“LGBTQI people should feel like they have a safe place in science”


When asked to name LGBTQI scientists, most people will know about Alan Turing, a prominent computer scientist who helped Britain win WWII – and who was prosecuted for being gay after the war ended.

Some might have heard of Ben Barres, a trans neurobiologist from Stanford who passed away in 2017. Besides his amazing work on glial cells, he was also known for his feminism.

But that’s usually it.

You might ask yourself, why does it matter? Well, people who have had different experiences can provide a unique point of view.

Scientists from the Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi have shown that more diverse labs have more scientific impact. So scientists from diverse backgrounds, including women, black and minority ethnic, and LGBTQI scientists, all contribute to science in a unique way – and this should be celebrated.

LGBTQI people should also feel like they have a safe place in science. Even though Alan Turing was a great scientist, his story does not reassure LGBTQI students that science is a safe place for them.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the 2014 film Imitation Game

Sadly, positive stories of LGBTQI scientists are hard to find but an initiative called 500 Queer Scientists, started by Lauren Esposito – a scorpion scientist at the California Academy of Sciences – has begun to change that.

As a visibility campaign for LGBTQI people and their allies working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and STEM-supporting jobs, they have profiles of over 900 LGBTQI people from around the world and from all different levels of academia.

Lastly, and most importantly, scientists are people who should feel able to talk about their personal life at work. Sometimes, the personal lives of scientists might even inspire the work they do.

Professor David K. Smith’s research on self-assembled multivalent complexes was inspired by the complications his husband experienced with heparin, a blood thinner commonly used during surgery. His husband’s story, and thus him being gay, is an integral part of his science.

Luckily, there are some great initiatives which aim to ensure the diversity of people in science as well as showcasing the amazing work being carried out by LGBTQI scientists.

LGBTQI STEM organises a seminar each year for scientists to give talks on their research topics. Stonewall does great work in making workplaces, including universities, more LGBTQI-friendly through their Diversity Champions programme. Many universities also have their own LGBTQI societies, either for students, staff or both.

I started to get involved in the Out And About STEM project at the University of Sussex because I felt isolated as one of very few openly LGBTQI scientists in my department.

Now, I help to organise events to make the LGBTQI scientists in our school more visible and we are also incorporating LGBTQI visibility in our outreach activities, through which we hope to inspire young LGBTQI peoples’ interest in science and make them feel like science is a safe place for them.

The 5 July 2019 will mark the second International Day Of LGBTQI people in STEM (LGBTSTEM Day), a day to raise both awareness and support.

The first LGBTSTEM Day, organised by Pride in STEM, was a huge success with 16,000 tweets totalling over 11 million impressions, 65 million impressions on Facebook, as well as hundreds of Instagram posts and stories.

We hope that these activities will increase the visibility of LGBTQI scientists to science a place where everybody feels welcome, and will ultimately make the science itself better!

Written by Dori Grijseels (they/them), Sussex Neuroscience PhD

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