Uncertainty as a Starting Place

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know science communicator Laurel Allen, one of the co-organizers of the 500 Queer Scientists campaign! She chats about her path to science communication, the success of 500QS, which is now in its second week and has been featured in outlets like Mother Jones, and what we can all do to maximize their impact. 

How did you find your way to science communication? What are the stories you work to highlight as a communicator?

I’ve always loved science, but despite triumphantly sweeping the New York State science fair in 8th grade with a set of inadvertently gruesome zebra-mussel experiments, I somehow grew into the conviction that I didn’t have the right kind of brain for it. After college I worked through a range of reporting and editing jobs, then in 2013—still without a science background but unable to stop thinking about science—I left an ad agency for the first job I could grab at the California Academy of Sciences. Once there, I got to know every scientist I could, read everything they told me to, wiggled into as many projects and expeditions as possible, and generally went to war with the you-don’t-deserve-to-be-here insecurity muumuu that tried to flop itself over my head. Eventually I felt fluent enough to start writing stories about everything from genome editing to mesophotic reefs.

I couldn’t have made that transition without support from the first two women scientists I met: Canopy biologist Meg Lowman, who insisted I belonged and pushed me into new spaces (in the physical world, and professionally), and entomologist Michelle Trautwein, the kind of expert who doesn’t need to act like one—which helped me finally understand science as an entirely human endeavor that does have room for me. Writing-wise, I’m definitely drawn to stories with an expedition or fieldwork component. I’ve found that pulling the public (especially younger people) into those kinds of “adventure” narratives is one of easiest ways to help them care about all that’s left to discover and protect, and to emotionally invest in—and see themselves as part of—science and the people who do it.      

You're part of the team that just launched the 500 Queer Scientists campaign, which has been an enormous success so far! How did you get involved and what were you hoping to achieve through the campaign?

 Laurel with Lauren Esposito and Michelle Trautwein.

Laurel with Lauren Esposito and Michelle Trautwein.

Yes! The response has been unbelievable. I got involved because founder Lauren Esposito is an amazing colleague and close friend, and because we knew—in large part from watching how 500 Women Scientists developed—that a robust social-media component would be critical to building a big, visible community. That was something I could help with, and on a personal level it offered a chance to do something for science itself—because this isn’t just about saying “this group deals with things they shouldn’t have to”; it’s to everyone’s benefit to have science done by the most diverse possible range of people, with the most diverse possible range of perspectives and approaches. And just as a human, it fills me with rage that LGBTQ+ people in any field or area are still made to feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, unsafe, or isolated. The toll that takes on a brain, a career, a whole life—it’s totally unacceptable.

In the week since launching, what are some outcomes that have been exciting or unexpected?

The reach has been so exciting (15+ countries so far), as has the diversity of expertise represented: astroparticle physics, neuroscience, molecular genetics, computational biology, organometallic chemistry, primatology, extragalactic astronomy, conservation biology, forensic anthropology, glaciology, paleoceanography—it goes on. But I think the truly awesome part is that the community isn’t just surprising people who see the campaign; it’s surprising itself. People who didn’t know any other LGBTQ+ colleagues are making new connections in their field (even at their own institutions); people who aren’t ready to publicly contribute are DMing to say they feel stronger and more supported just browsing the list of contributors; students and early career scientists are seeing new potential for mentorship.

Another learning is that the community doesn’t just want to talk about issues and inequities; they want to celebrate the triumphs and progress, too: the colleague who sent a note to ask if they felt supported, the acceptance they found in unexpected places. Both the number of submissions and the power/bravery/beauty/sheer intellectual ferocity of the stories submitted has been overwhelming, and I want to extend additional thanks to Kristina Fong and Jayme Brown, who’ve been critical to getting those hundreds and hundreds of stories posted to our site.

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At 500 Women Scientists, we're constantly having conversations about how to sustain momentum "from a moment to a movement." How can we, as allies or LGBTQ+ people in the scientific community, keep the momentum up moving forward?

It’s such a good question. Our goal is to jumpstart 500QS the best we can, then give the community ways to tell us how they want this movement to evolve. We’re getting great feedback already and working on a way to formally collect more, but we’re already hearing some pretty clear directives: continue to expand the visibility piece, and turn our site “gallery” into a true database with search/find/connect functionality that better supports key pieces like mentorship, “request a scientist” features (like 500WS), and more.

In terms of how allies can help, I want to acknowledge (as a straight ally myself) that even when you want to offer support, in can be intimidating to wade in. There’s a lot of important but confusing language in this space; we’re talking about issues (gender-identity, sexual preference) that are inherently private; and there’s a huge range of positions on advocacy, language, priorities, and approach within the LBGTQ+ community itself (including not wanting to talk about it at all). Even asking questions can feel scary—and rude! But I think just being honest about that uncertainty is a good place to start. In the workplace, things like “I want to be sure I’m supporting an inclusive workplace, is there anything I can do differently?” or “I want to be sure I’m being respectful, please feel free to correct my pronouns or language” are probably going to go over okay, and I think reaching out by email is totally fine if that feels more organic (and is maybe best if you don’t know the person well, since it gives them more options for how and when to respond). For online support—and it’s so helpful to add your voice in the social sphere!—we’ve put together a small toolkit that includes suggestions for allies who might not know where to start.

When you're not communicating science or working to raise visibility for the LGBTQ+ STEMM community, how do you unwind?

I just moved from San Francisco to Atlanta with my husband, two elderly heelers, and one munchkin cat, so I’m trying to remember what unwinding feels like. (Also—can I turn this into a personals ad for new friends?—please reach out if you’re local!) Things that historically make me unwind are bouldering, science fiction, museums, and cheap prosecco.

PS: Big thanks to scientists Nathalie Nagalingum, Shannon Bennett, Laura Eklund, Deb Trock, Rebecca Johnson, Alison Young, Moe Flannery, Rebecca Albright, and Chrissy Piotrowski, all of whom have made me so much smarter. Really proud to know you.

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Laurel Allen is a science writer and digital-engagement expert who currently oversees social media and digital special-projects for the California Academy of Sciences. She’s grateful for a 2015 National Association of Science Writers travel fellowship, is an Explorers Club Fellow, and earned a Shorty Award for Overall Facebook Presence in 2017. Her writing has appeared in Fast Company, Gizmodo, Indefinitely Wild, Modern Farmer, Alert Diver, and more, and in a previous life she co-authored BMW Racing Motorcycles: The Mastery of Speed. On Twitter: @lca_ink.