'PhDivas' discourse across disciplines and differences

By: Daniel Aloi,  Cornell Chronicle
November 5, 2015

As friends and scholars, doctoral students Elizabeth (Liz) Wayne and Christine (Xine) Yao found common ground amid their academic and cultural differences through a mutual fascination with myriad topics, from pop culture to how to survive in academia. And now, they discuss them for a worldwide audience every week.

The African-American cancer scientist from Mississippi and the Chinese-Canadian literary critic/English scholar from Toronto first met when they were graduate resident fellows together at Hans Bethe House. Talking and laughing together during house dinners, they were soon joined by a gaggle of interested undergraduates.

Last spring, they were inspired to make the discourse public and launched a podcast that has found listeners in six countries.

On “PhDivas,” they share issues of academic life, contemporary culture and society in conversations that bridge the STEM-humanities divide. They often discuss the “similarities, differences and difficulties” they observe in their experiences, including challenges facing women and young scholars.

“It started with these conversations over dinner, over tea. People actually started coming to the dining hall to seek us out,” said Wayne, who recently defended her dissertation in biomedical engineering. “She’s coming from a literary background, and I’m more science, but we’re also very interested in critiquing culture. We found that the conversation is always interesting because it comes from different perspectives and different cultural experiences.”

Wayne’s research focuses on understanding how the human immune system can be used to target cancer metastasis. Yao, who is completing her doctorate in English this year, works on critical race, feminist and queer theory in 19th century American literature.

“On West Campus, because it’s an interdisciplinary environment, we’re used to having to explain ourselves,” Yao said. “Of course people ask us stuff about our specific field, and inevitably topics come out that aren’t related to that or their major, but they’re still curious.”

The audio podcast, available on Soundcloud and iTunes, is serious in intent but not in tone. In a given week, the hosts will tackle studying what you love or perceived gender bias in the disciplines, or they’ll be giving graduate students advice, breaking down the TV show “Fresh Off the Boat” or sharing their adoration of pop diva Nicki Minaj.

“I like the performative aspect of this,” Wayne said. “It’s not that the podcast is about women or promoting women, but it’s just that we both are women, and doing things in our respective fields well.”

In a recent two-part series, they gave each other a glimpse of how they do research – Wayne invited Yao to her laboratory in the basement of Weill Hall, where Yao was fascinated by the lab’s floating tables. Yao, whose studies include the history of science and medicine, brought Wayne to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians and its archives housing collections of skulls and other body parts.

In another recent episode, “Academic Anxiety,” they assessed the academic job market with their friend Nadia Chernyak ’08, M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’14, a human development alumna now doing postdoctoral research in socio-cognitive development at Boston University.

The hosts say they hope to inspire future doctoral students and encourage a dialogue across disciplines, while providing a niche for fellow students to talk about the Ph.D. experience.

“There is such a need for this kind of interdisciplinary conversation, and to talk across differences productively,” Yao says. “It’s particularly important at Cornell, where all your committee members – other than your adviser – can be from outside of your department.”

Yao has served on the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly for five years. Her Cornell honors include the M.H. Abrams Summer Graduate Fellowship and the Moses Coit Tyler Essay Prize, and she received a grant from theSocial Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She recently passed an audition for “The Vagina Monologues” on campus next semester.

Wayne is an advocate for women in science, studied physics at the University of Pennsylvania and organized the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in 2013. Her honors include the Alice and Constance Cook Award, recognizing her work improving the climate for women at Cornell. Although she just left Ithaca for a postdoctoral position at the University of North Carolina, the podcast will go on.

“We view the podcast as a work in progress and a way of giving our own broader input on social issues,” Wayne said. “We’re growing as we do this … I do learn a lot from you,” she said to Yao. “I don’t think like you; the way you try to bridge different ideas.”

 Wayne and Yao said their listeners are fans and often stop them on the street and on campus to praise them and the show.

“It’s been very surprising,” Wayne said. “I didn’t know people would be listening to this. That is cool that people get some value from it; it’s been really great and exciting.”

This article originally appeared in The Cornell Chronicle.

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