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A Chat with Natalie Nevárez

For Issue 8, Through the Porthole’s Noah Germolus sat down with WHOI’s new(-ish) Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Dr. Natalie Nevárez to talk about her life and goals in her position. She has been on a long journey: from a family of organized laborers, to a winding education involving classic hip-hop and brain surgery, to the realization of her mission in science: helping other people. The following sections are transcribed from the interview and edited for clarity.


Through the Porthole (TTP): Where did you grow up?

Natalie Nevárez (NN): I grew up in a couple of different places—I generally refer to it as the “migrant trail”—between Arizona and California and northern Mexico. I moved every 6-9 months with my parents because they were both migrant farmworkers. Depending on whatever crop they were picking, we would go from California (where they would pick things like garlic, grapes, and strawberries) and then Arizona (where they picked lettuce, broccoli, melon, and onions).

We moved around, but the gig was very regular. It was expected: this is the season when we moved, and if that season would happen when I was in school, my siblings would move with my parents and I would stay behind at “home base.” [This] was a border town in Arizona/Mexico/California/another state in Mexico. It's like the Four Corners, but it's two Mexican states and California and Arizona right there, so I would stay there with my grandparents and then they shipped me off to the labor camp wherever [my parents] were.

TTP: Did you learn a lot about farm work from that?

NN: I can identify a lot of crops by looking at them, but I don't know much about doing the farm work itself. My parents are extremely knowledgeable. My father would know waterways across all of the United States for irrigation systems that people were using, because he was a migrant laborer before he had his family. He [worked] across the United States. You might get a gig that pays better picking apples in Michigan than you might get picking strawberries a certain season in California, so a lot of people just live that way. There are other migrant trails, like from Texas to Michigan. We have a migrant trail from Texas to New York to pick potatoes. This is happening all around the country still. I don't think that I personally picked up a lot of knowledge on the farming itself, but it deeply informed my knowledge of abuses in society.

TTP: Does most of this still happen the same way, or has it changed a lot since you were a kid?

NN: There are things that have changed—there's innovation in farming, right? We have equipment that can do some of the jobs that people were doing before. We also have some safety equipment that's been incorporated that didn't exist before, but my experience with my family was not really around technological advances to their work; it was around labor-related changes.

Both of my parents started working when they were in elementary school. They were very young, and they were working before the ban of the “short hoe”—a short-handled hoe. Everybody had to work bent over when they were very young children. That wasn't a huge problem, because they were little kids and they were closer to the ground in general, right? Then they hit puberty, and going through puberty when you're bent over for 12 to 15 hours a day is a huge problem. So eventually around the 60s, the short hoe was banned: there was no reason for a person to be bent over all day when the long-handled hoes work exactly the same as a short hoe. They have the same outcome. Those types of things? I got to learn through [my parents]—those types of changes to the work that they did.

TTP: Do you know why it was so entrenched? The use of the short-handled hoe? Because the long-handled one's…been there.

NN: This was a big union struggle at the time. When a person is bent over for like a majority of their day, it's very easy to see when they're not working. If they decide to stand up or walk anywhere, it's very easy to identify a worker that isn't just doing [their] job.

TTP: That's darker reasoning than I was expecting, jeez. Are labor unions a thing among migrant workers generally? Especially because the work is not necessarily in one place for one employer, right?

NN: Yeah, yeah, so the largest labor union [for migrant workers] is the United Farm Workers (the UFW) that was started by Cesar Chavez. My family was involved in all of that early organizing and the hometown that was our home base was the origin of the United Farm Workers. The union hall was right by our house, so that's the early stuff that informed my thinking. Their organizing was extremely successful. My family took part in the large Delano strike—the table grape strike—which was one of the early big wins for farm workers, but they still have so many problems. They only got overtime pay about four years ago, even though they work overtime all the time. There's a lot of issues around pesticide exposure and the living conditions. We lived in these migrant farmworker labor camps which [have] tons of pesticide exposure in their living conditions.

TTP: How do you view all this in retrospect? Are you optimistic about the state of things?

NN: That is hard to say. I think as a whole we're continuing to do better. People have water breaks now; people have lunch breaks. People have Porta Potties that they have access to. This is all stuff that my parents didn't have, [that] my grandparents didn't have. I can see those really tangible things, and the work itself? It is solid. It’s regular and expected. People can depend on having that job and it feeds their families. I think that's great. But yeah, there's still a lot of bad stuff about it. The last time I went home, some of our local farm workers accidentally—"accidentally,” because they're very visible and I don't know how this happened—were all sprayed by a pesticide plane. They made them all get undressed, right in the middle of the field, and then the fire department came and hosed them down. All of that is an extremely horrible experience, and all of this stuff is happening every day. I think it's a solid job. It feeds the world; it feeds America; we absolutely need it, but we need to have people be empowered to advocate for the things that they need and we need the government to push on supporting [their needs].

TTP: Whew, so that is a background. Where did you go, from being born in that part of the world?

NN: My parents started so young that my mom was in her late 30s when her body was starting to fall apart. I was seven at the time, and she could tell that farm work was not a sustainable thing that she could do for a long time. It is also really hard on the family, because they usually would have to wake up at 3-4 in the morning and leave. Then we as kids were mostly raised by our grandparents.

[My mother] wanted to be a part of my life, so she decided that she was going to go get a GED when I was seven. She didn't speak English; I was getting exposed to English. Even though all of this happened in the United States, the labor camps are enclosed and away from society. We were not integrated into places, and I would say that I was raised in Mexico in every way that I possibly could be. I was in Mexico in all those camps, [but] I was getting exposed to the English language because my brother and sister were getting bussed to white schools and they learned English and I was exposed to a lot of hip-hop, like early East Coast, West Coast, early 90s stuff. I learned English that way, so my mom took me with her to her GED classes so that I would translate. Then, my mom convinced a cohort of women from the fields to do this GED with her and we all did it together.

We kept going, and when I was thirteen they all graduated with their associates’ degrees. I had helped them that whole time, as their translator and helping them with their assignments. They were able to go from the labor camps and get a job at a Head Start for migrant children. They were now helping, through a good job, to take care of the farm workers’ children. We were able to actually move into residences outside of the labor camps.

When I was thirteen, I had an education [that] completely changed my life, my entire family and all these people's lives. After that I was like, “OK, well, I want to go to school because school can change your life.” Life didn't have to be as hard as what we had experienced before, by means of an education.

TTP: Does that mean you were effectively getting a high school/associates’ degree-level education at age thirteen?

NN: Yes, I was. So when I was thirteen; I was about to start high school, and I was like, “I've been in college for so long…I [should] just go to college.” So, I went and I did the admissions stuff [for college]. Doing dual college and high school is very common now, [but] at the time nobody knew about that, especially where I was (a very low-funded community college). They didn't have any rules for me to not start college, so I started it at thirteen and did the credits backwards. A lot of people do AP [Advanced Placement], right? My school didn't have AP, but I had already taken all the college courses. I applied my college credit to my high school courses—which I don't think is a thing. Nobody knew what I was doing; everybody was learning along the way. I ended up finishing my associates’ degree before I finished high school. I knew I wanted to be educated; I knew that I wanted to go to college, and I had been doing it for so long [already], so I would just keep doing it. After that I went to university.

I went to undergrad at the University of Arizona–a Hispanic-Serving Institution–which I always find really interesting: we talk so much about MSIs [Minority-Serving Institutions], HSIs [Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and] tribal colleges, but for me, it was still a culture shock going to a school like that. I finished my degree in two years, so I was nineteen.

I got really involved in research through the McNair Achievement program, which is a program that supports [low-income and first-generation students] that want to get into research. I had published 2 papers as an undergrad, and I was set to go to graduate school, but my field was communication studies—I studied interpersonal communication. I was 19 and had a pretty good shot at getting into those programs, and I just remember thinking I didn't know a lot about graduate school or anything like that at the time.

I knew that graduate students were a lot older than 19 years old—how can I hang out with these people? I can't even go out anyway. Where were these people socializing? Usually, bars and stuff. I didn't feel like I should do it yet, so then I did a second degree in psychology and then decided I was interested in neuroscience—my PhD is in behavioral neuroscience.

TTP: What did your family think during all of this?

NN: Originally, when we wanted to go to school my mom was extremely supportive of us doing school because she had done it herself. She didn't want us to leave home, and I think that that can be common for children of immigrants. She was like, “Why would you leave me? We have a perfectly good community college here.” I've already finished everything the community college can offer. I [had] to leave to be able to do the rest of it, and she had a hard time understanding that. But my sister—who is a lot more of a conflict-forward person—fought with my mom to let her go to college, so then she went, and then I went. We went to Tucson, which is only four hours away.

My family was generally supportive of college. They understood that going to college was going to give me a better future financially; give us a solid footing. The expectation in the Mexican family where I'm from [is that] you live in a multi-generational home. Your parents don't have retirement accounts or anything like that. You are their retirement. That's how it always works and it's not a selfish thing; it's just the standard, right? Just like they would expect that I wouldn't need to have a retirement account; I would have children and they would do that. I'm kind of in between. I have to have a retirement account and [support] my parents.

They were supportive, but once I finished my bachelor's degree they could not understand why I would keep going to school. They were just like, “Why? Why do you need to do more? You already have enough to be well.” When I graduated my mom asked me, “Can you get a job at a bank?” because that is what is seen as success where I'm from: a job where you can sit in an office under refrigeration. If I can sit for a job, that's already incredible, so she just had a hard time understanding why I would continue.

I wanted to pursue my dreams, but she had a hard time understanding full time graduate school. Nobody understood what I was doing, so there wasn't a connection. Nobody in my family has even worked remotely close to healthcare; everybody in my family and extended family are migrant farm workers, so I think if I had gone into plant science or something it would be natural. They would have so much knowledge to provide there, but I come from a farming family that hasn't worked with animals even that much. We don't really have a lot of that stuff, it's just growing things. Yeah, it was…it was hard. There was a complete disconnect.

TTP:  From there, there's a couple of steps between there and WHOI.

NN: My PhD was very rough: my advisor was removed from his position, and I had to finish the last two years of my degree without an advisor. It was me and six undergraduates in the lab, and I just finished my degree and decommissioned the lab when I left. When I finished my degree, I was like “I hate this,” or like, “Crap, I hate science.” I hated it so much, but I knew that I had been dealt a very bad hand. I just wanted to give it one more shot and see.

I did a postdoc at Stanford with Luis de Lecea, and he was great. It was incredible. The science was really great; my boss was awesome; the environment was so good. I had access to a Mexican community in San Jose. It was really great other than not being able to afford to live, but when I was there, I was like, “This place is so great, and I still recognize that I don't want to do this every single day for the rest of my life. Now I can make that decision from a clear headspace, and not from the place of having gone through so much abuse in graduate school.” That was what was informing my decision then.

What was motivating me to be a scientist? From the start I was curious about the things I was working on. I love brain surgery and I miss it every single day, but the reason I was doing it is because I wanted to help other students like me: first-gen low-income students. I realized that if that was my main goal, I could be a super successful PI (Principal Investigator) and probably graduate 20 students that fit that category across my whole career; whereas if I go into administration, I can impact thousands of students. That was the true motivator for me. If I look at that, the decision I made to go into administration is the one that's most in line with that.

TTP: That's a long line to get to that decision.

NN: Yeah, but I do miss surgery. You can't do it as a hobby, right? I have no means to do that. Somebody suggested I get an affiliation with MBL [the Marine Biological Laboratory], but they do invertebrates.

TTP: Were you doing surgery on patients?

NN: No, I work with animals—well, animals other than humans. My PhD was looking at prairie voles. They're socially monogamous, so most of my surgeries were on prairie voles. I’d also do surgeries on rats and mice. I'm looking at taxidermy as something that could scratch that itch because there’s an anatomy component to it and it's fine motor skills.

TTP: It's a difficult and odd tradition. I grew up next to a taxidermist. OK, so you went to Stanford and then?

NN: I got a job at Columbia. I did a lot of advocacy at the University of Michigan and at Stanford, and advocacy got me very active, learning a lot about the administration during both of those times. At Michigan it was more oppositional, general advocacy around the student experience for the psychology students.

I'm a behavioral neuroscientist, but that was a field within psychology, so my PhD is in psychology. There were a lot of messed up things the institution was doing in terms of the money we would get as underrepresented minorities. There was a special pool of money from the university for people from underrepresented backgrounds. The psychology department would take that money and then split it up across all the students to cover the cost of everyone. But this [money] is actually to make up for inequity, right?

Little things like that would be advocacy that I would do, but other things were just kind of goofy—but somehow successful. When I got out [to Michigan], I had never seen snow. I had no idea how to drive. I didn't have the right clothes. Nobody had ever spoken to me about how they exist out there, so I made a big fuss about it. Now, every student that goes to the University of Michigan gets a 20% discount on a down jacket, and they get information on how to prepare for [their] first winter.

TTP: That's kind of awesome. It's a very material intervention.  I was a little surprised at first where you were talking about doing all this advocacy [on top of] all of the academic stuff.

NN: I didn't want to necessarily be doing advocacy. You know, I was usually the only woman in a room, or usually the only brown person. I was put in that position a lot, so I just did it. That was at the University of Michigan. At Stanford, I started the Latinx Postdoc Association. That was awesome. We only had 110 [postdocs] when I arrived that identified as Latino, and by the time that I left over 50% of that population was active in the org. Now they’re huge, and they're writing their own letters to the administration agitating for different things. The organizing there was related to housing in particular; we have some big wins there. Before I showed up there had been activity to get a Caltrain pass: the Caltrain goes all the way to San Francisco; down to Gilroy. We were able to get a Caltrain pass for all the postdocs, so that they could live in places that were cheaper.

TTP: Wow, OK, all of this work at Michigan, at Stanford, and then?

NN: Yeah, then Columbia. I got a job as Associate Director for Faculty Diversity and Development. My focus there was working with faculty to make sure that they're getting all the internal funding that they can. At an institution that large, there's tons of funding mechanisms that can help them get out of a little bit of teaching to focus more time on their research—so they can get tenure. One of my output metrics would be how many of the new faculty, especially faculty from underrepresented backgrounds, are getting tenure successfully. I oversaw 28 departments: Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences. It's the largest school at Columbia: the school was the size of the entirety of WHOI, from facilities to the scientific staff. It was a great job—a great opportunity to learn a lot.

The first year was hard and then it got really easy—or not easy, but I understood it. It took a while for me to understand it, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. You're like trying to get on the horse, you're trying to figure out, “What does everything mean?” Once you learn what things mean, then you can innovate: theorize “How could this be done differently? How can we do better?” Then you can finally apply your creativity in a way that's not going to cause any decision you make to impact other departments if you do it wrong.

TTP: Huh, do you feel once you'd gotten on the horse you were able to implement anything that’s going to have lasting impacts after your departure?

NN: I was not there very long, but I think that the circumstances were just right to make big changes at the institution. I changed the way that the search committees [for faculty] were getting prepared to do their searches. I was able to implement a new process where, out of the six searches where we piloted, five came back and hired people from underrepresented backgrounds. The one search that didn't bring back an underrepresented candidate was a search for a faculty member in 14th century early European art, so I feel like it's OK.

The other thing we did was launch a big program called IDEAS: Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Access Strategies. Columbia is a very siloed institution. A lot of institutions are, and people really like having their departmental autonomy and I, as a person, can't be everywhere at once. People need to own some of their diversity work. They should own it and be accountable to it, and so the program was to help departments write their own strategic plans for diversity [to which] they would then be held accountable at the centralized level. It was really successful. Every department had really different interventions. That was the other thing: I can't prescribe an intervention to everybody because I don't know how music is different than the…theoretical mathematics department, right? Actually, those might be more similar, now that I think about it.

[both laugh]

We had people from every single division and they had very different types of things that they wanted to address. We actually wrote a paper…which I need to submit in the next three days. It’s a practice brief on how to support faculty undertaking their own strategic planning.

TTP: Now you're here: what do you do on a daily basis? What does it look like for you to come into work? Who are you communicating with? What are you working on?

NN: Yeah, that's a good question, because I came in as a Chief Diversity Officer with an institution [where] it's not a full office. It is me, right? Other places might have two people, three people, come together with an operating budget or this or that.

I came here with the freedom to build the office from the ground up, but all that takes a long time. When I got here a lot of my efforts went toward these larger institutional things. That was a ton of time interacting with Peter [de Menocal] and Rick [Murray] and the @Work Team, so it was internally facing; working with other administrators.

TTP: Do you feel like you're still getting on the horse?

NN: I'm close to being on the horse. I have an operating budget now that I can deploy starting January 1st to do all kinds of stuff including DEI training—which people have been calling for for a long time—[and] doing a variety of programmatic things like having speakers come, doing a DEI recognition event every year with awards, and things like that.

TTP: Do you have an image in your mind of what [WHOI] would look like if you had all your dreams come true?

NN: I think we would be employing people, bringing people to campus that are from a diverse background. Our representation right now is pretty low. We're doing best with women, but people of other backgrounds…we're not doing great. For example, even with the WHOI-wide search, we did better in terms of getting interest—people that were in the largest pool, the first step of the process. We still really underperformed in people with disabilities. Ideally, we would be employing people, not just getting them in the first step of the process of the search process. My dream for the place would be that we would be a convener for conversations around diversity. We could have an annual conference here where people come and talk about things like climate justice; things that have an impact on people with different backgrounds. We would be known for that; people would know, “WHOI hosts that really important think tank,” or something like that.

TTP: What things do you either dream of or push for that are essential changes to make this vision come true?

NN: Not everybody was using rubrics to look at candidates [for faculty positions]. When you don't have a rubric, the opportunity [arises] for bias. [A rubric] helps determine what you care about in a candidate and how that match[es] up with our values as a department. It forces people to have important discussions. In this last year I trained 95% of the scientific staff on implicit bias. We introduced rubrics, which is something I’d never have done at Columbia. It's a matter of different institutional cultures. [WHOI] also implemented search advocates, which are people that sit on a search committee and have an eye toward equity in the process. They're trained for 16 hours on how [to serve] that role in a search committee. I would say that those three [rubrics, bias training, and search advocates] in particular are things I'm happy that we've implemented, and they're moving us toward being able to make hires that are diverse.

TTP: The newsletter [Through the Porthole] is focused at undergrads, trying to reach people who might be part of underrepresented minorities in science, or people who didn't think grad school or the sciences were even really an option. Which barriers to diversity, equity, or inclusion in science are the most persistent, and how do we get past them?

NN: We say “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and I don't think they necessarily go in that order, but they go in that order in the sense that we can make [diversity] a priority right now. The first thing that I see the institution needing to do is [to] get people here, but in a perfect world people would come here and then feel really included. They can thrive here and not feel they're missing out on anything or having to leave parts of themselves at the door or in another state. I think that is a harder nut to crack, so we all need to work on: not just getting people in the room, but getting them here as their whole selves; for them to feel like they’re living here. We're not just WHOI in a bubble. As things progress, people also have more options to be elsewhere. They have more options to be at institutions with remote work options where like, “OK, I can accept I'm a Mexican woman in my early 30s. I don't have a very easy time connecting with my culture in Cape Cod…but if people can be flexible with understanding that…maybe I need to go recharge in my community for a certain amount of time and then come back, but I can keep doing my work remotely during that whole time.” Can we be flexible in those ways? Because the idea of trying to change a place like Cape Cod—that's like that's forever away, you know.

TTP: Are there institutional policies you've seen that, for lack of a better term, work really well? Even things that you've seen that you think haven't been done, but you're thinking, “This could be applied here!”

NN: Well, I don't know if I would say “policy”; this would be more of a program: The University of Michigan, Stanford University, there's another university I can’t think of right now—they’re all implementing these postdoc preview weekends, which is like [Open House] for graduate school here. It gives people a sense of where they could potentially move, and people can bring their families so that their families can [see], because a lot of postdocs do have families. They can come and take a look at the place; get a feel for it that is more personalized and coordinated. You meet a bunch of the postdocs at the same time; that has worked super well for Stanford for recruiting, especially people in underrepresented backgrounds there. It has also worked really well for Michigan. Something like that could be really great here because a lot of people don't have access to a place like Cape Cod.

Kind of related is the potential to have a program for postdocs [where] you are a postdoc for a certain amount of time, and then you can transition into an early career faculty member. I think those are really successful, but the bar is super high for those programs. You have to be almost ready to be faculty. But it's great though, they still foster that growth in you. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—which is a place very similar to WHOI, except they focus on genetics—[has] a program like that. They're Cold Spring Harbor Fellows, and [they’re] early career people who then transition into being a faculty member.

TTP: That does seem to be a very high bar when you're trying to apply.

NN: Yeah, usually as a postdoc, you're still training under somebody else, right? [In the CSH program] your lab would be smaller potatoes; you're not going to get the full thing, but it's a different level of independence, whereas a lot of postdocs are still developing their independence, right? That one throws you into it right after you're a graduate student.

TTP: That's interesting; I was talking with a postdoc yesterday who was talking about the traditional transitions that are expected of people. Almost anyone at the postdoc stage is just kind of a researcher. You're not necessarily managing people and the lab and grants. But if you get hired, all of a sudden, your job's completely different.

NN: You have to get a designer; you're working all of a sudden with architects to build your lab, but you're also working on all of these images for [your] dissertation.  You're expected to do so many things.

TTP: That chain of transition is so weird. I'm sure there's plenty of jobs that are kind of like that: you learn a lot of what you need on the job and you're expected to switch when you get in new roles. If you're an electrician’s apprentice, when you become an electrician you're doing a similar job, not going from “I'm a researcher” to “I manage a team of 16 people.” Who expects that when they start thinking about science as a potential career?

NN: Yeah, especially if you don't come from a background of exposure to science or know what all the necessary skill sets are. I think we're generally doing a better job—I don't mean WHOI, I mean academia as a whole—at recognizing that these are really difficult things to ask of people. We can create more opportunities for people to learn some of these skills. Managerial skills [are] huge. I think academia has accepted poor management for a long time just because we understood that nobody was getting trained in it. It happened naturally, and I think that we're all recognizing that this is a skill set that people need to develop and have practice on. Columbia has a crash course for PIs now. If you're a new career PI, it teaches you some of those basic things, and I think WHOI would definitely benefit from something like that.

TTP: It sounds like it'd be helpful for grad students, especially people who aren't familiar with [running a lab].

NN: [It’s] like you're running a startup; and just as worried that if somebody doesn't invest in you tomorrow, you could be gone. All those pressures people aren't aware of—I think it is an equity issue in terms of trying to recruit students who don't have parents who have these backgrounds. I would hate for them not to have the information and feel like the rug was pulled under them, you know: “Wait, I thought I was getting this job for X, Y, Z reasons…this isn't the job, and I could have done something else.” I would hate to do that to people. It’s best to be open about the issues in academia and try to address them in the best way. There are going to be some growing pains.

TTP: The last little bit: we have a whole bunch of stories. You went through a lot of different types of work and places to get here. I was thinking about a map of where you grew up and it's like boom, boom, boom…

[gesticulating at a bunch of places in the air]

If there was somebody who was in a similar position to the way you were, and you were in high school [or] undergrad: what would you tell them about like grad school and about science as a career?

NN: Some of the advice would be…practical: Take a break between undergrad and grad school. That's probably what I would have done? Once you're in grad school, it's really hard to take a break after that with the way academia moves. I would have taken a break and gotten myself on some more sure footing before I went into it because it was a big move. You know, across the country.

In a less practical sense: Try to define the origin of what's motivating you. What is your true motivation for doing the work? It took me some time to figure out that my true motivation—which was always there, I just hadn't interrogated it in myself—was to help other students like me. I was really interested in the research and everything, but the true North Star for me was that. Maybe I could have gotten to that a little bit sooner than I did.

Another really practical one is [to] find people that have similar values and ask them what their experience [has] been in X, Y, Z thing that you're thinking of doing—going into it informed. Like I said earlier, I would hate to have anybody [feel] the rug pulled [out] under them. I felt like that when I went to graduate school. It's just trying to be as informed as possible, so that you don't feel like you didn't know what you were getting into.


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