The power of listening

Meet Teresa Bilinski. Scientist, mother, teacher, activist, and a founder of 500WS. I am inspired by Terry's devotion to her research and teaching, and the focus and care she gives to her students, her friends and her family. Plus, she is full of wisdom, great if you need career or life advice. 

What does science-activism mean for you, especially with regard to your work? 

I was raised to believe that education is the most powerful force for social change. My family is living proof that this is true. My grandfather was born into poverty in Appalachia. My great-grandmother sent my grandfather away to get a secondary education, and he ended up getting a PhD in mathematics and having a successful career as a university professor. Because of my great-grandmother’s determination for her son’s future, all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren have gone to college, many of us have graduate degrees, and none of us have grown up in poverty. It is no coincidence that many of us are educators.

Bilinski squad celebrating at the 2016 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students

Bilinski squad celebrating at the 2016 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students

As a professor at a Hispanic-serving institution, my activism is about using my privilege to help students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds in STEM achieve their personal and career goals, as well as the aspirations they have for their families and communities. At the same time, I am training future leaders in STEM so that the space more closely reflects the demographics of our country. Over the years, I have come to understand this work as activism. As much as scientists say they want to work to diversify STEM, there are still so many subtle as well as not-so-subtle barriers to making this happen. I love fighting for opportunities for my students, it is incredibly rewarding work. I learn so much from my students.

You are an amazing teacher and I know your students really look up to you! Have you told your students about 500 Women Scientists? How do you introduce this and other similar scientist-activist efforts? 

Well, many of my students are connected with me through social media so they know about 500WS that way! I have had conversations with some of my female students about the organization, and I talk pretty openly with my students about my views and activities around equality in science and society. One thing I have realized is that my students of color, at this stage of their career, have enough work to do just get themselves to the next steps - graduating from undergrad, getting into graduate school, developing a career in science, etc - because of all of the structural inequalities disadvantaging women, especially women of color. I don’t think it should be on them to be activists too, right now, although many of them do volunteer work and care deeply about social justice. It is the job of people with privilege to fight for them. I tell my students they can be activists once they are doctors, PhDs, or program directors at the WHO - right now they need to do things for themselves. I’ll do the activism for them. I think 500 WS will become more important to students and early career scientists once there is programming to support their success. Right now, my female students are just psyched to know that there is an organization that represents them and wants to fight for their success.

What role do you see for 500 Women Scientists in the future?

500 Women Scientists has the potential to become an incredibly powerful force in national conversations at the intersections between STEM research and our nation’s most pressing issues: environmental sustainability, funding for basic research, gender politics, structural inequalities and cultural diversity. For me, this organization means that I have a network of women who share my values, concerns, and vision for the future. The growth of this organization makes me so hopeful for our future. I hope future women scientists are able to look to this organization to find mentors, get connected with research collaborations, get involved in political action, and find resources for starting their careers and making their careers successful long-term.    

Do you have advice for other women scientists discussing the trump administration with their students? How do you approach these complex subjects of racism, sexism and anti-intellectualism in your classroom? 

That is a hard question that many of us are struggling with right now. As an educator, I have adopted a strategy of giving my students opportunities to think about these issues in the context of science without “teaching” them and without centering the conversation around my personal opinion. On election day, I started my freshman general biology class acknowledging that people might have all kinds of feelings today. Everyone wrote in silence for 5 minutes about the relationship between democracy and science, and then we had a short class discussion.

In class, I make a conscious effort to create a space where students can express themselves and where I and other students listen respectfully. I will sometimes reframe or clarify when appropriate, or I add context, but I do not use class time to talk about my personal opinions. I spend a lot of time, especially my upper-division students, one-on-one and in smaller groups and in these contexts, I talk to them more directly about inequalities in science and society. But in these settings I also try to focus on listening to their perspectives more than sharing my own views. We all have a lot to learn from each other, and I believe that listening can be a powerful and simple way towards social change.


Dr. Teresa Bilinski teaches general biology, as well as microbiology and ecology at St. Edward's University. Before joining St. Edward's University Dr. Bilinski was an NSF Graduate STEM fellow at the University of Colorado. Dr. Bilinski's diverse research interests all focus on understanding the role of the "unseen majority" of microorganisms that promote water quality, soil fertility, plant growth, and human health. Dr. Bilinski has conducted field research in Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Alaska and Colorado. Current research projects in the Bilinski lab include understanding how microbial communities respond to urbanization in soil and water, developing 'probiotics' for native plants, and the factors affecting the viability of probiotic bacteria in the human gut.