Earlier this summer, I (prematurely)1 launched FLi Sci (short for First-Gen/Low-Income Scientists). The aim of this website is to consolidate resources for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds that aspire to become a scientist but may not have adequate support to accomplish that goal.
Since announcing FLi Sci, I’ve received some tremendous support from peers and strangers, many of whom have expressed an interest in helping or have signed up for the FLi Sci Ally program. It is very empowering because prior to FLi Sci, I was petrified to bring up issues related to socioeconomic status in science because it was never well-received; I usually left those interactions convinced that I was a nuisance for implying income was a barrier. However, I remain convinced that graduate school has a severe class issue — one that exacerbates any attempt to create mechanisms to diversify the academic community.
This is where FLi Sci comes in.
In my experience, one of the first barriers that can be addressed simply is disseminating knowledge about how to become a scientist. For myself, I never knew that engaging in research was a possibility before graduating college, but I realized many of my peers (often those whose parents went to college and/or if their parents were professors themselves) were given information about how to become involved at a very early age — some even during high school!. Many students who identify as FLi are not proximal to people with this knowledge given that they are more likely to attend schools that are severely underfunded and, by definition, come from backgrounds that are unfamiliar with the college experience. This can make it very difficult for students to have external support regarding the STEM ambition if they do not have the internal drive to persistently seek it themselves.
Second, there are many misconceptions about what science is, who does it, and how it is done. Fortunately, the academic community on Twitter is rife with advice and very supportive of budding scientists — but are FLi students following these individuals? Are they being exposed to them? What measures are in place to make sure they don’t get lost in the archives? I only recently joined the #AcademicTwitter community to help with my Ph.D. applications, and I truly regret not joining sooner.
Twitter, in fact, was another driving force in creating FLi Sci. It was exploding with resources during the #ShutDownSTEM protest and with generally much of the atrocities occurring this past summer related to race. This led to many academics that are well-respected in neuroscience to publicly share resources such as Google Docs, threads of advice and experience, and more. I was privy to them; others may not have been — but they should see them. So every time I see someone in my feed post a link or a document, it’s immediately added to FLi Sci so that one can access without a social media account and to avoid it getting lost in the Twitter abyss.
Finally, no researcher would deny that prior experience in science is crucial in understanding what it means to do science. Of course, this begs the question: Which demographics often have access to this experience early on? Who does not? How does someone from a low-income background acquire a research position if they (1) do not know it is out there and (2) if they do, know how to successfully stand out and earn it?
Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to these questions myself, and it is hard to investigate because it is not researched enough. It’s also very difficult to highlight because the financial background is not as tangible as race and gender; you can’t tell if someone grew up poor by looking at them. I recently spoke with a friend who was a QuestBridge Scholar (a scholarship exclusively for low-income students), and we discussed how we can’t tell who in graduate school is poor nor is it comfortable to ask someone “Hey! How are you? Did you grow up poor?” However, such information can be inferred. For example, if someone mentions that their parents work in finance, I think it is safe to assume they do not live below the poverty line. Or if someone casually mentions that their parents paid for their house and live rent-free, it won’t be hard to deduce much about their family’s access to wealth.
That being said, my goal is to have FLi Sci address a barrier to science related to socioeconomic status. That is why the first project I am piloting through FLi Sci is the FLi Sci Scholars Program, a one year program for high school or early college students that identify as FLi and wish to engage in a virtual research trainee program. I intend to utilize the resources provided to me to forge a curriculum that helps students develop skills and knowledge to progress up the scientific career ladder. Thanks to generous support from 4.0 Schools, a modest grant is provided to support this pilot along with some resources to help grow the program after its first year.
Moving forward, I am excited to see FLi Sci flourish into an organization that is at the forefront of supporting low-income students everywhere. I am hopeful that in a couple of months, the website will host a sufficient amount of resources that are academically and professionally fruitful to students, one that will only continue to grow and evolve with time. After a year or so, I hope that more funding can lead to the genesis of additional programming for students: I hope that the FLi Sci Scholars Program can evolve into a yearly fellowship; I hope to be able to provide residential experiences for students; I hope to be able to have students who are integrated into FLi Sci to have an augmented chance to become a statistic—a number that suggests their current enrollment in a STEM graduate program or job.
FLi Sci certainly has so much work to do in order to meet these ambitious goals, but I am more than optimistic that these will be achieved. It is only a matter of time,
If you have any questions or want to get involved with FLi Sci, please do not hesitate to reach out to me via Twitter or email.
I say prematurely because the website is nowhere near complete, and as time passes I envision substantial changes to the design as more and more become involved. For example, FLi Sci is currently not a nonprofit organization, and currently, there is no formal team (delayed to figure out ways to financially compensate individuals for their labor). ↩