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Science, Gender, Racism and Ableism - an Interview with Dr. Leah Chibwe

Updated: Mar 3

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, shortly after the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, I had a meaningful discussion with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Leah Chibwe. We talked about many things. We talked about racism. We talked about being a woman in Science. We talked about immigration, and about disabilities. Finally, this year, to highlight the International Women’s Day: Science, Gender, Racism and Ableism with Dr. Leah Chibwe. 

Please tell us about yourself.

I was born in Zambia but grew up in Eswatini (then called Swaziland). I received a United World Davis scholarship after high school – this allowed me to pursue my undergraduate studies at Colorado College in the US. This was my first time leaving Africa. I obtained my PhD from Oregon State University in 2016 and moved to Canada in 2017 for postdoctoral research at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in Burlington, and then at the University of Toronto. I am currently a physical scientist with ECCC. My research interests focus on characterizing  novel organic contaminants in the environment.

What are your life goals/dreams?

I have infinite dreams! Briefly, I want to do professional outreach and science that bring positive, meaningful and lasting impact. I want to inspire others to discover and pursue their ambitions, the same way I have been inspired!

Have you had any personal heroes or mentors during your scientific career?

I have been fortunate to have many mentors in the form of peers, supervisors, etc. and I’d be remiss to only name a few. They provide constant encouragement, pushing me to rise above obstacles and challenges, find and use my voice, be open-minded – few have also gone to the extent of being advocates on my behalf. If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is!  

Have you ever received advice that has made an impact on your career?

The importance of perspective – being able to see the big picture and not remain stuck in a moment. We all go through adversity and experience rejection. While it is important to be open and acknowledge them, feel what you need to… one should not dwell on them as it will hold you back. I receive solace in understanding that we cannot always control the things that happen but we can control our perspective and how we respond. When I don’t get that job offer or fellowship, or when manuscripts are rejected etc., I practice flipping my perspective. For example, I think about where I have come from and where I want to go – falling forward.

What advice would you give young (high school, post-secondary, grad school) women pursuing a career in science?

To be open-minded and proactive in seeking out opportunities and establishing collaborations. If there is a method you think could add value to your research but is available outside your perimeter, go after it through networking. Supervisors tend to be supportive of new collaborations, especially if that instrument or method supplements your work. In high-school, if there’s an area in science that sparks your interest - ask your teachers for resources, programs, or connections within your school. This can lead to learning opportunities, more engagement and further interest. Be your own best advocate. Opportunities don’t come knocking - you have to knock on opportunity’s door.

How do you establish and maintain a work-life balance?

I’ve not had the best work-life balance pre-pandemic. The pandemic made me appreciate how crucial healthy work-life balance is. I love to run and keep active. Scheduling works for me. I plan out my activities with specific intentions. I feel compelled when the “go for walk” reminder pops up on my calendar. I avoid working on weekends and evenings. On weekends, I schedule video calls with my family at home (Zambia) or friends who mostly currently live outside Canada. Work-life balance is an ongoing skill I am developing.

What are the differences between your experiences as a person of colour in Africa and your experiences as a person of colour in North America?

Growing up in a country that was predominantly Black, there weren’t conversations related to racism. I didn’t experience racism in Africa, though it probably exists there too. Conversations on racism would have prepared me before moving to North America. I distinctly remember two incidents when someone shouted a racial slur at me from a moving vehicle, in the US and here, in Canada. The shock and crippling fear has remained. There seems to be this misconception that because Canada is more culturally diverse than the US, racism isn’t an issue here, or that things must be better here. They aren’t. I am not sure where this misconception gets its foundation from, other than the US generally tends to get greater media coverage of brutal incidences of prejudice/racism. I believe it is a very debilitating misconception to have – it creates this dystopia that prevents us from confronting and addressing these issues in Canada. I still get a little anxious whenever I see a police car. The murder of the Afzaal family, hit by a vehicle as they were going for a walk in their neighbourhood in London, Ontario, last year, really shook me. I love to go for walks. I will never understand why someone will have this bias and act out against you solely for the colour of your skin.

The internet and social media have pushed families in Africa to discuss racism so that it's not a distant concept anymore. Unfortunately, racism remains something Black people need to emotionally prepare for when you are in a locale where your Blackness implies visible minority. 

Many women in STEM face gender bias. Would you share your own experience with us?

I would say I have encountered or been more aware of gender bias issues in Zambia and Eswatini, likely because I didn’t stand out on the basis of the colour of my skin. Therefore, gender issues/challenges seemed more prominent and I was aware of them from a young age. In Eswatini, while over 95% of girls enroll into primary school (ages 6-12), only about 35% continue to high school, and less than 10% pursue their education beyond that. For example, in my last two years of high school, I was one of only 5 girls (out of approximately 30 students), taking all advanced levels of the Physics, Chemistry and Maths courses. The communities are also very culturally male-dominated, and unfortunately, as a consequence, women are greatly undervalued. There are many factors and barriers that come into play, including poverty (education is typically not free beyond primary school). With a large proportion of Zambia and Eswatini living below the poverty line, girls are most likely to be impacted. For example, a family struggling with finances would often rather send the boys to school than the girls, because they see that as a better investment. Or, in some cases, in many families, as soon as a girl reaches sexual maturity, if the family can’t afford to send her to school, she gets married off. I believe the continent is trying to address these gender disparities. Similar to racism, these issues are systemic in that many aspects of Southern African culture and traditions are steeped in sexism or gender roles that place women at a disadvantage.  

You and I have talked about your stutter before, as well as the impacts it has had on your life. Would you share this with us?

I have had a stutter since I was a child. My father also had one, but became fluent as an adult. My parents thought I would, too - and my family never made me feel any different because of it. Also, over 10 years ago, there wasn't as much awareness of stuttering as there is today, and the resources for speech therapy weren’t really there. I believe my stutter deepened when I moved abroad - it was such a big change into a drastically different environment and culture, a transition I was living through alone without my family. I did speech therapy in college and graduate school, and its biggest impact on me was that it changed how I perceived my stutter. Before, I would always associate it with shame - probably because growing up, I was bullied or made fun of because of it. Throughout speech therapy, I learned to not let it define me. My college speech pathologist, Maureen Eaton, would always refer to my stutter as the elephant in the room. She’d say, “Truth is, we all have elephants in the room. Unfortunately, yours is very vocal and apparent to everyone else in the room. But that is good - because it forces you to acknowledge it, work at it and become better equipped for managing this elephant.” So, throughout my scientific career, I have been managing this elephant - it has had its challenges, and these challenges remain. I thought I would never be able to give a public presentation. However, my PhD supervisor, Staci Simonich, really encouraged me to explore different techniques. My labmates were essentially guinea pigs – I tried so many different approaches with them! Now, I use an auditory feedback technique to prepare my presentations. It still takes me significantly longer to prepare a presentation than it would a fluent person, but I am giving presentations. And I am constantly trying to find ways to improve this technique.

Virtual meetings held during the pandemic have not been quite as successful for the social and networking aspects of conferences, which are very important and can be career-defining. However, even though I miss in-person gatherings, it has made conferences more accessible because of greater opportunities to communicate in writing or using the chat function.  I have a stutter, but what if I had challenges that were more physical? Increasing accessibility is one of the key elements to making science more inclusive. Moving forward, to improve accessibility and inclusivity, conferences could have hybrid options, while also improving on virtual networking to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate.

Would you like to share your experience regarding barriers for members of Equity-Deserving groups?

Being a woman of colour in science is challenging. The numbers do not lie - there is a reason why only about 5% women of colour comprise the current workforce in STEMM. While I can only speak to my own experience, studies and surveys based on personal accounts show that women of colour are more likely to experience various micro-aggressions – some of these subtle, and enforced by years and years of biases and prejudice. "Death by a thousand cuts", I have sometimes heard it referred to. Women of colour navigate the intersectionality of racial and gender biases. Unfortunately, this plays a big role in the lack of representation – because sometimes it's easier to get out than stay in. This lack of representation has always affected me and reinforced feelings of isolation. I didn’t grow up having too many women, let alone women who looked like me, to look up to. It's also harder to be in an environment where you don’t feel you have anyone who can relate to you; when I experience incidences of prejudice, it’s harder to speak out and say something. But I enjoy what I do – and I believe it's worth fighting tooth and nail for. I believe many women who have gone ahead of me might share this sentiment, even more strongly. And I hope the many women in science who follow me won't have to fight as hard, or experience similar barriers and prejudice.

I recently attended an Intersections Plenary session at the inaugural BE-STEMM Canadian Black Scientists Network Conference - a space was created for Black and Indigenous scientists/researchers to interact and be blunt and honest about their experience. It was an exciting session to be at! We are starting to have conversations and beginning to learn more about each other, our needs and how to support each other.  Like Prof. Maydianne Andrade said, “In solidarity we do thrive.” Leah, thank you for sharing your experience with us. I hope it can help us all gain a greater awareness surrounding barriers to equity in STEMM. You are an inspiration! May your infinite dreams come true!

Submitted by Ève Gilroy

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