In Conversation With: Dr Kaeli Swift

In recognition of Disabled Empowerment in Higher Education Month. Follow @DisInHigherEd on Twitter or #DEHEM for more information.

An avian behavioural ecologist most well known for her research about crow funerals, Dr Kaeli Swift rose to Twitter fame through her science communication game #CrowOrNo. As well as sharing corvid facts and identification tips on social media and her blog, Kaeli is open about her own experiences with dyslexia and ADHD to encourage more people with learning disabilities to believe science is for them.

Though her work as a postdoctoral researcher has taken her away from crows, Kaeli is known by many as a corvid thanatologist – someone who studies how crows behave around their dead. She thinks the reason people still want to hear about her work with corvids is because of the connection they feel with the birds.

“These birds are really accessible to us. Almost anywhere you look around the globe, there’s a species of corvid – typically a crow or raven – that’s really integrated with humans and has been for centuries. Because of that closeness, they are so incorporated into local religions, mythologies and the broader culture that they’re sort of inextricable from our identities as humans.”

Across all of her platforms, Kaeli centres the issues of representation and accessibility within academia and science communication. The journey to recognising these issues was not a quick one for her, however.

“Growing up, a lack of female scientists wasn’t on my radar because I created this bubble for myself where there were actually a lot of women or, at least, enough women that I didn’t really see my gender as a barrier to entering that field. Where I saw the barrier was in my atypical learning style and the fact that I had several learning disabilities, and I wasn’t very successful in traditional schooling.

“Once I got to college, I was very lucky that a couple of the female faculty members played an enormous role in my time there. My vision of science was limited to what I had immediate access to, so to me it looked a little more like an even playing field. It wasn’t really until I got to graduate school that I became more conspicuously aware of the drop-off. There are undergrad classes now that are biased female, but when you keep looking down the line to tenured faculty, to the people who hold the most prestigious research positions, there is a really steep decline in female scientists.”

But the impact of gender disparities isn’t isolated to issues of representation. For those conducting research in the field, it becomes an issue of safety.

“There is still rampant sexual harassment in fieldwork settings, even at lower levels. I was really lucky that my very first post-graduate field experience, because I was in a very remote stetting but our crew of 13 only had one dude. So I had this lovely experience and I felt very safe. But that is absolutely not many people’s experiences. So even though it might be easy – particularly for a white woman – to look around a classroom and think things are good, I want to acknowledge that there are many people at those same levels who, when they’re isolated in the field, have very different takes and have had much more violent reality checks with how dangerous and unfairly tipped the scales of power are.”

Kaeli’s fieldwork for her PhD took her across Seattle, which she said was “an important learning experience.” She described being told by a cab driver that she had to leave an area because it wasn’t safe for her to be alone, being intimidated by a man loitering and staring, and having to abandon field sites because she was made to feel unsafe.

“My whiteness probably shielded me from a lot of stuff, but there were moments when it was definitely scary, and it sucked. It sucked to have to maintain a level of really exhausting vigilance, to just do my job. And that experience was very much informed by my gender.

“It was different being in a city vs in a remote area. I don’t have any hard feelings about being wary of venomous snakes. When I’m in the woods and there might be venomous snakes, I hope I don’t get bit but it’s cool. It’s harder to be in a city and think a fellow human might be a danger to me. Not only is it scary, it fundamentally bums me out. There is that visceral experience of being afraid, compounded with the cognition of it – a snake can’t make me feel so vulnerable, so paranoid. It’s just different.”

Despite all this, Kaeli was smiling as she talked about being approached by the public while conducting her research in Seattle.

“It was largely a wonderful experience. Sometime I would be stressed out and trying to work, and people would be asking so many questions that I couldn’t collect the data, which was coming when it was coming and that was my shot. But other than that, it was really wonderful. It was one of my first insights into how many fundamentally different kinds of people really look to these birds as lifelines. Because it didn’t matter what part of the city I was in, people just really love watching these birds.

“And that’s why I think the science communication work I do is really important – I want people who come from non-traditional science backgrounds, or people who pursued a different career path and haven’t payed much attention to science and nature, to be able to engage with it. Crows can be their gateway bird, so to speak. I am thrilled to help facilitate that for them.”

She couldn’t choose a favourite form of science communication, Kaeli told me. She loves giving talks in person, saying snarky things about crows on Twitter, playing #CrowOrNo. But her blog is what she’s most proud of, she said, despite it getting the least attention, because that’s where her best writing is. It is also where she has shared more about her learning disabilities and her journey to academia.

“It took a lot of work and a lot of support to get to this point. And I think the financial privilege I had played a big role, because my parents were able to offer me a lot of resources. But I had to grow into my differences and figure out how to reconcile those differences with the traditional school system.

“It really started to click in high school, then up through to graduate school the main tool I used was recognising that I’m going to need more help than other people. And there are going to be some institutions that will look at that and say ‘not worth it to us’, and I’m not going to be at one of those institutions. I had to accept that and not let it define my goals or self-esteem, then keep in check the things that stymie my academic progress, like not having good time management and having to put in the extra time to learn things.

“Growing up in a traditional school system with dyslexia and ADHD, I had to be pretty resilient to failure, because I failed a lot. That has helped me to persist in pursuing something that I loved a lot, because I had the resilience to keep going.”

Kaeli said the first step to making academia more accessible for people with learning disabilities is acknowledging that people can be successful through different means – “not lowering the bar but changing what the bar looks like.” She observed that the people in positions of power typically arrived there through conventional means, and are often not open to accommodating other kinds of people. She suspects this is one of the reasons that more tools haven’t been implemented institutionally. Her way of tackling this is to keep highlighting different kinds of scientists and showing that people can make important contributions in all sorts of ways.

“I think there’s a very traditional way of communicating your science in both professional and public settings, that neuroatypical people may not follow, and get punished for. Similarly, people of colour may not follow this and get punished. I think that historically there has been a very rigorous, narrow vision of what the presentation of science looks like. This has fundamentally done a disservice to people with really good ideas who want to come together and share those ideas, because that space was only being tailored to a very narrow slice of the good ideas and the science-driven folks that were out there.”

Her advice for other people with learning disabilities considering higher education is to ask questions that reveal whether those spaces are participating in the movement to make academia more accessible. Be picky, Kaeli said, because that selectivity is only going to push for more institutions and fields of work to recognise and create space for more people.

You can find Dr Kaeli Swift at her website, on Instagram and on Twitter, where she plays #CrowOrNo every Wednesday.

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