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The Grass Is Always Greener

Cover image for podcast episode

T. Lynnette Murray

Chandler Puritty poses with a kitten named Obsidian.

When you ask Chandler Puritty who she is, she’ll give you many answers: Ecologist, social justice advocate, plant lover, cat mother, artist, psychic medium.

She cares deeply about the environment and climate change. Her thesis charted the resilience of exotic versus native plants of Southern California after drought. But she also cares about the environment, or culture, within STEM that makes Black scientists feel uncomfortable. Chandler takes many steps as a writer, professor, and healer to make the experiences of early career Black scientists better.

Chandler sells artwork and Tarot sessions at https://www.housepuritty.com/

Episode Music:
Rad Scientist Theme Motif - Grant Fisher
Nocturnal - Podington Bear
Entwined Oddity - Blue Dot Sessions
Sad Marimba Planet - Podington Bear
Shines Through Trees - Podington Bear
Tollhouse - Podington Bear
Gruyere - Podington Bear
The Secret to Growing Up
Dimmy - Podington Bear
Purple Butter - Breakmaster Cylinder
Sunset - Podington Bear
Flowing Bells - Daniel Birch
Closet Interlude- Blue Dot Sessions
De Facto - Chad Crouch
Coming Round - Modus
The Speed of Life - Podington Bear

THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER || CHANDLER PURITTY

Ikran: Hey Margot.
Margot: Hello Ikran.
Ikran: So today’s Rad Scientist is actually one of my professors.
Margot: No way! I didn’t know you were in one of her classes. What are you taking?
Ikran: It’s one of the special topic options provided by African American Studies department. This quarter they choose to cover the theme ‘Blackness and STEM’
Margot: That is so cool that you are taking that course! This interview I did with her is now a few months old, and when we talked, she was just laying out what the course would look like.
Ikran: Shoot, that means you’ve got an inside scoop on my prof. I’ve got to hear some
Margot: There’s a lot to know! One thing upfront is that she has been a big advocate for bringing your whole self to science. Like she started the Black Graduate Student Association at UCSD to build community at a university where students that might be the only Black people in their program.

Chandler: If you have to sacrifice any part of your identity, when you are going into your space to work, you’re not doing your best work, end of story.

Ikran: Stay tuned, because
Chandler: This is Rad Scientist.

[Theme Music]
[MidRoll 1]

Margot: I’m just going to let this Rad Scientist introduce herself.

Chandler: I am Chandler Puritty, um, Dr. Chandler Puritty, ‘cause I earned it.

Margot: Chandler is an ecologist, among other things.

Chandler: I am a houseplant and garden enthusiast. I am a civil rights in science activist, as well as an artist and a psychic medium. I’m equally attached to all of those things.

Margot: Don’t put this woman in a box!
So, Chandler grew up in the Bible Belt.

Chandler: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, all of them.

Margot: Her family moved a lot especially in her teens.

Chandler: And if you ask anyone, puberty is the best time to be the new kid.


Margot: On top of puberty, being the new kid was also hard because she was usually one of the few Black kids at her new schools.

Chandler: Like I know high school is hard for everybody. Um, but especially like being in that really white space ooh, it was toxic. It was bad.

Chandler: I come from a mixed race family. My mom is white, my dad is Black.

Chandler: Obviously I present as a Black woman, but I didn't have any relation to Black community to Black culture. So it was like doubly confusing for me because, you know, I was wearing my hair straight and I was like doing all of these things to fit in and people were still you know, pointing out that I was different. Like, I just remember total apathy about everything in life.

Margot: But Chandler was doing well in school, it came easy to her. She was planning on applying to top universities. But she says her guidance counselor encouraged her to go to community college.

Chandler: I think he assumed I was poor because I'm Black.

Margot: She didn’t take his advice. And when the time came for letters or envelopes to roll in, Chandler got a lot of envelopes.

Chandler: I got into Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke. You know, pretty much every school I applied to.

Margot: After all the acceptances, she says, the tune at her school changed.

Chandler: Like they took it and ran and it was like, Oh, we're so proud of Chandler and Oh, look what Chandler's done. And, Oh, this and Oh, that, and I was like, you M Fers.

Margot: In the end though, to the disappointment of her school, she didn’t choose to go to an ivy. Instead she chose an HBCU, Howard University. Chandler packed her bags and got ready to go to Washington DC.

Chandler: And let me tell you how freaking petrified I was, because I, I always had feared that I would be the Black girl rolling up with the Black family at the white college. And my reality turned out that like I was the Black girl rolling up to the HBCU with the white family. So here I am on Howard's campus. Um, with my mom, who's white and her sister, who's also white and they're freaking thrilled. They're like, this is the best place I've ever seen. These people are so beautiful. And I was like, can you stay three steps behind me? And like, that was so embarrassing.

Margot: After her mom and aunt left, It didn’t take long for Chandler to fall in love with her new University.

Chandler: HBCUs are one of the most magical places in the world.

Margot: All of the sudden, she was surrounded by people of the same color. And she noticed a shift in her mindset.

Chandler: When you are a Black student in an all white classroom, like immediately, your subconscious brain does the thing where it's like Black people are only however many percent of this and however many percent of this and you have to do twice as good so that they don't think that like all Black people are dumb and all of that pressure like affects your ability to learn.

Chandler: But if you are sitting there and everyone around you is Black, and you're looking at the second years and the third years and the fourth years, and they're all Black. And they all got to their senior year and you're looking at the alumni and you're like, they look like me and they got this job and they did this thing. You know what I mean?

[Pause]

Margot: Chandler was taking science courses – perhaps because she has been primed from an early age to appreciate biology.

Chandler: So I was only allowed to watch Animal Planet and Discovery Channel. So if you're looking for a cheat code to make your child any ecologist, that is it.

Margot: And one day, in a biology class, Chandler stumbled across an opportunity.

Chandler: In lab, there was a flyer on the wall and it was like, are you interested in science? Do you want to get a graduate degree? Do you want to make $15,000 a year? Yes. That's all it took.

Margot: The flier was advertising a four year program funded by the National Science Foundation, to increase the presence of Black people in environmental sciences where they are underrepresented. Being a part of the program meant 20 hours of research a week, summer research experiences, and a contract to at least apply to grad schools at the end of college. She got into the program and started doing science with her cohort.

Chandler: And that was when like science was demystified for me. And that was the moment where I was like, Hey. Maybe I could do this because I saw girls that looked like me, girls with their hair out and Afros girls with braids sitting there with stopwatches or like little clickers counting leaves. you know, talking about their boy problems. I was like, this I can get behind.

Margot: The school year ended and it was time for her first summer research experience. She was assigned to Blandy Experimental Farm, in Virginia, a couple hours outside of DC, kind of in the middle of nowhere. And all of the scientists stayed in a building called “The Quarters.”

Chandler: The building was like painted white.
Chandler: All of the upstairs was screened in. Wooden floors, painted gray, rocking chairs, old rocking chairs.
Chandler: Every room had two bunk beds, very small window, like barely any closet. And then a screen door was all we had to close.

Margot: And there was something about the place where she was staying that hadn’t been relayed to her. Blandy Farm wasn’t always a laboratory and arboretum. Originally, it was a plantation.

Chandler: But the kicker is that we all stayed and slept in literal slave quarters. So like I slept in a bunk where slaves slept.
Chandler: I left there every weekend. Cause like being there was really heavy for me. And, I don't know if I'll ever process through that.


Ikran: That is really really messed up. Was where she slept seriously called, “The Quarters”?
Margot: Yea, I know. And that brings up something else we haven’t discussed yet, which is just the words we use to describe research. You’ve heard me say, “doing research in the field” to mean doing research outdoors, as a way to contrast with more controlled lab environments.
Ikran: That term did strike me as weird and kind of off-putting, especially after hearing Chandler’s story because “field hands” is what Black slaves were sometimes called when working on plantations.
Margot: Yea I had not thought of that until Chandler mentioned it. There are issues like this in other fields too. I remember learning some electronics during my PhD and coming across the terminology “master” and “slave” to describe how one circuit can control another. It was kind of shocking.
Ikran: Right, it’s just one more reminder of the historic lack of Black scientists and how our presence in science and engineering is not always respected.
Margot: Yea Chandler has a lot to say about that – that is why she is teaching a course about it! When we come back from a short break we’ll hear from Chandler on her experience in graduate school and learn about her research on how variable rainfall affects the plants of San Diego.

[MidRoll 2]

Margot: Hey Listeners. I’m the cofounder of SASSY, which stands for San Diego Science Storytelling, Ya’ll. We are doing another virtual show in mid December and we want your stories! The theme is Adaptation and you don’t have to be a scientist to tell a story but the story should include science in some way. Find our pitch form by looking going to sassysandiego.org. That’s sassysandiego.org. Thanks! And back to the podcast.

Margot: Even after that upsetting experience Chandler had at Blandy Farm, she continued her program – fulfilling the requirements, applying to doctorate programs. And before she knew it, she was a grad student at UC San Diego.

Chandler: And all of a sudden I was getting my PhD. I was like, Whoa, Whoa. That escalated quickly.

Margot: She joined a plant ecology lab because…

Chandler: Obviously it's clear, I have a thing for plants. [laughs]

Margot: And she has a special affinity for plants native to Southern California like this one:

Chandler: They are these cute little flowers that are native there, kind of look like one green onion coming from the ground with a pop of purple on top and it's common name is Blue Dick, which is fun for me.

Margot: But native plants are not the only kind growing around these parts. There are other species that compete for resources. Exotic plants or plants that don’t come from California.

Chandler: They mostly come from Europe. They were brought here when Southern California was colonized by missionaries.

Margot: And they brought over some grasses, invasive ones.

Chandler: Those grasses that were brought over here 250 years ago now cover 10 million hectares, hectares of the state of California.

Margot: That’s nearly a quarter of the state.

Chandler: If you ever see a grass that is one single blade growing out of the ground, it's exotic.

Margot: These exotic grasses live for one growing season, produce some seeds, and die. There are native grasses too, but they are very different. They grow in bunches and they’re perennial meaning they don’t die, the same plant just regrows every year. But the native plants that do best in Southern California are shrubs. Like the lemonade berry bush…

Chandler: It has like little pinkish yellowish berries, and they're tart and you can like put them in your water and they won't kill you.

Margot: Folks, please don’t try this at home. Neither Chandler nor I want to be liable for your vitality.

[Pause]

Margot: The success of native versus exotic plants is important both for the health of local ecosystems and for safety of us and of our homes especially with the increase in wildfires brought on by temperature rise.

Chandler: The native plants, like they're Woody, they're shrubs they burn hot, but they burn slow. So it's easier to contain those fires, but these grasses, I mean, it's tinder. It's literal tinder. Like it just whoosh!

Margot: When Chandler started graduate school, California was in one of the most severe droughts in its history. In 2014, then California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Now drought is bad for agriculture and for wildfires, but some people thought there might be a silver lining.

Chandler: So people had this idea that the drought would save us all from these grasses. Because the grasses need to reproduce every year. So they were like, well, if we don't have water for two years, then the grasses should die out. Right?

Margot: Chandler was measuring this. She was comparing the growth of plants growing beside each other on the same land.

Chandler: Some plots that were mostly native, right? And some plots that were mostly exotic.

Margot: And what she was was exactly as expected.

Chandler: Like, okay. Drought is taking away exotics. All good. All good.

Margot: And the native plants, they were doing fine.

[rain and thunderstorm sounds]

Margot: Then comes 2017. The state of emergency is lifted as massive amounts of water pour down all over California.

Chandler: It rained like three times the annual average that year.

Margot: And this gives Chandler the chance to ask a really interesting question. Like, okay, the droughts did negatively affect the exotic plants, but was that effect long-lasting? Or would the return of water bring them back?

Chandler: I go back after it rains.

Margot: She inspects the plots with lots of exotics.

Chandler: I'll tell you during the drought, I could walk on dirt paths between my plots. After the drought, the biomass came up to my chest everywhere.

Margot: The exotic plants had gone from barely there to the highest levels that had been observed during the experiment. Meanwhile the native plants were growing at their normal, slow, rate. So while native plants might be resistant to drought, exotic plants are more resilient.

Chandler: These exotic plants were laying dormant, throughout the drought. They had been stockpiling basically. So they're smarter than we thought they were.

Margot: This is not good news in the fight between natives and exotics. And there is cause for concern. One predicted outcome of climate change is even more dramatic extremes of weather. Worse droughts, and bigger rainfalls. This might tip the scale in favor of exotic plants helping to stoke wildfires in the future.

[Pause]

Margot: Chandler loved her research. She wrote her thesis, she graduated…but her experiences during her doctorate left a bitter taste in her mouth. The month of her first thesis meeting three unarmed black men were shot by police..

Chandler: very similar to what's happening this year. And. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't think I couldn't barely breathe, you know?

Margot: And unlike this year, where collective pressure and hopefully some reflection, led professors, and institutions to make statements about the violence, that year, she didn’t hear a thing.

Chandler: Anytime a Black person got shot, silence. Everything was always business as usual there. That was traumatizing.

Chandler: Being passionate about your science is a privilege and one that most of us don't have. Even though I was studying plants, studying climate change, I could give a flying [pause] while there's unarmed Black men being killed in the street.

Margot: This was one event in a series of many that was a reminder to Chandler of the values and norms within academia.

Chandler: Let me not be light about it, white culture and the culture that white males have embedded into science. Is so different from Black culture. It's just, it couldn't be further from it night and day.

Margot: Chandler recalls the silence she was expected to maintain in lab spaces, and the voice she used for committee meetings or in other, and I’m doing air quotes here, “professional” settings.

Chandler: I called it my white girl voice. Like professionalism itself is so melded with whiteness that like, what does science look like if you remove white culture from it? You know? Cause people are always asking like, how does my identity as a Black person affect my science? Like I've written how many essays on that? But like, how does the whiteness influence your work?

Chandler: That's a systemic, oppressive cultural artifact. Right? A lot of us aren't comfortable here, you know? If you have to sacrifice any part of your identity, when you're going into your space to work, you're not doing your best work. End of story.

Margot: Chandler also noticed this paradox around teaching, mentorship, outreach - she was both expected and criticized for doing that work.

Chandler: There's this kind of idea that we do, like race work and diversity work like for fun, like it's a hobby. But it's not that it's like, we genuinely feel obligated to do this work. The emotional labor that goes in is almost never, no, not almost. It's never acknowledged and it's never compensated.

[Pause]

Margot: A lot of these experiences in research, at conferences, and in grad school, pushed Chandler to write a paper in 2017 with other researchers entitled. “Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough.” In the paper, she urged institutions to create a space where all cultures, all identities, are accepted and celebrated. Where the work that promotes equity in science and engages local communities is valued and rewarded.

Chandler: Honestly, if I hadn't written that paper, I don't think I would have been able to continue on. Um, because that was all I could think about.

Margot: The paper was published in Science. It garnered a lot of recognition for Chandler.

Chandler: People from all over reached out to tell me like, thank you, thank you. And I'm just like, Like, I'm glad it got out there, but I'm kind of sad. It had to wait for me in 2017, 2018 to happen.

Margot: And it was bittersweet for another reason. Even with all of the accolades…

Chandler: Only one person read the paper and came to me like, is this really how you feel being here? And like, I'm really sorry.

[Pause]

Margot: It was clear to Chandler that, given the current state of affairs in academia, she no longer wanted to be in that space.

Chandler: And so I honestly, it was my experiences in grad school that made me realize I didn't want to go into academia. And that's a pretty common narrative.

Chandler: I was just done with prostrating myself with like the politics.

Chandler: With research, like it's interesting, but like, you know, I feel more, I feel more needed at other places. I really pray that science will be. A place one day where I can feel like I'm helping people but that day it's just not today.

Margot: Even after all of her experiences in grad school, Chandler doesn’t regret her decision to finish her doctorate.

Chandler: I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I'm the first person in my family on either side to get a PhD, white or Black. So. That was really big. Um, and I've always known that I was going to need a big platform, you know? It might sound silly, but like, as a young Black woman, I felt like the only way I could get people to listen to me, Was to have those letters behind my name.

Chandler: I'm really glad that I have it. And like, I get to teach now, which is the most beautiful thing I've ever been a part of.

Margot: While Chandler may not be part of academia in the traditional sense: being a research professor on the tenure track, she is an adjunct professor. After graduation, Chandler continued teaching at UCSD. This fall, she’s teaching two courses. Environmental Science, and a new course that explores the intersection of race, racism, and science. That’s the course Ikran is taking.

Chandler: I've titled it “Blackness in STEM; a Complex Relationship.”

Margot: And there is no shortage of topics that Chandler wants to cover from biased AI to eugenics.

Chandler: Like science created racism. Like, how about that?

[Pause]

Margot: So I’m sure after hearing Chandler’s intro at the beginning of the episode, you are probably wondering when do we get to the part about being a psychic medium. Well it’s a general turn that Chandler has taken into exploring methods of relaxation and healing, outside of science.

Chandler: You know, in grad school, everyone's asking you like, where are you applying? What are you doing next? Um, and so all of that just started to like build and, you know, make me super, super anxious. And, uh, that is when I found tarot cards. and Oracle cards and crystals, I got really into crystals.

Chandler: And some people are like, wait, you're a scientist. How can you believe in all those voodoo?
Um, but one science is not infallible. Science is not a religion. Science is not God. You know what I'm saying? Like, good scientists know that we don't know much. Right.

Chandler: We can call it the placebo effect, right? So, if I believe this crystal is gonna make me more confident when I'm speaking in my committee meeting, then I'm going to be more confident speaking in my committee meeting.

Margot: When you ask Chandler what she is, she’ll give you many answers.
Chandler: Um, so I don't like to say like, Oh, I'm a scientist because I am, but I'm so many other things, you know what I mean? So like at my heart, like I'm a healer, I'm a creative, I'm an artist.

Margot: Stop pigeonholing our identities within the ivory towers, Chandler says. That’s part of the culture that denies there is racism in science, that says science isn’t political. Lets move on from that.

Margot: That’s the end of this episode. Now it’s time for “Here are the words you need to know today, with Ikran Ibrahim”.

Ikran: The words of the day are “Code Switching”. Originally it was meant as the action of switching between two different languages. However, in the 70’s, it began being used to describe when people of color, especially Black folks , change their behavior or manner of speaking to conform to white standards of professionalism - like when Chandler uses her “white girl voice.”

Margot: Thanks for the lesson as always, Ikran.

[Credits]

Margot: On the next episode of Rad Scientist, Dr. Austin Coley shares his love of the brain.

Austin: I loved, uh, cell physiology. Um, and I can't even. Figure out why to this day, like I could not figure out why. I just, I don't know. Maybe I just love like molecules and how the cells work and how like they help the body do what it needs to be done.

Margot: Keep an ear out for that episode and, until next time, stay rad!

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Rad Scientist

A KPBS Explore series taking listeners on a journey through the lives and discoveries of San Diego's raddest scientists — researchers pushing the frontiers of human knowledge. Hosted and produced by Margot Wohl.