Creating a deeper sense of community for LGBTQ+ scientists

- January 30, 2020

Speakers and organziers at the first-annual QAtCanSTEM Colloquium, including Dal PhD candidate Landon Getz, centre. (Provided photos)
Speakers and organziers at the first-annual QAtCanSTEM Colloquium, including Dal PhD candidate Landon Getz, centre. (Provided photos)

Kyle Parkinson travelled to Halifax from southern Ontario earlier this month looking for inspiration and community — he found both and much more at the first-ever Dal-hosted gathering for scientists from across the LGBTQ+ community.

An MSc student at the University of Windsor, Parkinson said the conference opened his eyes to the "amazing community of individuals" out there whose identities have historically been overlooked in scientific fields.

“Hearing and seeing older queer people come out of their early career successful and overcoming all the adversity was inspiring for me,” he said. He stated that mentoring queer students and creating safe spaces were some of the main ideas he took away from the conference.

“Rainbow flags are so important,” he said, “they are a beacon of hope and safety for queer people."

A feeling of safety and camaraderie

Parkinson was one of about 40 individuals from across Canada and beyond to attend the QAtCanSTEM Colloquium from January 17-18.

Conference organizer Landon Getz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dal, said he was inspired to create a conference for queer scientists in Canada after attending a similar event in the UK last year.

“I had the opportunity to attend the LGBT STEMinar in the UK,” he said, referring to the event held at the Institute of Physics, London in 2019. “I was able to share my work there, but also you enter this space, and there is a giant rainbow flag. There are not the same assumptions of heteronormativity or binary pronouns. It was the first time that I felt fully safe in a scientific environment.”

Getz was eager to replicate that feeling of camaraderie and freedom in Canada. He started with the founding last year of Queer Atlantic Canadian STEM, a project focused on enriching scientific discourse in Atlantic Canada and across the country through the inclusion of queer voices. Then, with the assistance of his team, he began laying the foundations for the first QAtCanSTEM conference.

The team, however, had a lot of work ahead of them. “The primary challenge was isolation,” Getz said, “because it is really hard to identify people in these environments, they may not feel safe, and they are not necessarily open about their identities.”     

Nevertheless, he was able to find two esteemed scholars, Dr. Alexander Bond, senior curator in charge of birds at the Natural History Museum and adjunct researcher at the University of Tasmania, and Dr. Nola Etkin, professor of chemistry and interim dean of science at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), to deliver the keynote addresses.   

Dr. Bond’s talk focused on how he integrates his identity into science, using something called the Queer Science Manifesto, while Dr. Etkin spoke about her personal experiences from graduate student to a faculty member and current dean of science at UPEI.

A step in the right direction

For Getz, the conference — to be held annually — is only the first step in the right direction. “Things are changing. We are seeing more women in the academy and more people are becoming open about their identities. People are beginning to feel safer.”

Getz said more openness and inclusion is needed within the scientific community, which he said has traditionally been a heteronormative, white, cis-gendered place.

“I would encourage folks from all backgrounds to listen and engage with these conversations because we need everybody in the scientific community to be on board if we want to make large scale change.”


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