May 29, 2020
Vassiki Chauhan is a PhD candidate at Dartmouth in psychology and brain sciences. She has also been a courageous activist against sexual harassment in science. Hear her story, and then learn more about her amazing science: you can read her scholarly papers, or follow her on Twitter.
Dr. Kate Clancy (Intro): Alright this is Kate Clancy and this is the Courageous Science Podcast/ educational material for my humanizing science students in the middle of a global pandemic. I am joined by the rather amazing Vassiki Chauhan. She is a PhD student in psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth and someone that I am very proud to know so thank you so much for joining me Vassiki.
Chauhan: Really happy to be here.
Clancy: So Vassiki, as you know, there are only three questions that I’m asking in this nice, short podcast for those of us that might not have expansive attention spans right now. And so I thought I would just start with the first one: what brought you to science?
Chauhan: So I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember, but I started considering science as a potential career for me when I was around fourteen years old. And I got my hands on a popular science book about the theory of relativity and also that dealt with Einstein’s life. And when I was growing up in India, all of my friends were either going to become lawyers or doctors or engineers. There wasn’t anything else that was really a valid option and I had to work within that framework and really negotiate with my parents about the fact that science could be a well-paying job for me and that I would have a secure future. I did go down the physics route initially and I got my undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics.
When I was in my undergrad, I became really fascinated with biological systems and how they seem to get complex over time rather than simpler over time as the second law of thermodynamics would have us believe. And I did an honors project on the topic and I got really fascinated with the physics of biological systems and then I began thinking about how the coolest biological system you could study is the brain and it eventually led me down the path of neuroscience. I got a masters from Italy in cognitive neuroscience and met my current advisor there and ending up at Dartmouth as a result of that interest.
Clancy: Now, Vassiki, that’s so interesting to hear. You’re not the first person that I’ve spoken to who has had, sort of a lifelong interest in science but also sort of had some convincing to do of their families. Can you tell me a little about, like when you made that transition from physics to more biology and brain sciences, was that a hard sell for any loved ones at all?
Chauhan: It was a little bit and I always gravitated towards opportunities that had some financial security as well. So it’s always been important for me to have scholarships when I pursue passion projects and that can be a bit challenging. But as long as you can justify that you have your bread and butter taken care of, it becomes a little bit more of a luxury to pursue topics that might be a bit of a deviation from what you’ve being doing historically. So as long as I could find opportunities that could fund me, my parents became more and more open over time for me exploring new things. And once I had a PhD job offer, they were convinced that I was heading down the right path because PhD’s are prestigious and everyone knows that you get a doctor in your name at the end of it. So In think it took a while before my parents were fully on board with the life plan, but it happened eventually.
And they were constantly supportive because I’ve always been someone who identifies as an intellectual nomad. I take interest in reading and literature, recently painting and I want a life where I’m not restricted by a definition or a box, even that of a scientist. So they have had to deal with how fluid I am as a person before so I don’t think it was any surprise to them that I was changing careers.
Clancy: That’s also really helpful to hear. Right? That you sort of, thought ahead when you were making that transition and sort of prepared yourself kind of the opposite of how we were talking about this passion project of mine where I, sort of jumped in and didn’t really have a financial plan for putting this together to make it available. You really did think ahead and that’s pretty commendable.
I wanted to move on to the second question actually: can you tell me a bit about how you’ve shown courage in science?
Chauhan: So, there’s a public record about how that ended up happening fortunately and unfortunately in my case. I identify as a whistle blower. I basically reported my personal experiences of sexual violence at the hand’s of a faculty member at the department I was pursuing my PhD in summer of 2017 which lead to a Title IX investigation and finally resulted in a lawsuit that me along with initially six other plaintiff’s filed against Dartmouth College that is now being somewhat resolved with a settlement. We’re still kind of ironing out the details and I’m particularly excited because it comes with not just hefty class settlement that benefits not just the plaintiff but allows, potentially nineteen other women who suffered at the hands of the three faculty members that we brought to court against but also the fact that it is accompanied by some programmatic relief like support for domestic violence and sexual violence… organizing, grassroots organizations on campus and provost diversity funds for hiring intervention for faculty from marginalized backgrounds.
So it was really moving to be able to sit on the same table as Dartmouth administration and renegotiate for the values that are actions embodied. And sometimes courage is a hard word. Like often people call me brave and I to say that I would have rather had these things not happen then have to be brave. And I maintain that to this day like nothing will ever be worth it but the fact that we were able to come together and make something of this experience is meaningful to me. And potentially the only situation in which I would accept the word courage is that we were told repeatedly, even after private conversations we would have people say that, ‘We should focus on our career and pursue science and maybe one day when we have a faculty position, we can look back and change academia from within,’ but only do it once we had opened the door. And I feel courageous because I didn’t wait for that day to come. I saw something that didn’t align with my values system and spoke up about it and I don’t think I could have done things differently.
Clancy: That’s amazing… and I feel like that’s something that I hope folks, you know one of the pieces that I hope they heard you just say, just to reflect back that amazing statement is that, of course you’d rather these things hadn’t happen to you. That you didn’t have to be courageous. And I think we need to pay attention to when science cultures and climates create conditions that force this on people. Right? That either we stand in our values and do things that are scary and potentially carry retaliation or give up our values. And that’s an incredibly unfair position that I’d rather you’d never have had to be in. I am so glad, even with all the costs that… I mean you know getting to hear that there’s a settlement in the works and you know, all these things that you are saying I am so so pleased for you. I can’t even tell you how great that is knowing how long you’ve been fighting. You and the many other folks in this lawsuit.
As just sort of one final thought about this, maybe we should move to the third question: what do you want people to know about what it means to show courage in science?
Chauhan: I think, I hope this is not too pessimistic, but I just feel like people need to know that sometimes showing courage costs you and that’s not all there is to it. I feel fortunate enough to be on a different path, on a path of healing, on a path of meaning making from where I stand right now. And what’s really jumping it to me is that in order to make sense of my own very personal and very traumatic experience, I have had to become privy to structural inequalities that exist in the society we live in and basically now a card-carrying socialist and a member of Democratic-Socialists of America and I’ve become more and more radicalized as a feminist. I think about things that I haven’t thought about before, that I’ve had the privilege not to think about and I’m a firm believer in the fact that institutions shouldn’t change one lawsuit at a time. So I don’t think that people should start talking about the accessibility or access for people with disabilities when someone with a disability files a lawsuit. I strongly believe that it takes courage for people to come forward and show what is wrong but hopefully these institutions can show courage as well in forms of gentle phases and act preemptively rather than reactively.
But I guess, to be succinct, what I am trying to say is, what I’d like people to know is that courage comes at a cost but the opportunity you get from rethinking why you take a courageous path makes you a better person in some way. It makes you the person that you want to be. Not to sound too cheesy but it’s definitely something that I’ve seen happen to me and my co-plaintiffs and other individuals moving forward. Men and women included, they have been creative about how they live their lives as an aftermath of this trauma and I have nothing but awe and respect for each and every one of them.
Clancy: No, I think those are wise words and that courage does often come with a cost, I want us to not just think about the courage that individuals have to show sometimes in order to push against systems but that fact that true courage comes from leaders of organizations and entire organizations changing the way they do things so they don’t just… it isn’t just responses to legal issues, like you said but actually imaging a better world and then trying to live it from beginning. Right? That’s what any of us want all along rather than putting anybody in the position of being forced to be, like you said, being forced to be brave. You know, it would be nicer if we could all just do our science. (Laughs)
Chauhan: Absolutely like it shouldn’t be that the institution is constantly thinking about liability as opposed to making the campus more livable for who it’s supposed to be for. Higher Ed is an interesting avenue because it really makes people think about whether the institution advocates for it’s constituents or the administration and everyone needs to be constantly evaluating the environment they’re in embedded in to make sense of what is motivating decisions that are made that we see in our newsfeed every day.
Clancy: Absolutely. Any last thoughts or anything else you wanted to make sure to say?
Chauhan: Yeah definitely, I mean… as you said, we should be able to do our science and not engage in uncomfortable experiences like the one that I’ve gone through but I definitely feel strongly about how things would change if academia a was a more inclusive place. Like I just want to send this message out to whoever is listening especially if you are from a historically marginalized background: if you feel like a campus didn’t see you, is to stay on it, and you are struggling with finding your place that’s why you’re here. You are paving the way for everyone else who’s to come and academia will be better because of you. So I just want to encourage everyone who feels out of place to know that they belong in the future. There is a place for them.
Clancy: Oh Vassiki thank you so much. Such wise words that are completely important for our listener to hear so thank you so much.
Chauhan: Thank you for having me.
Clancy (Outro): Thanks for joining me for the Courageous Scientist Podcast. Like I said, this is a short-term passion project to keep me sane during the pandemic, so, I don’t want your money. Please do tell budding scientists and science educators of all ages about the podcast, because I think they’ll like it. If you have the means, send a few bucks the way of your local foodbank. Thanks for listening.