How exotic!

A few months ago I was contacted by the alumni magazine of my university, saying they were planning a feature of a neuroscience center I’m part of and wanted to spotlight the research of a few investigators, including me. I was quite excited since this would be a good chance to give some good exposure to our research to a wide and general audience. It was also cool, since I also happen to be an alumni from my current university. So I met with the staff writer working on the piece to explain to him what our research is about, why it is cool and interesting. This was followed up with several emails clarifying some of the science, sending more material, etc. Last week, I get an email from the writer saying that he had a final version he wanted me to look over for ‘fact checking’. When I opened it up I was faced with this opening paragraph:

Namnezia studies small creatures. A neuroscientist by training, he grew up in Mexico and still speaks with an accent. His office, on the floor below Monkeyprof’s—fitting because Namnezia studies lower order animals—is decorated with the Mexican masks he collected as a child.

Really?!? Is this what he took away from all of our conversations and emails? I’m really having a hard time pinpointing exactly why this paragraph makes me so upset. Maybe the fact that for him, he couldn’t get past the fact that I’m Mexican. And what’s weird is that for the most part, I don’t even HAVE a fucking accent, except a little when I’m tired or drunk. Maybe I was tired or drunk when I met with him, I don’t know. But more likely, when he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mexico, the dude was thinking “Well, he doesn’t really look Mexican” and then somehow convinced himself that, in order for his limited little world to make sense, at least I had to have some sort of accent. And then he stopped listening to anything else I had to say. And I know he stopped listening, because the rest of the article made no sense science-wise. It was full of bad analogies and trivializing ‘fun-facts’, written in some sort of ‘breezy casual style’ that failed on so many levels.

I guess what annoyed me is that in the end, what defined me for him was not my (I think) cool science, but the exoticness of a swarthy Mexican scientist, in an office full of masks, and a thick Speedy-Gonzalez accent. I realize he is trying to go for some sort of human interest angle, but I would’ve much rather he had written about my taxidermied chicken. And the dude doesn’t realize the implicit bias he is bringing to his writing. I complained, but received no response, because he probably cannot fathom why what he wrote would be offensive and otherizing to any minority scientist.

So if he wants exotic, I’ll give him fucking exotic. I’m am therefore planning on proposing the following opening paragraph:

The smell of cheap tequila permeated the lab, a sombrero lazily lying on the benchtop. The melancholy violins of mariachi music playing from a scrappy AM radio. ‘¡Hijo de la Chingada!’ exclaimed Dr. Namezia as he broke his patch pipette on his recording dish. He looked up from the microscope, twirling his long moustachios and adjusting his zarape. ‘Welcome to mi laboratorio, señor journalist!’

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17 Responses to How exotic!

  1. DrugMonkey says:

    I like your version better. That hack buried his lede…..

  2. Doctor_PMS says:

    It’s a magazine, isn’t it?
    Of course the stereotype of a cucaracha scientist is way more appealing than a bland and boring American… He probably thought he would get more audience if he started like this.
    Although I prefer your version!

  3. Zen Faulkes says:

    “I’m really having a hard time pinpointing exactly why this paragraph makes me so upset. ”

    I think it’s because you know that if this guy had profiled me, my Canadian origin probably would NOT have informed the article the same way that your Mexican origin did.

  4. What Zen said. No one ever starts an article about some white-ass dude scientist with, “James Prickington IV grew up in Greenwich, CT, and still speaks like someone shoved a broomstick up his asse after stuffing twenty dickes in his mouth. His office is decorated with the pictures of all his inbred degenerate ancestors he has collected over the years, including most notably, a large watercolor portrait of the family matriarch, Buffy Prickington nee Vanderbilt, wearing her favorite pink and green cardigan and sneering like the nasty old hag she always was.”

    • DrugMonkey says:

      They should! (That one was your own, right PP?)

    • Isabel says:

      If the scientist was from a distinguished family, and interesting and colorful evidence of that association was scattered about the office, then yes, I can imagine that being mentioned in the beginning of the article as a way to hook the reader in. Hasn’t anyone else ever squirmed reading about themselves and their work in these sorts of publications? I think it’s the part about him “still having an accent” that went too far and colored the whole thing as offensive.

      The wisecrack about studying the lower orders is irritating as well. My advisor puts up with these sorts of jabs good-naturedly but I am already tired of them and do find them sort of offensive, even though I know it is supposed to be a joke.

      • namnezia says:

        Well the whole thing is irritating, and I don’t mind the Mexican masks references that much but the accent thing was when it got offensive. And even the masks thing was stupid, my office does have some masks (along with tons of other crap), but those weren’t ones I collected as a child. The lower organism thing is the story of my life in my current department.

        I finally got a reply from the author, BTW. He said he was removing all references to Mexico and my accent, but nothing else, no apology nothing. I also heard from another colleague featured in the article, apparently the author went on about her southern twang and her graying temples.

      • Isabel says:

        “apparently the author went on about her southern twang and her graying temples.”

        OMG, this “author” sounds like a real prize.

  5. Pascale says:

    Tell me about the taxidermied chicken!!!

    I must admit, at one place I worked our pathologist was from Mexico and collected Dia de los Muertes art. The skeletal decor certainly would have been something that would have impressed me (and obviously did). You’re sitting there looking at body parts, and the art is all body parts…

    I don’t know why any interviewer would choose to comment on an accent like that. Yuck!

  6. Isabel says:

    In fairness an unusual collection of anything in someone’s office is often mentioned as a hook in these sorts of articles, which usually don’t describe the science well either unless you are very lucky. But the rest is offensive and poorly written but what do you expect from someone who refers to “lower order animals” and makes jokes about how fitting it is that you are on a lower floor than Professor X??

  7. pyrope says:

    Sorry about the crappy journalist, but your and CPP’s hook paragraphs totally made my day 🙂

  8. theshortearedowl says:

    I dunno, I’m British and I could totally see some hack leading with something about my accent and my teabag stockpile, if I were important enough to interview.

  9. DJMH says:

    Obnoxious all the way through. But very common for scientists, I think, that journos feel we need to be “humanized” by discussion of our personal lives and appearances. Because no one could possibly be interested enough in the science to read the article, right?

    See also: all women in politics/science/pretty much anything, described by hairstyles and outfits and marital status and childbearing status before anything else. Actually we’re usually lucky to get anything else.

    • GMP says:

      Seconded. I have been interviewed a couple of times in a similar fashion. One student-interviewer even sat in my class — the result was a comment about my “booming voice” so nobody has a chance to fall asleep in my class. Also, it always starts with me being “a mother, a wife, and a professor.” Does any dude ever get introduced as “a father, a husband, and a professor”? There’s always this fascination with procreation in women scientists… There were also multiple quotes, taken out of context in the most unfortunate ways, which not only made me sound like an idiot, they were actually very misleading. I also complained about this article and got nowhere. As a result, I am not likely to engage in this type of publicity again.

      Anyway, I feel your frustration. I really don’t know any scientists who have not regretted interacting with journalists. Which of course makes scientists less likely to do it again, which is counterproductive as we really should be spreading the word about our research…

  10. Kelly says:

    “$Neuroscience_Center is spread out amongst multiple floors; you’ll find Prof Namnezia on one of the lower floors, which often inspires wisecracks related to his field of study: lower order animals. (For the record, we did contact the Center regarding faculty office assignment based on area of study; they had no comment.) Prof Namnezia’s office is inviting and eclectic; nervous students can find many things to rest their gaze on, from the masks that evoke his childhood in [proper state in Mexico, because hello, big place with lots of regional variation] to a rather startling taxidermied chicken. (A gift from his wife and not, we are assured, a former research specimen.)”

    …seriously, how hard is it to work in “human interest” or “colour” into a story while still being respectful? And can we also frown in a disapproving manner at the editor who thought this was in any way an okay lede? (On that note, when your alumni magazine gets around to firing this yahoo,…)

  11. Zuska says:

    “Who knew Mexicans could science?” thought the would-be journalist to himself. “However shall I convey this fascinating information to my readers? It is ever so much more compelling than the sciencing! Which I cannot understand and will not ask clarifying questions about! That would just be a waste of time!”

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