LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2023: Durham researchers’ LGBTQ+ STEM Heroes, part 2


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 2 of this series, we speak to researchers from biology, maths, and chemistry about books that changed the law, the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in science, and a maths professor that moonlights as a best-selling author.

Kath Norman, Chemistry

Kath Norman has an MChem degree in Biological and Medicinal Chemistry from the University of York, and a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry from University of Leeds. Norman is now a Teaching Fellow in Chemistry at Durham University, teaching primarily organic chemistry and on various lab courses. Norman is interested in new approaches to drug discovery, improving lab teaching and accessibility in Chemistry, and is learning to sew. Norman lives in North Durham with their wife.

David Smith is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of York researching supramolecular soft materials. He is also the Chair of Teaching at the York Chemistry Department and is known for his chemistry public outreach. He is a vocal proponent of the need for greater LGBTQ+ representation in science.

Why have you chosen David Smith as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

I studied at York and was first taught by Prof. Dave Smith on a first-year lecture course in 2012/2013. At the end of the first lecture, Dave showed us a photo of him and his late husband at their wedding, outside York Minster. He also told us about his husband’s life-limiting illness, and how his research linked in with finding a treatment for that. This honesty was refreshing at a less-accepting time, where homophobic slurs and ‘humour’ were more common.

Smith has written that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ scientists, but that visibility is a major issue. Why do you think it’s important that LGBTQ+ scientists are visible?

It breaks down the barrier that talking about being LBGTQ+ is somehow unprofessional, or should be hidden away. It took me a few years after that lecture before I had fully realised that I am gay (on reflection, really should have worked it out sooner…). Hearing about the life of an openly gay scientist was hugely important to me as a student, and has given me the confidence to do the same and talk openly about being gay with students and colleagues.

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

Use people’s preferred pronouns and name. Don’t make assumptions about partners, children, families. EDI training should be provided, but also vetted by the groups of people included in that training. Institutions need to publicly call out unacceptable behaviour, and follow through on promises. Actions are more important than words and rainbow flags.

Pankaj Vishe, Maths

Pankaj Vishe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences with research interests in analytic number theory and homogeneous dynamics. Vishe joined Durham in 2015 after previous positions at: the University of York; KTH, Stockholm; MPIM, Bonn; and EPFL, Lausanne. Vishe is also Head of the department’s Equality and Diversity committee.

Manil Suri is a mathematician, currently a Professor at the University of Maryland. While he claims that being an academic at the University of Maryland is the “only job [he’s] ever had”, he is also an internationally bestselling author. He lives with his husband in Maryland, USA.

Why have you chosen Manil Suri as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

Manil Suri is a prominent mathematician who is currently a distinguished professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County specialising in Numerical Analysis. He is also a distinguished writer who has written several critically acclaimed novels and has won prestigious awards including the McKittrick Prize and Barnes and Nobles Discover Award. He has written several widely read pieces including his contributions to the New York Times on mathematics, India and LGBTQ+ issues in academia and beyond. He is truly a perfect role model as he is not only a successful academic but also an inspiration to STEM students who want to have a career outside of academia and be involved in raising awareness about LGBTQ+ issues.

Manil Suri has written about the relative invisibility of LGBTQ+ people in STEM in academia. Has this been your experience? Have you noticed tangible progress on representation in STEM?

I think mathematics and STEM subjects in general suffer from lack of visible LGBTQ+ role models. The visibility is also naturally affected by the fact that we mathematicians are typically thinking about and teaching abstract concepts. Therefore, discussions about one’s sexual/gender identity may not come up in conversations and interactions. It happens to me every now and then that when I talk about my partner, people just assume I would be in a heteronormative relationship and I have to correct them. I as a member of LGBTQ+ community, personally do feel fully comfortable in my department and the university. I personally think that things are moving in the right direction. If I reflect upon my time as an undergraduate and a grad student back in 2000’s, I think the situation is much better but we still have a long way to go.

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

As I said before, there is often a lack of discussion around personal and social issues in STEM. Often you get responses such as what does someone’s gender/sexual identity have to do with mathematics? While the abstract concepts do not change, I think seeing successful role models does make an impact on students/young researchers who may be thinking of pursuing academia in STEM. 

I personally think that things are moving in the right direction

In order to make an inclusive environment in STEM, first and foremost, I feel that we need to make sure that anti-discrimination rules are in place and are strictly followed so everyone feels safe.  Organising various social events may also help with feeling included.  For instance, in my department, we have started organising socials for LGBTQ+ student, staff and allies. Seeing a diverse set of LGBTQ+ role models which are at various stages of their respective careers is also equally important.

Meike Scheller, Biology

Meike Scheller is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Psychology. Scheller has a background in Biology (Behavioural Biology and Evolution) and Psychology (Cognitive Neuroscience). Scheller’s main focus lies in understanding how humans process (multi)sensory information and can learn to use new senses. Sheller is also conducting studies in evolutionary psychology that aim to be more inclusive by including different sexual minorities (e.g., asexual, aromantics) in the research. As an EDI rep in the Department of Psychology, Scheller is working on identifying challenges and providing support through activities for LGBTQ+ members.

Bruce Bagemihl is a Canadian biologist and linguist best-known for his book Biological Exuberance. He served on the faculty of the University of British Columbia, and now lives in Seattle, USA.

Why have you chosen Bruce Bagemihl as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

In 1999, Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl published the first book that extensively documented same-sex behaviour in non-human animals: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. This groundbreaking collection of scientific evidence challenged societal norms by emphasizing that sexual diversity (homosexual and bisexual behaviour) and gender diversity are a natural and prevalent phenomenon across many species, and that sexual diversity can even serve as an evolutionary adaptation.

Bagemihl’s research was cited in a brief to the US Supreme Court in the case that struck down ‘sodomy laws’. How important is scientific research in helping to make society fairer?

Indeed, Bagemihl’s work played an important role in invalidating the sodomy laws in several US states, which criminalized non-procreative sex between consenting adults up until 2003. Until then, non-procreative sex, such as between same-sex individuals, has been deemed “unnatural”, “perverted”, or even a “crime against nature”. This misconception, that the sole purpose of sexual activity is procreation, has been challenged by the overwhelming, objective evidence for the naturalness of same-sex sexual behaviour that is outlined in Bagemihl’s book. This is a great example of how scientific evidence can challenge common misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices that may influence legal and social discrimination against certain groups. It also highlights the importance of scientific research in reshaping cultural norms, informing policies, and promoting fairness in society.

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

To make working in STEM more inclusive for LGBTQ+ people, I think it is important to foster representation. STEM subjects specifically suffer from a lack of representation at higher levels, possibly because the retention rate of LGBTQ+ students is much lower compared to other groups. By creating visible LGBTQ+ role models and mentors, we can foster a sense of belonging and showcase acceptance.

STEM subjects specifically suffer from a lack of representation at higher levels

This can help creating a supportive environment, reducing stigma and enhancing authenticity, which is crucial for success. Also, institutional policies that explicitly support equity, diversity and inclusion, provide inclusive healthcare benefits, and promote LGBTQ+ awareness training further contribute to a more inclusive community. By actively acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals, the STEM community can build a more equitable and inclusive space for everyone.

Image: The Creativity & Time Management in STEM panel at the conference featyring 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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