LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2023: Durham researchers’ LGBTQ+ STEM Heroes, part 1


To mark LGBTQ+ STEM Day on November 18th Palatinate has teamed up with researchers from across the University to ask them questions about their chosen LGBTQ+ STEM heroes.

LGBTQ+ STEM Day a chance to celebrate the work of LGBTQ+ people in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) and to commit to dismantling the barriers LGBTQ+ people face in STEM; hence we’ve asked all researchers about their heroes and for their suggestions on how we can make working in STEM more inclusive to LGBTQ+ people.

In part 1 of this series, we speak to researchers from computer science, anthropology, and physics to learn more about heroes from the worlds of electronic music, microchip engineering, and astrophysics.

Christopher Marcotte, Computer Science

Christopher Marcotte is a queer, non-binary, migrant (twice-over) from the USA to the UK. They’ve spent time in every letter of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) before joining the Department of Computer Science at Durham University in September 2022. They primarily work on cardiac electrophysiology problems, from a mathematical and computational perspective.

Lynn Conway is a Professor Emerita of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. She invented new techniques to simplify the design and fabrication of complex microchips that revolutionised the industry. In 1998, she came out about her gender transition 30 years earlier and has since been a prominent public advocate for the rights of transgender people.

Why have you chosen Lynn Conway as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

I chose Lynn Conway as my LGBTQ+ STEM hero because, when faced with the choice to give up and live inauthentically in a very successful life she had made for herself or be the person she wanted to be, she chose to be herself. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that without the work of Lynn Conway, we may not have any processing capabilities more sophisticated than an Intel Atom. In seeking gender euphoria, she was punished – only to solidify a legacy worth two lifetimes.

IBM apologised in 2020 for firing Conway after it learnt that she was planning on transitioning. Do you think actions like this by businesses like IBM that have played a role in marginalising LGBTQ+ people in STEM are a positive step forward?

IBM has a rather complex history – some of which is famously unpleasant – and we must keep in mind that despite her legacy, IBM firing Lynn Conway for trying to transition is an unfair but singular story. Generally, firing LGBTQ+ people on the basis of their queerness absolutely marginalizes queer people, and the practice has not vanished despite our relative acceptance today. Rather, it has metastasized into harassment and negligence which forces working class queer people into economic deprivation and harm. Apologies, as far as public relations methods go, are not unnecessary, but they are certainly insufficient.

How can we make working in STEM more inclusive to LGBTQ+ people?

STEM has an inclusion problem, not only with the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, but Black people of all genders, and women of all races. STEM fields, historically quite disparate and only recently lumped together under this acronym, are not prepared or equipped to reckon with the patterns of alienation which exclude people. Certainly, we cannot expect a top-down reorganization of STEM fields to include the excluded. The solution, as always, is solidarity; join a union.

Sally Street, Anthropology

Sally Street (she/her) is an Associate Professor in evolutionary anthropology. With her chosen hero, she shares an obsession with synthesizers and a love of Siamese cats – the perfect studio assistants.

Wendy Carlos is a pioneering musician and composer, sometimes known as the ‘godmother of electronic music’. Her album Switched-on Bach, in which she reimagined the work of Bach using a Moog synthesizer – which she had helped to develop – popularised the use of the synthesizer while becoming the world’s first-ever platinum-selling classical album. She also composed the scores of several films, including Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the sci-fi classic Tron.

Why have you chosen Wendy Carlos as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero? 

Today, the vast majority of music we hear is created using electronic instruments. Wendy Carlos is my chosen hero because of her incredible creativity, perseverance and courage as one of several women who shaped the future of electronic music in the 1960s and 1970s, a heavily male-dominated field both then and now.

Wendy Carlos was instrumental (pun intended) in the development of the first commercially available synthesizer, and in 1968 released Switched-On Bach, an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on Moog analogue synths. This was both a very radical and incredibly laborious thing to do given the constraints of 1960s recording technology – the synthesizers could only play one note at a time, and often went out of tune – requiring over a thousand hours of studio time.

Many LGBTQ+ people are fortunate enough to find themselves working in supportive, inclusive communities in STEM today, including myself

The album was an unexpected hit: it sold over a million copies, resulting in a newfound appreciation of synthesizers as serious musical instruments, and Wendy Carlos became the first trans person to win a Grammy Award in 1970. She would later go on to compose several well-known film soundtracks, including the ominous ambient backdrop to The Shining.

Her overnight success, however, came at extreme personal cost – she was not out at the time and had to present as male in public appearances. She did come out publicly in 1979, although has more recently lived a largely secluded life. I wish I could say that things have only got easier for trans women in the public eye since then.     

Wendy Carlos has had an extremely influential career as a pioneer of electronic music. Do you think it’s important that LGBTQ+ role models in STEM are not just from academia? 

Yes, absolutely. Today there are more and more people with PhDs, but this increase is not matched by the number of jobs available in academia. More to the point, many PhD graduates go on to do amazing things outside of academia, including some of my own recent supervisees who I am proud to see applying their research skills to important social issues like crime prevention and community project funding. Wendy herself studied for degrees in music and physics, but she never completed a PhD or held an academic research position. Instead, she worked in a recording studio and sold advertising jingles to make ends meet in the years after graduating. Her musical compositions and innovations have undoubtedly influenced far more people than any academic paper she might have written! 

How can we make working in STEM more inclusive to LGBTQ+ people? 

Many LGBTQ+ people are fortunate enough to find themselves working in supportive, inclusive communities in STEM today, including myself. However, progress has not been uniform for those of us identifying with different letters of the LGBTQ+ alphabet, and many of us face additional barriers due to other intersecting identities. There are no quick fixes, but small things really can help – sharing your own pronouns for example genuinely can help others feel more comfortable disclosing theirs. Above all I would say that many of us already working in STEM often actually need to stop talking and start listening, particularly to the voices of those from the most marginalised groups, as they will know what they need better than anyone else.  

Bjarki Björgvinsson, Physics

Bjarki Björgvinsson (he/they) is a postgraduate student in the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy working on star formation and stellar feedback. His studies have brought him slowly southward, starting with a Bachelor’s degree in Reykjavík, a Master’s degree in Stockholm, and now working on a PhD in Durham.

Nergis Mavalvala is a Professor of Astrophysics at MIT. She received a MacArthur Fellowship – colloquially known as a ‘genius grant’ – in 2010 and is the dean of MIT’s school of science.

Why have you chosen Nergis Mavalvala as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

I think it’s important to highlight LGBTQ+ people from other cultures than our own and to realise that they exist all over the world.

I do think it’s important to include current researchers when it comes to looking for role models

Nergis Mavalvala in particular has reached incredible heights in the world of physics, having been hugely important to the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO in 2016 through her work on interferometry, and can serve as a role model, not just for LGBTQ+ people in STEM, but for women and people of colour as well.
It is particularly of note, that she has been praised by the former prime minister of Pakistan, a country with a history of queer rights violations, as a source of inspiration for all Pakistani scientists. She has also talked about her belief that anyone can accomplish their goals, despite any potential barriers they might face due to their identity.

Do you think it’s important to have LGBTQ+ STEM role models that are, like Mavalvala, active researchers rather than historical figures?

I do think it’s important to include current researchers when it comes to looking for role models. It’s important to remember that the fight for queer rights is still ongoing and not purely historical and that it is still worth looking up to people who break through barriers and become important figures in their fields. It’s very valuable to have a person who is still working, to realise that LGBTQ+ people are everywhere and will continue to be. It is also important to compare the journeys of historical figures with those that are more modern, to see where progress has been made and where things can still be improved.

How can we make working in STEM more inclusive to LGBTQ+ people?

A lot of progress has been made towards making STEM in particular more inclusive to LGBTQ+ people, but there is always more to be done. Most noticeably, there are improvements to be made when it comes to trans and non-binary people. A big part of increasing inclusivity towards these groups comes from raising awareness of their experiences and helping people understand the different ways in which gender may feel inwardly and be represented outwards.
A concrete way to make people feel more comfortable being themselves may be to normalise listing your preferred pronouns online and including them when you introduce yourself to allow others to feel comfortable doing the same.

Image: The Creativity & Time Management in STEM panel at the conference featuring Olukemi Oloyede (they/them), Dr Luís Costa da Silva (he/they), Alex Holmes (she/her) and moderated by Dr Craig Poku (he/they), Pride in STEM

Special thanks to Jonathan Drury for his help in coordinating this article.

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