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Interview with Drea Darby

Introduce yourself! 

My name is Andrea Darby. I go by Drea. I use she/her pronouns, identify as biracial, and identify as African American and Filipino American. My father is black and my mother is an immigrant from the Philippines. I am a PhD candidate in the field of entomology at Cornell. I study the impact of diet on infection, survival in fruit flies– like the common kitchen fruit flies that you’ll see buzzing around your home. 

 

How did you get into fruit fly research? 

My introduction into research was actually a fruit fly lab. So I’ve always have worked on flies. One of my mentors in undergrad would call me the “fly girl”. I like, ride or die fly. 

During the semester I was applying for nursing school, I took a microbiology class. And that class changed my whole career trajectory. During the lab course, you get to like identify a bacterium based off its genus, using all sorts of different biochemical tests and bioinformatics. And I was like “Yo, this is so dope! How do I do something like this as a job, ‘cause I… don’t want to be a nurse?” 

I just thought bugs were super cool. I say bugs—I’m in this context I meant microbes but yeah, I switched my major to biology against my mother’s wish. That was a dark time, but I was okay! 

 

What do you enjoy besides research? 

I identify as a weeb so I’m really into anime and manga. I cosplay, make my own cosplay, and go to cons (in a non pandemic environment), and I also play games. Yeah, I fantasize about being like that weeb professor who has wall scrolls in my office and various anime figurines around. 

 

How did you end up at Cornell? 

My introduction to Cornell Entomology was through the Diversity Preview Weekend, which I am currently an organizer for as a grad student. The goal of DPW is to increase the number of applicants that come from historically underrepresented and excluded backgrounds in fields like entomology, for example. I was really touched that a program like this would go out of their way to do something like this and put in the money. And that kind of demonstrated to me that, yeah, they really care about this stuff. 

Now that I’m here, I do think that compared to peers that I have in other departments at Cornell, I do think our department is doing positive things that others maybe aren’t considering doing. I know peers in other life science departments that don’t see value in having a diversity preview weekend. So I know that weekend was very integral for me at least. 

 

How has your experience at Cornell been so far, with regards to DEI? 

When I came here for interview weekend, I did have some one faculty caution me against certain types of people I would want to work with because, “it would probably not be the best experience for [me]”. But they did not go into any details about why or how come. But I wish they had told me who because they would have given me more guidance on how to navigate this space. 

Mentors here warned me of being asked for a lot of DEI related service because of the manner of how I came to Cornell by being a recruit through DPW. We have diversity fellowships for Cornell graduate students, and I am also a recipient of one of our diversity fellowships. So I do kind of have this label of me being the diversity student, even though we have other grad students that one would probably also call the same thing. It’s funny because one person isn’t diverse, like a single human being isn’t diverse! 

I felt like during the summer of 2020 was when my eyes were kind of really being opened in terms of how much diversity and inclusion, or the issues of black people for example, or other minoritized groups in this country really were not at the forefront of people’s minds in our department. 

I felt like DPW was like, “Yeah, we’re doing this great thing for diversity and inclusion,” but that was really it. I started thinking, “How much do you really care? About the safety, the mental space of these students who come through Cornell entomology who aren’t your traditional students?” I don’t even know what a traditional entomologist would be, but I always think of a white guy. And so I was just really, really frustrated by how I would plug and chug and continue with my days during the summer. I mean I have a unique background in not just being an Asian woman but being a black woman too. And at that time I was feeling like, “I’m still coming in and doing work and carrying on while all this tragic stuff is going on in the world.” I saw that would work, but I’m just like, “When do we have time to process and grieve?” I feel like our department still needs to work on supporting students. And that’s not just a problem unique to Cornell entomology, it’s honestly a fact across places outside of this institution. Broadly, I would say we’re at the awareness stage, but now trying to get into the real work. 

 

What’s driving you to become a professor? 

Being the one student of color—that always really messed me up. And I had always thought, “throughout my entire education, I have never had a black or Filipino instructor.” And I just thought, “this isn’t right.” And that was kind of like my main motivation to actually go off to get a PhD. And that’s what really inspired me to be a professor—to maybe be a student’s first black and Asian professor.  

I also love interacting with other students and I really enjoy teaching. Research is cool too, but I really enjoy human interaction. I went through a lot of traumatic stuff in undergrad, and continue to go through hard situations. I always felt that with the majority of my professors, it just felt hard to be vulnerable about struggling and say, I need a couple more days to complete XYZ assignment, or like I just don’t have the capacity to come into class”. I just didn’t feel like I had a lot of empathetic instructors coming up in my undergrad. I want to be part of like the change in the culture in academia and tell students that it’s ok to have a life outside of being a college student. Like, we all are humans and we all go through pain and we have suffering. And sometimes that homework assignment that you have to do at midnight isn’t the most important thing in that moment of your life. 

 

Do you feel pressure to help out with or lead DEI efforts? 

In the summer of 2020 we had a DEI committee and it really felt like the department expected me to be on that. Of course, they didn’t just directly ask me to be on it, but there was external pressure from the hope that I would come on board. I did decide to step down from that committee because I just didn’t have the emotional capacity to do that kind of work, because it is really emotionally exhausting. Not only to advocate for your own needs, but the needs of other people. 

A big adult moment for me was to acknowledge that this is something that really matters to me, and I want to see some tangible change happen in this department, but also recognizing that I shouldn’t always have to do this stuff. I shouldn’t always have to feel like if I don’t do it, who else is gonna do it? 

 

How do you suggest other BIPOC students go about challenging authority and/or advocating for themselves? 

In practice, it’s so much easier said than done. But if you know what’s right for you and how you feel, you can heal and grow and move forward with your life. And that sometimes involves making yourself uncomfortable. I mean you don’t want to trigger a panic attack or anything like that—but to the extent that you are capable at this moment.  

I’ve done a lot of personal work leading up to how I addressed authority, having a Filipino mom who basically taught me to not challenge authority. So, I really felt like this kind of transferred into other aspects of my life, like professional settings. One part is having people in my circle that I trust and that I can talk to you and be very encouraging in terms of giving me a voice. Really like relying on other people to lift me up, because I can’t do everything alone. I would say it’s hard to identify allies. But, look for people who do have shared missions and values of yours to really lean into when you need help.  

 

What has acceptance and self-love of your identity and your identities looked like for you? 

I’ve really been trying to combat code switching. When I was in Kansas, I really felt like I had to repress any aspect of my identity, that wasn’t “like a scientist.” I would always be so self-conscious being around a lot of white people. I felt like I had to assimilate and I’ve been really trying to combat that here.  

Sometimes I’m afraid to answer the “what are you?” question, because I’ve gotten responses that exoticize me. Lie, “Oh, that’s an interesting combination.” But I’ve been getting over that as much as I can, just trying to be really accepting of both of my racial identities especially. Not being afraid to wear hoops or something that could be considered “black fashion”, or just being really open about talking about my Filipino heritage, including sharing my experiences and trying to not be ashamed to share like the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

 

 

Drea is a 2nd year Entomology PhD Candidate in Dr. Brian Lazzaro’s lab. She investigates the impact of nutrition on infection outcome in fruit flies, particularly studying the genetic and physiological mechanisms by which dietary sugar shapes resistance to infection. As a Graduate School Dean’s Scholar and Ford Foundation Fellow, Drea serves the Cornell community and beyond as an E-board member of the Black Graduate and Professional Student association, Co-leader of the Diversity Preview Weekend, and co-instructor for the Science of Bias Seminar at Cornell. When she is not advocating for diversity and inclusion in academia or experimenting on flies in lab, she is a plant mom and likes to play video games, watch anime, read comics, and make cosplay.

Twitter: @drea_drby

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