On LGBTQ+ STEM day, we hear from two Cancer Research UK scientists on the power of diversity and why bringing your full self to your research is so important…
Dr Dave Bryant: “When we minimise a part of ourselves, we aren’t always in control of exactly how much we minimise”
Dave is group leader at the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. His research involves filming 3-Dimensional ‘mini-tumours’ in the laboratory to understand how cells escape away from the tumour and spread, a process called metastasis.
A career in science can be a wonderful thing. It can take you on unexpected twists and turns in ways you often don’t expect.
Discovering what is around the corner, which could be incredibly important, is the thrill of doing research. Being a scientist can also be a literal voyage. Being a scientist has taken me from doing a PhD in my native home of Australia, to a postdoctoral fellowship in the United States, followed by running a lab in Scotland. For a naïve Australian boy hailing from a small town, getting to broaden my experience of the world and the many wonderful people and cultures in it has been one of the best parts of being a scientist. Getting to know other people can make us reflect on who we are, what we hold important or take for granted, and how we project who we are into the world.
For many years, as an LGBT+ scientist, I wanted the ‘LGBT+’ part to be secondary to my identity as a scientist. I was never ashamed of this important part of my life – being out since I was twenty – but I thought it mostly irrelevant to my identity as a scientist. What mattered to me was the science I was lucky enough to do, and how I contributed as a member of the scientific community. The thing is, when we minimise a part of ourselves, we aren’t always in control of exactly how much we minimise. The boundaries for what to share and what not to aren’t always clear. And the cognitive load to constantly be making those decisions can be taxing.
A twist in my own experience as an LGBT+ scientist is that over time I have come to realise I am happiest when I don’t have to make that calculation constantly. I am happiest when I can bring my full self to being a scientist. That cognitive load making many little decisions about how much to share can now be funnelled into being a better, brighter scientist.
This is the experience of many LGBT+ people, not exclusive to science – having to decide whether to come out over and over, often to people one doesn’t know, with personal information, or to stay silent. I am a white cis-gendered man that gets to make the decision of when to do this. For other members of the LGBT+ community, this can be a choice they may not get. It is a lifelong journey that occurs at different rates for different LGBT+ people, and one that can be filled with both trauma and acceptance, sometimes in parallel.
I personally have had a journey of acceptance in science. While not diminishing that others can, and do, have very different experiences, supportive allies have been a large part in creating such an accepting culture. Excellent science comes from thinking outside of the box; this necessitates and celebrates bringing together people with different backgrounds and ways of thinking. This diversity can push research forward in unexpected ways.
It is important, though, as scientists we don’t silently believe ourselves to be accepting and supportive. It is in the communication of these diverse concepts, thoughts and experiences that the unexpected can happen. Allyship needs to have a voice.
The times that colleagues have actively asked about my husband, attended LGBT-centric events with me, or volunteered their time to inform themselves means more than the few donated moments of time from an Ally. They are a sign to someone in a historically, and currently, discriminated against minority that you are an accepting, safe space for them.
And this, in my experience, is where an equally wonderful turn of discovery may lay: an LGBT+ scientist and ally scientist truly getting to know each other’s full and unique personal experiences.
David is Group Leader at the CRUK Beatson Institute, and Reader at the University of Glasgow, Institute of Cancer Sciences. He is also a UKRI Future Leader Fellow.
Dr Amy Tibbo: “We have a common goal, and we need to build up our colleagues and make them feel supported, heard and understood whatever their background.”
Amy works on prostate cancer at The Beatson Institute for Cancer Research where her main focus is to identify, understand and investigate drivers of the change from early to metastatic disease and how we can use these pathways as therapeutic targets.
Working in Cancer Research has been an extremely fulfilling experience for me.
As many of us do, I come from a family that has experienced how a cancer diagnosis can impact someone’s life. One standout event in my decision to become a researcher was when my gran was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was then I realised that I wanted to understand how disease is caused at a molecular level. As I progressed through school and university this only grew. I see working in cancer research as a giant puzzle. You work to try and fit the pieces of a small part together as others do the same with the aim that one day you generate a full puzzle that helps you understand the disease.
The inclusiveness of science is what I love the most. I was lucky as my parents have supported who I am and what I want for my life, but I think it is important to also have a support network in your working life. We spend so long in the lab working that our colleagues can become like a family. Having the people that I spend so much time with be there celebrating at my wedding to my wife, Jen, was an amazing moment. Developing these bonds, respecting each other, and offering a friendly conversation can really make all the difference. We have a common goal, and we need to build up our colleagues and make them feel supported, heard and understood whatever their background.
Having diversity in science is crucial. Celebrating diversity in science is crucial. Understanding that everyone has a different outlook on problems allows us to see new ways to solve them. The labs I have worked in have been extremely diverse and meeting people from different walks of life has given me some of the best experiences.
I think one thing that we need more than ever is to show young people thinking about coming into science that there are lots of LGBTQ+ scientists and allies that are always happy to offer advice and support you. You are not alone in your scientific journey.
Amy is a Research Associate at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, focusing on treatment resistance in Prostate cancer.