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Conversation #73: Cheryl Talley on Being a Black Scientist

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A conversation with Cheryl Talley on what it means to be a Black scientist

Dr. Cheryl Talley is an associate professor in the department of Psychology at Virginia State University. She teaches Neuroscience in the Behavioral and Community Health graduate program and conducts research in student retention in STEM. Dr. Talley received her Bachelor's degree in Biopsychology from James Madison University and her Master's and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Psychobiology. Having shifted her research interest from rats' brains to freshmen minds, Dr. Talley co-leads a team of graduate student and undergraduate researchers in examining affective factors associated with motivation in African American students with particular interest in science and math aversion.

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Dr. Florastina Payton-Stewart: Good Afternoon, my name is Florastina Payton-Stewart and I am an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana. As well as the Faculty in Residence here in our Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. I am delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Cheryl Talley. How are you doing Dr. Talley ?

Dr. Cheryl Talley: Oh I’m good, thank you. Happy to be on the call with you.

PS: Thank you. I’m going to briefly introduce you to our audience. Dr. Tally is an associate professor in the department of Psychology at Virginia State University. She teaches neuroscience in the behavioral and community health graduate program and conducts research in student retention of STEM. Dr. Talley received her bachelor's degree in biopsychology from James Madison University and her Master's and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Psychobiology. Having shifted her research interest from rats' brains to freshmen minds, Dr. Talley co-leads a team of graduate student and undergraduate researchers in examining affective factors associated with motivation in African American students with particular interest in science and math aversion. I am very happy to have you on this call Dr. Talley. I recently was introduced to you by a recent blog you submitted and the title of that blog was “What it Means to be a Black Scientist”. That blog was very familiar to me, it resonated with me and most importantly I really loved how you spoke of the mission of the university and how that relates to the relationship we should have with our students. So for our audience who has not had time to read the blog, would you please give us a brief summary of the blog. Also, let us know what inspired you to write “What it Means to be a Black Scientist”.

CT: Well, honestly, I had been living what I wrote about for 20 years before I ever put pen to paper about it. The issues around being a black scientist, for me, were never conscious. I knew I was working hard and had a relationship with my students. I was advising my students and other peoples’ students all while trying to keep a research program afloat. I looked at my colleagues and at my faculty evaluations and I knew that I was doing things that other people weren’t doing and I wasn’t getting credit for some of those things. Like advising other students and inviting students to be a part of a research team who had an interest but not necessarily a background. So, this idea of a mission has resonated with me a long time because I felt I had received so much from other people and I felt I owed it to the community to do more with my phD than just sustain for myself. I had never actually written these words down but I knew I was living it. And I think this really came about when a graduate student asked me that question, “What does it Means to be a Black Scientist” and as I started to answer him I actually started choking up. Tears started to come to my eyes and I had to stop myself and inquire what is all this emotion and that is when I started to write. It just came and came and came.

PS: Wow! So a lot of the work you were doing was because of who you are, your background and what you wanted to give your students. There wasn’t a script. It wasn’t something someone told you you had to do but, it was something that we know (I say we because I feel the same way you do) is important for our students.

CT: Exactly!

PS: So in the blog you lured me in, being that my background is chemistry, when you started talking about the actual chemical reaction for producing Nylon and that is how you described graduate student pulling at you with these questions and stuff; I really loved that analogy. Could you elaborate on that analogy for our listeners? I know you spoke of it a little at the beginning.

CT: Yes, I was introduced to science formally at a camp and I don’t even remember where it was but I saw that reaction and it stuck with me. It was so magical. I left with such amazement. And although I did not stick with chemistry, I have always kept that picture in my mind. That demonstration of chemicals working and this thread coming out of liquid and wrapping around this glass rod. I just felt there was such a depth there, because if this student would keep asking me questions I could just go deeper and deeper and deeper into these feeling because they just ran so deep. My commitment to the students and my exhaustion and the feeling that it’s never going to be enough and I think that was all what the tears were for. Not giving myself permission to call it enough. That looking across the landscape, especially in this day and time with people like me who came up through affirmative action could say we have made so much progress but then you look across at what we are dealing with and think maybe not. So, I think all of that was that analogy of that liquid Nylon and he could just poke at it with a glass rod and it would keep coming and keep coming and keep coming.

PS: What I find interesting is a lot of time we are doing a lot of work and we do not realize what we are doing and it is not until someone stops us and makes us think about all of the work we are putting into things with our daily lives, especially in academia. There is teaching, there is research, there is service, and sometimes it goes beyond that with our students. Just making sure that our students are whole. That is one thing that I enjoyed about reading a part of your bio. It says how you focus on helping students to strengthen their academic skills but it also talks about how you recognize those personal factors such as time management, organization, self confidence and how all of that is equally important for academic success for our students. That is something that I rassle with but I was captivated to see that someone else has also recognized that all of those make up a student as a whole. We have to tap into those areas and make sure that our students are ok. Another question I wanted to ask you, currently you are at Virginia State University. How long have you been there?

CT: 8 years.

PS: So before Virginia State University where were you ?

CT: I spent 15 years at James Madison.

PS: After being an African American scientist at James Madison, what motivated you to transition to an HBCU.

PS:  Well I must start off by saying there was a 10 year gap between my junior and senior year of college. I took a 10 year hiatus. After that I went to graduate school. In those 10 years I got married, I had children, I made a life. I had community relationships, a sorority, a church and then I went to graduate school. So, I did not go to graduate school right out of college and I think it was because of those relationships in place I was afforded a level of resilience and being an older student. I was a grad student in my thirties. I commuted an hour from Harrisonburg, Virginia to Charlottesville, Virginia for the University of Virginia. It was then when I really began to notice that I was different than the others students in a lot more ways than just my age. I distinctly remember a conversation with a fellow graduate student. He and I had been grappling with a similar problem then one day he came in and said he had it all figured out. I learned later he had just been at the bar with the advisor on that previous Saturday and they had talked over beers and he was advancing. I could never do that;I had to go home and cook dinner for 6 o'clock. I had to help with homework, laundry and things of that sort. I realized that there will be somethings that I will have to find another way. I had to seek out mentors and do work on my own. I couldn’t necessarily wait for it to be given to me and that’s a higher level of engagement and a higher level of stress. So, when I went to James Madison I was prepared for the different atmosphere. What I wasn’t prepared for was the lack of acknowledgement. I definitely wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared for the evaluations in which my other advisees were not counted. The stress that they were under was sort of ignored and my assistance to them wasn’t valued at all. So I wasn’t prepared for that.

PS: What advice do you have for junior faculty members, black scientist now, coming in under the tenure clock because not much has changed when it comes to advising or mentoring students?

CT: I would definitely say give yourself a break. I know a lot of my stress came from my own expectations of myself. We’ve all come up being A students and we all want to succeed but there is a price that one pays.When I decided I wanted to come to a HBCU it was because I wanted to end my career having contributed to the next generation in a meaningful way and I didn’t feel I could do that a PWI. I have found that to be true. I have a love affair with my students. I tell them all the time [inaudible]. And yet I see the reality of it. They are coming from some under resourced high-schools where they did not really have science education to prepare them. Most of my students have an outright phobia, outright fear of math. I teach biological-psychology  and sometimes it is 2 or 3 years since their last biology course. So, if we are trying to prepare a population that has diverse STEM representation we are failing at it most miserably. It starts long before college. My research looks at K-12. I look what communities can do and not just depend on schools to provide that demonstration and examples of that magic of chemistry. The wonderful patterns and organizations of math. Not just the standardized test kind of math. There is so much more science than what we have reduced it to and to deny student that is a tragedy. So there are other ways to do it.

PS: Excellent, Excellent! Are you partnering with different schools or different organizations in your community now?

CT: Right, so the research that I have done over the last 5 years has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Looked at [inaudible]. I’m pretty convinced by our data there are some things that have to be addressed in K-12. I think one of the more important ones is the relationship to failure. We have a conversation that our kids should not fail. Yet, all of us who have taken any kind of math class know that it is not an if you fail but when. Absolutely, failure is necessary for the next step so it should embraced. That is not what the current testing environment teaches about failure so it becomes a real [inaudible].  People feel the shame associated with it. Your school is not accredited or your teacher.. You know what I’m saying. So, that whole conversation gets mixed up with the students own ability. They feel with every course they have to pass glowingly because it makes them feel better. It becomes a feelings thing. I feel good when I succeed; Instead of, I feel good when I work at something, keep failing at it , and then I succeed. So, that’s where I want to start. With student as young as the 4th grade because I have found with freshman if we can reframe that idea... It takes a community to do it. A community of learners where we have all failed at things. It is no big deal. I have failed and you will succeed eventually and this is what you have to do. So the 3 things that have come out my 5 years of research are we can not assume our kids have the skill set to be a good college student. The standardized testing environment does not necessarily teach good academic habits. Secondly, we have to be able to provide an environment where they will know themselves as successful students. A lot of our students don’t think of themselves as successful students and the source is that relationship with failure. We attack it by teaching metacognitive skills. The ability to look at your own emotions, examine them, choose differently. That’s a skill like riding a bike. There are a lot of metacognitive practices like meditation or journaling. But, to be in that moment of that failure emotion I have seen students make rash decisions like drop out or get mad at the professor and say inappropriate things. They are overthrown with emotion and they have not learned the skill of that emotion regulation. So it is those three things that I am taking to K-12.

PS: Awesome, that is good work you are doing. Again with the blog and what your doing 4th-12th grade, catching the early, building the confidence and that skill set so that once they do step on a college campus they are confident enough to take on STEM courses. Our time is coming to an end. I want to know if you would close us out with articulating, to some one sentence if you can, your overall question, the title of your blog. You have done all this , you have all these numerous responses, you have individuals such as myself reaching out to you just thanking you for your words. What does it mean to be a black scientist? In a positive light I see you are a black scientist who has reached out to a community who understands what you wrote and who wants to continue going and who (speaking for myself) is hopeful in  knowing I am not alone and it does take a village. Maybe all of us can come together and be that village to help the future generation of black scientist. I’ll go back to my question and let you close out.with all of the attention you have received with your blog and from the graduate student who made you dig deep into 20 years.. What does it mean to be a black scientist today, to you?

CT: Well, it means that I can decide what success looks like. To be a black scientist means I come to it with all of the history, all of the compassion, all of the mission driven thinking.  Caring as George W. Carver and I could even bring all of the skills and determination of Everett Jeff. But, I have to realize at the same time that this is the context to which I’m living and not ignore or try to make it better but to embrace the constraints and do the best that I can.

PS: Well said. Last question, What direction would you like this conversation of dialogue to go after the blog? What direction would you like us as black scientist to move in?

CT: Well, I know we are all so rushed for time and there are so many responsibilities that we have but this form of writing responses to each other could be very powerful. I didn’t realize how much until I laid my soul there. I didn’t know what kind of response there would be. But, being reflective, taking some time to share in writing. I know we have a lot of meetings but writing slow you down and sharing with others has really been healing for me. So, I hope that Sincentral is one avenue. I hope that we can continue the conversation.

PS: Thank you so much, I want to thank you for your time Dr. Cheryl Talley. Thank you for participating in this blog. And I look forward to reading more blogs from you and definitely talking to you in the future.

CT: Thank you so much Dr. Payton. Appreciate you.

Transcribed by Jojo O'Conner.

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