You Can Be Yourself And Be A Scientist Too

I go out of my way to let people know that being female, being transgender, being of any minority, is not a barrier to being a scientist

23/02/2018 08:52 GMT | Updated 23/02/2018 08:53 GMT
Clara Barker

When it comes to science, diversity is vital. If we want the best scientists then we need to accept everyone, regardless of their gender identity, sexuality, skin colour, religion, etc. And yet STEM subjects are historically exclusive. It is hard to think of many famous female scientists despite making up 50% of the population. From a statistical point of view, this seems rather odd. Why would this be?

When we think of DNA we think of Watson and Crick, the Nobel Prize winners for publishing the structure, often forgetting the contribution of Rosalind Franklin. History is full of cases where male partners took Nobel Prizes whilst the female collaborators were, rather conveniently, overlooked.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the first person to discover radio pulsars, was listed second on the paper publishing the discovery and yet not included in the Nobel Prize, given to two male co-authors instead. Lise Meitner lost various University positions because she both was Jewish and female, yet still managed to help further understanding of nuclear fission with the first theoretical explanation of the process. Once more, Lise was overlooked when it came to the Nobel Prize which was given solely to the male collaborator. Imagine what Lise could have achieved had the circumstance of her birth been different?

Of course, exclusivity isn’t limited to sex. Famous mathematician Alan Turing took his own life after having been prosecuted for gross indecency (aka: being gay). Given what he achieved whilst hiding who he was (heterosexual), imagine what he could have gone on to achieve. Of course, we will never know if he had more to give but it does not seem such a stretch. I know this from my own personal experience.

I started my A-levels, taking all science subjects – subjects that I was fascinated by. However, depression and personal unease meant that I was a terrible student, unable to concentrate in classes, struggling with insomnia meaning that I was often late for classes and not fully awake when I was present. All round I was a dreadful pupil. I persisted, but I never did as well as I should have done and that lead to more personal frustration and deepening depression. After a break from education I completed a degree in electronic and electrical engineering. It always felt like a battle. My mental health was a constant fight and I blamed it on stress. The real reason was nothing of the sort, but I pushed the real reason down as far as I could.

Studies have shown that LGBT+ individuals do not feel able to be themselves in many STEM subjects, often hiding who they are from colleagues


However, I completed the course with a first class honours. I started working in industry as an electrical designer, then as a process engineer, then development engineer (quickly changing role as the company made the most of my skills). Shortly after I was offered a chance to start a PhD in material science, having been recommended as someone with promise in the field. I took this and started my research in a fantastic and warm group. Throughout my PhD, and subsequent post-doc positions, I found material science to be a very welcoming field. I was invited to work at various institutions around Europe, attended a lot of conferences and generally enjoyed what I did. However, I never felt truly happy and, as such, I did not publish anywhere near enough to be academically successful: despite a seemingly strong reputation in my speciality.

Why was this? Well, looking around in material science it is fair to say that I often worked in strongly international departments, often with around 40% females in the groups. This was echoed throughout the many groups I worked with around the world. However, at post-doc level the number of females reduced rather significantly and at professor level there were few females in my field. Over the years this balance has improved and I am confident it will continue to do so. However, in 14 years I had only met one person who openly identified as LGBT+ in STEM. So it is not unsurprising that I never met any trans-people which, from an early age, I knew myself to be. To stay in my field, I pretended to be one of the males, worried that a trans-female would not be ousted; lose my hard-earned career. Of course, this was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Not transitioning meant that I became depressed resulting in few publications and a poor academic career on paper. Realising this I decided I had nothing left to loose and transitioned… and no one batted an eyelid. I was greeted with widespread support in the field making me regret those wasted years.

Yet without role models, how could I have thought any differently? If there are no trans-people in your field, you cannot assume that it will be a welcoming environment. I was not strong enough to be the first person, the ground breaker. This is true for all areas of diversity. Dorothy Hodgkin was one of two women to be allowed to study chemistry at her school. The courage and strength to do that is phenomenal, I certainly could not have done so. How many people have turned away from science because they thought (or explicitly were) not welcome? Are there women who have been excluded from science that may otherwise have discovered the cure for cancer, proved the existence of black holes, worked out the secret to cold fusion? We will never know. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that excluding people from science, and this includes making them feel unwelcome, cannot allow science to thrive to its maximum capacity.

The situation is improving, but we still have a ways to go. A 2015 study by Yoder and Mattheis show that LGBT+ individuals do not feel able to be themselves in many STEM subjects, often hiding who they are from colleagues. As I know from experience, many of those researchers will be underperforming in such situations, and science can only suffer as a result. I look forward to seeing the results of last year’s poll: has the situation has improved.

Now, with the support of Oxford University, MPLS and the Department of Materials, I live my life authentically and to the full. I go out of my way to let people know that being female, being transgender, being of any minority, is not a barrier to being a scientist. I do what I can to inspire young people to be the next generation of Marie Curies or Rosalind Franklins.

You can be yourself and have a scientific career. And science can only be stronger for that. We need to embrace scientists no matter who they are, make them feel welcome and accept them for their scientific merit. By making science elite we may well exclude those who we would otherwise come to celebrate. 

Dr Clara Barker is the vice-chair of the LGBT+ Advisory Group at Oxford University and runs Oxford LGBT+ youth group TOPAZ