Pre-emptive thoughts on Pride Month 2019 & a look ahead

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June is Pride Month, and for the first time since 2012, I will be away in the field, this time on the remote Henderson Island in the South Pacific Ocean with no email/phone. To be honest I’m quite looking forward to it.

But it does mean that I’ll be largely absent for Pride Month this year, which is a bit sad because I see it as an important time, to celebrate successes and renew battles for the year ahead. I wrote a fair bit last year about queer issues in science, and since I won’t get a chance to do so (at least not as timely), I thought this year I would look back at the last 12 months, and forward to the year ahead.

 

The last year

In the last year, I had two “Queer in science” talks, including one at my own institution. Both were… ok. There were definitely things that I want to do differently, and bits that I think fell flat which I’m hoping to tweak before I give it again. I think part of my struggle is that I feel there’s just so much information I want to convey, and I worry that not everyone has the same understanding of some of the nuance, history, implications, or gravity. That may be true, but it’s something I need to get over. As a storyteller, I can’t just present facts and citations, especially for something this personal. If you suffered through one of these early attempts, thank you for being gentle.

There was also a noticeable uptick in strangers reaching out for advice. Being rather vocal about LGBTQ+ issues in science (and in general), I’ve received a few queries, usually from folks I knew already, asking questions, looking for advice, or just needing an ear. This year, though, the number of “out of the blue” messages was more than I’d had before. And figuring out how to navigate those in a sensible & compassionate way was certainly challenging. It was also quite sobering. Only last month did I receive a message that started “Hello, how are you. I’m gay from Iraq. I need help”. Now, I’m no expert in things like international aid, asylum, or the like, but thanks to some help from some organizations like Stonewall and Outright International, this person got some hopefully helpful resources. With increased connectivity and visibility I expect such queries to only increase, especially for those of us with our heads above the parapets.

I also had equity, diversity, and inclusions activities written into my annual job plan explicitly, including committees, and hopefully attending an LGBTQ+ leadership course later this year. I’m quite lucky that I can do this, and I know not everyone is able to do so, but it’s an important way that employers can actually demonstrate their commitment to diversity beyond a boilerplate statement and basic policy.

 

The year ahead

The main event for me will, as ever, be the LGBT STEMinar in January in Birmingham. This will be the 5th iteration, and it has really taken off! It’s always heart warming to hear others react so positively to this event, and catch up with the many friends I’ve made at STEMinars past.

As I mentioned, I’ve had LGBTQ+ leadership added to my personal development plan through work this year, so I will be looking to sort that out once I’m back from the field.

I’d very much like to think more about how to make my field work less heteronormative, but that will require some mental space, which is at a premium these days.

Lastly, I’d really like to pin down my “LGBT in STEM” seminar to something that feels less clunky & disjointed.

 

And lastly…

I’m curious to know what you, dear reader (of whatever orientation & identity you happen to be) would like to hear about. I keep yammering on about things as they pop into my mind, so do give a shout if there’s something on your mind (either here, or here)

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Subtle markers of career progression

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Last September, Meg Duffy wrote a really nice piece about what she saw as some of the markers of a shift in career stage – like seeing a reference letter in a grad school application from one of your former undergrad students. This phenomenon is something of which I’ve been acutely aware recently, though I’m not sure why. But every few weeks, I keep finding another example, and I thought I would collate them here.

Similar to Meg’s example above, last December I found myself being the external examiner for a MSc thesis that was the logical progression from my own honours thesis 15 years ago. It was neat to look back and see what I would have done differently, how someone else approached the same challenges, and how they took my rambling suggestions for “future research” and actually implemented some of them!

Back in 2017, I noted that my “Manuscripts” link folder in my browser was empty because all my current submissions were being handled by collaborators or students. That was also the year I had no first-authored papers. There could be an interesting study in how authorship position shifts over career stages (I mean, it’s another example of quantifying the obvious but hey that’s basically ecology & conservation, isn’t it?)

More recently, I have become increasingly frustrated with some of the cultural systems in research in general (and academia specifically) and how difficult it’s been to change/fix, but because of how others (trainees, mentees, or other folks earlier in their career were being treated. I’ve been trying for some time to push our collective system towards a more equitable, inclusive one; my equivalent of reaching down to hold the metaphorical ladder. Or put another way, trying to be the kind of person I would have benefited earlier in my career.

Some not-so-obvious markers come from increased experience, and how long we expect things to take. For example, 7 days out, I hadn’t really done much to prepare for a seminar (because it was a minor alteration of one that I had given just a few months previously), and that didn’t faze me like it would have when I was a postdoc.

And the most recent example was from just yesterday. My good friend & colleague Ingrid Pollet & I, along with some other coauthors, submitted a huge 24,000-word monograph as an updated species account for the Birds of North America series. We’d been working on it since we first hatched the idea at a conference in Barcelona in September 2016, and so submitting it yesterday was a huge cause for celebration. But aside from telling colleagues, I had to make my own celebration. In grad school, or as a postdoc, for example, my supervisor/lab would have chipped in and we would have had some celebratory cake, or a trip to the pub after work. I came home and had a celebratory cinnamon bun (which was delicious).

For the above, I don’t have a particular “good vs bad” take on them; they all seem largely a part of the typical progression for someone in a permanent job 8 years from my PhD. I’ll probably update this post with others as & when they manifest.

When the inclusive science spaces we build meet the orthodoxy

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As a proud non-academic scientist, I find some of the short-hands (shorts-hand?) for career stages don’t really mesh with my experiences so far. I got my PhD in 2011, didn’t have a career break, and am in my second permanent job, so I’m not really an “early-career researcher” any more (or at least, I don’t really feel like one). One big difference between the academy and science writ large is the presence of permanent staff that one manages. I have five permanent staff in my team. For that reason, I’ve sort of dubbed my current career stage “early-career management”.

But whether you’re managing a team of staff, or of research students and postdocs, there are still some common threads and challenges. One of the biggest that I struggle with, be it with staff or the grad students I co-supervise, is how to balance our collective ethos for the way we work with that of the broader community.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that scientific research as a whole has some pretty significant issues, particularly around power dynamics, valuing contributions, and the pressure to produce. Many of these are analogous (or directly applicable) in other fields as well. I, and many others, have been fighting back against these broken systems in our own way, making our little corner of the world just a little bit less crap. And I think I can safely say that the people we work with in building A Better Science World appreciate, and thrive in such environments.

But what about when we come into contact with the brutal, oppressive, harsh “outside world” of the current orthodoxy?

Two examples come to mind. In our lab, and where I work, we often work by consensus, especially on larger cross-cutting issues that affect everyone. Achieving that consensus is important because it means that decisions aren’t regarded as edicts promulgated from upon high, arguments are made and heard, and everyone has a chance to weigh in. This, of course, takes time which is often at odds with the desire of others for a rapid response, or a quick turn-around and if they’re not used to this kind of system of working, it can be seen as needlessly wasting time, or putting decisions off.

The other example is around writing manuscripts which will eventually (hopefully) become journal articles or book chapters or monographs. I’ve alluded to some of this before. Trying to be inclusive with who gets credit (go read Max Liboiron’s blog and paper on equity in authorship… it was quite honestly revolutionary in my own thinking about this), or making sure everyone has a chance to comment, feed back, and sign-off on things like the text, images, and plan (e.g., where to submit it, or whether they agree with the responses to reviewer comments).

Now on the whole, I think our approaches work well, and they are important to me as someone who manages staff and supervises research students and postdocs. But having experienced some situations in the last 2 years that have been so counter to my own approaches, I’ve been left wondering how I can become more resilient to these transgressions, and also prepare my staff and students for their own encounters with a less inclusive, less consensus-driven science world. Some were small (a paper was submitted to a journal other than what we had agreed), others were larger or more chronic.

Because if I find it jarring and upsetting, so will the folks in the work environment I try to nurture. And trying to push back (again, and again) with institutions or a myriad of coauthors (often new, and sometimes one-off) just isn’t sustainable.

I genuinely don’t know the answers, but until Science™ is more inclusive, diverse, and compassionate, and less cut-throat, metrics-driven, and injurious it’s something that those of us trying to change the system, or hold the ladder for those coming behind us will need to think about. And it’s one of my biggest struggles as an Early-Career Manager.

Good science happens because of good people – thoughts on coauthorship

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The title of this post if often how I end my talks and show that even though I’ve been the one talking for the last 45-50 minutes, there’s a whole cadre of students, mentors, and collaborators behind the science. And I will admit that I have had, on the whole, generally good experiences with coauthors. Perhaps so much so that when things don’t go as smoothly, I really notice it. And I’ve only had one coauthoring experience that I would describe as truly awful (and perhaps unsurprisingly, that paper was never published).

So below are a few nuggets. It’s not advice, or meant to be prescriptive, but is more about the ethos that we (my coauthors and I) have tried to adopt over the last 15 years. It’s never been something that someone sat me down to explain, and I’ve picked it up over the years working for (and with) folks at universities, NGOs, quasi-NGOs, government, and community groups.

 

Authorship

Always (ALWAYS) discuss this up front, but be open enough to discuss it again as projects change. I am a huge fan of the CLEAR Lab’s Equity in Author Order post, and highly recommend it. Different folks in different places (geographically, career-wise) have different pressures. Read Max’s post above which lays it out better than I ever could.

 

Journal

We all have preferences for journals, and different factors that go into picking one. Some folks do/don’t have funds for open access. Some have to play the impact factor game. Some need something out quick (more on this below). We always try to come up with a list of 2-3 so that there isn’t a lot of back-and-forth in the case of desk rejects (which happen often enough).

 

Time

With very few exceptions, there are no hard limits on getting things submitted. Not necessarily everyone on the team has a huge time allocation for research, and speaking from personal experience, timelines of “get this back in a week” aren’t likely to be met with compliance. It obviously depends on one’s team, but I found that at least 3 weeks for minor comments worked for a bunch of our papers (especially with larger teams). And obviously longer for things like first drafts or major changes. Whenever we suggest a deadline, we usually include the caveat that if someone feels they can’t make it, we can happily accommodate if they let us know.

The same goes for revisions. I have yet to be denied additional time from a journal to complete revisions, so long as they know it’s coming. And believe me, I have certainly asked frequently.

 

Software

There are lots of tools for writing papers these days. Overleaf, Google docs, Word, TeX, papyrus, and no doubt others. There are likely to be legitimate preferences for one over the other, and finding a consensus (with rationale for why) is another piece that brings everyone on board. For several years, I was in the field & working offline for large chunks of time so Google Docs was less than ideal, for example. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

 

Communication

I mean, this one is pretty universal. But in this context, I mean keeping everyone in the loop about where things are. Not all journals email all coauthors about decisions, and sometimes folks who aren’t coauthors will need to be kept in the loop. Send around submitted (and indeed accepted versions) of manuscripts for folks to decide to keep for their records. In the case of accepted versions, many institutional repositories need these, and so it saves an email.

 

Develop a checklist

If you work with the same team, or supervise students, having a quick checklist for common issues can be helpful and save time. Are all references cited listed? Are the figures colour-blind-friendly? Our students submit this checklist with each new submission, and it means we can focus on the more substantive parts of the manuscript.

 

A note about process

With all the above, we try to come to a decision by consensus and after hearing from everyone. Sure, we have suggestions and can have informed starting suggestions, but we get the OK from all before proceeding. Yes, it can take a bit longer, but it means that everyone’s involved in the decisions, and has a bit more invested in the project and its success. At the end of the day, everyone’s name is going to appear on it, so if there’s something grating someone the wrong way, it’s not great (from either side).

The above is just a few of the major “process” things we think about when writing a paper. There are indeed more, and as I said, this isn’t meant to be prescriptive or a complete list. My point is that finding a system that eliminates (or mitigates hurdles before they manifest in a collaborative way has been a huge benefit for us, and when we end up working in other collaborative circles without some (or any) of these, it’s quite noticeable, and sometime unpleasant.

An understanding of everyone’s pressures, institutional requirements, and logistical situation up-front can help ensure smooth(er) passage of papers through the part of science publication where we have the most direct control – producing that manuscript for submission.

 

Happy coauthoring!

2019 goals

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I’ve done an end-of-year “By the Numbers” post for the last 6 years, but last year was the first time I did a looking-forward post on goals for the year ahead. How’d it go?

Well, one of the long-languishing projects got submitted in December. The other remains largely untouched :/

Research kickstarted: tick!

Grant application: err, no. Sigh.

First main supervisor PhD student: Yep! And there’s still a week to apply if anyone’s interested!

Museum digitisation: Oh yeah. Lots of fundraising around this one, but it’s paid off. Hopefully more on this soon.

Natural history paper: not quite.

Genetic barcoding: uh, sorta?

Photography: that’s a hard “no”, sadly.

L&F posts: made 17, which is far more than I thought.

 

So what about 2019?

Get that languishing project off that was missed in 2018 off my desk. I mean honestly, it’s been forever. With a paper submitted in December, this is now my “oldest” active project. Sorry, postdoc supervisors & collaborators… it’s coming, I promise!

Same goes for that grant application. But at least there was some logistical progress (and the granting agency ditched deadlines!).

Build a local group of friends – it always (n = 4) takes me about 2 years to build a group of outside-work friends. A mix of not having kids, not living where I work, and moderate introversion. So far so good for 2019.

Provide better mentorship – I think “mentor” is a title best applied by others to someone who provides mentorship. But ultimately who mentors the mentors? Thoughts on this one gratefully received!

Make STEM (or at least my little corner of it) a better place for queer folk. Part of that is keeping up the same battles, but part of it is also looking to gear up for what’s next on the horizon. There’s some exciting stuff already planned for 2019, but I know I already operate in a very queer-friendly online bubble. Thoughts? Let me know what I might be able to help with.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and safe 2019 everyone!

2018 by the numbers

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Read previous years’ By the Numbers: 20172016201520142013

 

17

The number of new posts this year. I had aimed for 18, and this was much closer than I thought I would get. I really enjoyed the Pride Month span, but doubt I could keep up that pace in 2019.

The top 10 this year were:

Personal academic websites for faculty & grad students: the why, what, and how

What LGBTQ+ folk in STEM want to communicate to straight colleagues: unedited responses

How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark

Suggestions for responding to reviewer comments

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler

Beware the academic hipster (or, use what works for you) UPDATED

The advantages of Google Scholar for early-career academics

Essential Pride month reading and viewing for straight friends & colleagues

What’s in an affiliation?

Why research seminar series suck, and how to make them better

 

ca. 28,000

The number of visitors to The Lab and Field this year. Who knew so many were interested in some ramblings of mine. Thanks all!

 

153

The number of countries those visitors came from. With the strong LGBTQ+ STEM focus this year, I wonder how many were from the 70-odd where its illegal.

 

3

Trips to Australia for field work and writing papers. Ouch, I’m sorry, carbon footprint. Partially mitigated by our lack of children, car, tumble dryer, and red meat?

 

34

Days in the field this year, in three bouts (January, April/May, and October). Look for this to increase in 2019 (eep!).

 

12

New papers this year (with at least 3 more in proof stage that should appear very soon!). For several reasons, I’ve found this year marked a bit of a career change (from Early Career Researcher to Early Career Manager), with the thanks as always to my amazing students, and collaborators!

 

1 in 61 trillion

The probability the thylacine persists in Tasmania. Still. I’m sorry.

 

119

The number of coauthors this year, a record high largely due to a massive effort by Kat Koegan who wrangled 87 of us together for a paper on seabird breeding phenology in Nature Climate Change.

 

0.41

My Gender Gap. Ouff. Excluding the 87 coauthors from the mega-review. Also note that this strictly assumes a gender binary which isn’t necessarily the best. Need to think about this more in 2019.

 

6915

The number of emails sent in 2018, which isn’t much different from last year (yay!). I still say we should bring back typewriters so make people think more about what they put in an email. Outlook remained the most used program on my work laptop this year, at about 40% of working hours!

 

4

The number of searches for “conservation of interviwe” that brought folks here. OK then.

 

1

Full years working a pretty amazing job at the Natural History Museum. I think I’m finally started to begin to get the faintest hint of a semblance of how things work. There’s something pretty special working for a place founded by a statute in 1753.

 

2018 was a bumpy year, but here we are. Happy new year!

Back by demand: Queer in STEM AMA & What Straight Colleagues Should Know

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Over the summer, I put out two calls for feedback, both around being LGBTQ+ in science. One for folks to ask me questions about being gay/queer in science [original post here; responses here], and the other flipped the question on its head, asking LGBTQ+ scientists what they wish their straight colleagues knew about being LGBTQ+ in science [original post here; responses here].

I’ve had a couple of requests to open these back up, and so here we are.

Have you got a question about being LGBTQ+ in STEM? Ask it totally anonymously here! No question is too basic, too complex, or too embarrassing.

Are you LGBTQ+ in STEM & wish your straight colleagues knew something in particular (or in general?). Let me know here! No wish is too small, too large, or too impossible.

As before, I’ll compile the responses after a couple of weeks.

Suggestions for responding to reviewer comments

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One of the often frustrating things about the scientific process is finally getting the manuscripts published. This is true of reports, theses, journal articles, white papers, and more. Anything that undergoes any mechanism of external review where a response is needed. Journal manuscripts are the most common in my line of work, so that’s where I’ll focus, though this applies elsewhere, too.

When scientists submit manuscripts to a journal, journal editors who think the submission is suitable for their journal (in terms of scope and quality) will send it out to other experts in the field to comment on and provide an assessment. But in a throwback to the pre-computer age, where carbon copies of types manuscripts were mailed and returned, reviewers provide this feedback by referring to page or line number in a separate document rather than, say, a tracked changes function in a word processor.

If the manuscript isn’t rejected at this stage, authors are invited to respond to these comments, and either comply, rebut, or present new arguments to convince the editor that the work is publishable in that particular journal. Again, as a separate document, often called a “response to review”. And it’s this document that is the focus of this post because seldom is any guidance given, and how one approaches it can be one of those “unwritten rules” about science.

Steve Heard has this covered well on his blog as well, and in his excellent book on science writing (and I hasten to add, he was the first person who explained this process to me when I was a wee masters student, n years ago!).

Here’s an example reviewer comment:

L283 – while this may be true for chocolate cookies, what do the authors expect in their study system of apple pies?

As reviewer comments go, this one is pretty good. It’s specific, and makes a clear suggestion, highlighting what they see as a weakness (in this case, perhaps applying an incorrect interpretation from a different system).

So, how to respond?

If the journal system lets you upload a response to review as a separate document (my preferred method!), then my approach has 3 parts:

  1. Put the reviewer comment in boldface. Just copy & paste it. It’s then easier for you, your coauthors, the editor, and other reviewers to see which comment you’re replying to. I dislike colours because some folks print things out, and bold text is easily distinguished.
  2. Immediately below, explain what you did (or didn’t do) to address the comment in normal type.
  3. Quote ANY new or changed text in italics. Don’t refer to line numbers (which can get easily muddled); just put it right here for everyone to see.

So if we take our example above, it might look something like this:

L283 – while this may be true for chocolate cookies, what do the authors expect in their study system of apple pies?

We thank the reviewer for pointing out this comparison. Indeed, the approach for consuming chocolate cookies (i.e., using one’s hands) is less often applied in the case of filled pastries, including apple pies. We have changed the text to: “Desserts are easily consumed with hands (Monster, 2018) or can be eaten with assistance from cutlery (Garfield 2015)”

Garfield [The Cat]. 2015. Refined dining for modern felines. J. Arbuckle Press, Samoa.

With a quick look, the editor (or reviewer, as it often gets sent back for Round n+1) can see how the comment was addressed, and doesn’t have to wade through the entire manuscript, comparing it to an old version. And a happy editor/reviewer is often a kinder reviewer/editor.

For minor suggestions, like word choice, typos, or where the reviewer comment is obvious, it’s fine to respond with “Fixed” or “Changed as suggested”. But when in doubt add more information rather than less.

At the end of the day, though, the precise formatting doesn’t matter. What matters is that the information is presented clearly and can be easily assessed. Some journals (or some programs) use plain text for responses to review. In this case, I paste the reviewer comment, and below start my comment with “Response” or “R:”, and sadly the new/inserted text part gets left off.

Few things frustrate reviewers or editors more than a response of “Changed” without indicating where or how. I just stumbled on these formatting methods, and I’m sure there are others. The general advice of clearly indicating a response (to each and every comment) and marking any new or inserted text can be accomplished in many ways.

Happy responding!

 

Cultural memory and being queer in STEM

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Everyone has those “remember where you were when you heard X” moments in their life. One of the prominent ones in my life was 20 years ago today. I was sitting in my bedroom eating dinner and watching TV. It was October 7th, 1998 and I was 15. 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die, which he did 5 days later.

And if you want to watch the iconic news broadcast from October 12th in full, it’s here.

My own journey to figure out who (or what) I was was still nascent and confusing. It would still be another 7 years before I came out, but the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming was, for many (myself included), a watershed moment in queerness.

If one looked to mark gay/queer culture in North America by epoch, the 80s and early 90s were dominated by HIV. The late 90s and early 2000s, I contend, were dominated by greater connections made thanks to the internet, and to physical violence. We even had a term for it – gay bashing. Interestingly, this rise (and subsequent fall) can be seen in Google’s ngram viewer:

gaybash

Shepard’s beating was the basis for the season-ending plot arc on the US version of Queer as Folk in 2001 at a time when the show was starting to become a staple of cable TV, and which I would sneakily watch in my shared dorm room at university when my roommate was elsewhere (the older among you will recall this was before youtube or catch-up or even the ability to watch videos on the internet at all!).

The story, and the reaction of the residents of Laramie was turned into the play The Laramie Project, which was put on at the campus theatre in about 2004, I think. I daren’t audition for fear it would let someone peek in the closet (despite playing a gay character that died of AIDS the previous year, but that’s a story for another post). The play featured interviews done by the playwriting collective with residents of the town, and explicitly did not show Matthew’s murder. I’ve also never seen footage of the actual fence to which he was tied and beaten to death, but in my mind, I have had the same still image associated with the event for the last 20 years.

And it might be convenient to consign these horrific events to the past, but they still occur regularly around the world. Maybe because they are now perceived as being more common, or because they no longer shock or resonate as they once did, they no longer receive either the media attention or national outcry they did 20 years ago. But let us not be complacent – there is still a great deal of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment out there.

In the UK, a newspaper columnist decried the “state transgender agenda“. And half of LGBTQ+-identifying 14 year olds reported self-harming. Some places still refuse to fly the Pride flag.

In Australia, 25 people were charged with hate-speech offences for comments made during the 2017 marriage equality postal vote. And no doubt the queer community is still grappling with the repercussions of putting its rights up for public debate.

In Canada, a video went viral of a man spitting on a rainbow crosswalk, which brought to story of an assault eerily reminiscent of Shepard’s and only two years later into the spotlight (and in the city where I did my PhD only 7 years later, and in places I knew well). And the closing line from Veronica Dymond in the CBC story above sums things up quite well:

Every person in the LGBTQ community has that moment, when they realized they weren’t safe in their communities. So many people have worked hard to make this country a safer place for us, and I’m grateful. But that doesn’t erase the memories, and the struggle is ongoing.

The history of violence against queer folk permeates the culture we share. And that cultural memory can’t be dismissed, or necessarily understood by outsiders.

But cultural memory changes and evolves as those who experienced it become more removed, and those who didn’t try to understand it without having been there. This excellent thread on HIV/AIDS is an example of just that. So is the book How to Survive a Plague.

Now, dear reader, you are no doubt wondering what this has to do with science? Queer folk are less likely to pursue careers in science, and once in science, they don’t always find it to be a welcoming place (though this is getting better!). But many queers in STEM  also carry that cultural memory of the constant loss of friends or just simply queer compatriots we never knew, but might have in different circumstances. Or indeed have experienced it directly themselves (if you want to get an idea of the UK situation, check out the BBC Two 2017 documentary “Is It Safe To Be Gay In the UK?“; though not currently available on the BBC site, it might be found elsewhere). And many of us “tone down” our queerness in science and in public for fear of repercussions. Asking ourselves, is it safe, while looking over our shoulder at who else might be around. It’s the little things. Where ideas like queering our science seem revolutionary, iconoclastic, and risqué.

Lately, there’s not been a week go by where I haven’t been contacted by an early-career queer scientist who just wanted to chat with someone who had a set of shared experiences. I sure as heck don’t have all the answers, and I still struggle myself from time to time (to paraphrase a Star Trek episode title, who mentors the mentors?). One shouldn’t be expected separate one’s queerness from one’s science, even when that queerness comes with a legacy of hurt. Science is people, and people include emotion.

This October 12th, which incidentally is also International Coming Out Day, I’ll work to make my science a little bit more queer, I’ll come out (for the 4776th day in a row), and I’ll reflect on both how far we’ve come in the last 20 years, and how far we have yet to go in science and in society.

 

Reflections on 13 years as an out scientist

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As I was cooking dinner tonight, it dawned upon me that 13 years ago I made a decision that would would have a profound impact on my personal and professional life: I came out. Or, more accurately, I came out for the first time. I wrote a bit about it earlier this summer:

On September 15th, 2005 after getting home from the lab, I realised I had to tell someone, so I called up one of my closest friends and came out for the first time. The genre of “coming out stories” was quite popular at the time (well, at least for me), so I had read/watched nearly every one I could find on the internet. The ones that went well, the ones that ended poorly. It was not uncommon for advice on coming out to include things like “keep a stash of cash for a couple of days” and “make sure you arrange with a friend beforehand to spend the night, or a couple of nights, if you need to”. Thankfully, I was financially independent and living on my own, but that’s the kind of pervasive environment that existed (or at least that I perceived).

She was, perhaps predictably, fine. Mum was the next day, and was fine in the end, though perhaps a bit surprised. Dad was the day after, and was fine, too. In fact, all the family — grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles — were totally fine once they got over the initial surprise. I was so incredibly lucky. I know others for whom it was not fine.

In our household, there are really only a few key annual events: my & my husband’s birthdays, our anniversary, and our “coming-out-iversary”. Mine is Sept 15th. He beat me by about 6 months.

On the face of it, 13 years doesn’t necessarily seem like that long a time. But in reality it’s just (barely) over a third of my life, and certainly half of my adult life. It spans nearly my entire scientific career (which I peg as starting with my honours thesis on 15 April 2004 in a freezing bird observatory next to a nuclear power plant, at about 5am). And a lot has changed since 2005.

When I canvassed for things that LGBQ+ scientists wish their straight colleagues knew, the idea that “coming out” isn’t a one-off event came up several times. There’s probably not a week that goes by where I haven’t come out to someone. Sometimes it’s subtle (a rainbow lanyard), other times it’s more blatant (a talk about being an out gay scientist).

And after 13 years (at least 7 of which I’ve been much more public in my professional life), I’ve come to a realization — I’m now one of the established gays. To draw a professional analogy, I’ve moved beyond being an Early Career Gay, and have Gay Tenure/a Gay Permanent Contract. This post by Meg Duffy on Dynamic Ecology looks at some of the less obvious, more subtle markers of career progression, and in a sense I’ve passed something similar in my professional gayness.

Some of the markers of this transition have happened particularly in the last 2 years: I’ve had staff or trainees come out to me and ask for advice, I’ve had colleagues ask me if/how/when they should come out to their students, and I’m now asked to give seminars on being an out gay/queer scientist to professional audiences. But it’s the first of these that will be the focus of this post.

Professionally, I’ve had the fortune to work in four nurturing, collegial research groups between my undergrad and postdoc. I learned heaps, both about science, and about HOW to science. Experimental design, paper reviewing, data analysis, permit applications, structuring an outline… I had a good number of the tools needed to become a good scientist.

What I lacked 13 years ago (and to a certain extent, still lack today) is the mentorship to navigate being a gay scientist. And what I’ve noticed in the last two years is I’m increasingly finding myself in the mentor role both in terms of science, but also in terms of being a gay scientist. And it’s one of the most fulfilling things I think I’ll experience, seeing mentees progress and achieve both professionally and personally. I literally beam with pride at their successes and wins.

Science, and academic science in particular, has a habit of segregating the personal and professional. I have a bit of experience with that kind of dual existence, and I can tell you it’s not that healthy. As an undergrad, I couldn’t imagine doing science as a job and saw the science side of my life on the opposite shore of an ocean from the rest of my life. In the closet, to use an analogy, I saw my fundamental niche from inside the closet of my realised niche. Now, the Venn diagram of all of these aspects of my life are well balanced.

When we say that “representation matters”, we don’t just mean the one-way idolization or looking up to a role model, though that’s certainly an important part. It’s more of a dialogue. Straight allies, no matter how wonderful they are, don’t have the same shared experiences. And there simply aren’t enough LGBTQ+ mentors in science (as evidenced by the frequent queries I get from LGBTQ+ folk just looking to talk to someone at a later career stage).

So I guess I’m now, 13 years later, coming out as a mentor (though I feel uncomfortable applying that label to myself. Like “ally” it’s a term that’s bestowed by someone else, and can be transient). If you’re stuck, need to chat, or whatever, drop me a DM on twitter, or an email. Like so many things, I’m offering because I wish someone had offered to me 13 years ago, and I think it’s an important part of science (or indeed research more generally) that’s often neglected.