My Name is Sarah

My Name is Not Sarah

My Worst Moment: The first conference I attended as a grad student was held on a University campus. I arrived a little early, checked in for registration and headed over to the Student Union bar to see if anyone else for the meeting was congregating there. It wasn’t very busy at all and I was standing in a quiet corner wondering if to get a drink or leave when an older guy drinking a beer came over to me introducing himself as a Professor from that University and asked if I was there for the meeting. I told him that I was and started to introduce myself.

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 11.17.35 PM
Sarah was assaulted by a professor from another university the first night of her first conference. She says the burden of her assault and the stress of representing non-white women has left her anxious and years behind her peers. Sarah declined to provide a photo. Stock art by @samanthasophia

While I spoke about what I worked on, I realised that he was moving closer to me and he suddenly interrupted with a question that I didn’t hear or understand properly. Slightly uncomfortable, I said something to indicate this. He then took a step closer to me and said, very close to my ear: “perhaps you’re not as horny as I am yet” and immediately pushed his hand against my stomach and down inside the front of my jeans and inside my underwear. I don’t know why I didn’t cry out, but I didn’t. Instead, I wrenched away in horror and ran to the ladies bathrooms, acting purely on instinct.

When I eventually calmed down and sneaked out, he was gone. I spent the rest of the conference avoiding him. although he only ever showed at a couple of the sessions. My talk was kind of terrible, because I wasn’t sure if he was in the audience or not. As soon as I stepped off the stage, I threw up. I was too ashamed to tell anyone and was convinced from the experiences of a friend that, even if I did, nobody would believe me.

I Have Given Up On: Being OK to be in a room alone with men that I don’t know really well. Even though I now lead my own lab and have to attend many meetings with students, other professors, new colleagues etc. and have therefore been in the situation hundreds and hundreds of time, I still feel my heart rate go up and have difficulty concentrating if I can’t see a clear exit route.

I’m Afraid: That I will always feel so incredibly stupid for having such a long and ongoing negative reaction to an encounter that probably that lasted for less than two minutes in total and was in a fairly public place. It took me a really, really long time to accept that I didn’t do this (this life of fear and anxiety) to myself and, in dark moments, I still don’t really believe that.

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 10.48.44 PMThis Has Cost Me: Thousands in fees for private counseling. But I don’t resent those costs as much as I do the difficult-to-monetize opportunities I missed by avoiding events and situations when I knew I might feel threatened or may see this person again. I switched fields and this, together with my insecurities and anxieties, meant that I missed several opportunities that led to my career advancement lagging significantly, maybe 8 or 9 years, behind my peers. I eventually got myself together but, on starting my lab, I found that I was ineligible for several fellowships and grants that many people establish themselves with because I was too many years post-PhD. Unlike having had time-out to raise kids, I cannot explain in 250 words or less why this is or why I might deserve an exception.

Something You Should Know About Me: I’m also not white. Despite this single event being awful, it never made me think I should quit science. I know that most people in the community would never condone the awful actions of that individual. The moments that I think about quitting are always inspired by incessant low-level racist comments and statements of privilege and superiority by a surprising proportion of people. These make me wonder if our community is really as educated, evidence-driven and enlightened as it claims to be and if I really want to be a part of it.

Is There a Bright Side? I have great friendships and collaborations with several completely amazing female scientists. Even though I may not like or be proud of the reasons that I’ve gone out of my way to preferentially build professional relationships with women, the science that they do is so amazing, intelligent and inspiring, that I’m immensely privileged that I know and work with them. If anything I do in the lab helps them and their work, I will feel incredibly proud to have contributed to that.

My Fight Song:

Right now it’s ‘Django Jane’ by Janelle Monáe

My Secret Weapon: I’m OK with myself and who I am as a person! Sure, I suffer from situation-triggered anxiety, but I’m kind and considerate to everyone at every level. I don’t claim credit when it belongs to someone else, I don’t steal other people’s ideas and I don’t bully or belittle students or anyone else. No matter how I’ve been treated, or how often I see others behaving in this way, I have not compromised on that. Having made the decision to maintain my personal integrity, even if it means forfeiting a few scientific ‘wins’, makes me feel calmer and stronger. Even if I don’t make tenure, or don’t keep achieve a lifetime career in science, at least I didn’t make moral compromises that I would live to regret.
Abusers, racists and bullies might gain some progress and a little power from their actions but, no matter what else they do, they will never be anything more than those labels. One day their behaviour will be known and rejected. As MLK said, The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice … and I have nothing to fear from it.