A few months ago, NC State graduate Bri and current student R launched Queer Science!, a podcast dedicated to making science accessible and elevating the voices of those who are traditionally underrepresented. “Queer is an umbrella term,” R said, “It includes a lot of underrepresented and oppressed groups.”
The two co-hosts met a few years ago through the Citizen Science Club at NC State. Their friendship, and the idea for the podcast, formed out of a mutual frustration with the barriers that currently exist within the educational system. According to R, the Citizen Science Club is similar to their podcast because, “Anyone who wants to be a scientist can be a scientist.”
Anyone who has listened to the podcast will not be surprised to learn that the response so far has been positive. “We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us,” Bri said. Sometimes that means praising the podcast, but a lot of people have offered their expertise and help. “People will just reach out and offer knowledge or experience,” R explained, “Messages will come through from people who seem super duper qualified, and it’s like ‘why are you listening to this little podcast?’”
Well, one reason might be the breadth of topics covered and the depth with which they’ve explored them. With only three episodes under their belts, the pair has already tackled mental health and the unnecessary research around bisexual men. Bri said, “With the podcast as a whole, I think, we’re just trying to figure out what queer science is and what it looks like. Is it a verb? Is it a noun?”
R and Bri see queer as a term encompassing a lot of marginalized communities, meaning that their work isn’t limited to just LGBTQ+ individuals. “How does queer science overlap with decolonization and antiracism and other perspectives on science? That’s what we’re exploring.” Bri explained. A lot of marginalized groups have been excluded from science for far too long, so it is important to fight for a just science for all communities. “For me, using the word ‘queer’ is a reclamation process,” R said, “it’s about owning the narrative. Our work is really about providing a platform for marginalized groups to share their stories.”
An important part of making science more accessible for queer people and marginalized people more generally is ensuring that no harm is being done unintentionally to those communities. Many have a deep-seated and well justified skepticism regarding scientific research because of both terrible abuses of power, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and unintentionally harmful practices, such as how BiDil is prescribed . “The first part of the scientific method is forming a question,” Bri said, “you can’t ignore the reasons why someone would want to ask a question.” The culture a scientist lives in, and their role within it, shapes their worldview and, therefore, how science is and should be conducted.
“The very cold, hard truth is that scientists are human,” R said, “Science is supposed to benefit everyone. But if you are only focusing on a certain group, such as cisgendered, heterosexual, white men, you’re only looking at it from one perspective.” It can be very hard for people to understand others’ experiences, so including a diverse set of people at every stage of a scientific study can ensure that the results are more broadly applicable and less harmful. Being part of a group that has experienced very little or no oppression, or has always been represented on both sides of a scientific study, can affect the questions you ask, according to Bri, or “you could just not take into account other factors, like environmental effects.”
One way to ensure that scientific research is not harming vulnerable communities is just to educate researchers about why they need to be careful. You need to be able to step back, analyze your own intentions, and ask yourself questions like “Why am I studying this? Where is that coming from?” R said. A lot of science has a very dark past: part of the reason that such strict rules regarding human experimentation exist is that someone violated them in the past. A lot of studies on marginalized groups carried out their work without fully explaining it to their subjects, some of whom didn’t have the education necessary to understand what they were told or didn’t even speak the language of the researchers. And not all of those scientists had bad intentions; they just didn’t pause to consider the effects their work may have on these communities. “Being aware of your own bias and being willing to challenge that within yourself” is a great way to try to minimize the harm you do, R recommended.
Another way to work to combat harm in science is to be sure to include contextualizing information when presenting findings. For example, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her permission and used for numerous experiments throughout the years, effectively founding the field of cell culture. “You need to make sure you’re giving credit where credit is due,” R said. Acknowledging how certain situations have arisen is key to ensuring that your research is ethical. People who are exploited for science still deserve to have that acknowledged because, R said, “They’re still important. They still matter. They still made a contribution.”
Including more queer and marginalized people at higher levels can also help reduce the potential harm from your work and ensure that you’re asking the right questions. “One thing that comes to mind for me, being trans and wanting to medically transition,” R said, “is that you can tell that a lot of the terminology and diagnoses were written by cisgendered people.” While it’s good to recognize that something exists, including queer researchers in your work can ensure that you’re using language that makes them comfortable and increases access, rather than restricting it. “Why not include trans doctors or trans scientists in your work?” R asked. Asking for help to make sure you’re actually helping people is extremely important. And this can be extended to other marginalized groups, R said, “Why not include indigenous people in research on indigenous populations?” Rather than assuming you know what’s best for these people, why don’t you ask them what’s best?
There are also some important, but simple, ways for cisgendered, straight allies to support their peers in academia, such as asking for pronouns. “You don’t have to shout it around the room,” Bri said, “but making an active effort to share your pronouns and ask everyone for theirs can go a long way.” Many queer students and faculty remain in the closet for fear of the repercussions of coming out, so making it clear that you support the LGBTQ+ community can make it much easier for them to feel comfortable being themselves. “It’s the difference between being invited to the dance and being asked to dance,” R explains, quoting from the first episode with Dr. Jamila Simpson, also from NC State, about the importance of diversity and inclusion. It’s all well and good that you allow people to tell you their pronouns, but asking for everyone’s pronouns off the bat creates a much more inclusive environment.
Even just having a rainbow sticker on a laptop or somewhere in an office can help queer students feel more at ease in a space. “So, like, I have generalized anxiety, so I’m constantly on edge,” R said, “and just seeing that someone has a rainbow pin… can make a huge, huge difference.” Allies need to meet queer people in the middle, and queer people are already there just by existing as who they are. It’s up to the allies to put in the extra effort of making sure queer people are comfortable with them and in science in general.
For more conversations like this, go listen to Queer Science! What are you waiting for? You can find the podcast on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and other major streaming platforms. You can follow them on Instagram at @queer_sci, on Twitter at queer_science and Facebook at Queer Science.