By Jack McLaughlin
Arts & Features Editor
By Paul Harrington
The Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE), in conjunction with the Framingham State Biology Department, hosted Ayress Grinage on Nov. 15 at the CIE to talk about her life story, along with her academic and life experience with her ongoing career in field botany.
The conversation started with Grinage opening up about her experiences, ranging from her childhood to her journeys through university. This was followed by an open Q&A with the attendees that covered various topics revolving around higher education and the STEM experience.
Biology Professor Cheng-Chiang Wu introduced Grinage to the attendees, providing an overview of her accomplishments.
Grinage is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University and a Gilliam Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for her work advancing equity and inclusion.
The conversation began with a brief but warmhearted thanks to all the various people who helped put things into motion and thanked those who attended.
When Grinage took the floor to talk to attendees, she first stated that she was “very excited to have a conversation about what it means to be in STEM.”
To get a sense of what their place in university was, Grinage had attendees scan a QR code that prompted them to put in how many years of college experience they have.
Grinage was born in Fairbanks, Alaska and brought up the point that she hates being asked where she's from.
Born to a single mother in the U.S. Air Force, she said she does not really have many impactful memories of living in Alaska compared to the other places she has lived in during her lifetime.
She added one of her few memories of growing up in Alaska was seeing “insect lollipops” which she displayed on-screen for attendees to examine.
Grinage also said she moved to Virginia during her childhood, and was open about how going to a predominantly white school affected her confidence and capacity to participate in STEM compared to other students.
She expanded upon how constantly moving affected her life, and mentioned how she moved to Germany halfway through high school. The sudden move to Germany played a big role in how she performed in school as it was an abrupt change, she added.
When she transitioned to college, she did not know what she wanted to do at first, she said. While initially choosing a major in biology, Grinage’s meeting with advisors helped her lock in on her aspirations.
She emphasized that it is OK not to know what you're doing right away and no one needs to make any choices right away.
When talking about her journey, Grinage stated, “I think what is clear about my journey here is that it’s very nonlinear. It very much was when I was a kid too, gosh, I had to be midway through - no - I would say my junior year in college - I did start taking biology courses that I really enjoy.”
She also emphasized the importance of fostering connections with your professor outside of the academic side of university, as it goes a long way to form a connection with professors in case you are ever struggling with classes. This allowed her to feel more comfortable with the work she was doing, she said.
Grinage spent much of the conversation focusing on the benefit of doing a 4+1 program. A 4+1 program is when students do four years of undergraduate, and then get their master’s in the one-year span.
Grinage said, “The very good thing about this - and this is my safety net here - is that it's paid for, right? It pays for your undergraduate as well as your one year of graduate studies.”
The faculty she said she met during this time period pushed her in the positive direction she needed to succeed at the highest level possible, and added these positive influences at difficult times allowed her to foster her ideas and confide in creative outlets.
She talked about how switching to biology felt like she “went 180.”
“I went from this plant-blind, insect-running-away-from person to running toward the insect,” she said.
She added it was this choice to pursue biology that motivated her to continue her education into graduate school.
“I want to do research. I want to do more organism-based research - the question was, ‘What?’” Grinage said.
Her decision to pursue botany over entomology came down to a coin toss, as she had a difficult time picking between them, she said.
“They’re so intimately tied, like inspiring one another, that I figured I’d get the best of both worlds. And I went the botanical route - the coin told me to,” she said.
“But now I dove into it - and here I am as a botanist.”
She said she is glad botany was the choice she ended up on, and explained one of the great opportunities that came with this was being able to meet her undergraduate advisor.
Grinage opened the discussion to the attendees, specifically the students, to learn what their professional goals are.
One attendee shared their interest in pursuing graduate education, but expressed concern with being able to afford it.
Grinage responded to the attendee by asking all in attendance if they believed that they would need to pay for graduate school. She then explained her experience joining a master’s program and making the discovery that these programs are generally funded and would require little payment to pursue.
“What you have to do to get that funding can be different, and that can be stressful,” she added.
She explained that she was working 20 hours per week being a student instructor in laboratory courses. Other methods to have funding included participating in a project with an advisor or being a part of a fellowship, she said.
Another attendee asked Grinage if they took part in any extracurricular clubs at school that sparked their interest in biology.
Grinage said no, but offered insight to her experience doing marching band for a single year.
“If you’re familiar with marching band, like, in any level, it’s a lot of work. And in a big college school it is a serious operation … I only did it for one year, I was like, ‘This is sucking the enjoyment I had out of this hobby,’” she said.
Grinage encouraged the students in the room studying biology to take on an undergrad research experience while they can “at least once.
“If you’re on the fence, maybe do another one over the summer. You get to choose where you go so you can optimize your summer capabilities - see if maybe there’s an undergraduate research experience in a field station in Costa Rica,” she said.
An attendee asked Grinage what her experience was writing their thesis. She responded with a detailed explanation of what the components are within a thesis, and told the attendee to treat it like an independent paper, and not like writing a book.
“I feel like I was told a long time ago, and I was like, ‘Wow! Grad school’s gonna be tough, because I’m gonna have to write a book’ - but it’s a totally different headspace,” she said.
Grinage offered her assistance to any students who wanted advice on anything with higher education as well.
“I’m happy to respond, happy to have a Zoom meeting, and just kind of talk about where you are at and what you are thinking about,” she said.