LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2023: Durham researchers’ LGBTQ+ STEM Heroes, part 3


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 3 of this series, we speak to researchers from physics, biosciences, and engineering about the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies, a pioneering astrophysicist, and a cytogeneticist famous for her persistence.

Alessandro Borghi, Engineering

Alessandro Borghi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering. He previously worked following his PhD as an R&D engineer for a medical device company before returning to academia in 2009. Borghi’s research focuses on the analysis and design of devices used in craniofacial surgery, and he has established several international collaborations, including with Boston Children’s Hospital and the Erasmus Medical Centre.

Tim Cook has been the CEO of Apple Inc. since 2011, with the company’s revenue and profit more than doubling during his tenure. In 2014, he was the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to come out as gay, which he later described as “God’s greatest gift to me”.

Why have you chosen Tim Cook as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

Tim Cook has a similar background to mine, he comes from a lower middle class family and decided to study Engineering: in an interview with CNN he explained how his decision to come out publicly, after becoming Apple CEO, was in response to letters from kids who talked to him about bullying, suicidal thoughts and poor relationship with their family. He realised he was a public figure, and it was his duty to share his experience to prove homosexuality did not “prevent [him] from doing great things”. He is also very open about his position on the rights of the transgender community and is a great advocate of equality and diversity in the tech world.

I believe STEM is a complex field where – sometimes – rigour and severity overweigh attention to personal sensibility

Tim Cook is of course best known as a figure in business rather than STEM. How do you think Cook’s background in engineering may have helped him to navigate the world of business?

Tim Cook has a background in industrial engineering and management. He worked in several world leading technology companies, such as IBM, Compaq, before joining Apple. His expertise in project management and logistics combined with his technical background helped him understand complex manufacturing processes and drove him towards subcontracting the manufacturing process to external corporations, which allowed to maximise production quality while minimising costs.

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

I believe STEM is a complex field where – sometimes – rigour and severity overweigh attention to personal sensibility, making it a harder field to work in, compared to others. Although career progression should be only based on merit, interpersonal relationships still have a high impact on small organizations such as academic departments and the onset of social exclusion (which is more likely to be experienced by LGBTQ+ STEM professionals) can have an indirect impact on career limitation.

Visibility in the LGBTQ+ STEM community is of paramount importance: Tim Cook’s message is that LGBTQ professionals’ have an important role in both inspiring future generations and educating the general population. I believe that inclusivity in STEM should naturally come from the common passion for science, which goes way beyond ethnicity, personal history, and orientation, and therefore will come naturally once interpersonal barriers are broken and stigma is overcome.

Alejandra Aguirre-Santaella, Physics

Alejandra Aguirre-Santaella is a new Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Computational Cosmology and the Department of Physics at Durham University. Her research focuses on unveiling the nature of dark matter analysing the small-scale structure of the Universe with numerical simulations. Beyond physics, they like playing board games and travelling around the world, learning from different cultures and taking nice pics.

Jane Rigby is an astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Lab of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She is the Senior Project Scientist for the controversially-named James Webb Space Telescope. She was named Out to Innovate’s LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year in 2022.

Why have you chosen Jane Rigby as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

I would have loved to have found a hero covering any of the two most invisible letters in LGBTIAQ+ (i.e. intersex, asexual and/or aromantic), but alas, I had no luck. That aside, I have chosen Jane Rigby as my LGBTIAQ+ hero since she has made exceptional contributions to both astrophysics and inclusivity. On one hand, she has been widely recognized as a wonderful astrophysicist: she was named to Nature‘s list of ten individuals who shaped science in 2022, to the BBC‘s list of 100 inspiring and influential women for 2022, and she received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 2022 as well. On the other, she is one of the founders of the American Astronomical Society LGBT Equality Working Group and also organised a worldwide initiative to promote equity, called Inclusive Astronomy. Moreover, I believe it is very heroic to come out as a lesbian when it is against the law to be gay, as it was in Arizona at that moment.

There’s still a lack of awareness about … non-normative relational models such as non-monogamy

Rigby has said that as a student she wasn’t aware of any LGBTQ role models. Why is it important to make sure that there are visible LGBTIAQ+ role models in STEM?

Actually, in this interview she said that Sally Ride made her realize when she was young that girls could also study physics, although Rigby was not aware of Ride being part of the LGBTIAQ+ community until years later. This shows how important having female and LGBTIAQ+ models is, because people belonging to minorities or underrepresented groups are likely to believe that they are not valid or enough when they cannot find a role model to identify with.

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

I think we are making great progress in this regard, but there’s still a long way to go. In this same interview, Rigby stated that she did not have the same benefits than heterosexual couples just because of having a same-sex partner, and there are many countries where this still happens, or where coming out is not even an option. Focusing on the UK, I would say this is not an issue anymore, but there’s still a lack of awareness about, for instance, non-normative relational models such as non-monogamy, and there are no laws or benefits comparable to what monogamous couples have.

Adrian Brennan, Biosciences

Adrian Brennan is an associate professor in the Biosciences Department whose research area covers ecological genetics of plants. Brennan is interested in the genetic basis of how plants evolve and adapt to their environment and teaches on the BSc Biological Sciences courses; Evolution and Genomics, as well as the two-week workshop; Genes and Diversity.

Barbara McClintock was an American scientist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of genetic transposition. She remains the only woman to have received an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Why have you chosen Barbara McClintock as your chosen LGBTQ+ STEM hero?

I learned first about Barbara McClintock during my Biological Sciences degree when her work was cited to explain the curious biological phenomenon of selfish DNA elements copying and pasting themselves around the genome and influencing the expression of nearby genes. Barbara McClintock discovered this by studying maize varieties that had multi-coloured corn cobs. This trait did not follow Mendel’s rules of genetic inheritance but she managed to figure it out with a radically new theory built on painstaking observations. When I researched her work further, I realised how many ground-breaking discoveries that she had made in the field of genomics by helping to understand how chromosomes are organised and exchange genetic information. She was a woman at the forefront of her field at a time when science was still dominated by men.

Barbara McClintock was famous for persisting with her research into genetics despite her work, which contradicted the prevailing theories of genetics, being ignored for over a decade. How important is this openness to challenge the status quo to scientific research?

Yes, Barbara McClintock has become famous for her persistence and dedication to science as described in a biography written after her breakthroughs were eventually recognised. She was not part of the status quo of genetics researchers and fought hard to conduct independent research as a woman at the time. Her research rewrote textbooks and she countered strong resistance to her new ideas by the leading scientists of her day by patiently waiting for her evidence to be supported by future studies. We all appreciate scientific theories that help explain and simplify the world in which we live but sometimes we need the openness and courage to revise old theories and build new ones to fit new findings. Barbara McClintock showed the brilliance to do this several times during her career. In later life, she remained actively involved in supporting scientific life at the institute where she worked.

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

I think Barbara McClintock sets the example of believing in yourself and standing up for your ideas if you have the evidence to support them. She had an exceptionally strong character and most people would not have persisted in these conditions. We should make it easier for everyone from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to take part in science and have their ideas heard. EDI initiatives that promote inclusivity are important to this vision. We should all be careful to understand and challenge our preconceptions and unconscious biases when interacting with others and remind others of this responsibility, just like Barbara McClintock was not content to simply accept a theory when confronted with contradictory evidence.

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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