Dr. Lynette Strickland: A Journey in Science and Faith
Dr. Lynette Strickland’s journey in faith and science developed simultaneously, giving her unique insight into their harmony and how the two contribute to her work in ecology and encouraging representation in academia.
Photo Credit: Lynette Strickland
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Dr. Lynette Strickland received her Ph.D. from the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute PreDoctoral Fellow. Her research focuses on how ecological factors and genomic factors shape a naturally-occurring color polymorphism in a species of Neotropical tortoise beetle.
Some of my most exciting experimental designs and proposals came from moments when I said in exasperation, “Lord, I know you know what’s happening in these beetles, so what should I do? How do I tell this story?”
Can you tell me about your journey to science and Christianity?
I wasn’t necessarily raised in a faith tradition. My mom’s family is from an area of Mexico that is predominantly Catholic, so I knew who Jesus was (as well as several saints), but wasn’t particularly interested in religion. I was however, fascinated by nature. For as long as I can remember I was awed by trees, by sunsets, by flowers. I remember being constantly covered in ant bites as a kid because it seemed to me that all the prettiest flowers grew in or around ant piles and I always wanted to collect the prettiest flowers. This love that I had for nature ultimately meant that I had to be a veterinarian (or so I thought).
Throughout high school and even into the beginning of my undergraduate career, I never knew research was even an option that existed as a possible career! Growing up I didn’t know a single scientist (which is why outreach is so important to me now), so the option was never a possibility from my perspective. Around the same time I started to grow curious about research, I also became curious about God. I had a college roommate who was a Christian, and I found her daily communication with Jesus fascinating. I was 21 or 22 when this insatiable thirst for truth became the most dominant quest in my life. I was intellectually and spiritually curious and I couldn’t seem to turn it off. For me, I think this is why my spirituality and my science have both lived relatively harmoniously within me; they developed together and continue to fuel one another.
To what extent do your faith and scientific work interact?
My faith and science have a huge degree of overlap. As an ecologist I consider myself incredibly blessed to learn about God’s works and through them learn more about God. It never stops to amaze me how intricate and complex this world is, and yet how simply beautiful it is at the same time. There have been so many times when I’ve been so frustrated by research for a number of reasons (research is a classic example of try, try, and try again…and again). I’ll then sit back in my frustration and talk to God about it. As a Christian I’m aware that God knows the inner workings of this world in ways that I will never comprehend. Honestly, it brings me a lot of comfort when I stop to take a breath amidst my frustrations and remind myself that through my research I’m not figuring anything out; God already has it figured out. My role is to let God lead me in my research—to let God show me what questions, what complexities—need to be presented to the world. Some of my most exciting experimental designs and proposals came from moments when I said in exasperation, “Lord, I know you know what’s happening in these beetles, so what should I do? How do I tell this story?”
I was recently awarded an NSF postdoctoral fellowship (I’ll start this after my current post-doc). I can vividly recall sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a whiteboard and notepads asking God to guide me in the questions that should be showcased while forming the central points for this proposal. It was such a sweet moment with Jesus; we literally designed an experiment together. At every step of my career, the one thing I try to keep at the forefront of my mind is that God knows the answers to all the questions I could ever ask. I’m never alone in these curiosities that often feel all-consuming to me, because God knows those questions that we—as communities and as societies—need greater insights into; I’m just the conduit. I truly believe that there is so much we can learn from beetles, from sunsets, and from designing experiments with God.
You joined us for a special live stream about inclusion of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) populations in STEM fields. Why is it so important for science to be representative of the society?
The aim of science is to question and investigate the world; terrestrial, oceanic, atmospheric, atomic, genomic, etc. As scientists, our goal should be to share findings with the communities around us in order to awe and inspire. To have a career as a scientist means that you should ultimately work to serve society. When scientists close themselves away from societies, housing themselves within the ivory tower of academia, we cut the flow of knowledge between the people gathering scientific data and everyone who would benefit. If people at large can’t see or interact with a scientist that they can relate to, what validity do we hold? How can we truly ask questions and seek solutions that are representative of global problems if only a very specific demographic are the only ones whose questions are valued?
There’s so much research on the benefits of diversity in business, science and problem-solving in general. I think for most people it is relatively intuitive that a diversity of thoughts, people and opinions will generate more holistic solutions, but there are real examples of this as well. I recently shared the story of how my background and perspective (my sister and I being biracial inherited very different traits from each of our parents) allowed me to pursue a line of questioning unhindered by the doubts of those around me (i.e.“these beetles can not be the same species because they look too different”). These are very real examples of how variation in who we are as humans influences the diversity of science and the line of questioning that is present in our fields, which is ultimately essential for addressing the needs of a very diverse society.
We do not need to be afraid of engaging in the problematic (and often racist) history of science. This is how we can teach and engage our students and create well-rounded, ethical scientists
You stressed the intentionality and effort needed from academic institutions to invest in their BIPOC students. What are some of these practical, tangible ways institutions and organizations can do this?
I think an important thing for institutions who have made a commitment to creating inclusive, anti-racist environments is to remember that not every tactic is going to be ideal for every academic level. For instance, an undergraduate student should not be engaging or tackling problems in the same ways as administrative staff or tenured faculty. As a result, I think it’s important to build plans of action that take this into consideration. I do believe that a lot of this work should fall to those in leadership positions. Principal investigators should be holding lab meetings and discussions on a regular basis about creating inclusive environments. There is so much research that exists on this subject, and as scientists, we are trained on how to find relevant information. When it comes to the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ways to create inclusive environments, most academics choose not to put in the work. In the classroom, teachers can work on “decolonizing” their curriculum. Provide resources for your students on the history of race in science. Include examples of the contributions of women and BIPOC in advancing STEM fields.
If you’re teaching evolution to a freshman biology class and you include a picture of Darwin in your presentation, also include pictures of current labs with members of diverse backgrounds engaging in these topics today. If you’re teaching a developmental biology or cell biology course, and “HeLa cells” come up as a topic, inform your students that these cells come from a Black woman, Henrietta Lacks, and were used without her consent. This is a teachable moment worthy of discussion (i.e. why was this unethical? How can we ensure that this doesn’t happen moving forward?). We do not need to be afraid of engaging in the problematic (and often racist) history of science. This is how we can teach and engage our students and create well-rounded, ethical scientists who are aware of racism in academia, and who can be better equipped to end it.
I think so much of the problem of dealing with racism in STEM fields, is that we like to pretend that science has no room for subjectivity. This, I feel, is one of our biggest downfalls. Who we are as people affects who we are as scientists. I think this air of objectivity by the majority is what tends to isolate and alienate BIPOC in STEM fields. It takes acknowledging that there is a problem, that you’re not perfect but willing to try, and then actually trying. The #shutdownstem movement provides excellent resources for moving toward becoming anti-racist, building inclusive institutions, and engaging in ethical science. I have also co-authored a piece which was published recently with Nature Ecology & Evolution, providing potential strategies for BIPOC individuals to thrive in ecology and evolutionary biology fields.
In your opinion, what is the biggest ecological concern facing our world right now, and what should Christians do to help/do about it?
For me the greatest ecological concern that we are facing right now is the devastating biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse from global climate change. Our behavior over the next 10 years will be crucial to curb rising climate trends and keep most ecosystems from collapsing. I think there tends to be a lack of concern for biodiversity and ecosystems as a whole, as well as the services they provide, because there is a general disconnect between humans and the natural world around us. For the most part, I would say we all feel this connection as children, and as we age it becomes easy to separate ourselves from the living things around us (as bills, jobs, and responsibilities take hold). For most people, I think the terms “ecosystem collapse” and “biodiversity loss” only invokes a vague inclination of the loss of some wildlife populations, which may not inspire much compassion as everyday needs press in on people. As an ecologist it’s my job to inform people that ecosystem collapse does not just imply that we will lose the last remaining populations of some of the large mammals that we love (rhinos, elephants, big cats). It includes this complex network consisting of thousands of interactions developed over Earth’s lifetime. This will affect our daily lives. This means global and widespread food shortages, an even greater divide in access to freshwater, and even larger extremes in wealth distribution. As a Christian, it is our responsibility to help guide others in properly stewarding the resources we were entrusted with.
This also speaks to why representation in science is so important. While food insecurity and water inequality is already the dominant threat in many parts of the world, it will continue to expand, and these threats won’t be felt equally. Low income communities and predominantly Black and brown communities will be among the first (and already are) to feel the devastating effects of global climate change. Ensuring that members from these communities can be actively involved in leading solutions and initiatives means that scientists should actually be informing the public on these very real threats. This includes valuing indigenous knowledge of land and weather patterns and doing outreach and mentoring for students from underrepresented communities. Currently, we know that certain communities will suffer disproportionately from the effects of global climate change and ecosystem collapse; surveys have shown that Black and Latinx individuals share the highest level of commitment to global climate mitigation strategies, and yet these aren’t the same communities that are leading the way to change. Mitigating societal issues and global threats requires global involvement and empowering individuals to become involved in the communities around them.
And a fun question: What was your favorite animal growing up and do you have a favorite animal now?
Growing up my favorite animals were horses! Everything I owned from the ages of 7 to 12 had a horse on it (blankets, towels, t-shirts, jackets, my favorite cup and plate, literally everything). I can’t say that I have a favorite animal now, there are just far too many to choose from. I love beetles (of course); the golden-orb weaver (Trichonephila clavipes specifically) is a gorgeous creature and I absolutely love them. Praying mantises are incredible, honestly one of the fiercest predators on the planet (we are truly lucky that they are so small).
So I guess I’m more inclined toward invertebrates, but honestly I could name something about every organism that I find truly fascinating.
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