The new leader of 500 Women Scientists on finding community and supporting women of color in STEMM

In the spring of 2019, Lauren Edwards was a graduate student studying neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta and was running local initiatives to support women of color. As a Black woman in science, she said she often felt mistreated and disrespected.

“I’m someone who experienced quite a bit of exploitation in my doctoral program,” she said. Edwards eventually ended up leaving her program in July 2020 after four years with a Master of Science. 

Edwards didn’t want anyone else to have to go through that, especially not alone. She started volunteering with 500 Women Scientists, an organization that works to make science more equitable and inclusive, and to address the many forms of discrimination and oppression within it. Now with over 500 “pods,” or local chapters, and over 20,000 members all over the world, 500 Women Scientists has grown far beyond the scope of its name.

To Edwards, volunteering with the organization offered a chance to support women of color on a larger scale and help them confront patriarchy and racism in the sciences. In May 2020, she took the helm of its Fellowship for the Future, a program for women of color that does just that. And now just two years after joining as a volunteer, Edwards was recently named interim executive director of 500 Women Scientists, becoming the first full-time, paid employee in what had been an all-volunteer organization. It’s a role she’ll hold before heading to medical school this fall.

STAT talked to Edwards about her experiences at 500 Women Scientists, both as a volunteer and now leader of the organization. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

What initially made you want to get involved with 500 Women Scientists? 

I came across 500 Women Scientists in April 2019. I was really interested in the organization because they were coming up with this new fellowship [the Fellowship for the Future] to support women of color who were doing a lot of the work that I was doing. At this time, I had been running initiatives locally. … I decided to switch gears and invest into something with a larger impact. And so that was why I was initially intrigued. I also felt I did not have the same support that I should have for my community efforts in graduate school. And so I knew that I wanted to help build that out for other women of color to have that, because I was using my own money to host projects. It was my weekend time, and I was still working 50 hours in lab. So it was a lot, and I decided I want to take away that burden or ease the burden for other women of color in that position. 

What was your experience like as a new volunteer? 

It was great; I was taken in with open arms. I showed early on that I was really interested and really dependable, and so I was actually invited to attend the national leadership meeting that June [of 2019]. … So I was taken in with so much love and open arms, and really given space to make my ideas heard and increase my contributions to the organization, which was great. I was surprised! 

What is your favorite initiative that you’ve worked on?

The Fellowship for the Future is my favorite. That project specifically is to support, recognize, and amplify women of color who are leading revolutionary, community-based projects in making STEMM (and when I say STEMM I mean the acronym for science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine), in making STEMM more equitable and just. A large part of our approach is providing financial support. 

That one’s my favorite one only because I think it’s so necessary. We know that women are underpaid, but it’s disproportionately women of color who are underpaid for their work. And we do a lot of slave labor, especially within our communities. And so then being able to tell the women that, you know, we see you, we recognize you, we want to support you, and provide honorarium for project support. I think that’s huge. And I know personally, I’ve always been in spaces where I am the minority as a Black woman, and especially in my professional spaces. So also providing that bridge to the community for our fellows, to have women of color in their cohorts and the leadership as well, because the fellowship is run by women of color for women of color, which I think is a revolutionary tenet of bringing diversity into our initiative.

What has the journey been like going from volunteer to executive director in two years?

It actually still shocks me! I was surprised and honored when they asked me to take that position. It’s been a whirlwind. I think that I have, with each month, increased my integration into the organization. I started on the fellowship, and then I led the Reproductive Justice Initiative. And then this past summer 2020, I was asked to be part of the executive leadership team. There’s seven of us total, including two of the co-founders. That set me up for really understanding and knowing kind of the inner workings, but also asking, where are the gaps? What do we need?

You wrote in a recent Medium post that the organization will be “unapologetically equity and justice focused, rooted in collective action, and sustainable for years to come.” What does that mean for 500 Women Scientists going forward?

Some of the things we’re looking to do are create more initiatives that are geared towards addressing those needs. One initiative that we are in the process of getting off the ground is the Black Women’s Collective. That is specifically addressing the needs of Black women in STEMM to have dedicated space, and the voice to embrace their culture and identity.

Then we also are looking to increase our efforts internationally. In our organization, most of our leadership members are in the U.S. So our purview isn’t as great as it could be internationally. Equity and justice look very different depending on what country you’re in. What looks like revolutionary racial work in the U.S. is not the same as what it may look like in South Africa. So making sure we’re giving credence to international aspects, and then having more conversations that are necessary for this. 

What would you say to women scientists, especially women of color, who may feel discouraged about their work and the way they are treated or regarded in the field? 

I would say to other women scientists, to have a community that is resilient and strong that can lift you through those times. Because I think, just the pursuit of so many careers, but especially STEMM, can break you down, if you don’t have that community. Also, to find ways to find joy in what you do. If you can find that joy, it can keep you rooted in what you’re doing this for. The last thing would be, do not break yourself to fit into a mold that someone else created. Like, I’m a Black woman, I wear my hair in natural hairstyles, but sometimes I have chosen not to, because of fear that it wouldn’t come off as professional. So I was changing myself to fit into this ideal. And I think now I know better and I’m confident enough to stand in that, making sure that women in science can stay true to who they are, and know that they don’t have to give that up in order to pursue their career.

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