Catalyst Spring 2019
Inquiry

Changing the Idea of What a Scientist Looks Like

Interview with Maryam Zaringhalam

Photo: Amanda Kowalski/ClimateTruth.org

As a molecular biologist, science communicator, and leader within 500 Women Scientists, you wear a lot of hats! Was science your first calling?

Maryam Zaringhalam: Yes, absolutely. From an early age, I had a lot of interest in how small parts come together to make a functional whole. When I was a kid, I was dissecting TV remotes and trying to reverse engineer them to work again. That translated into biology when in ninth grade we dissected a fetal pig. I had this moment where I was looking inside the pig and realizing, “If this creature weren’t being dissected right now, these parts would be coming together to make an oinking, rolling-around-in-the-mud pig.” That got me hooked on biology right then and there. I continued to learn about biology until that translated into a love of genetics—ultimately, the most basic functional unit of complex beings like ourselves is DNA.

What inspired you to become equally as passionate about science communications and policy?

Maryam Zaringhalam: When I was in graduate school, I started to notice that what I was doing in the lab felt isolated from conversations I was having with my friends, who would claim they didn’t understand science or they weren’t smart enough. But then we would have the most engaging, interesting conversations about it. I got interested in communication then, and I started a project—a conversation series—called ArtLab, where I was trying to use art as a lens to think about science. Doing ArtLab, then later doing the podcast Science Soapbox, I found that people were connecting their expertise in science with the public at large in many different ways. And I started to wonder if there was a place for me to combine my skills in communication, my background as a scientist, and my interest in social justice. That led me to leave academia and pursue a science policy fellowship through AAAS [the American Association for the Advancement of Science].

How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists?

Maryam Zaringhalam: After the 2016 election, 500 Women Scientists began as a pledge: to stand up for the responsible use of science and, more importantly, to stand up for the people who should benefit from science. By that, I mean that what we’re allowed to do in research is constrained by things like funding. Of the billions and billions of questions we could be asking about the world, we’re only given the support to ask a small subset. And we should really be making sure those questions we’re asking are ones whose answers can benefit as many people as possible.

I signed the pledge back then and kind of forgot about it. But later, in January 2017, I flew out to Iran, which is where my family is from. I’m a US citizen, but I thought I should visit while I could because I was sure this administration would not have a great relationship with the country. And while I was in Iran, the first iteration of the travel ban happened. I emailed 500 Women Scientists and asked if there was any way I could get involved because I wanted to do something. And I haven’t looked back.

Of the billions of questions we could be asking about the world, we’re only given the support to ask a small subset. . . . Those questions [should be] ones whose answers can benefit as many people as possible.

You’ve been vocal about the need for scientists to bring their whole selves—including marginalized identities—into their work. Why is this important for scientists, and for science as a whole?

Maryam Zaringhalam: I have a hard time seeing the point of only being a scientist, because I think no one is ever only just a scientist, especially if you’re somebody who comes from an underrepresented background. Being able to forget about your identity when you’re at work is a privilege afforded to a select few.

Because we’re more likely to trust people we can identify with, increasing representation so that people from many different backgrounds participate in the scientific enterprise helps the public understand that scientists are people just like them. The more we can attract people from communities that haven’t traditionally been represented in science—such as evangelical Christians, or people who have been historically marginalized or even dehumanized in the name of science—the more we can build trust within those communities. From there, we can build a firmer ground for science in communities that might be traditionally skeptical. What we advocate for with 500 Women Scientists is that we need to change our idea of what a scientist looks like and where a scientist has business inserting her expertise.

Does scientific objectivity suffer when people’s identities become part of the work?

Maryam Zaringhalam: I’d say objectivity actually improves. Scientists are people. And people have biases. We need to do a better job of recognizing that what’s currently coded as “objective” in science is based on a white, cisgender, male perspective that has historically dominated science, because science has actively excluded diverse perspectives. If we don’t acknowledge that, we can’t work to correct those biases.

Thankfully, we can be trained to recognize our biases and the ways they manifest in our research, and then course-correct. But that can only happen when we welcome and include as many perspectives as possible to challenge our default ways of thinking. By including people’s identities and lived experiences, we get closer to a more representative experience of the world, which is essential when we’re working to understand the world around us.

Do you have any advice for early-career scientists, or scientists who are considering federal work but might be disheartened by the diminishing role of facts and evidence within the Trump administration?

Maryam Zaringhalam: Something I’ve realized as I’ve gotten into organizing is that optimism is a muscle you have to strengthen and exercise. It can be difficult to look at the world around you and immediately feel hope. You have to search for it. I’m constantly looking at examples where organizing paid off.

It’s also helpful to look at the greater scope of history beyond just these one or two years. Something I’ve learned during my fellowship is that bureaucracies are big and unwieldy and multilayered. That’s why things are hard to change quickly—but it’s also why there is a lot of stability in the work that is being done in the government.

Don’t lose hope. You’re among loads of people I have met through organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists or 500 Women Scientists who are dedicated to making sure science is working for everybody. It’s a big, wide tent, and I hope you’ll join me there.

Maryam Zaringhalam is a molecular biologist, a member of the UCS Science Network, and AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. She received her PhD from The Rockefeller University, where she focused on how genetic building blocks affect how we look and function. She serves on the leadership board of 500 Women Scientists—a grassroots, women-founded, women-run science advocacy organization. She also co-hosts the science policy podcast Science Soapbox, and her writing has appeared in Quartz, Scientific American, and Slate. UCS named her one of our 2018 Science Defenders; hear more about why she became a scientist defending science on our podcast.