke of the children in her community and described the life of her child and her hopes for him. When she stepped off the podium I was still consumed by the moment, feeling and pondering the anger and sadness her story had elicited when my ears perked up when hearing who was presenting next. Following her visceral testimony a few scientists were brought in by several community organizations to testify in support of her. In that moment I almost physically felt the click of insight. The big yearning that had led me to that job — the desire to see science actually working out in the world to the support of communities — was happening in front of my eys. It was like a log was added to the fire. I saw the scientific enterprise being accountable to the communities that surround and sustain it and all of us. And I knew I had found a path.
I had been searching for that path, or more accurately, that trail head, for a long time. As a Mexican immigrant, a bicultural Latinx woman of color, and a scientist trained in the United States, science has also been at the heart of my dreams. Science is woven into our dreams and identity as a nation. The scientific enterprise has long informed how progress is understood in the United States. The Vannevar Bush Report (1945), regarded as the blueprint for U.S. science policy, constructed science as essential to the development of our economy and society. Science is a key, yet subtle, component of how we pursue and understand progress in the United States. As I detail in “What’s in a Name? Karen and the Aspiration to Whiteness,” I grew up in Mexico City as a scholarship student at a prestigious international school. A child of the interstitial, I grew up learning different languages, navigating different spheres and believing in education as a pathway to upward mobility, a tool that might help me challenge the inequities and tragedies my family and community had to accept as normal.
I will admit that growing-up I liked science and biology, but not quite as much as I enjoyed literature, history, and political science. A part of me has never bought into the compartmentalization of knowledge we insist on. Are they not all stories we use to understand, love, remember and change the world? I received a scholarship to attend college in the United States and, when the time came to choose a major, I put science and political science on the scale.
Which could help me stop cycles of poverty and exploitation? Political science afforded a “clear” path to change. But having grown up in Mexico, I knew that this path is often reserved for those with money and influence. Science, on the other hand, offered me the possibility of becoming a producer of knowledge. Knowledge, I reasoned, is valuable and powerful. As a producer of knowledge I would have something to offer, to trade for access. Access and power I could use to benefit communities like the one I came from.
Science is a meritocracy, science benefits the world, science leads to progress — progress for all. I fervently believed these dreams and like many dreams they carried me, inspired and guided me. My faith was buoyed and challenged in many different moments, like the one I described above. But, shortly thereafter, I entered a doctoral program with the “secret” goal of becoming a scientist-activist. But the experiences I went through while I was being molded into the archetypal “American Scientist” took the spring out of my step, to put it mildly, and shook my core. I was part of the lab that discovered the sequences referred to as CRISPR and was there at the start of the collaboration with the now Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna. At that time, leaps in sequencing technologies were blasting through disciplines, fundamentally changing practices I had just learned. I knew I was living through a revolution; I just couldn’t see whose side I was on. I began to question the ethics and power dynamics of scientific knowledge production. I put the old dreams under the microscope and began to reshape them.
I love science. But I am also so angry. I feel so much anger at the ways in which science has historically been mobilized to further inequality, yet love for the promise that science holds. Science can be more. It can center communities and justice, it can become aware of its own role in perpetuating problematic power structures. I am still dreaming and I wonder: What would it look like if the power of science was equitably shared?
The vision below is a fiction. One that I hope will turn into reality in the not too distant future. It is born out of yearning to begin to visualize and start reshaping science and its role in our dreams and in society.
Does this dream speak to you?
I remember the day I started believing this might not be another passing fad but actually a new era. It was my first flight in over two years, and it felt strange to do something I used to do all the time. Although CDC data said that vaccination rates were increasing much faster than expected, it had just been two weeks since my second dose. I wore my favorite face mask (the comfy one that doesn't fog up my glasses).
The meeting I walked into had been convened by large and small community organizations. They had set the priorities for the meeting and pictures of their communities greeted you as you entered the room.
It was, in part, a reunion of my Civic Science Fellows “family”, colleagues from a fellowship who had nurtured my dream, and had held it up when I faltered. It was nourshing to hug so many I had not seen in person in such a long time.
There were high level reps from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation as well the biggest private science funders. But more than the usual suspects were trickling in, some online and more than I expected in person. We had a real mix of races and ethnicities, ages and stages, disciplines, institutions and backgrounds. For the first time in my career I looked around and could not count in one hand the other women of color in the room.
Our first conversation - about all the ways the new Community- Driven Science Initiative charged with shaking up the scientific status quo could fail and what had to be done to make it truly effective - was one of the most honest conversations I’ve ever seen between community and scientists, funders and grantees. And there was a moment, when a little Mexican lady that could have been my grandma stood on the stage, filling the room with her presence, the strength of her story and her offer to rally her community into action for research.
I stood in awe, with a knot in my throat, seeing the dignity and power of people talking to each other as equals. There is an indescribable magic in seeing people claiming and pushing against cycles of poverty and colonization. In this room, the power of science was being distributed, put into people’s hands so they could pull their communities out of centuries of oppression.
With lessons of the pandemic ringing in their ears, the new heads of both NIH and NSF were pushing forward big bold civic science initiatives, putting their money where their mouths are. We could hardly believe how much support for community-based orgs and individuals they planned to disperse. They were taking concrete steps towards rolling out ambitious new programs so teachers and students at all levels could learn, do, and shape a civic science. Hispanic-Serving Institutions, HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities would see big funding increases. The programs, among many other things, aimed to fundamentally tackle the parts of the scientific system that have built the base of the worst of the ivory tower. We were finally moving beyond the trite isolated DEI initiatives, supporting community-driven science questions and non- traditional approaches to science. It was a mission I had been working toward all my career. Maybe it’s time had finally come.
Over the course of the meeting, we poked as many holes in the feds’ draft plans as we could. And they actually listened. The sessions were we dreamed up radically new funding programs to promote equitable collaboration between labs and community members were my favorite part. Over drinks on the balcony that night, we swapped stories of personal and professional loss from the worst of the pandemic, but we couldn’t help turning back to the day to marvel at the possibility that we might had just witnessed real change unfold before our eyes.
Attribution Statement: Parts of the story above were written by me during a scenario writing session part of the “Imagining the Future of Science in America” workshops series led by Carrie Kappel and Kate Wing. Thank you Carrie and Kate for allowing me to stretch my wings and reconnecting me with the power of stories. Parts of this story are included in a scenario which is part of the Imagining the Future of Science in America toolkit.