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Dr. Melodie Kao, Part 2

Part 2: Barriers to STEM equality and boundary setting


This is part two of an interview with Dr. Melodie Kao, a Heising-Simons 51 Pegasi b Fellow at UC Santa Cruz in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. She formerly held a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. In her spare time, she moonlights as a backpacking guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures and co-led the launch of their new scholarship program.

If you haven't read the first part covering Melodie's specific research and use of data, read it here. This part of the interview focuses on bigger issues with STEM education and equity.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Barry: STEM education is traditionally focused on technical skills. You have a particular focus on making sure critical non-technical skills are included - how did you get interested in that?

Melodie: Grad school was a rocky experience for me. I found many of my peers and I had this pervasive fear that we weren’t good enough to do the science, or we weren’t good enough to be able to sustain a long-term career in science.

What I've discovered is that you do need a certain working knowledge of science, data analysis, and how your instruments work in order to do science, but beyond that, it's not a matter of how smart you are. If you're already in grad school, you're definitely smart enough to be a scientist! It's actually about your grasp on this whole world of non-technical skills. Most of these, I have found, center back to being good at boundary setting.

What do you mean by "boundary setting"?

When we procrastinate, that's a boundary issue, because procrastination is often someone trying to avoid feeling guilty or bad about something. Recognizing that you're avoiding a particular feeling, and being able to stop and just take it head-on is a skill.

By definition, doing science means that we have to grapple with being a human being.

If a collaborator or a mentor is treating you in a way that just doesn't work for you, being able to stop it and create a space in which you can have healthy interactions is also a boundary issue. And it's really important, because if you're unhappy and you can't work effectively with someone, you're not going to be able to do the science!

Something else that happens a lot is perfectionism. You just want to analyze the data to the very best that you can, and squeeze out as much information as you can. The question becomes knowing when to stop, right? A lot of times getting 80% or 90% of the way is good enough, but being able to stop yourself there is actually a skill. Just recognizing that the work you have already done is bringing value to the table is a skill.

I have seen examples where the lack of these skills in students was confounded with a lack of intrinsic scientific ability. It wasn't until I took a pedagogy class at Caltech that I learned the difference between intrinsic ability and learnable skill sets.

At the end of the day, I come to science from a very humanistic perspective. I come to it from having originally wanted to be an architect for nearly my entire life. I didn't even decide until the end of MIT that I wasn't going to go back to grad school for architecture.

Melodie on the Wind River High Route
Melodie on the Wind River High Route

Can you say more about that "humanistic perspective" in science?

Over the years, as I learned different skills like Argentine Tango and photography, I discovered that science is actually a very creative pursuit.

When people think of creatives, they think of writers, actors, or designers. But actually, scientists are also extraordinarily creative, because we’re literally coming up with new questions to ask and new knowledge all the time.

And by definition, doing science means that we have to grapple with being a human being. Science is not a thing that exists in the vacuum outside of us, it's a way of looking at the world that humans have come up with. Humans have built instruments to take data that we interact with, that we then tell stories about using our language, and that we fit into the knowledge that we carry of our history and our understanding of how everything else works around us. So to focus solely on technical skills means that we are missing out on, in my opinion, the meat of what is necessary to make science possible.

When people go to college, we try to level the playing field in terms of technical skills. Why do we not also do this for non-technical skills?

I have found that when you teach someone something, you also learn it better yourself, so over the years I've created workshops to teach these human-centered skills to students. I want to integrate these types of skills into formal scientific education, so over the last couple of years I've taught these workshops at summer research programs for undergraduates and graduate students, and I offer them as part of an academic visit. I’ve actually had, on some occasions, professors and postdocs sit in on my workshops!

I love to seek allies who are similarly interested in bringing together these disparate aspects of science into one. I consult with professors who are interested in incorporating my workshops and the skills that I teach into their classes. I actually co-started a class at ASU called Wilderness Astronomy, so that I could experiment with incorporating boundary setting, emotional awareness, and conflict management into a science class and see how students receive that— and how it supported their scientific learning. I don't have a very clear roadmap yet because I'm still filling this plan out, but every time I sense an opportunity, I take it and propose for time and money to do these things, and just make it more real every day.

As you're describing this, I'm thinking about how weird it is that we don't have more of this baked into our education system at any level. I can't remember ever sitting in a lecture about what it means when you're procrastinating, or how to approach fear, even though that is such a huge part of what it means to be engaged in any endeavor.

When we don’t teach these fundamental skills very early, we're assuming that people either already have or will pick up these skills as they're going through higher education or the workplace. But these skills are cumulative and the more grasp we have on them, the more productive you can be, and you reap the benefits for your career and the rest of your life path when that happens.

So if someone did not have an equal opportunity to learn how to set boundaries, they are disadvantaged. A very pervasive example of this is the tendency in education to commit something called "deficit thinking", which is the assumption that when a student doesn't do well, it's because of the culture that they come from. This is a form of racist thinking that is quite common in education.

We also see this echoed in sexism. When we hear people say offhand, "oh girls aren't good at math" or "girls are just not good at that", it sends a message that intrinsically, you're not good enough. It also blames an individual for problems that may be far more pervasive and systemic. It conditions people to have weaker and weaker boundaries.

When people go to college, we try to level the playing field in terms of technical skills. We make sure they all take the same classes, that they get tutoring if they need to catch up, and that everyone passes a certain level so they all have the same basic understanding. Why do we not also do this for non-technical skills? Teaching boundary setting is another form of leveling the playing field.

When we look at who is valued, who makes it to the top, or who is productive at the job that they currently have, it's the people who somehow managed to pick up these skills on the side. So then it becomes self-perpetuating, right?

I feel like I can keep talking about this for a long time. We'll have to run this out at some point, but let’s bring it back to space for one last question: What's the astronomical discovery that you most hope to see come about in your lifetime?

I think I'm supposed to say that I want to see evidence of life on other planets. But I love the science that I do, which is a smaller slice of that big picture question. The thing I really want to know is: what do volcanoes outside of our solar system look like? How can we tell that there are volcanoes outside our solar system? What are those volcanoes telling us about the insides of the things that they're exploding off of?

Olympus Mons on Mars (very much within our solar system) — NASA on the Commons
Olympus Mons on Mars (very much within our solar system) — NASA on the Commons

There is no hard evidence to support the existence of volcanoes outside our solar system, but it's a question that the science I've been working on has opened up the possibility of. It doesn't make sense that there wouldn't be volcanoes elsewhere, but we still don’t have conclusive evidence.

It's all tied back to this question about life outside of our solar system, because one of the most promising places to look for life in our own solar system is Europa, one of the icy moons of Jupiter, because we think there is volcanic or hydrothermal activity going on underneath its ice surface, which could be a source of energy for life.

Part of why I'm interested in exo-volcanism is because it can help find places where there could be life, and part of it is because it tells us about the interior dynamics of planets. How they dissipate heat over time, what that means for magnetic fields or the plasma population in the magnetospheres of the stars that they are orbiting. And so just focusing on one question, "what does exo-volcanism look like?", actually hits a whole bunch of other bigger questions.

We're not astrophysicists, but we're fascinated by data of all kinds at Hex, where we're creating a platform that makes it easy to build and share interactive data products which can help teams be more impactful.