Fish Functional Morphologist, J.J. Lomax, on the Black Experience in Academia

Jeremy (J.J.) Lomax is a graduate student and functional morphologist at Brown University. As a “fish dentist,” he studies how different forms of feeding apparatuses in fishes produce different behaviors, informing the fundamental biomechanical principles behind carnivory and herbivory. This summer, J.J. gave a talk at Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL), where he detailed his research within the context of police murders of Black men and boys and his own interactions with the police. He worked at Friday Harbor as an undergraduate student, and when he returned (virtually) this summer, he positioned his talk as a timeline of his career, punctuated by the killings he personally remembers. He concluded by stating that the Black experience is to: “Keep your head down, keep it moving.” If you haven’t seen his talk, it is amazing, and you should seriously take a look.

In this interview, J.J. discusses his motivations behind his FHL talk, his experiences as a Black man in graduate school, and the institutional changes necessary for diversity and inclusion in academia.

J.J. is a graduate student in Brown University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He first dipped his toe into aquatic science as an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida. Photo credit: J.J. Lomax.

Tell me more about how your talk at FHL came to be.

When I was putting the talk together, I realized that some of the people in the audience have probably already heard the talk I was planning on doing, but with COVID there was no time for me to get any new data. The talk was also shortly after one of the shootings. It’s a shame that I can’t even remember which individual it was, but it was probably the George Floyd murder.

I wanted to stop separating my life from my research. I had not been able to do any research, not just because of the pandemic, but also because it’s hard to focus on doing research when you see the same thing over and over and over again. So I thought, “You know what, I’ve got some things that I’ve been feeling personally. Let me see if I can find a way to weave this into my science without it sounding too awkward or without it detracting from what I see as good science.”

For example, every time there was a killing or when I would get stopped by a police officer while leaving the lab, I realized that there was a hard pause in my ability to focus on my research. When you are in any kind of research, there is a level of commitment, focus, and attention that needs to be paid to the work that you’re doing. I know that when I really am in the mode, when my code’s working just right, or when I’m getting a lot of data that I can sift through, it’s very exciting. I hit this state of flow, where everything feels comfortable. They say the highs in research are so high—it’s exciting to get positive results.

But I began to realize that there are fewer times that I was reaching this flow after every tragedy, and so it felt like this very hard stop where your brain cannot focus on what you need to do to be successful and what you’re passionate about. Then it’s like, oh by the way you live in a country that does not recognize you as a person with legal rights. They do not see you as an equal individual. There’s this caste system that’s been established, where since the day that they said you were free, there’s always been this little caveat that they’ve tacked on to your name. There are so many aspects of the Black diaspora and the Black experience that have the potential to take you away from living your life.

I’m 6’4’’ and weigh 240 pounds, and so I get it a little bit to an extent. People are taken aback when I walk into places. I have dreads and nose rings and tattoos. I am not a traditional scientist. By large leaps and bounds, you don’t see a lot of people that look like me at conferences, and that doesn’t get to me as much as it used to. But the fact of the matter is I know that my graduate school experience is different than anybody else’s, especially in a program where I am one of two Black men. That’s tough. So I thought, “What’s a way that I can give the audience a feel for what doing research in my skin is like?” and I didn’t even try to carefully weave it into the story because I wanted  to be as blunt and abrasive as possible. I wanted to completely throw off the flow of the presentation, in the same way my life had been interrupted.

There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night, and I think, “Ah man, I was literally just walking home from my lab in the middle of Providence, RI, and I was stopped by the police about something that had nothing to do with me just because it was 3 a.m. in the morning and it happened to be cold enough that I was wearing a hoodie and dark clothes.” I think about what I’m wearing and what times I leave the lab because I don’t really feel safe in America. I want to say that maybe I’m being overdramatic. But no, I’ve been stopped not once, not twice, but three times here in this city in the last five years.

We are constantly talking about how we want to make sure we are increasing representation—not just increasing numbers but ensuring a more inclusive environment. People are going to come in with different experiences that are going to affect their science. Every time a person that looks like me gets murdered, I have this connection to it, where I think, “Maybe I’ll be next.” Of course, that’s going to weigh on your work. I just put out my truth into this talk because although we’re always focusing on increasing diversity, do we even know anything about what the people coming in are going to have to experience at our own institutions? It’s not even a matter of color blindness, because color blindness at its core is antithetical to any kind of progress that we can have. If you don’t even recognize that there are different rules that each of these different races, classes, and cultures are playing by, then how are you going to stop and fix them? If you think that everyone is on an equal playing field, then you completely erase what is statistically proven, that there are different worlds people are living in. In my talk, I found a way to say, “Yeah, my science can stand on itself. This is sound science, but in addition to that, I can tell you what it’s like to be a Black man in America.”

On Twitter, you mentioned that you feel like a mascot. “Some representative item that should feel celebrated but is mostly just a crude caricature of what it’s supposed to be.” Can you expand on this?

I was thinking of what it means to be an “n = 1” in a department: the only Black male. It wasn’t feeling very momentous. People get recognized when they become the “first Black something,” and it’s supposed to be celebratory. But I feel like the celebration gets lost in the ritual. You put your unicorn up on the pedestal, and everyone is like, yay, celebration! But I don’t feel as though I am part of the community at times. It’s more of a feeling that I’m here to show other people that it’s possible, but I’m not so much a part of the organization. That sounds like a mascot. The mascot is on the team; the mascot is the team; the mascot represents the team. But the mascot is not playing. It has nothing to do with the actual, real work that’s being done.

If you’re committed to inclusion and diversity, you have to understand that there’s hard work that comes with it. If you want people on your team to feel like they’re really on your team, you need to go beyond just accepting them into your program. I don’t need to be coddled. In the same way that you would understand that employee A has different needs than employee B, you should do the same for me. If you want a more diverse organization, especially within science, it’s not a matter of lowering any bars. It’s a matter of understanding different backgrounds, experiences, and world views. You need to be prepared for that.

JJ Lomax shares research and his experience as a Black man in academia. Source: Youtube

In addition to making diversity initiatives and anti-racism work paid positions, what other systemic changes are necessary in academia?

There need to be more underrepresented faculty hires. Newly hired faculty of color undergo disproportionate emotional labor in terms of what graduate students are going to reach out to them and what they’re asked to do outside of their traditional research. Having more faculty to spread out work would be great. The way people deal with their biases is to have conversations, and the person that needs to facilitate these conversations is a hired and trained diversity and inclusion professional and not your departmental chair. They did not get their PhD in race theory or diversity and inclusion, so why are departmental heads, presidents, chairs, and faculty members leading these very sensitive conversations? Make sure that trained professionals do what they’re trained to do.

What advice would you give to young people of color interested in aquatic science?

Send emails. Find somebody who is working with whatever organism or process you’re interested in. Read one of their papers. Send them an email and ask to talk more about their research. Network, network, network.

I just want to help the next generation of scientists to not have to go through what I went through and experience the feeling of not belonging. It is scary going to your first conference and being the only Black person you see in the entire room. As we get more and more people to fill these rooms and conference halls, the science is going to get better. If you’re not worried about being “the other” in the room, you’ll feel more comfortable in your presentation, people will come talk to you afterwards and help you expand your way of thinking, and people will want to collaborate with you. It’s all about trying to feel right in your own skin. We set the culture, and it’s up to us to make sure that culture feels welcoming.

J.J.’s recent publication investigates the role of the sternohyoideus muscle in suction feeding for striped surfperch. In this video, J.J. details why his mom calls him a “fish dentist.” Source: Youtube