Photo of Isabel J. Rodriguez
Isabel J. Rodriguez. Image credit: Isabel J. Rodriguez

Isabel J. Rodriguez (they/she) is a Master's student in Physics at Oregon State University, where her research combines data with statistical tools to study the properties of neutron star collisions. Isabel is the founder and host of the WOCinSTEM virtual coworking space for women of color, as well as a public speaker who challenges systems of oppression in higher education through a Black queer feminist lens. (Twitter/Instagram)

WOCinSTEM virtual coworking sessions are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1pm PST.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
My name is Isabel, my pronouns are she/her or they/them, though these days I'm leaning more the they/them, kind of exploring my identity a little bit there. I am a graduate student at Oregon State University. I'm actually in my third year and final year, thankfully. That journey has been a bit rough and made only harder with the combination of police brutality and COVID and all these things that everybody else is going through as well.

What are you studying?
Physics is my major, I majored in it in undergrad as well. But my research is in computational astrophysics. My research looks at some of the most powerful explosions in the universe. And there's one in particular, that's caused by a collision of two neutron stars, which are the cores of long dead stars. These two cores orbit around each other, and they get to a point where they just are inspiraling towards each other, they collide and cause this massive explosion. These explosions are so bright, that when you look at them with a telescope, they are as bright as the galaxy that they're in. So just these really powerful cosmic events. My research is interested in, “What were the little details that were going on, when these dead stars collided?” I use a combination of statistical methods and theory to try to dig out some of those details.

How did the WOCinSTEM meetups start?
The idea started in early summer. I knew that I was getting to a point in my research where I was going to have to start finishing up and then starting the thesis writing project, and given that we were already working from home—I know that I was feeling just the weight of that challenge, not having a community to work with and feel productive with, on top of the fact that my graduate school experience had been very isolating just from a personal identity point of view. The programs that I'm in are typically very white and male, and so that fact already made my graduate school experiences really challenging. And so I figured I'd try to get together a group of women of color who are doing awesome things in STEM fields, and just try to cultivate this space where we felt safe to share our personal challenges and the way they show up for us in our lives, and give us a little bit of space to try and move forward on things that we're wanting to do.

So that's how they came about. We meet twice a week, and we spend a little bit of time just checking in and building community, and then we all go off into our own little worlds and try to get some things done and we'll check back in with each other as we need it. I like to hold the space open—I don't like to have it end at a very concrete time, I kind of just let the sessions happen organically. Sometimes we need to vent, and just talk with each other, and sometimes the sessions will go longer, sometimes they're a little shorter. I think for me, the important thing was trying to make some space for community, since that's something that I have sorely been missing.

It sounds like you have like a pretty regular group of people that come every time?
We have some folks that are in epidemiology. We have somebody who's in the aerospace industry, we have a STEM professional in the group, and some mechanical engineering majors, so a little bit of everything, which is really neat.

I originally thought that I would have this group only go for a couple of months, I guess just through the summer. But we started off with this core group of people, and over the weeks we've been adding new people. It's been really nice to have the opportunity to meet folks on the other side of the country doing things that are very different from what you do, but still kind of having that common, nerdy love of whatever it is that we do that brings us together in that way.

Has anything particularly surprising come out of this for you?
On some level maybe I shouldn't find this surprising, but just hearing from other folks in this group how impactful they've felt this co-working group has been for them—the fact that there are some people that just really enjoy having this space every week, and getting to be together in community in this place.

Since you’re getting close to graduation, what do you think the future of the meetup groups are?
I would actually like to continue having these sessions. I know this is something that I've talked to with the core group about, I know that it'll have to adapt and change as I transition from the academic space into industry, but I think this is something that I would like to continue to see happen, definitely past graduation. I don't know what a post-COVID world will look like, given that some of us will be going back to physical offices, but we'd definitely like to try to keep this thing going as long as possible, or as long as others folks feel a need for it.

Is there anything in particular you want queer scientists to know about your group?
I think the important thing is that I want this group to be open to folks in that community —that's really the biggest thing. It's open and welcome to folks regardless of the way they identify. This is a really wonderful, open group of folks. I'm hoping that more different kinds of people get to share this space with us.

Is there anything else you think is important to talk about?
I know that we're in an age where the cult of productivity is really invoked these days. While this space was something that was created to help mitigate some of the challenges that we have working from home, I feel like the important thing about this group is not the productivity piece. It's great if this space helps with that, but I think for me, the most important part is the building community, and making sure that you're getting your needs taken care of. I've told members of the group, “If you need to, use this space, these two-and-a-half hours, as a block on your calendar so that you can go and take a nap.” The week of elections, I had the space open primarily as a self-care space or a community-care space, where if you wanted to just come and journal or color or write, you didn't have to do work. I think the important thing was that we were together in that space. I'm really trying to push back on the idea that we have to hustle and be productive all the time. That's not healthy.

Generally, it's hard for folks with marginalized or minoritized identities to get a certain piece of fulfillment in the job that they're doing, simply because of the fact that they don't see themselves reflected in the organization or the institutions they're a part of. I think that's one of the neat things about having a group like this.