Life Update: I’m a doctoral candidate!

It has been a long and challenging semester, one where I have not had a lot of free time for self reflection and updating my blog. That said, I do have news: I am officially a doctoral candidate, after passing my comprehensive exam on April 8th!

April 8th was a particularly auspicious day, as it is also Sicily’s adoption anniversary, and this year marked her fourth Gotcha Day with me! I’ve also received exciting news regarding funding for my project! I’m also moving to a different part of Honolulu.

I plan to write more about the experiences I’ve had recently, including my comprehensive exam, which was equally exciting and terrifying. For now, here’s a flower sketch I made to manage my stress during this time:

Why I don’t leave my experiences at the door

CW: COVID19, grief, prejuidice

**This was written a month ago. I am happy I can publish it at a time when COVID19 vaccines have been announced, and may be available as soon as next spring.

The day that I learned a family member passed from virus complications was also a day I had to teach. The phone call came at 7 AM. I left for school at 8:30 AM. I went to class that morning, and mechanically plugged in my laptop and fired up my power point. I remember saying to my students, “It’s a short lab day today, so we’re just going to push through it.” It ended up being a very short day, and yet, I didn’t want to leave the isolated reality of my classroom. I answered emails. I rearranged the fridge. I labeled things until there was nothing left to label.

Though I had told people around me about my relative before, for two days, I told no one about his passing. I had this sudden sense that my grief was too much of a burden for those around me, even if I was important to them. All of the casual conversations and funny memes and laughter that I had participated in for the last 8 months, all to cope with this reality, no longer held any appeal to me. Then, there was a shift inside me, as I realized that not speaking would not change the outcome, and everything bubbled out of me.

I did not tell my students about my relative. I believe higher education is a good place for students to practice workplace appropriate relationships, and that starts with the behavior being modeled by educators. But not telling my students about my private life is different than pretending that when I entered that classroom, my private life stopped impacting me. If my students had asked if I was okay, I would have said, “Not really. This is a hard time for me, but I have the support I need.”

Carved pumpkin in surgical mask and plastic face shield sitting on a decorative rock.
A coping mechanism courtesy of someone in the neighborhood, dealing with a very strange Halloween.

In STEM, there is a pervasive idea that it is possible and desirable for people to be “objective.” People are not objective. Research on implicit bias has shown that even when we make every effort to be objective, we can always have biases so ingrained and subconscious that we never think to try to counter them. To me, objectivity has a connection with the conception of a scientist as a dispassionate and unemotional white man who only speaks in jargon. This is rooted in the idea of Western science as being “real” science (I’ve been reading about the scientific tradition of North American indigenous tribes in Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Kimmerer), and this conception of scientists excludes marginalized groups based on stereotypes about being overly emotional, highly reactive, speaking in vernacular and more (especially stereotypes about Black folx, resource on anti-black racism in STEM here: https://www.shutdownstem.com/racism-in-academia). The idea of “leaving biases at the door” had to be conceived by people whose identities were not intrinsically perceivable. Some people of color, women, disabled folx, and LGBTQIA+ folx can not leave biases at the door even if they wanted to, because they cannot shed their physical appearance or other sensory identifiers, like a speech impediment or accent. I cannot leave my identities and experiences at the door, because the perceivability of my marginalized identity is beyond my control.

I cannot leave my identities and experiences at the door, and I also do not want to. My experiences make me who I am. My experiences have contributed to the ways in which I have found and contributed to a sense of community. The most life changing friendship I have ever had came from my involvement in the disability community and student advocacy. I am not embarrassed of that. I am proud of that. My identities extend my impact beyond my immediate accomplishments, because there are people who look like me or have had similar experiences to me, and therefore through me can imagine a place for themselves in STEM. I am proud of that. I would not be where I am if I could not picture myself in STEM and academia via the experiences of others like me.

In today’s climate, there is an even more pressing reason why I won’t leave my experiences at the door. My experiences of marginalization, of grief, of frustration are the basis of my compassion. I will not pretend that I am not impacted by the current global crisis, and that grief is something I can just tamp down based on my environment. These things make me human. Seeing me as human helps my students trust in the fact that I also see them as human, and I have compassion for the reality that they have lives outside of my classroom, and that they are impacted by things beyond their control, both similar and different to what I am going through. There’s value in that.

A few weeks ago, a student asked me out of the blue if I would move a homework due date by a few days. There was a big midterm in an another course, they told me. I looked around at the class, and said, “Would it be helpful if I moved the due date to the following class to give you all time to focus on that exam?” There were numerous hesitant nods. I walked back to my desk, searching for paper to make a note on. “I know there’s a lot going on. I can make that work.”

Art Corner

“Pre-med syndrome” and what STEM/Academia can do about it

Like a lot of freshman who were into science as kids, I started college with the intention of going to medical school. To be fair, somewhere in my heart, I knew that I didn’t actually want to be a doctor. I was a few years into my sleep disorder symptoms, and my life had started to revolve around doctors and tests and appointments. I went into college as a neuroscience major, thinking that it wouldn’t disappoint anyone if I went into research and just… never applied to medical school. But even neuroscience hit too close to home, and my classes made me feel like nothing but a number or statistic, just like my doctor’s appointments did.

When I transferred to Scripps for my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to develop a new, more true, identity, and I jumped ship from neuroscience to an environmental policy major, thinking that I would go into politics. I had always loved the environment, as I’ve written about before, and I wanted to make a difference with my career. Before my sleep disorder made it’s debut, I had an interest in politics, but that major was also short lived. I had negative experiences in some non-science departments related to my accommodations, and I found that those experiences, along with the reality of politics in the US was too much stress for my already struggling body. I retreated back to the science department, and switched to Organismal Biology, which was the “catch-all” major for ecology, evolution and physiology.

I was happy in that major. I always felt very supported at the science department. Faculty made real efforts to diversify their curriculums, and when I had issues related to ableism or my health generally, faculty always made time to listen and help out. Even as I enjoyed my courses (to the degree that I could with my health at the time), I struggled to picture myself in a career post graduation. Like many disabled folx in higher education, there aren’t many popularly available examples of disabled folx with college degrees in professional settings. Intellectually, I knew the process of applying for accommodations in a workplace, but my mind drew a blank whenever I tried to think of a setting I’d feel comfortable in. In my work with DIDA, we brought some staff from the local rehabilitation office to give a career talk, but it became clear that we were not their target audience. As I continued to work with the DIDA faculty advisor on her courses, helping her ensure that the principles of UDX were being applied, I started to dream of a future where I could be like her. Until my major advisor told me not to rule out graduate school, that dream seemed too impossible, something that was simply mutually exclusive with my disability.

A pre-occupation with attending medical school is very common among freshman STEM majors, and it’s sometimes referred to as “pre-med syndrome.” As upperclassmen, we would joke that over half of the freshman STEM majors would stop being “pre-med” by the end of their first year. Some institutions see some of the harder biology courses as a way to “weed out” students who would not cut it in medical school. Talking about it in this way seems harsh, and it is, but the underlying reality is that all pre-med freshman STEM majors will not be going to medical school. The issue is that academia has focused on culling down this group through hard courses, instead of educating students on the many other available career paths.

When I got into my upper-division ecology courses, after I had already decided against medical school, the curriculum started to introduce other career paths. I had a professor who had worked for Fish and Wildlife. In the arcGIS unit, we looked at datasets created by local/state government employees on different things like the location of historic trees and critical habitat. For one course, I wrote a conservation plan proposal, like someone working for environmental consulting firm or the EPA might do.

One of the camera traps that we used for arcGIS projects. Prickly pear cactus is a fiend.
box of about 50 small yellow seed envelopes paperclipped clipped closed
A box containing only a small portion of over 300 Amsinckia sp seeds I weighed and labeled as a research assistant for Professor Thomson.

As I passed former classmates in the hallways, and thought about our diverging paths as they continued in human biology or regular biology, I wondered if they really wanted to go to medical school, or if the courses they were taking hadn’t told them about other ways to work in science. I remembered a medical student’s blog I had read while I was still in high school, particularly the entry where they announced to their followers they were dropping out of medical school with only a year or two left. I felt uncomfortable reading the comments from followers admonishing the blogger for “giving up.” To me, it seemed clear that had they known they wouldn’t be able to or want to finish, they never would have started in the first place. I suddenly felt weird about being so focused on medical school as a high schooler, and I never read the blog again so I wouldn’t have to examine my sinking certainty that the mean comments reflected a weird hyper focus among “pre-meds” that perhaps prevented them from fully considering other career options as valid.

Academia can not change the decisions students make in high school, or their home environment where they may receive or unintentionally perceive pressure to become doctors. But academia can do a better job of showing STEM students all their options, and promoting non-medicine careers instead of making students feel bad about not succeeding in designated “gate-keeping” courses. We can specifically increase our inclusion of careers in environmental science, which continues to expand and diversify, and if we do so in introductory courses, we can redirect students in a positive rather than negative way. When I taught botany courses last school year, this wasn’t something that I focused on in my own pedagogy, since those courses were popular gen-ed fulfillment choices. But as I teach an upper division microbiology course this semester, I have enjoyed integrating anecdotes about the application of microbiology in environmental science careers. While my students are far along in their degree, and have probably already made their minds up about their future, I am contributing to a broader conception of their knowledge and skillset, and if for any reason they decide against medicine in the future, they know that there is more than medicine in science, and there is always a place for everyone.

dune restoration project at a beach, sparse shrubby vegetation
A dune restoration project I ran into on a tour I took during my first visit to UH.

Additional Reading:

What do you do to encourage STEM students to consider non-medicine careers? Leave me a comment!

UDL/UDX in STEM

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the famous Steve Jobs speech. In my mind, I can see an image from that event, of Steve holding his microphone, with the Apple logo in the background. I haven’t seen the speech, but growing up in Silicon Valley, and reading about his legacy on marketing and entrepreneurship, I understand the magnetism that people in that room must have experienced.

And yet, I can only imagine, that anyone who struggled with audio processing, had hearing limitations or were Deaf, had a very different experience.

The Apple speeches, in their simplicity, have been held up as a standard in marketing, and it has spilled into the way we think about teaching, including in STEM. And, to be fair, there is research that supports that reducing the amount of input available can contribute to improvements in traditional measures of learning “success.” When I read those studies, I know before I even look, that the participants section will not include any mention of disability. It wouldn’t be fair to say that disabled students are never included in these studies. It’s entirely possible they are, but I have yet to see a study that asks students to self identify, and often there is an aspect of self-selection, as disabled students, managing their health on top of everything associated with being a college student, in my experience, have little time to spare, and may not participate in studies that incentivize participation with extra credit.

To be clear, I am not saying that the conclusions of these studies are invalid. I’m not a researcher or scholar in the field of education, so I can’t say that I know the factors that go into designing these studies. Perhaps modeling lectures after Steve Job’s style does result in improved learning “success” on average, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s at the cost of reducing accessibility for disabled students.

My experience of disability and accessibility colors the way I view everything, including my teaching pedagogy. Hopefully, there will soon be more research available that specifically looks at ways of implementing UDL/UDX in higher education STEM. In the meantime, here are a few ways I try to implement UDL/UDX in a lab course setting:

  • Mix up question formats. Since my symptoms began, memorization became much harder for me. There are questions that can test understanding of concepts or relationships that may be more accessible to students who struggle with memorization for any reason. Some of my favorites are matching terms and definitions, labeling pictures or diagrams, drawing pictures/diagrams, and interpreting pictures/diagrams.
  • Clear expectations. I write my quizzes very intentionally based on the objectives of an activity, but sometimes it can be hard to find the key points in a sea of background and nuance. I tell my students generally what they should focus on, and if I have ideas, how they can study. I make point values very clear, and deduct points based on clear criteria. If the expectations are clear, then students can articulate any accessibility issues they may have. I do my best to include expectations in multiple forms, typically visual and audial.
  • Seek feedback. Every educator has had that moment where they asked their class a question and got blank stares in response, and to some degree, that’s unavoidable. I believe that even when that’s the outcome, seeking feedback demonstrates an interest in the opinions of students and an investment in their experience and success. Seeking feedback establishes an open dynamic where questions are okay. I will seek feedback on whether additional or more in-depth explanations are needed on specific activities, and this demonstrates that I understand these activities can be complex and confusing. All it takes is one student who is willing to give that feedback reflecting uncertainty that likely many students feel. When you pre-emptively ask for that, it reframes the act of asking for help from being burdensome, to being welcomed and expected.
Manya in a face shield, face mask and lab coat, taking a selfie.
Me in my very cute full personal protective equipment, ready to teach.

Something I enjoyed recently: this article by author Rebekah Taussig

My Advice for New TAs (Online Learning)

I was invited to speak on a panel during New TA training today, which was such an honor and privilege! I wanted to share a few bits of advice for anyone starting as a TA or teaching online for the first time. I will be teaching in-person this fall, so my advice is applicable to both situations.

  1. Accessibility. If you’ve never taught before, familiarize yourself with the required accessibility statement on your syllabus, and repeat it when you start class. Check out any of the amazing resources on Universal Design! Yes, Universal Design has aspects that require resources like captioning services and speaker systems, but other aspects, like multiple forms of information and engagement, are easy to integrate. Say your instructions, and include them on the screen. Create tests to test for memorization and application, and even include opportunities to draw if it’s applicable. In addition to your accessibility statement, emphasizing a variety of forms of information and assessments shows students that you are invested in their success. You will never be able to anticipate and account for all access needs, but if you demonstrate your commitment to accessibility, students will feel more comfortable telling you about their needs.
  2. Demonstrate understanding and compassion. I’ve written before about how I struggled with learning online. Online learning is going to be a new format for many students and instructors. Acknowledging that this transition is challenging, and that this time is challenging creates a comfortable learning environment. If students are told that the adjustment period is normal, or that struggling more online than they have in-person is normal, then these challenges won’t be as likely to discourage them from even trying. If you show that you are a compassionate and understanding person, students will feel more comfortable asking for help.
  3. Incorporate a variety of engagement opportunities. Listen, this one is complicated from an accessibility standpoint because of inherent limitations in streaming platforms. But generalizations like everyone has to have their cameras on, or everyone has to use their mic instead of chat, makes things harder for students who are struggling to feel connected on an online platform. For many reasons, students may feel really uncomfortable with their cameras on or using their mics. While there are contexts in which these hard rules are unavoidable, when it’s possible to build in other forms of engagement, it’s going to expand opportunities for students to participate and to build their comfort level and confidence. In addition to camera on/off and text chats, you can include things like forum discussions, quizzes, group projects in breakout rooms, and student presentations. During my high school experience, I found that the most successful classes distributed “discussion leader” responsibilities to a few students for each session. These students prepared questions and a plan for the day’s discussion, and their leadership helped other students to feel comfortable participating, and this cut down on awkward silences and use of cold calling.

Wishing everyone a successful and safe Fall!

Why I talk about Disability

My first year using accommodations, I didn’t tell any friends about my disability. As I struggled through college, my medical team suggested an emotional support animal (ESA), and while I had always dreamed of having a dog, I knew an ESA would make my disability obvious. I held out on getting an ESA until I realized that hiding my disability would never make it nonexistent.

Adoption day, April 8th, 2017. My friend told me later, “I’ve never seen you laugh and smile this much.”

After adopting Sicily, I signed on to be a resident advisor for the following school year. The training schedule was rough, and I considered dropping out, thinking that my participation wasn’t accomplishing anything anyway. My resident advisor had been the first person on campus I had told about my accommodations, and she made me feel so normal. She was ultimately the reason I started feeling comfortable talking about disability and eventually became the co-president of the Disability, Illness and Difference Alliance of the Claremont Colleges.

I looked up to her, so I stuck it out.

Many of my residents loved Sicily, and during one meeting, a resident was talking to me about her ESA accommodation application and her interest in becoming a residential advisor.

“I basically want your life,” she said.

I tried to smile. I wasn’t on treatment at the time, so my life was difficult, but she didn’t know that. What she saw was me taking on leadership roles, talking openly about disability and helping students.

At the time, I couldn’t see the parallel between her experience and my experience with my resident advisor.

I talk about disability because representation matters.

Even if I only ever help that one resident from years ago, it’s still worth it to me.

Practicing Patience in Art

I used to try to start and finish an oil painting in one sitting. I didn’t want to plan too much, and I really didn’t want to come back to it another day. I admire all the artists that make this work, but too many times I have looked back at progress photos, and realize, Oh no, it looked better three/four photos ago than it does now…

After success with the lovely horse model Faith, I wanted to try my hand at another animal that I have historically struggled with… my dog, Sicily.

Hope everyone is taking care and finding things to do at home!

#ADA30 The 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

When it comes to commemorating the 30th anniversary of ADA, I couldn’t think of anything that felt remotely adequate.

Smiling face of a girl.

This photo is from October of 2012. I’d just gotten into makeup, and I posted this on Facebook to show my friends the look I did for my choir concert. That’s not why this picture is important. This picture, from the fall of my sophomore year of high school, is around the time of my first symptoms. I was only fourteen, and my life and my identity had changed forever.

Woman dressed in college graduation robe and hat taking a mirror selfie.

It would be seven years before I felt like some version of myself again.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the only reason I was able to go to, and eventually graduate from college. Everything that I’ve accomplished since high school graduation is due to the Capital Crawl Activists, who pushed ADA across the finish line. By 1990, the disability justice/rights movement had been going on for decades… and still , they showed up, determined, and undeterred.

Woman smiling, holding small dog with the heading: "Manya Singh, Academic Affairs."

There’s more to do, for disabled Americans and specifically, disabled students in Higher Ed. I’m trying to do my part. I don’t know that I can ever live up to the activists whose actions provided me with access to education, or the friend who taught me everything I know about disability and student advocacy. I do my best not to let discouragement and self-doubt stop me from trying.

That’s the best way I know to show my gratitude.


Note: I am using one of the “most accessible” template options on WordPress, and I have checked accessibility using some online tools. Please let me know if any accessibility issues stick out, or if you know how I can do better.

Recommended Readings:

  • ADAPT– the organization instrumental in the Capitol Crawl
  • Article from NBC about the need for improvements to ADA
  • Guest Post on the Disability Visibility Project about the difficulties of BIPOC disabled students in Higher Ed, something that I related to so much
  • Article from InsideHigherEd on delays to the renewal of the Higher Education Act

Self Care Corner: The Environmental Impact of Art

I took just about a year off from making art, and after considering it for a while, I finally bought a set of water soluble oil paints. I’m painting again, and while I’m rusty, and I have my familiar doubts about my abilities, it’s great to have a distraction from all the stress.

My painting of my friend’s horse, in the underpainting stage and layer 1 of color, final version and the original photo.

I decided to try my hand at a horse. Historically, animals have not been my strength, so I’m happy with it so far. I went back to a grid technique, something I was taught my oil painting instructor, who was all about classical techniques and still life studies. She was amazing and taught me a lot, but I abandoned the technique in hopes of finding “my style.”

My style, by the way, ends up looking like this most of the time: disproportionate women in abstract environments. This one also needs another layer, but you get the idea.

Oil painting of female side profile with abstract leaves and flowers.

I attribute some of my struggles to the fact that water soluble oils is a new medium. In my opinion, while water soluble oils are very similar to classic oils, they are different enough that I’ve been doing a lot of trial and error. I chose water soluble oils because I wouldn’t need a medium or paint thinner… and I want my art to be more environmentally conscious.

Paint thinner is bad for the artist, anyone around the artist, and the environment in general. Paint thinner is not technically essential to oil painting, though it is used by many oil painters in painting and in clean up. Add to paint thinner, pigments that are not so great, mediums with solvent in them, and varnishes. I miss these supplies. I miss glazing and the high shine spray-on varnish sitting in my mom’s garage.

I want my art not to be in conflict with my love of the environment, and… it’s hard. Even what I bought isn’t perfect, as my beginners set of water mixable oils came with cadmium colors. I’ve been going around the environmentally conscious artist blogs, but many of them settle on an imperfect solution, using safer supplies wherever they can. I admire these artists, but this solution doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t know if it’s possible to have a full set of safe supplies, but for now, I want my art to have the smallest impact on the environment it can. So, if you need me, I’ll be here, trying to adjust to my water soluble oil set without the outcome looking like weird watercolors.

If you have suggestions on environmentally friendly art, especially for an oil painter, let me know!

Online Learning is Great, But Not For Everyone

Online learning can be an amazing way to expand the reach of education to people who can not attend physically and have access to the internet. Because COVID19 has made this format a necessity for many educational institutions, we will hopefully see an expansion in offerings and proficiency of this format.

We will hopefully also see the much-needed expansion of internet access and affordability to over 100 million Americans without it.

There are a host of accessibility issues associated with online learning formats. I incorporate Universal Design in my own teaching, but I’m not an expert in accessible teaching practices, so here’s some resources to make your online classroom accessible: ToolKit from ExploreAccess ; Thorough Resource List from AHEAD ; Resource List for Students from NCCSD ; DoE Guidance on Student’s Civil Rights related to Disability/COVID19 ; A More General Look at the Impact of COVID19 on Disabled Americans, article by Sharron Rush

I finished high school online, and my former classmates often share articles talking about how education will inevitably move entirely online. While these articles validate the value of online learning, they also make me feel alone, because online learning did not work for me. Whether it’s in class or at the gym, there is something about the physical presence of a community that contributes to my engagement and motivation. To anyone who has struggled, or finds themselves struggling with the online format, you aren’t alone. Some people are better suited to the format, just like some people are better suited to test-taking versus essay writing. Do your best, but don’t be hard on yourself. I’m bummed that my fall classes will all be online, and I look forward to the day when I’ll be back in the classroom.

Girl posing in graduation hat and sash on a hill.

Despite taking a lot of precautions, I was exposed to the virus recently, and I’m in quarantine until the asymptomatic period has passed. Please, please take appropriate precautions, if not for yourself, then for those that are at higher risk for the virus.

No one is their own island.

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