Ashley Paynter, UW Biology graduate student, was featured in an article in the October 2021 issue of the Perspectives newsletter. In the article, Ashley speaks about pairing her interest in science with her passion for activism in creating her podcast "Decolonizing Science."
Decolonizing Science is intended to introduce broad audiences to science from an inclusive perspective, with emphasis on the intersection of science, healthcare, and racial inequality. Podcast topics have included COVID-19 in prisons, environmental racism, and Indigenous health equity.
“Everybody I interview for the podcast has their own unique contribution to the field of racial equity and justice,” says Paynter. “They come from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, which allows them to educate the listener in an engaging and non-judgmental manner that is most conducive to scientific learning.”
Paynter created her podcast in part to create a comfortable space for new audiences to be introduced to science, but also for audiences with traditional scientific backgrounds to understand how research and healthcare are directly tied to many racial and socioeconomic problems in this country.
“There is this feeling that science is only for a certain group of people,” she says. “That is extremely harmful and counterproductive. I want to keep people from feeling like they can’t access or enjoy science because our mostly homogenous education system has told them that.”
That might have been the case for Paynter — who initially was intimidated by science and math — had she not encountered an inspiring science teacher, Angela Sterling, in her Manhattan public high school. That experience led Paynter to apply to an after-school science program at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where she learned from the museum’s scientists and collections. She later participated in research through the museum’s summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program and as an undergraduate at Binghamton University. As a doctoral student and member of the Promislow Lab, Paynter now studies cancer genetics using dogs as a model to understand predisposition to cancer— research that may lead to early detection of cancer in humans.
By all accounts, Paynter is a success story. Yet as a Black woman in science, she is acutely aware of inequities in science education and the healthcare field. She feels a responsibility to speak up despite many academics’ discomfort in doing so.
“What I notice happens is that Black people enter these fields and are often the lone Black person in a program,” says Paynter. “When they move up in their career, in order to be seen as professional and to be taken seriously, they feel they cannot advocate for their community. They must keep their head down. It feels like a decision must be made: Am I going to be a ‘good’ scientist, and present myself in a palatable way, or am I going to be the person who says Black lives matter now, and we have no time to waste? I finally had to be honest with myself that my ideas around what being a ‘good’ scientist meant were entrenched in colonialism — which is quite common, as our institutions were created from that very same ideology. Because I am Black and proud, maybe I will never be a scientist in that way. I don’t get to do that and sleep at night, because my people need advocates who are scientists, doctors, teachers, and mentors. But I do get to be a different type of scientist, one who cares about defending their community more than publishing in a journal that isn’t accessible to most.”