Regina Barber DeGraaff, an instructor in Western’s Physics and Astronomy Department and the College of Science and Engineering’s STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist, has a good idea of the public’s stereotypical idea of a scientist.
“It’s so frustrating, but we all know what it is: a heterosexual white cis male secluded in a lab somewhere who can barely communicate with his fellow human beings,” she said.
It is her mission in life to smash that stereotype.
“I want to bring science to the public in an easy, accessible way that isn’t intimidating,” she said. “And I want the scientific community to look like and reflect the cultural cross-section of our country. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.”
That’s Barber DeGraaff in a nutshell: passionate, focused, unabashedly verbose, and ready to push whatever buttons she can to make this campus do one thing: talk about race. And she plans to do just that as she leads workshops as part of the campus’ Equity and Inclusion Forums during the school year.
At a time where the term “intersectionality” has become a prime buzzword for the entwined nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, to name a few, as they apply to a given individual or group, and the overlapping social identities these categorizations spawn, Barber DeGraaff said she never fit into any of the preconceived boxes that society has tried to place her in.
She grew up in rural Lynden, just 20 miles north of campus, the multiracial daughter of a Chinese mother and a Latino father of Mexican heritage in an overwhelmingly white community. In the summers, when she would venture south to live with her cousins in East Los Angeles and San Diego, she saw a far more multi-ethnic world where having two different parents from two different cultures was more common. Flipping back and forth between these two vastly different locales – a sprawling multicultural metropolis with enclaves of safety for both parts of her ethnic heritage and a rural community where she felt like she stood out like a sore thumb – forced her to be agile in her communication.
What is today called “code switching” – the ability to adjust your syntax and dialog to suit those you are speaking to – was just an instinctual survival skill for Barber DeGraaff.
“Growing up as a multiracial kid in Lynden – where I wasn’t Chinese enough, or Mexican enough, and certainly not white – absolutely made me good at adapting, and that ability to adapt paved the way for me to keep pushing at the boundaries of all these intersectional identities of mine,” she said.
When she arrived at Western as an undergrad Barber DeGraaff said it felt, immediately, like Utopia. Like Disneyland. Like home.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I got onto this campus, and all of a sudden, all that racial baggage I had been carrying was largely gone. I had come to a place where my other identities – nerd, science lover – not only didn’t clash with who I was from an ethnicity perspective, but they had become a non-issue. It’s hard to describe how freeing that felt.”
Barber DeGraaff spent the next four years immersing herself in Physics and Astronomy in any way she could; she managed the planetarium for three years, for example, and, as she put it, “ran all over campus doing anything they would let me do.” She forged, through what she calls the “sheer force of her will,” a group of Physics students into an incredibly close cohort that is still in touch to this day; a picture of them as students hangs on the wall in her office.
“I basically told them that we were going to be friends and that we were going to study, together. And thankfully they listed to me instead of throwing me out the door,” she said. Also at Western was her high school boyfriend, Jake DeGraaff; the couple remains together today.
Eventually it was time to go to graduate school, so Barber DeGraaff headed south to San Diego State for her master’s degree while Jake got his law degree; shortly thereafter, she began work on her doctorate at Washington State.
Finding Her Voice
While Barber DeGraaff was pursuing her doctorate (her research focuses on incredibly old and dense groups of stars called globular clusters), she was also teaching physics and math at Bellevue Community College, where she helped form the school’s chapter of SACNAS – the Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science – as more and more, she began to see that her passion lay not only in getting people excited about science, but it was in working to make sure that people like her had the opportunity to enter the field.
“Talk about intersectionality – I was a U.S.-born multiracial woman of color with a doctorate in Physics,” she said. “I knew it was important that there was an effort to have more people like me in the sciences, and that SACNAS chapter was my first real start in getting that effort going. It was about talking to these kids about who they could be and how they could get there. It was just communication. And they did the rest.”
Shortly after she left Bellevue to come to Western, the school’s fledgling SACNAS chapter, full of the passion and chutzpah of its founding advisor, won the national junior college chapter of the year.
Always, though, she had an eye on coming back to her Utopia – Western. She realized that her look at Western as an undergrad with rose-colored glasses wasn’t a real portrait of the institution. It actually wasn’t perfect. No university is. But if there was one place in the world she would love to come back and try and change for the better, it was here.
When Barber DeGraaff came back to Western to teach as an instructor, she began volunteering her time to support Western’s SACNAS chapter and other events dedicated to making STEM more welcoming (click the Spark Science logo at right to go to her ongoing science radio show/podcast from the Spark Museum in Downtown Bellingham). Barber DeGraaff proposed there should be a central person in the College of Science and Engineering who would support underrepresented students and faculty in the college, and this became the STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist. She said she knew she had found the platform to begin to talk more openly about the issues that are important to her, and Western's Equity and Inclusion Forums presented another avenue of discussion that she said she was eager to explore.
“I had this unrealistic view of Western from my time here as an undergrad that wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. Last year showed that to be the case. But I knew I wanted to make it true, and that it could be true, if we could just get people starting to talk to each other,” she said. “Our weakness as a school isn’t just that were not diverse enough, it’s that were not as open to these discussions about race as we need to be to move forward.”
After being part of workshops and discussion on campus with faculty and staff, it became apparent that talking about why the sciences are not diverse and racism were very difficult topics in an institution that prides itself on being progressive.
“It’s a hot-button topic, no doubt, and it showed me how much work there was to be done. ‘Leaning into discomfort’ to discuss race – not intellectually or in a detached way, but as a function of examining who we are and how we talk about our own identities – isn’t easy,” she said.
As for that prototypical scientist, down in his lab, she wants to change that image, too.
“As scientists, we are taught from Day 1 to exclude our emotions and biases from our work,” she said. “Frankly, this effort to remove biases from science seeps into our everyday lives and makes having conversations on an emotional level oftentimes much more challenging. It becomes how we communicate, but we can’t talk about race and social justice and equity and fairness if we completely disassociate ourselves from who we are at our core.”
“Everybody has biases. All we can do is acknowledge them and try to combat them.”
Note: This is the last of four articles in Western Today about the ongoing Campus Equity & Inclusion Forum series and in support of Equity & Inclusion Month at Western. Seminars, workshops and offerings from the forum facilitators will run throughout the school year.
For a full list of all 15 E&I workshop opportunities, go to https://west.wwu.edu/training/default.aspx#.