This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know rock climber and neuroscientist Melise Edwards. In addition to being a Research Associate at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, she uses her Instagram platform (@meliseymo) to share her climbing adventures, while discussing issues of inclusion, sexism, and racism in the climbing community. Here, she chats about how her passions for science and climbing intersect and how both the scientific and climbing communities can do better when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What sort of research are you working on now?
I was inspired to go into science by an AP biology professor in high school who I really admired. I used to shy away from the term "scientist" even from a young age; I constantly felt a sense of "imposter syndrome" even while doing research. It helped me to read a book by E.O. Wilson when I was younger called Letters to a Young Scientist. It demystified the field a bit and encouraged those who derived genuine joy from science and had passion for the work to pursue science and let that passion be foundational. I think I have a natural propensity for curiosity, skepticism, and inquisitiveness that, even if I flail with statistics and other aspects of science, help tremendously in research. Right now I manage a neuroendocrinology lab looking at the effects of oxytocin on satiety.
You are not only a scientist, but also a bad ass strong climber. How to do you balance your science and rock climbing careers—in what ways are they similar?
The balance is pretty challenging, especially since work in science rarely follows a standard "40 hour work week" and often results in all consuming days or weeks of troubleshooting or managing experiments! It helps that I mentally prioritize science over climbing because ultimately climbing is a fun hobby that adds a lot of value to my life. Science is my number one passion and something I see as more meaningful in that it has the ability to help others. Climbing and science are similar in that it helps to be extremely analytical, be constantly dissatisfied, and okay with a high volume of failure.
You are on the board of Vertical Generation. Can you tell us more about this organization? How did you find your way into this space and what advice do you have for people looking to give back to their communities?
Vertical Generation is an amazing nonprofit which seeks to provide the experience of climbing with underserved youth who may not otherwise have the chance. I signed up for the first ever Movement Event with a group from Mary's Place (a shelter which seeks to empower and serve homeless women, children and families) and it was incredible to see the kids experience the self-actualization we all know too well from being afraid, but setting a goal and seeing it happen! The founders, Marc Bourguignon and Julie Gardner, have such an amazing vision and contagious energy; they inspired me and made me want to do more to share that climbing experience we all know and love with others. I honestly advise anyone and everyone to do at least one event in which you see the potential you have to offer mentorship or a unique experience to someone who might not otherwise have the chance. We all have so much privilege and with that comes the opportunity to use our privilege to uplift and empower those around us who may not be so fortunate. The conversations and post-climb hugs I get from those kids inspire me more than any personal ascent or climbing goal I have for myself.
You use your presence on social media as platform to discuss issues of inclusion and misogyny in the climbing community. What do you hope will change in the community and what needs the most focus? What (if any) are some lessons learned that might translate to the science community?
I hope that using what little platform I have to shed light on these issues will bring it to the attention of people who might not be thinking about these things. I hope this in turn will create an effect where companies, athletes, and individuals will be more cognizant of the way we see, treat, or perceive members of our community. I hope our community becomes more comfortable discussing race and the lack of diversity within climbing, inviting curiosity and empathy rather than immediately dismissing it because it makes a predominantly white community uncomfortable. I hope that women are taken seriously and that we understand what very different struggles women of color face in the outdoor community. I hope that people realize that the climbing community is not some magical bubble void of the issues that society at large faces. These are all issues I notice as I climb higher into my scientific career as well. I want to invite people to consider why this is, challenge the idea that these spaces are synonymous with whiteness, and accept that recent historical oppression plays a part in this. It is not a coincidence.
Across many disciples and fields (in and out of science), there are many discussions going on about inclusion and equity. How do you think our organizations can improve? What major changes need to be made? Who would you like to see lead these efforts?
Just noting here that, as one woman of color, my opinions should not be interpreted as the voice of all women and men of color, but I think that organizations should at the very least be aware of the disparities that exist when comparing the national population and that of any given workplace, hobby, etc. Non-hispanic white Americans only make up 61.3% of our population yet dominate positions of power, influence, and wealth. The climbing community and scientific community are predominantly white, and in a proportion that exceeds those national percentages. A big problem then, is that so many companies the workplaces are so homogenous that content and messages are put out into the public without anyone saying "hey, this is actually offensive, ignorant or not a good idea!" Companies could diversify their workforce, produce content that speaks to a wider audience, and empower organizations/groups who are fighting to be heard. They can also stand up against negativity and have a zero tolerance policy for racist, misogynistic, homophobic, discriminatory dialogue or content. I would like to see these efforts led by everyone, especially those in a position of power with a wide reach or influence.
Melise Edwards is from the mountains of North Carolina and now lives in Seattle, WA. She manages a neuroendocrinology lab full time and is applying to PhD programs in cognitive neuroscience this year. She is an athlete for Evolv, Outdoor Research, Organic Climbing & Beast Fingers climbing and serves on the board of directors for Vertical Generation. In her free time, she climbs, studies for the GRE, snuggles her puppy Rupi, volunteers with Vertical Generation, and writes articles for her companies and personal blog.