This Bite is part of Astrobites’ celebration of Latinx Heritage Month. Today’s piece is a guest post by Monica Vidaurri, a 2nd year planetary science PhD student at Stanford University who studies astrobiology in the context of habitable environments, specifically, the processes that could prevent such environments from evolving.
As an astrobiologist, my research is about stories. My current research focuses on the stories of young planets – both our Earth and other planets that may be called home by others – and the things that would prevent life from emerging. Planets have to go through a lot of shit before they can host life. I study the shit.
The more I do this research, the more I understand my own story. After all, the story of Earth also includes our stories. It includes my story.
So, here goes.
Thanks to the prison industrial complex, military deployments, and the need for my family to overwork ourselves to exhaustion to make ends meet, life was lonely. I clung to these VHS tapes about space from the library that I’d rent religiously. I remember learning about how Venus and Mars could’ve had life. I learned about how the stars would continue to shine their light and tell their stories even after death. But what changed the trajectory of my life was learning about how an alien Earth gave rise to non-alien life. The Earth was in just the right spot, with just the right processes, at just the right time, so that we could be. And someday, our stories will continue after we’re gone.
I realized there was a miracle in being alive at the same time as my friends. I came from the same stuff as my favorite planet, Jupiter. I felt as big and mighty as it, too. I was angry that despite this precious existence, this was the hand I was dealt. I caught a glimpse of it for the first time: an invisible goalpost, whose shape manifested over generations, that kept moving. I refused to believe that this is what our existence was, exploitation and anger and not being enough over and over. At the same time I recognized science was my goal, I knew I’d never be able to separate science from people, from the generations-old invisible systems that tugged us all back.
I ended up where I was supposed to. Honor society, musician, first generation that was headed to college. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand a lot of things, I learned to make it look like I did. I learned to speak and act a certain way. I was told to avoid hanging out with other traviesos in my family, even though I love them. I no longer challenged why my parents refused to teach me Spanish. I knew why.
But I completely failed in college. I lost a scholarship. Something more was happening than just trouble adjusting. I felt bad being in college. That same invisible thing was tugging at me again. It wasn’t until I moved to DC for an internship in the U.S. Senate that I figured out this feeling that came with every little victory:
I worked three jobs to save up enough for the move. I learned table manners for fancy dinners, took countless pieces of conflicting advice on resumes, and learned how to network. It worked. The government played hot potato with me; I jumped around different agencies and fields and owned lots of suits. Every mold I was presented with, I made sure I fit perfectly. I reapplied to school, and became intrigued with the campus telescope. This would be my “in” to science.
But I still hadn’t made it. I had all this debt now. Nobody warned me about predatory student loans, so I bartended and taught band and lived out of a suitcase while dog-sitting, hopping from couch to couch, because I didn’t have housing. It wasn’t enough.
Then came the awareness of how people really saw me. Even if the child is golden, it doesn’t change the confusion and anger of being viewed like a child, despite being acutely aware of your actions, fitting into whatever box you need to fit into, and doing The Most™ with your few-years-old career. A professor told me I should consider the Fulbright. It seemed great until I got a look-down from the white woman leading an informational seminar. “Are you really sure you know what this is?” But, I talked this out with the professor. And isn’t this where I learn? I never applied.
I got into ethics. I was told not to show emotion or make it personal – “you’ll invoke a stereotype.” At one of the jobs I had, a manager made it very clear that some people only noticed my body first. I still wanted to do astrobiology more than anything, but with my “soft skills,” I was only passed along positions related to that. People seemed to think I was better suited to these roles despite not knowing what I was capable of in science.
I ended up at NASA combining both science and ethics in a way that I thought was pretty damn cool. I became more open about my experiences and published a short story about myself. I broke the first rule of the internet: never read the comments. I was called a liar. A white woman, more powerful than me, in the same institution, wanted me fired. Apparently, there’s no way I could’ve done all of this stuff. I wasn’t enough, but at the same time, I was too much. “Did you just get snubbed?” was a DM that came during an award ceremony. The chat was lit up with praise for me, sparked by the nature of the award itself, but I didn’t get it. Later I spent an afternoon laughing with my advisor on feedback from a proposal. One reviewer said I “had much experience” in the field, then the exact same reviewer said I didn’t have enough later on.
I published more papers, op-eds, and media blurbs: science, law, policy. I was excited to go to grad school, but when talking about my early Earth project, I was scoffed at by other grad students – geologists who didn’t work in the same time scales. They didn’t understand where I was coming from, and I knew that, but I stopped being excited about science. I could always feel people’s doubt, even before they knew me: “do you know anything about that?” Why wouldn’t I? I was later called “colleague” on a paper despite the one other author being named. Was I invisible?
My experiences made me who I am, but they were such a burden. At the same time, I felt like I had to justify myself by mentioning my experiences. I worked myself to exhaustion so that I could be in the same place as people that didn’t have to do that to their bodies. I just needed to work harder. I just needed to prove myself.
I only recently realized I didn’t need to prove shit.
The writing of this piece comes at what I feel is the ending of a six-year-long storm of uncertainty, where I’m beginning to feel brave enough to finally shed this guilt. I have to remind myself that out of all the nebulae, stars, black holes, and galaxies, the Universe also made me. At one point I felt as big and powerful as Jupiter. I don’t know why I ever stopped.
So, here I am. A mess. I’m loud, a class clown, and not known to take things seriously. I have dyscalculia and horrible math anxiety, but I’m a published scientist. I’m passionate about anything and everything, even though I’ve learned not to show it. I’m timid, but I know there’s confidence buried underneath these insecurities. My Spanish sucks, but it’s there. People’s opinions of me mean too much, but I’m working on it. I’m working on a lot, actually. And whatever comes next, I don’t think it’s anything to be scared or guilty about. I’m here. I’m me. And that’s always been enough.
Featured image credit: Edward Paterson
Edited by: Huei Sears