LGBT History Month: Celebrating Pride in STEM

The LGBT month was instituted to increasing visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT”) people in every layer of society. It’s a celebration of their history, lives and experiences. The aim is to raise awareness and advance education on matters affecting the LGBT community creating safe spaces for all LGBTQ+ communities. One wanted to promote the welfare of LGBTQ+ people, by ensuring that the education system recognises and enables LGBT+ people to achieve their full potential, so they contribute fully to society and lead fulfilled lives, thus benefiting society as a whole”. Source lgbthistorymonth.org.uk

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Speaking for myself, I don’t know many historical LGBTQ+ folks in science. This is not because they don’t exist or didn’t give any major contribution to science. It’s more because their sexuality has been consistently erased from every school textbook due to gender discrimination. For example, did you know that one of the greatest scientists and artists of all the times, Leonardo Da Vinci, was gay? Or Francis Bacon, a British philosopher, was a non-binary folk? More recent scientists, John Nash, economism and mathematician, Nobel Laureate in Economy, the guy on the movie A Beautiful Mind was gay? I could make a very long list of all the queer scientists who gave a significant contribution to science but their gender being omitted because society hasn’t been gay-friendly so far.

Manil Suri, professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country, in his op-ed article in the New York Times put a few hypotheses forward to explain Why Science is so Straight. Underrepresentation is just one factor that reduces visibility. Unlike women and minorities, whose status is usually obvious, sexual orientation is a hidden characteristic” he writes. This is an important point and this s why I added my gender pronouns (she/her) to all my social media platforms and the signature on my email addresses. I encourage you to do the same to create a more inclusive environment.

Don’t assume that people are male if they look like a male, or female if they look like one.

In his article, Suri continues by addressing another toxic stereotype of academia: success = ditching off your personal life. “There is another, more insidious factor at work. STEM culture is very problem-focused. Conversations, even over lunch, typically remain restricted to work matters…Being too expressive of personal identity can be viewed as running counter to scientific neutrality“. Unfortunately, I feel this culture of giving up your life for science as one of the major deterrents for everyone in science. Scientists are real people, with emotions, feelings, ambitions, hobbies, sexual desires and life outside science too. Destigmatise this will definitely create a safer and more friendly environment for everyone really.

Trans scientists who chose to change their name may have a back record of academic papers, forcing them to out themselves at academic conferences. Many of these experiences are unique to queer scientists, and deserve to be heard and addressed to make STEM more inclusive to all” writes Ive Velikova, a bisexual science communicator, (meet Ive later on) in her article On Being Queer in STEM. Having this conversation is absolutely important for queer scientists to feel free to express their true self and comfortable in their own skin either in their personal life and in a professional context too.

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated be separated. Rosalind Flanklin

Why visibility matters? As a minority in science myself, I can’t stress enough the importance of having role models and someone to look up to when pursuing your career in science. Underrepresentation could make you believe that you don’t belong to a field just because no one you identify yourself with has done this before. Plus, academia is quite isolating and having a support system is important. If you don’t find your people in your environment I recommend using social media to get connected. Starting my website and my Instagram page has had a tremendous positive impact on my academic life. People who I have never seen before gave me much more support than anyone I know around me.

My social media channels and Instagram pages such as @thescicommunity, @thestemsquad and @ph_d_epression made my PhD journey definitely more enjoyable, not to mention the support these communities gave me to navigating my depression and anxiety.

No one should ever feel like they are alone

I suggest following and reaching out these awesome people if you want to feel you belong to a community and find the support you need.

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“My name is Rob Ulrich. I am a 2nd-year PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles studying how living things make their hard parts such as shells and skeletons. I am also the founder and president of Queers in STEM, which is an initiative for diversity and inclusion in STEM centring around the LGBTQ+ community”.

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Maya D. is an undergraduate researcher at the University of Lethbridge/University of British Columbia and soon-to-be MSc student at the University of British Columbia (Pathology and Laboratory Medicine) modelling mutations that cause malignant cellular transformations in normal gynaecological tissues to better understand the development of ovarian cancers.

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I’m Vic Zamloot (they/them) and I’m a first-year biology PhD student at the Irell and Manella Graduate School at the City of Hope Research Hospital in Southern California. As a first-year student, I haven’t gotten to commit to a lab or research project yet, but I’m hoping to pursue epigenetics, DNA repair, or some possible intersection of the two. I’m the first openly trans or nonbinary student at COH, but they’ve certainly embraced me and any future trans students. Their application now asks for people’s pronouns! Outside of biology, I love hiking, spending time with my wonderful partner, and snuggling with my cat, Helix. You can find me on Twitter (@dngayest) or Instagram (@vzam506), where I post lots of cat pictures and talk about navigating grad school as an enby student!

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Ive Velikova recently graduated with a BSc in neuroscience. Her thesis was about the psychology of medical terms, neuroplasticity, and how language is processed in the brain. She is an awesome science communicator and this piece wouldn’t be possible without all the resources she shares on the social media platforms to raise the visibility of queer in STEM. She runs a YouTube channels Science with Ive and recently started a podcast called Science Sucks, available to downloads from Spotify for free, where scientists share an insight into the science they’re passionate about.

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Hey, I’m Charlie () and I am a parasitology post graduate from the University of East London. Did you know that studies suggest LGBTQ women are 18% more likely to stay in STEM subjects in high school and further education? LGBT History Month is a good time to reflect just how far gay rights have come. When I was a teenager, it was illegal for me to marry a woman. I was raised in a world that made the message to me that my relationships were wrong. And I didn’t know any gay women at all. Today, gay marriage in the United Kingdom is legal (and loved). And the heterosexual dominated field of science is changing too. I have never had problems ‘coming out’ to my colleagues, and there’s never been as much as a raised eyebrow. And there are so many of us in science! If you’re a young LGBTQ woman considering a career in STEM, my message to you is that it’s safe here. And there is a place for you. If you’re struggling right now, I promise you it does get better. We’re here, we’re queer, and there are a lot of us wearing lab coats. Reach out if you need us.

I had the change to meet Charlie in person in London last September and I can’t be any happier to feature her in this article. I come from a Catholic country where being gay is still a shame and you might and end up being marginalised by your family for coming out. Things are slowly changing but in some poor and rural settings, if you are heterosexual you are normal, all the rest is either a shame or against God.

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For more resources, reaching out to a wider community and advocate for non-binary folks in STEM check out the website 500queerscientists.com or read the book The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist by Ben Barres.

Thanks to Ive, Charlie, Rob, Vic and Maya. This article wouldn’t have been possible without their support. #strongertogether #scienceforeveryone #stem4all

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Please note that this is by no means a compehensive insight into the queer in STEM world. I have no direct experience of any of the above. Please be mindful in making an unsolicited comment and appreciate the afford of opening a discussion about the topic.