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Robert Neubecker

The pandemic strengthened my relationship with my supervisor—and prepared us to talk about race

It was 11 o’clock on a Friday morning—time to meet with my supervisor. Normally, I would have hurried over to my computer, coffee in hand, casually adjusting my bed head in order to appear at least somewhat professional. But this May morning was different. I tried to pull myself together, but I hadn’t slept much, and nothing could relieve my puffy eyes. A few days earlier, George Floyd had been killed by the police. His homicide made me even more aware that I am a Black student at a predominantly white institution. To my knowledge, I was the only Black graduate student in my department at that time. Would I be able to talk about the killing with my white male supervisor? Did I want to talk about it with him? Or would we ignore the elephant in the room?

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, our meetings had typically been limited to research. When the time came, I would anxiously put together whatever data I had and head over to his office. Between grading assignments for the class in which I was a teaching assistant (TA), taking a course of my own, and learning difficult techniques in the lab, I didn’t have much research progress to share, and I worried he thought I was unproductive. Yet I hesitated to tell him I felt overwhelmed for fear that I would seem incompetent.

After our lab closed in response to the pandemic, that dynamic shifted dramatically. Without new data to discuss, our meetings veered toward casual conversations about topics such as the latest news on the pandemic, how my supervisor was juggling teaching his young daughter from home while working, and whether my furniture from Ikea had finally arrived. It was as though an invisible barrier had been broken. He was no longer just the person overseeing my research; he was another human being trying to navigate the difficult times the COVID-19 pandemic had imposed on us all.

When we did discuss research, being separated by a screen somehow gave me the confidence to bring up challenging topics and ask questions that felt naïve. I was working on my Ph.D. proposal and wasn’t yet adept at literature searches—something a supervisor might assume graduate students know how to do. Before the pandemic, I likely wouldn’t have brought up my fears about overlooking crucial papers. But now I felt comfortable sharing my concerns and asking for advice. We also discussed how I could reserve time for research while also teaching, whether by finding a less time-intensive course to TA or making the most of the semesters when I wasn’t teaching. It was refreshingly open discourse.

Despite this new casual camaraderie, the prospect of discussing George Floyd’s killing was daunting. We had spoken about many global issues, but nothing as sensitive as this one. I calmed myself with the thought that it probably wouldn’t come up.

But on that morning, my supervisor started our meeting a little differently from usual. Typically, he asked, “How’s it going?” to which I’d routinely reply, “It’s going OK.” This time, though, he asked, “How are you doing?”

It was as though an invisible barrier had been broken.

At first, it was awkward tiptoeing around race, but his genuine interest in my well-being made me feel as though I was in a safe space to discuss Black issues and Black representation in science. We acknowledged my minority status. I volunteered that I was lucky to not experience racism at our institution, but that I was interested in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) practices at our university. After this conversation, my supervisor seemed to make it his mission to connect me with others with similar goals. As a result, I am now part of a departmental trainee group to discuss such issues and a member of an EDI committee—which my supervisor decided to join as well.

Although the pandemic has restricted my research, it has unexpectedly strengthened my relationship with my supervisor. It has enabled me to become more involved in issues of social justice and, hopefully, to make a contribution to science and academia that goes beyond the lab bench. Just as important, I think the impact has been mutual.

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