Orlando matters: Social identities and science.

Image from Denis Carrier, Nature News: http://www.nature.com/news/diversity-pride-in-science-1.15924


How does the Orlando shooting intersect with our lives as scientists? Should it?


Certainly, we could have a had friends at Pulse. We could have been at Pulse. In case I haven’t been clear about this, I identify as bisexual. I have frequented gay bars and been a regular at women-only tea dances. Yes, it could have been me.

But while it could have been me seems somewhat superficial – it’s not. There are deep implications of this statement. As Ian Street pointed out in an email on this topic, yes we are scientists – but we’re also people doing science. And as people, our social identities actually do matter. They do impact where we go, and how productive we can be.

First, let’s talk about how ‘out’ LGBTQ+ scientists really are.

I can attest to this. When I first arrived at Princeton, we had not a single staff or faculty who publicly identified as LGBTQ+ in my department. This had directly impacted students, several of whom told me they didn’t feel comfortable being out as a result.

Who we see in our communities matters if we are to feel safe, both personally and professionally, in addition to being critical for finding mentors, feeling inspired, and that you belong. Further, we feel less valued if critical aspects of our identity must be hidden or removed in order for us to function within a scientific community.

But the tragedy in Orlando also drives home the point on our personal safety. That this is beyond bias in the workplace. It can actually be about life and death (we could have been at Pulse) – and  whether we feel safe has direct implications for science itself:

Several people commented on how this affects how and where they seek jobs – which absolutely impacts the quality of scientists an institution and a community can attract. How events and sentiment within our culture translates to personal safety is also clearly evident in violence against black men and women in the US, xenophobia and Brexit last week, and Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. For the LGBTQ+ community globally, being out and gay translates to personal harm. It can literally be a death sentence.


If you do not feel safe in your communities, how can you do your best work? How can you feel valued? The fact that the violence and the rhetoric happens out there does not matter.


In fact, how much or how little such an act of hate matters within a scientific community is important, too. It says something  about how that community values LGBTQ+ identified students, faculty, and staff. Pretending these acts and comments are irrelevant, that they do not require even a dialogue, a check-in… this, to use an overwhelmingly underwhelming but somehow appropriate analogy, is to add insult to injury.


Yes, immediately after Orlando there was an outpouring of support in the US and globally. This needs to translate into long-term and institutional change that doesn’t “accept” or “tolerate” social identities – but understands the importance of embracing them. It can’t be lipservice paid in the face of tragedy – and it can’t just be out there, beyond lab and office walls, either.


There are further implications for the community at large, including allies. Orlando matters in how we mentor students, and how do we provide safe spaces, for graduate students, for faculty, and for staff.


We can no longer pretend our social identities as LGBTQ+, as black, as latina, as immigrant, as Muslim, are divorced from our identities as scientists when people are literally being gunned down for those social identities, in addition to the fact that science itself is consistently demonstrating we are still paid less, hired less, and given fewer opportunities as a result of those social identities. The evidence is overwhelming, my scientist friends: Our social identities matter.

But in understanding this, and embracing it – this is also how we revolutionize our institutions. It can fundamentally alter the discussions we have, the spaces we create, the people we embrace, the way we address structural and systemic bias at multiple levels – understanding that we do not perform science in a vacuum, that we are all people doing science. Science only stands to benefit from safe, fully flourishing scientists who are their true selves, who feel safe and valued, and focus on the science they do best.

This is why Orlando matters, to us as scientists, to science itself.


Resources (etc) shared:

Mentoring Program for LGBTQ+ students from The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists & Technical Professionals, Inc.

LGBT STEM aims to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ scientists in STEM, with accompanying interviews from scientists, alongside other resources. You can fill in “Tell Your Story” to be included in the network!

Take the Queer in STEM 2.0 survey! Open until Fall 2016.

Links shared:

The (not-so-fabulous) life of gay academics  and Where are Canada’s queer scientists? from The Lab & Field

The Objectivity Myth in Research from Feminist Reflections


** Note: The Diversity Journal Club will take our summer break in July. We’ll be back with a new topic in August.


March Topic: Let’s talk being an ally.

Sometimes it’s important to get back to basics.

Talking about diversity in STEM is critical, but it also involves educating yourself – especially if we want that discussion to turn into action. For that reason, our first topic of 2016 was diversity itself (my take two here).

If we want discussion on diversity to make change, in addition to understanding what we mean when we talk about diversity, and that it can be problematic, we also need to understand what it means to be an ally. Because, the thing is, simply saying we want to increase diversity, in all its forms, is not a good enough answer.


Anne Bishop defines allies as:

Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on.

Nadirah Adeye offers another view:

I, personally, think of allies as people who do the work to examine and question their own privilege. To understand who they are internally, but also how their external appearance or membership in certain groups impacts their societal powers. Being an ally means willing to be uncomfortable, being willing to be wrong (and, unfortunately, doing that ish frequently) and trying again, over and over. It’s not so much about being right as it is about being unwilling to allow wrongs to persist unchallenged.

Again, we aren’t going to talk about studies or journal articles for this Diversity Journal Club twitter chat, but we do want  to explore what ‘ally’ means – are we allies if we talk about diversity? If that’s not enough, do we want to be allies? If so, for whom? And how do we go about that?

A serious mistake is assuming we know how to do this work. Wanting diversity and talking about it aren’t enough – are we non or anti? – but we don’t wake up knowing how to make change. We have to learn that.

To get us thinking, please read up on some of the advice for allies out there in the interwebs. Check the video and links below. Find some resources on your own that speak to you. Have a thought about Ian’s post and his ideas about what he can do. Do we leave STEM if we’re over-represented? Are our abilities to cause change limited? In speaking up, do we silence others, so is it better to stay quiet? How do we know when to speak out, when to listen, and how do we amplify?


So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know

How To Be A Better Ally: An Open Letter To White Folks

6 ways allies still marginalize people of color — and what to do instead

8 Steps to Being a Good Ally [for the LGBTQ community]

Anne Bishop’s website, Becoming an Ally

And Nadirah Adeye’s excellent post Being an Ally versus Being a Nice Person


We hope you will join us Friday 18 March at 2pm ET on twitter under #DiversityJC!

Doctor PMS
Ian Street

PS: The DiversityJC now has a newsletter that you can subscribe to. It will come out once a month and include the post introducing that month’s discussion topic, other blog posts we write as well as other diversity relevant links from around the web. Link to subscribe is here.

#DiversityJC discussions on Twitter happen the 3rd week of each month on Fridays from 2-3pm ET.

Next #DiversityJC: Social justice and research beyond safe walls.

I have a list of articles and posts I’d like to share for discussion with the Diversity Journal Club, but this week Somali militants attacked a university in Kenya and killed close to 150 people. I understand that this was an act of terrorism, and possibly less about attacking a university… but.

The militants separated Muslims and Christians, killing the Christians. It also happened in Africa, which means it’s a blip on our radar over here in the US, and not much more.

It reminded me of the 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, just because they were girls going to school. It reminded me of the village the same group wiped from the map – and we generally ignored that, too.

These topics may seem only loosely connected, and not connected at all to the Diversity Journal Club, but they also got me thinking about a discussion with my advisor a few months back. A friend had forwarded an opportunity to teach summer school to me as a “resume builder“. I couldn’t go, so I forwarded to the lab. My advisor responded: “You realize that this a a challenging situation for females, don’t you?

The opportunity was to teach in Saudi Arabia.

The exchange that followed was about how, first, my own privilege-blinders meant I hadn’t even gotten to his point, to even consider it, before I forwarded the email (that alone speaks volumes). Also, it was a teachable moment about how “females” is an adjective referring to the ability of a individual of any species to produce offspring, therefore it reduces women to their reproductive organs as well as being incorrect, and how not all women are biologically female.

It also sparked a conversation about the conditions such a teaching opportunity involves – and if that “challenging situation” is worth having women (or anyone in the minority – Christians in parts of Nairobi for instance) as role models, as teachers – especially if putting yourself into such a situation could be detrimental to your safety, in addition to your career.

This week for Diversity Journal Club, we’d like to have a conversation that draws these threads together. That challenges us to think about what social justice and diversity work looks like beyond the sheltered boundaries we tend to operate within, to think about what it means to do social justice work beyond those borders.

Is it important for people to teach or do research in places that are any where from uncomfortable to downright dangerous? If given the opportunity – would you? Why or why not?

Finally – even if this all seems abstract, even if we will choose never to leave our safe borders – how does it still affect research and scientific advancement?

We don’t have the answers here. We don’t even know this is a fully formed topic for discussion. It just struck us as important, and that we should have these conversations, as they don’t happen very often. People do move on, or ignore these very real issues with real significance. They’re a blip on the US media radar screen. Despite all those celebrities, we never did #BringBackOurGirls.

For reading to spark inspiration, check out the links in this post, but especially the one about the conditions teaching in Saudi Arabia that my advisor sent me, as well as this one on the Nigerian girls who still risk their lives to go to school, but please add recommendations in the comments or on twitter under #DiversityJC.

And – let’s keep in mind Pippa Biddle’s musing on privileged people doing international work:

I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.

It’s a complicated picture, but we live in a global scientific community. Or do we?

We will discuss MONDAY 6 APRIL at 2PM ET – and don’t forget to add #DiversityJC.

Emily (@DrEmilySKlein)

Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS)

The first anti-vaxxers were in… 1721??

Dear Diversity Journal Club,

As we await the recap of our discussion on Monday 9 February about privilege and vaccines refusal, I wanted to post the following email from a dear friend who studying the history of medicine.

Which, by the way, is an insanely interesting field. You should ask Sonic about it. She’s on twitter (@SonicWoytonik).

In any case, I emailed her about potential historical research into vaccines and vaccine refusal, given our conversation. Her response:

So, here are some thoughts. I’m not sure this is exactly up the alley of your group, but I think at the very least you will find this interesting. The first anti-vaxxers in North American history are on the record from 1721, even before vaccination existed (they were protesting inoculation, vaccination’s undeniably more dangerous grandparent). In many ways the 1721 episode is extremely relevant today: it involved physicians, religious leaders, and racial/class diversity. Historians have understood the pro-vaxxers to be folks who simultaneously believed in observational science (“Oh look, people who have smallpox never get it again, how about that…”) and divine intervention (i.e. inoculation is a gift from God). The anti-vaxxers were mostly rich white men who thought their authority to dictate public health was being undermined by a bunch of slaves and clergy. People were beaten in the streets, inoculation was banned, and everyone continued to get smallpox until Edward Jenner burst on the scene in the 1790s with…a vaccination! Vaccination remained controversial until the mid-1800s, when it became mandatory in many countries and totally replaced inoculation as a form of building immunity.

The second article I’m attaching here is much more recent and has to do with HPV. Personal disclosure: I believe that STIs represent the biggest failure in American public health, because controlling them is easy but totally flies in the face of the American obsession with personal responsibility. So in this article, we see how the issue of the HPV vaccine, at the time being debated as to whether it should go on the mandated vaccine register for female adolescents, is deconstructed through a feminist lens of bioethics, academic-code for OMG-levels of privilege. The author makes a lot of good points. Those good points are dripping in privilege. Just putting this one out there as food for thought.

I also learned something: inoculation was first developed in Africa, and used there before white people ever figured it out. In 1721, the pro-vaxxers learned of it from African slaves – which, for them, created significant confusion, and demonstrates that race and privilege were an issue back then too. They couldn’t reconcile their observations that inoculation worked with their belief that good things came as gifts from god, and that African people were inferior. Why would God grant an inferior people such a gift? On the flip side, anti-vaxxers said they were against a dangerous practice (which it was), but really they couldn’t see lowly slaves and clergy infiltrating on the privileged doctrine of medicine. This all also relates back to the ideas about identity – that your physical being (your body, skin color, etc) was directly tied to who you were. That is, the idea that skin color somehow says something about your ability. This gets wrapped up in disease and public health as these are things that actually affect the physical. Don’t think we’re over this today – a friend on Facebook pointed out that another layer to the story is about believing certain groups of people are more likely to carry disease.

The second article she sent along discussed why feminists should be cautious about HPV vaccines (which I actually have and currently think is a good thing). Valid points therein, in my opinion, include the “where are the men??” question – as men carry HPV, so why the f-all aren’t we calling for young men to be vaccinated? Again, ideas about identity, and responsibility (that is, women are responsibility for sexual health – as we are also responsible for pregnancy). HPV is a particularly neat one for male privilege as men don’t show symptoms (or get cancer), so can hide behind that as an excuse – they don’t need to worry about it. Never mind that being so symptom-less means they can spread that around more easily. Also, as the article wonders, shouldn’t men care about women’s health because they likely have moms/sisters/wives/daughters/friends?

So, you see, race and identity are always a confounding factor when we talk about public health. We should better understand that they should always be part of the discussion. As the anti-vaxx controversy of 1721 demonstrates – they can and do lead us astray.