Diversity in Academia: Personal Experience & Advice from a Post Doctoral Fellow

June 25, 2020

Hi everyone! My name is Dr. Travis E. Hodges and I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce myself to you and share a little of my personal journey in my academic career. I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where I also did my undergraduate studies. I completed graduate studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario (Canada) in the laboratory of Dr. Cheryl McCormick, and I am now a postdoctoral fellow and Institute of Mental Health Marshall Fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Liisa Galea at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC, Canada). My current research focus is on sex differences in neural mechanisms underlying cognitive bias across the lifespan, and how these may change under stressful conditions. My long-term goal is to become a professor/primary investigator and establish a laboratory of my own with a research focus on mechanisms underlying the transmission of behavioural and neural function from stressed parents to their offspring, and the role of age and sex in that transmission. I am a member of the WHRC and co-lead of the WHRC Trainee Presentation Series Organization Committee.

During this time of global conversations concerning the rights and academic experiences of people of colour (see #blackintheivory/#ShutDownSTEM for reference) and people of the LGBTQIA1s+ community (see #LGBTQhealth/#QueerinSTEM for reference) I am happy that I was invited by the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society (IBNS) and the WHRC to share some of my own experiences and dispense some advice that has helped me navigate through my own academic journey. The experiences that I have had as a gay and black scientist may differ from most in these communities – I feel very fortunate to have received a lot of love and support from my peers, colleagues, and supervisors. But I have also faced obstacles. Before I left Winnipeg to start my graduate studies in Ontario, I was told by family and friends multiple times that it would be almost impossible for me to get a PhD because I was black; I was told by management at a store where I worked during my undergrad that pursuing a Masters or a PhD would be a waste of time because my skills were better suited for packing shelves. Thankfully, since starting my academic journey, all of my supervisors (undergraduate honours, graduate, postdoctoral) have been incredibly accepting and continue to show me nothing but support in all of my endeavors. Additionally, I have been told that I am (and I know I am) an extreme optimist, but I wouldn’t be this positive without my treasured past and present friends and laboratory families. I still keep in touch with my graduate school cohort and watching their efforts supporting the LGBTIQA2s+ community and the Black Lives Matter movement in their respective parts of the world (Canada, US, UK, Europe) bring me to happy tears. Other trainees and past mentees of mine that have become my friends and family have been bright lights piercing through the darkness that has enveloped the current state of affairs across the world. 

However, I would be remiss without disclosing that finding these accepting and loving academic work environments has been intentional on my part with a bit of luck thrown in.  I have sought broad professional advice from past supervisors and done my due diligence by meeting with potential new supervisors and laboratory mates. In contrast to my positive experiences, I have friends that have had horrible laboratory and university experiences that ruined their love for science. Based on both my positive experiences as well as what I have seen around me, I offer here some pieces of advice to trainees who may be facing adversity related to their race and/or sexual orientation either in their laboratory or even directly from their supervisor: 

  1. There are kind-hearted supervisors and welcoming laboratories out there! Do not be afraid to leave your current negative laboratory situation and transfer to a new one. I have close friends that transferred out of negative laboratory situations (one in their second year and one in their fourth year of graduate school) and they both found new laboratories that were a much better fit and less taxing on their mental health. Fit with a supervisor and laboratory is very hard to gauge at a glance, so one of the best things to do is speak with current or past members of a laboratory you are interested in pursuing. Take time to find a good laboratory that fits your ideals not just from a science perspective but also from a positive training environment perspective. 
  2. If negative experiences are progressing in your current laboratory, feel free to ask your fellow trainees about their own experiences to learn more about laboratory culture among supervisors and their labs. Use this information either to find other trainees that may be in similar situations or to determine what laboratory you might feel more comfortable in. Finding other trainees that share even just a couple of your negative experiences will hopefully help you feel less alone and hopefully you can start offering each other social support. Moreover, finding a different supervisor you are more comfortable with at the same university is also useful if you need help navigating reporting bias/discrimination and figuring out how to switch laboratories. 
  3. If you feel like you are unable to talk to another PI about the adversity you are facing, then search for a fellow trainee to talk to for advice – especially a trainee you respect and has shared experience working in a laboratory (e.g., a senior graduate student or postdoctoral fellow). Even though my past experiences were mostly positive, it was my graduate school cohort at Brock University that helped me keep my sanity during the most stressful and uncertain times. So, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have social support. Good social networks are essential in navigating and combating feelings of despair.

To all trainees: whether or not you are currently experiencing adversity in your own laboratory do try to be a friend or a listening ear to fellow trainees that you see are having a hard time. This can make a big difference in the laboratory environment experience for everyone involved and especially for trainees that are feeling very alone in their situation. 

To trainees of colour, members of the LGBTQIA2s+ community, and all others facing adversity in the laboratory: all of our training experiences are unique, but I really hope that you can find a positive and nurturing laboratory environment (they are out there!). I also hope that you find a cohort of trainees and supervisors that support all that you do. Take care of yourselves, stay strong, and trust in your feelings concerning any situation that you are in.

Sincerely and with utmost love,

Travis Ellington Hodges

PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of British Columbia, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, Department of Psychology/Psychiatry Email: Travis.Hodges@psych.ubc.ca

Blog Author(s)

  • Blog
  • diversity
  • EDI
  • JEDI
  • LGBTQIA2s+
  • People of Colour
  • student
  • trainee

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We acknowledge that the UBC Point Grey campus is situated on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people.

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