In the first season of Dr Rae Wynn-Grant’s Nature on PBS’s Going Wild, we were given an insight to what it is like being a scientist in the field, and what obstacles Rae faces specifically being a black, female scientist.
Rae shared anecdotes of what they don’t teach you at university. We followed her battle with both e-coli and imposter syndrome – I am not sure which was more crippling. And what do you do when you are the only female in an expedition in the jungle and you run out of period products? Listening to this regressed me straight back to my first field study in the wetlands of Guyana during rainy season, when I really wished someone had told me to cover my butt with mosquito spray too, as that particular snack would be very much on display when I visited the outdoor toilets.
Oddly, Rae highlights that it was when her work took her to Kenya, which was her first time in a predominantly black country, that she was the only female, black scientist in her team. Race was continually in the forefront of the discussion, and she constantly has to prove herself and explain herself before she could get on with just doing her job.
Rae very effectively compares the micro-aggressions she received to mosquito bites. One mosquito bite a day is tolerable, but one a day in the same place every day, over and over again, will drive you bananas. Outsiders, who haven’t had the daily dose of mosquito bites, and might not even have noticed that you have been bitten, will only see someone (female, of colour) kicking off for seemingly little or no reason.
The most offensive example she gives is the time she was walking up to a stage to receive an award and someone handed her a plate, thinking she was catering staff.
After bringing these inequalities to light in season one, the second season of Going Wild kicked off on 27th September with a question many women are forced to deliberate: “How will having children affect my career?”
Sure, Rae has a more extreme career path than many. Most of us do not spend three months at a time tracking bears in the wild… But getting married and having children still disproportionately changes the path of life for women. Rae wanted more than a desk job, she didn’t want to settle, and what her husband would have to sacrifice or compromise on never seems to have come into the equation.
Episode two features Christine Wilkinson, a hyena expert (I didn’t know that was a job, and now I want it) who echoes Rae’s experiences in the field. It was only when she arrived in Kenya that she was, for the first time, like Rae, the only female black scientist on the team. Being half black, she felt like the outsider regardless of who she was with. This feeling of lack of belonging will strike a chord in many.
Although the show addresses some big cultural topics, there is fun stuff in this podcast too. Listen to find out what a meat tree is, for example, and learn the endearing story of Smiley the hyena…
But the ultimate lesson is clear: let’s get more people of colour involved in science, so the next generation see more people like them in roles – such as ‘hyena expert’ – that they might want to achieve for themselves.