Overcoming Microaggressions in the Lab: Spotlight on Kawanda Foster

Feb. 25, 2021

Dr. Kawanda Foster.
Dr. Kawanda Foster.
Kawanda Foster, MPH, Ph.D., PMP, is a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she currently works as a business analyst with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Foster finds her career, which offers a unique blend of technical and client-facing responsibilities, to be challenging, rewarding and well suited to her strong communication skills, passion for public health and knowledge of the microbial sciences. But she also acknowledged that her home office in Atlanta, Ga. is a long way from her earlier dreams of working “at the bench” as director of an infectious diseases laboratory, a decision that she shared was both intentional and born of self-preservation. Ultimately, “the lack of diversity in STEM drove me away from science,” she candidly explained, opening the door for a discussion about the impetus behind that sobering statement. 
 
She went on to clarify that it wasn’t the foundational lack of representation in the biological sciences that repelled her from laboratory research. “Being the only Black girl in the room wasn’t an unusual or unfamiliar experience for me.” Having to independently endure and develop internal tactics to overcome discrimination in an already stressful environment that provided little support or protection from the misuse of power by authority during her graduate career—that was the problem. 
 
According to Foster, her interest in research is something that developed over time. After college, she went on to earn her Masters of Public Health from Emory University, which is located almost directly across the street from the CDC in Atlanta, Ga. The degree required practical experience, and Foster had her eyes set on a position with the CDC. But with no prior lab experience at all, she initially had a difficult time competing for coveted graduate laboratory assistant positions. So in addition to fulfilling her work study requirements with an Emory cardiovascular outcomes research group, she volunteered in a lab at the CDC that studied Trypanosoma cruzithe parasite that causes Chagas diseaseIt was a small lab, made up of all women, and in this “awesome environment,” she “fell in love with benchwork.”  
 
After one semester of volunteering and learning how to pipette from a laboratory technician who delivered feedback with a “straight, no chaser personality,” Foster was offered a paid student position in the lab. For the next year, she worked diligently with a team of scientists who “instilled research principles of quality and precision in me,” things that were “especially important because we were working with public health samples.” That meant the samples were irreplaceable, imported from Africa, or precious, clinical samples from patients. By the next summer, Foster was awarded an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellowship for her work in that lab. She continued her research on Chagas disease until graduation, after which her PI encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology. 
 
And that’s exactly what she did. Foster’s graduate research focused on Type III CRISPR-Cas systems, naturally occurring bacterial immune systems that are uniquely capable of eliminating DNA and RNA components of foreign invaders. Compared to Type I and Type II defense systems, Type III remained largely mysterious to the research community at the time, and Foster was specifically interested in the mechanism of action of a particular Cas protein, Csm6, which was previously uncharacterized. She found that although the crRNA ribonucleoprotein effector complex is able to target DNA and RNA in vitro without it, Csm6 is essential for in vivo immunity to plasmids and phages, and further demonstrated that the ribonuclease activity of Csm6 directly affects anti-plasmid immunity in Type III systems.

Unfortunately, the lab that Foster joined in graduate school was very different from what she had previously experienced at the CDC. This environment, which she described as toxic, was a space in which research projects, publication and graduation all became bargaining chips—tools for manipulation and control. If the CDC is where she fell in love with benchwork, graduate school is where Foster “lost that love.” She didn't attribute the mistreatment to racial discrimination initially.

As Foster’s confidence in her scientific knowledge and skillset grew, she began to think more critically, speak up for herself and question the way things were done in the lab. She says that’s when the microaggressions and discrimination became more apparent. She was awarded an NIH grant that her PI made a point of referring to as a "'supplemental diversity grant,' indicating the only reason I got it was because I’m Black,” she recounted. 
 
“The overall level of scrutiny, criticisms and disparate standards I had to deal with on a weekly basis made it very clear that I was not being held to the same standards as most students.” Foster was the only Black Ph.D. student in the lab for the entirety of her 6-year graduate career, and while most of her peers graduated with 1 publication, she was denied the ability to graduate until she published 2.
 
In lab meetings, the biases of her PI were made public. “He was derogatory, interrupting and combative. He wanted to make an example of me to everyone in the lab who knew I challenged his scientific theories, analysis and choices. So he threatened to kick me out of the lab multiple times, said I didn’t deserve a Ph.D. and blamed me for issues in the lab that I wasn’t involved in.” 
 
Unfortunately, reporting this type of mistreatment is an uphill battle, especially when that mistreatment is difficult to prove, the microaggressions are hard to spotlight and there are accompanying implications that you could lose your lab position, research project, ability to graduate—or be labeled as 'difficult,'  impacting your future hiring potential. “You have to put yourself into the environment and understand the context around it to understand that there’s a huge power dynamic here—he had my whole future in his hands. He was the one guiding my entire career,” Foster explained.
 
She says the isolation and her struggle to manage the accompanying emotions in order to disprove stereotypes and try to prevent further marginalization are what she considers the most challenging issues she’s had to deal with as a Black microbiologist. “I was always consciously trying to not come off as an angry Black woman,” she explained. “I’m opinionated. I’m extremely straight-forward. I’ll approach you in a kind and respectful way, but I’m not going to beat around the bush.” Plus the lab, by nature, is a highly critical environment. Students are expected to think critically and trained to pick apart data and research methods. “But I’m a woman. And I’m Black.” And amidst the discrimination she was regularly facing, the truth is, she was angry. Rightfully so. She began altering her behavior and communication style. “I didn’t have the privilege of being myself without being labeled or retaliated against. And not being able to be my authentic self while doing what I love made me feel like I did not belong.” 
 
Eventually, Foster enlisted her graduate committee to help ensure her work was evaluated based on merit and to mediate the details of her graduation. Today, she is happy and fulfilled in her role, “working with the CDC again,” where she regularly intercedes as translator, helping software developers and members of her team better understand the needs of her clients (scientists, researchers and physicians) who are conducting important public health research.
 
When asked what advice she would give to future Black scientists, she did not hesitate. “Learn the skill of discernment,” she said. This applies not only to your work—what experiments you perform, how you evaluate data, when to cut your losses and try a new approach—but also, who you confide in, trust and consider to be a friend. “Do your best to surround yourself with different people who can be mentors, confidants, allies and accomplices.” And when you find them? “Keep them close,” she concluded. “That, to me, is what got me through. I was able to do a lot by myself, but I couldn’t have done it without my support system.”

Only recently has Foster  begun speaking about her experiences more publicly, but she hopes that doing so might help illuminate some of the blind spots that exist about racial discrimination and gender bias in academia and help spark institutional change. She believes there is still a great need for more diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM—especially in academia. “It is imperative that academic institutions take this issue more seriously and work to create more fair and healthy training environments for minority students. There might be a little Black girl out there somewhere who’s capable of finding a cure to cancer. You wouldn’t know that just by looking at her.” 

Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen, M.S.
Ashley Hagen, M.S. is the Senior Science Communications Specialist at the American Society for Microbiology and host of ASM's Microbial Minutes.