Changemakers

This Nature Q&A series celebrates people who fight racism in science and who champion inclusion. It also highlights initiatives that could be applied to other scientific workplaces.

As a Black woman doing her PhD in neuroscience, Kaela S. Singleton quickly realized the many ways in which racism had hobbled her career. From the myth of Black resilience to a culture of exclusion and a lack of community support, Singleton has experienced — and witnessed — the many aspects of academic culture that hurt researchers from minoritized communities. Wanting to change things, she co-founded Black In Neuro, a network for Black neuroscience researchers and allies that began in 2020. The group, of which she is also president, offers its 1,000-strong membership various forms of professional development and mentorship.

Singleton, who is based in Austell, Georgia, also works as the director of grants management for the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. “I wanted to be bold and imaginative about supporting what kind of research gets done — and who gets to do it,” she says.

When did you decide to tackle the lack of diversity in science?

In July 2020, during the inaugural Black in Neuro week, when I saw the outpouring of community and support from both Black people in neuroscience and non-Black allies. We had a mentorship day, community-building exercises such as cooking together and sessions on racism and diversity, equity and inclusion. We were shining a light on an issue, and everybody in the field was like, we should fix the problems created by a culture of white supremacy in academia. I realized that this doesn’t have to be just a moment. It can be something bigger, a movement or a long-standing shift toward equity. I hope that Black In Neuro demonstrates the power of community — not just resources and tools, but also compassion and inclusion.

How have you dealt with racism in your personal and professional life?

The first time I was made aware of race was at the age of seven or eight. My mom was coming to pick me up. She’s half white and half Samoan and is very white-passing, and I am not. I was playing with this boy and when she arrived, I said, “Oh, my mom’s here, I have to go.” And he said, “That can’t be your mom. You guys aren’t the same colour.”

In a professional sense, I was applying for a US National Science Foundation graduate-school fellowship and was struggling to write the personal statement. A professor suggested that I should pull from my troubled past — assuming that I had one because I am Black.

And after I got my last US National Institutes of Health D-SPAN award, which is bridge funding from the PhD to postdoc stage for neuroscientists from diverse backgrounds, one of my mentors insinuated that I got the award only because I’m Black. She suggested that I had fooled everyone into thinking I was really good at science and now I had to actually prove it. That was really hard. She knew me personally and didn’t seem to think I was deserving of this award. I was so ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t tell anybody about it for a really long time. I just sort of internalized it, which I definitely don’t recommend to people.

When racism shows up in conversations now, I think first about my safety and the safety of other marginalized people in that room — and then I plan my response accordingly. I very rarely call people out in the moment, mainly because it’s often so shocking. Sometimes I will laugh, but just out of nerves. Then I sit with it and consider the options or possible solutions. A lot of times, it comes down to just having conversations and being direct with people. I might say something like, “I really didn’t appreciate when you said X, Y or Z because of these reasons,” and then I will go on to offer resources or discuss further. People are often very shocked by the directness of it. I think that sometimes makes it easier because you’re both a little bit uncomfortable.

Sometimes, I talk to my friends and network to see how to engage or move past certain responses. I am a firm believer that not all forms of criticism deserve responses, especially in the face of ignorance. I’m not having these conversations with random people on the Internet.

What is the biggest misconception or racial stereotype you’d like to bust?

Probably the stereotype of Black resilience. I can attribute a lot of my success to trying to fulfil that stereotype. But one of my least favourite things to be called in life is resilient, because it implies that I know how to persevere only through struggle, that I can’t succeed without hardship. I crave Black mediocrity. I crave Black people being able to fail and make mistakes. In society as we have made it, that is just not really possible.

One of the reasons I started to question whether I wanted to be a professor was because it felt like I would have to be excellent all of the time. Like I could not have a bad day. And if I did have a bad day, I would have to do it quietly. That is just not sustainable.

What is your best piece of advice to a 20-something researcher in your field?

I would give two pieces of advice. The first is to have faith in yourself. The only thing stopping you from doing anything is your ability to believe in yourself. And I really struggled with that, especially in graduate school. Everything just felt like an uphill battle all of the time.

The second thing I would tell people is that you can do something completely different. You have to be okay with starting over and changing your mind. One of the biggest questions I get asked is whether I would do graduate school all over again. On some level, I think not. I would’ve allowed myself the peace of quitting and starting over with something new.

I really struggled, especially during my postdoc, with the realization that I didn’t want to be a principal investigator any more and feeling like a failure. Later, I recognized that it wasn’t failure, I had just changed my mind about what I want to do. And that makes sense, because I made the initial plan to enter academia when I was 20. It had been a decade. My life had changed and so had I. Have faith in yourself, but also remember you’re allowed to change your mind.

What is your weirdest talent?

I can butcher a whole cow! I can also do a pig.

When I was in graduate school, I was looking for a hobby. One of the things that I really enjoy is cooking. I happened to be at the food stalls at Union Market in Washington DC one day and started asking the people behind the counter a whole bunch of questions about how they got to be good at butchery. They jokingly suggested I stop by the next morning at 5 a.m., when they’d have another cow, and they could show me.

They definitely didn’t think I was going to show up. But I did, and they taught me, and I kept going back. I worked with them for a year, just as a volunteer when I could. That’s a skill that I have to this day.