Safran Lab

Part of our ongoing interview series with leaders and members of feminist-oriented labs and lab-like spaces, the following is our interview with Dr. Rebecca Jo Safran (she/her), PI at the Safran Lab at University of Colorado, Boulder. The lab was founded in 2008.

With which research area, or cluster of research areas, does the lab engage with? (be as specific or broad as you wish).

Our lab is quite integrative in terms of disciplines, tools, questions, and scale of study. Most broadly, our work intersects with evolutionary biology, ecology, and animal behavior. Specifically, our work combines fine scale field experiments, longitudinal studies of individuals in the wild, population genomics, and the comparison of closely related populations and species to infer the evolutionary, behavioral, and ecological processes underlying the origins of new species. Newer areas of research involve the use of the arts in science communication and data driven interventions for inclusive research groups. Our primary study system is one of the most widespread animal species on planet earth: the barn swallow.

What is a project, publication, community collaboration, or other output from the lab that you feel proud of? 

Our comparative work on barn swallows has brought us to amazing places to collaborate with scientists all over the world, including many locations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Using samples collected in collaboration with many others, we’ve been able to examine genetic differences among populations that are currently diverging from one another (and may be on their way to being distinct species). 

A project that I am especially proud of is a lab-wide exploration about diversity and inclusivity. For the past year and a half, we’ve been working on a project related to ‘belonging’ within STEM, using our lab group as a test case. Our research has shown us that a sense of belonging, or feeling valued as an individual, is central to building and maintaining safe, trusting, and productive relationships within a small research group like ours. We recently teamed up with the amazing Julie Volckens, Director of Assessment at CU’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, to create a workflow and survey instrument so that we could collect anonymous data from lab members and, with data in hand, work on interventions and agreements for improving lab culture. This is meant to be an iterative and dynamic process that is linked to a set of guidelines the entire lab team establishes and revises for working with one another.

The iterative nature we use to assess how members of the group are doing (with no identity attached) means that we can have very general discussions about what we are seeing or experiencing. The survey instrument we use is meant to collect data on how we are doing with respect to our primary objective for the group – that every member feels they belong and are valued. Thus, the discussions that follow after the data come in from this anonymous survey bring up soft spots in how we are doing and can then bridge our lab guidelines document with the survey to approach change with directed intention. The next iteration of the survey can then help us track – did we meet our goals? What other interventions would help us? What else should we include in our lab’s community guidelines document?  

Every member of the lab group, including undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs, participated in the writing of a manuscript related to this work. All authors are listed in alphabetical order with an indication that we all contributed equally to the work. This process took extra time and included long discussions, ensuring that every lab member had a voice and chance to work on the manuscript, and double checking that our submission draft was acceptable to all. This manuscript, titled “Belonging in STEM: an iterative, interactive approach” is currently in review. This feels like the start of a long-term project!

What is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab centers equity, inclusion, or justice in its methods, protocols, or approaches?
—Alternatively, what is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab decenters dominant methods, protocols, or approaches through its work?

Our group has co-created community guidelines in living document, co-authored and revised by every member of the group several times per year. We spend time working on this document both individually and as a group. This document is the foundation upon which we all help construct and revise the way we work together. An essential inspiration of our document is the community cultural wealth model by Dr. Tara Yasso [publication link: DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341006]. Our group’s working assumption is that every member of a community has something of value to contribute. This moves us away from a conformist measure of success where every member is successful in terms of the prevailing view of success (which often looks like: loudest and quickest to respond, top scores, greatest record of productivity, ‘correct’ answer thinking, and ‘winner’ mentality). Instead, we want to move into a new mindset of success and productivity for each lab member and for our team as a whole. If we truly want inclusive STEM research communities, we need to adopt a broader way to measure success and productivity in order to  move from conformist to more inclusive measures of success.  

What is one internal (within the lab) challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind in which an internal challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with? 

I view mentorship as the most difficult yet rewarding part of my job. There have been many highs and many lows, and I have learned a lot through the process. Here, again, peer-peer discussions have been critical for navigating the ups and downs and for sorting out a personal philosophy of mentorship. I am grateful to my colleagues for sharing their experiences in mentorship and helping us all grow comfortable with finding a form of leadership works best for each of us.

My own experience as a graduate student took place in a high-pressure environment where the onus was truly on us to get through our research. Many in my program, and all in my lab group, developed independent projects for which we individually obtained permits and funding. I was the lone female in this lab group and for many reasons, this was not easy. Lab meetings were very high stakes; it was fairly common to be insulted in front of a group of faculty and students. I provide this context because it, unfortunately, shaped my view as a mentor early on. While the experience was a painful one on many levels, I bought into the ‘no pain-no gain’ view of academia, where surviving the crucible meant being able to compete successfully for an academic position. Now, at this later stage in my career, I see how and why I initially bought into this counterproductive approach and how it affected my own style of mentorship.  Today, I see clearly why this is detrimental and how to replace it with a more effective approach.  In competitive environments, it is natural for individuals to experience fear and insecurity, to feel as though they don’t belong. The commonly experienced imposter syndrome is something most feel either at some point, or during every step, of their education. This is most damaging to those who already feel they don’t belong for reasons unrelated to academic success.

I have come to see the process of mentorship as being highly dynamic, deeply complex, and unique for every mentee, which is achieved by mutually agreeable ways of communicating. As a lab group, we have a learning community document that everyone contributes to both anonymously and together as a group each semester. In one-on-one mentor-mentee meetings, we draw from this document to establish a way in which we communicate, provide information about deadlines and timelines, and set goals. I am proud of our lab community document. The entire lab has contributed to this document through collective work during lab meetings or by working on specific sections. This document is always evolving, always contains a lot of comments and ideas, and reflects how actively we work as a community.

Making myself regularly available to my students for both short check-ins and longer working sessions is a top priority. Given the competition for grants, publication space and jobs, I have a fairly hands-on approach to student training. I meet with each and every research-intensive student in my lab once each week to review work in progress and set goals for the coming week. Some weeks call for only a quick check-in; other weeks call for several hours of discussion about experimental design or new analyses. 

I want to highlight a number of great resources on our CU Boulder campus (HR, Ombuds, OIEC, CTL) who have been incredibly helpful to me and my group. I also really credit members of my current group for their willingness to work closely on our lab environment. I am so proud of how well we are doing both as a group and as individual members! The pandemic was a strain for all of us in one way or another; I was incredibly grateful to be a part of a research group that took time to care for one another, to work very deeply on issues related to diversity and inclusive in STEM, in addition to adjusting to a very difficult period.

What is one external challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? (e.g. in terms of the lab interfacing with its broader institution or community). Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind when an external challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with? 

This is a tough question because although females are better represented I my area of STEM than others, there remain many challenges. Rather than focus on these, I view setting clear expectations and conflict resolution as critical ways to manage relationships – both personal and professional. Relationships of all kinds are always a work in progress.  I am proud to be a part of a research group where members see the value in this work and are willing to think deeply about how our lab is functioning at both individual levels and as a whole.

Where have you found lab inspiration and resources? Which labs, authors, and makers would you love to signal boost? 

I find inspiration and support through my partnership with the co-directors of Inside the Greenhouse [], an entity that we have formed at the University of Colorado focused on creative science/climate communication. We are a diverse group of faculty including Dr. Max Boykoff, CIRES and Environmental Studies, Dr. Beth Osnes – Theatre and Dance, Dr. Phaedra Pezzullo – Communication and me! We work extremely well together with open discussion and trust at the core of our collaboration. This is a passion project for all four of us which transcends our teaching and personal goals. An especially inspiring current project is with Beth Osnes. Side by Side is an art-science collaboration focused on creative climate change communication. This project stems from research by climate change communication experts who agree that narratives motivate climate action more than climate information and contribute to people’s agency for climate action 1) through the creation of transformative narratives that tell a positive and engaging story, 2)  articulate an aspirational vision and 3) inspire confidence in youth to author creative solutions for attaining this vision. We are currently working on curricula, an internship program, and outreach events focused on human-bird relationships in order to inspire deeper connections to our natural work and ultimately, a deeper engagement in creative climate solutions. Check out a souvenir from our first internship program from last summer here.