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Nepotism in Science (or Academic Privilege?)

(These feelings have been kicking around my head for awhile, and then kicking around in my drafts, and I think I finally have them organized into a semi-coherent rant, but I’m a rambler, not a writer)

This spring I saw this post on Gawker. It’s by a “Harvard Gatekeeper” (which in the comments was revealed to basically be a way to make alumni feel important) and contained this quote:

The 4.0 student who just works the ball-washing station at the country club does not necessarily demonstrate great time-management skills. On the other hand, we’ll take the person who has an A-minus GPA but spends most of her free time in a research lab breeding generations of flies for genetic tests, thank you very much.


That really struck a chord with me. For the past 2 summers, I had mentored a high school student in the lab. She was underwhelming. She had no motivation and was pretty much a wet blanket in the lab. When I talked to her at the beginning of the summer about if she was considering a career in science, she shrugged. She wouldn’t do anything without me directly telling her to do it. She wouldn’t write down anything (despite me repeatedly encouraging her to take notes... “You’re going to be doing a lot of this reaction this summer. You should probably write down the steps!” “Remember that thing we did yesterday? We need to do the same thing today. Why don’t you try to set it up and I’ll help you out if you get stuck.” )*

By the end of her time, the only thing she had achieved was some really basic technician stuff—I mean literally following a recipe—stuff that I could have taught to any high school age kid. Which is fine—the idea of getting kids in the lab isn’t with the expectation that they have enough knowledge that they can design their own project, or even collect any meaningful data, it’s so they can see how research works, decide if they like the environment, etc.


So, how did this student who didn’t really care about science and wasn’t particularly motivated to work end up with a job in a lab at a major research institution for two summers? Her mom worked there and knew my boss.

This summer, she’s gone (after having been accepted to a very prestigious college, based partly on her resume containing some super outstanding research experience), but we have 2 new summer students. Both college students, both with parents who work at our institution.


I’m writing an application for a grant, and one of the Deans has provided me with example essays from past winners at our institution. Several of them begin with something along the lines of “My interest in science was first sparked by my dad, Dr. Bob Smith, a professor at Major Research University.” And then they launch into their long list of research experience starting when they were 18 or younger and producing authorship on several papers.

To me, experience in science is kind of self-propagating...once you get your first experience in a lab, it’s easier to get your second experience. A kid who does summer research in high school is really likely to be able to land a position in a lab as an undergrad (and probably some poster presentations, or authorship on a paper) which gets you into a better grad school (or more prestigious lab at the school), which gets you a better postdoc, etc. (and obviously, to make all these steps, you need hard work and aptitude for science too)


I’m coming to science fairly late in the game (no, I’m not saying that I’m old, but in my field, most people start their PhD right after undergrad, with a few people taking a year or two to work as a tech or get their Masters). I’m a first generation college student (on my dad’s side, I’m a 1st gen high school grad). I’m from a small rural town, and was totally unaware that graduate school was even a thing. (During grad school interviews, I had some awkward times trying to explain why I was just going back to school NOW—uhhh, I just realized it existed...)

My grad school has an awesome Dean who works really hard to recruit high school and college kids from diverse backgrounds to these programs. I know that if I had somehow been able to figure out that research universities existed, and if I had known that they had programs for high schoolers, and if I had known who to contact, she would have gone to the ends of the Earth to help me. But, how do you know that you don’t know about something?


My point is, there’s a hierarchy...if you have a parent works in science, you’re going to know these opportunities exist (and maybe even be forced into it as a default), if you are a person with parents who aren’t in science, but maybe you come from a good school district where your guidance counselors are really working for you (or your social group—either friends of your parents or your friend’s parents—has people in science), you might have to do some work to seek these opportunities out, but it’s definitely do-able. If you have no exposure to these opportunities, and no one around you does either, you aren’t going to get those valuable early research experiences.

Now, however, I’m finding I’m on the opposite side. SehjMan’s family is from a totally different world. His dad’s neighbor is a well-known researcher, who they’ve offered to introduce me to. SehjMan’s sister works in a kind of related field (promoting diversity admissions—though not specifically in my field). She texted me from a conference last week. She had met a director of one of the programs at my school. She’d told the directer about me, and the director wants to meet for lunch/advice which could easily transition into a mentor relationship. Now, I’m sure as heck not going to turn these opportunities down, but it’s starting to make me realize that I’m an insider now (and not through anything I’ve done) and I’m going to benefit from that.


*I realize I’m being really harsh on this student. She was a smart kid, and nice enough, but she was NOT what the author of the Gawker piece was picturing when they pictured a kid “spending time in a research lab”.

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