First things first – how did you get involved with the STEM Village immunology series?
Kevin: I first heard about the series on Twitter, where I spend more time than I care to admit! The concept seemed intriguing and quite novel, and I also already knew some of the other speakers.
Carlos: I actually know the organiser Matthew Sinton really well – we overlapped at the University of Edinburgh and are good friends. Even without that personal connection, I would have said yes. I’ve never participated in something like this before and thought it would be fun, and a worthwhile project.
Why did you decide to get involved?
Kevin: One of my main motivations for taking part is that I personally would have really appreciated representation like this earlier on in my career – although I’m still not exactly far on in my career! A seminar series like this, where LGBTQ+ people in science are celebrated for both our science and our identities, isn’t very common and can be hugely important for people to see.
Carlos: I think that this type of event makes LGBTQ+ people realise that what we really deserve is true equality. The way we feel in this safe environment is how we should feel everywhere and the same is true for everyone around us. I think events like this can go some way to normalising LGBTQ+ identities in science.
Was there anything different about presenting at this seminar series, compared to one that isn’t focused on LGBTQ+ speakers?
Carlos: As this event was purely focused on our research, and we didn’t discuss our personal lives, there weren’t really any differences in how we presented the data. The difference however is that by doing this I felt that I could show people in the audience, and in particular young LGBTQ+ people just starting their career, that it’s possible to have an exciting career in STEM without hiding their sexuality.
I also enjoyed how engaged the audience was and the way that the conversations carried on after the event. Because this event and the speakers had such close links to Twitter, the discussions carried on there. I was talking to people from all around the world after my talk. My favourite part of giving talks is always the questions afterwards and this was one of the most successful ways of replicating that online that I’ve seen so far.
Kevin: One benefit of the pandemic is that there’s been a huge proliferation of online conferences and seminars. This leads to a wider range of institutions, countries and people being represented in speaker line-ups, and has additionally made conferences much more accessible. I think this has been an incredibly positive thing in terms of visibility and representation, but also in democratising science.
How do you see the role of events like this, featuring LGBTQ+ speakers talking about their professional areas of expertise, compared to events focusing on LGBTQ+ people’s personal experiences within science?
Kevin: Both are really important. Events that are focused on equity and diversity in science and people’s personal experiences play a really important role in raising awareness and education. I’m very interested in equity and diversity issues, but those kinds of events are opportunities to further my knowledge, and to hear and learn from as diverse a group of people as possible.
However, as Carlos agrees, purely scientific events also play an important role in bringing us closer to true equity as you’re not asking people to speak exclusively about themselves without a chance to discuss their professional areas of expertise.
And what would you say to people who question ‘separating’ groups of people in these dedicated meetings?
Kevin: There’s space and time for as many scientific meetings as we can sustain, and the positives of events like this far outweigh any potential negatives. People bring that question up when they’re talking about initiatives like Black in Immunology Week, which is coming up next week. It’s a non-argument to say that initiatives like that are dividing people or only highlighting certain groups – if people are asking ‘what about white immunologists?’, they can look to almost every other immunology conference.
Carlos: Besides being a statement that demands equality for all members of the scientific community, I think that we should see events like this as preparatory events and not as ghettos. When we start our scientific careers, it is normal to attend local events first before going to international conferences and no one questions the purpose of local conferences.
What would you say to someone who has received an invitation to speak at an LGBTQ+ seminar series?
Kevin: I’d say to do it. You never know who might be in the audience, and you never know who might need representation. It’s a valuable experience for yourself, and it’s a valuable experience for the people watching.
Carlos: I agree. It’s a great opportunity to practice speaking about your science and hone your skills. Whenever I give a talk, I always have a rush of nerves in the couple of minutes beforehand where I become more self-conscious, and I’m sure that’s something that can be more common in LGBTQ+ people. When you’re presenting to a group that’s more understanding, it can help to remove some of those nerves so that you can focus more on your science and practicing your presentation skills.
Kevin: Exactly – it’s not always spoken about, but there’s an accepted way of speaking, dressing and presenting yourself at traditional academic conferences that is rooted in the cis-heteropatriarchy. When you remove that stressor, it frees you up to concentrate on your talk and you become more confident presenting your science at any conference.
Dedicated conferences and events in science also force you to consider privilege and discrimination in ways that we might not have otherwise. As gay men, navigating academia is relatively easy for us compared to other groups. Having these spaces forces both the participants and attendees to consider equity and diversity issues beyond what we know ourselves.
Finally, I think this series was also a great indication of how many people are actually LGBTQ+ in immunology. The line-up is as good a line-up as you would see at any conference!