Mélise Edwards doesn’t linger in the comfort zone. Right now, the Seattle-based climber is training for Tuck Fest’s deep water solo competition; in a word, this means she’s preparing to climb a severely overhung wall, unroped, forty feet above an aquamarine pool, her every move on display for a rapt audience. No sweat for a professional climber like Edwards, right? Well, except for the fact that she’s a self-described “horribly shy, introverted heights-hater.”
Instead of avoiding challenge—or succumbing to fear—Edwards prefers to confront it head-on, finessing her mind so that her body can do its thing. “Your goal is to master your own emotions (and ego) and be the best climber at that moment that you can be,” she says. “This is why I love competing in scary environments: it truly is a battle with yourself.”
Most climbers appreciate that there’s a certain head game to the sport, but Edwards might understand this better than most—she’s also a brain researcher and aspiring neuroscientist. She’ll soon leave both her home crag and her job at a neuroendocrinology lab to begin a Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts. The application process offered its own sense of discomfort. “I noticed how low my confidence was at first compared to some of my peers who were overwhelmingly represented in the field,” she says. “I secretly wondered if other minority women were also doubting their talents and intelligence for lack of representation, juxtaposed with the plentiful reinforcement our white and male peers often received.”
Edwards pushed through the doubt, not just in pursuit of her studies, but also because she wants other people of color, especially young women, to see themselves represented in science. She performs a similar role within the climbing community, using her voice to raise issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, while serving as role model for the sport’s next generation.
Science, climbing, and advocacy certainly dictate the general balance of Edwards’ life, but not its sum total. She also volunteers for Vertical Generation, a non-profit that introduces young people to climbing, hopes to develop youth programming that combines climbing and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) principles, and feels certain she’ll end up running for political office down the line.
For now, at least, Edwards is content with her path. “Whether it’s five, ten, or twenty years, I think my goals will continue to be the same,” she says, “I have found what makes me genuinely happy.”
Edwards carved out space between lab duties, grad school prep, and bouldering laps to answer our questions about science, climbing, and the importance of speaking up.
AJ: You’ve been vocal on issues like sexism and inequity in the outdoors—and you’ve faced backlash for doing so. Why is it important that you continue to speak up on these issues?
Edwards: It’s important to be vocal and hopefully in doing so, grant others the courage and permission to do the same. It’s not about me and my one struggle or collection of negative experiences. If these things were truly happening to me and only me, I could handle it or ignore it and be fine. But we know from plentiful evidence that this just isn’t the case; I have received hundreds of messages from people who share their stories of rampant discrimination, bullying, microaggressions, racism, sexism, etc. Hearing the stories of others and knowing that I am in a position of privilege to share these words and have it reach an audience who can learn or resonate with my words is what inspires me to keep going.
What kinds of conversations would you like to see happening within the climbing community or the outdoor industry as a whole?
The climbing community has broadened its conversations in large part due to the efforts of incredible organizations like Brown Girls Climb, Melanin Base Camp, BOC Crew, Brown Girls Climbing, Queer Nature, Indigenous Women Hike, Flash Foxy, Outdoor Afro, Native Womens Wilderness, Unlikely Hikers, The Joy Trip Project, Natives Outdoors, etc. There are so many dedicated and relentless leaders who are making the outdoors more inclusive for everyone.
I would like to see more discussions surrounding privilege, race, ethnicity, gender, ableism, LGBTQ people, and recognition of the land we are recreating on and how we came to have access to these territories through brutalization and colonization. As climbers, we are so used to constantly putting the focus on ourselves and our goals in the short term, but I hope that we could simultaneously and collectively acknowledge others’ perspectives and the history of our sport—not just in the context of the legendary climbers who were bold, brave and privileged, but in the greater history of our country and the people who have not always been represented, protected, or included in these narratives. In doing so, I hope we would have a truly more open-minded and accepting community that doesn’t stem from silence of minority groups, but from true acceptance and understanding.
What does a truly just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive climbing community or outdoor industry look like—and what’s stopping us from getting there right now?
There are issues that are perpetuated by climbers and people in positions of power in the climbing community that with intentional effort, investment, and education could aid the community in its goal of becoming more diverse, tolerant, and inclusive. There are then things that are happening on a country-wide level that will need to address economic inequality, systemic racism, continued oppression of vulnerable and historically marginalized groups, etc.
What is stopping us from getting there in every domain is 1) people in positions of power and privilege who are uncomfortable with talking about and/or admitting their privilege, 2) when privileged people hold the majority of wealth and power in a country at the expense of vulnerable populations, it is easy to take offense and disregard the voices of minority groups asking for equality, 3) marginalized groups constantly voice exactly what could be done to make any given community more equitable, but are constantly moderated by a homogeneous majority that would rather the messages be kinder, softer, less divisive, and therefore, each idea presented isn’t granted legitimacy and is written off for the continued comfort of the majority.
What is stopping us from getting to a society that is equitable and inclusive is all of this and more. It’s the double standard that suggests all minorities take after the most famous civil rights activists throughout history and be “kind” when talking about a lifetime of racism or discrimination, yet the onus is never put on those in positions of privilege and power to learn about how they contribute to oppression and engage in principled self-examination. It is the double standard that people of color have to be emotionally intelligent enough to craftily convince the majority to care about racism, lest they showcase their genuine anger and dissuade people from caring at all. It is the lack of care or urgency to protect historically oppressed groups and provide reparations for stolen land and wealth. We need a better-educated and morally motivated society.
Conversely, what individuals or entities are truly moving not just the conversation, but the actual work forward?
There are SO many incredible individuals within and beyond the outdoor community! I am honored to watch the relentless work of folks like Teresa Baker and her Outdoor CEO Pledge, Bethany Lebewitz, Brittany Leavitt, Danielle Sky, James Mills, Jenny Bruso, Mikhail Martin, Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd, Vasu Sojitra, Georgie Abel, Paulina Dao, Meghan Young, Karen Ramos, Laura Edmonson, Montserrat Matehuala, Katie Boué, Emily Taylor with Brown Girls Climbing, and honestly so many, many more folks. The people who are committed to their passions within the outdoors and spend countless energy and thought into how to make these spaces more accessible for everyone are my greatest heroes.
What excites you most about the future of neuroscience?
Everything—this is such an exciting time to be studying neuroscience. While there are many incredible areas within the field, I am personally most excited about translational research. I want to study the neuropathology, risk factors, and cognitive decline associated with neurodegenerative disease. I am also really excited about looking at sex hormones and their influence on neurocognitive function. Another area I can’t read enough about is traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Basically, if I was a cat and had nine lives, I’d use every single one to look at an amazing and exciting research area in neuroscience!
I noticed the #diversifySTEM hashtag on your Twitter profile—how do issues of inequity manifest in the sciences? Have you noticed any significant efforts to, in fact, “diversify STEM,” especially any that the outdoor industry might learn from?
I think academia, like other communities, is slowly recognizing its own homogeneity and lack of accessibility and is trying to change this. There are funding opportunities for minorities in STEM, but representation and exposure to the fields are equally important for aspiring STEM enthusiasts. I think grassroots efforts and social media are amazing for exposure and representation. One powerful thing about social media is that we are able to connect with these hashtags and accounts that are all about showcasing the amazing women and men of color in these spheres doing incredible work. I depended heavily on accounts like @phuturedoctors, @blackwomenphds, @women.doing.science, @wokestem, and others for inspiration and quieting the severe imposter syndrome I was feeling while applying for my Ph.D. program. It is also important to work directly with others through mentorship programs and show what it looks like to thrive in a given community.
When you consider all you’ve accomplished to this point in life—whether that’s in climbing, in your work, or otherwise—what are you most proud of thus far?
I am most proud that when faced with a decision to stay comfortable or be vulnerable, I choose vulnerability.