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International Day of LGBTQIA+ People in STEM 2022: An Interview With Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe

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November 18 is International Day of LGBTQIA+ People in STEM 2022. Technology Networks had the pleasure of interviewing five individuals currently working in STEM who identify as LGBTQIA+ to find out about their experiences, opinions and ideas to inspire the next generation.

The article showcases the key insights gained from these trailblazers as a collective, but we want to share their individual conversations so that you can further understand their journeys, challenges and future perspectives as LGBTQIA+ individuals in science. In this interview, we spoke to Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe, who identifies as a trans woman and is a senior lecturer and UK Research and Innovation future leader fellow at the University of Sheffield, to find out about her research and experiences as a transgender woman of color in STEM.

Kate Robinson (KR): Your current research focuses on developing more accessible and versatile tools and methods for super-resolution microscopy. Can you tell us more about this work?

Izzy Jayasinghe (IJ): I have been lucky enough to enter my research track at a time when super-resolution microscopy methods were being invented for the first time. One of the real appeals of super-resolution was that “anybody” who had a decent research grade microscope set up could make it work perhaps with the addition of a sensitive camera, a good objective lens and a custom-written software. The groups that I worked with as an early career researcher very much enjoyed this accessibility. We used these technologies to shed new light into the biophysical questions that we were studying. As super-resolution methods became more diverse and wide ranging in their capabilities, my team and I have observed the potential to make it more accessible. One of the real breakthroughs in this domain is the arrival of expansion microscopy (ExM) which has placed super-resolution microscopy in the hands of non-specialist microscopists. In our group, we have made it a mission to help peers from the far corners of the life sciences (i.e., clinical colleagues, field biologists etc.) adopt this method. As a technology, it is rapidly evolving in areas like fluorescence probes, hydrogel chemistry and combining ExM with other, optical super-resolution modalities to compound the resolution improvement that is on offer.

KR: What do you enjoy most about working in STEM? What would you say are your proudest achievements?

IJ: I enjoy the images that microscopy produces. Although I rarely get to sit at a microscope and acquire images these days, it is nevertheless quite a rewarding process to train the next generation of optical microscopists to acquire high-quality images (which, in turn, guarantees the high-quality data that we need for our research questions). My proudest achievements include seeing the team members that I helped train go on to exciting new career paths, and the studies and projects where I have managed to bring together a brilliant group of colleagues. I am also proud of the discoveries and innovations that I have been involved in, however the thrill of that work is often short-lived, thanks to the break-neck pace at which we are expected to produce scientific papers in modern-day academia.

KR: If you could give one piece of advice to young LGBTQ+ researchers beginning their career, what would it be?

IJ: My advice to LGBTQ+ researchers starting out in their scientific/academic careers is to position themselves in a workplace or academy that takes Diversity and Inclusion seriously. It is up to you whether you are out, or when, or how you come out. More important, is being in an environment where you feel included and uninhibited as a person, and thrive as a professional. Indeed, the quality of the training and the quality of the research are also important criteria, however do not pick that environment based on traditional metrics or anecdotes of “excellence” – they are often red herrings. A certain level of resilience is necessary when navigating hyper competitive sectors like academic STEM; positive LGBTQ+ role models are especially good for nurturing that inspiration and resilience. However, resilience also means having the capacity to recognize discrimination, marginalization, and inequality, and then to take action to either prevent it or escape from it. 

KR: You have been a scientist in many geographical locations in your career. Have your experiences of the challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community differed by location?

IJ: I have experienced racism to differing degrees in the different countries and cities that I have lived in – none more than in the South West of the UK. I was not always out as trans in many of my former home towns, so I have no objective geographical point of comparison. However, the LGBTQ+ community in North Yorkshire have been a real place of comfort and support for me over the past seven years. A number of friends that I made from outside of my career or workplace there played big roles in my support network. The internal culture of universities that I worked in had little correlation with the local LGBTQ+ community. For example, one such (former) workplace in Yorkshire has been awful to their LGBTQ+ employees. I was lucky enough to escape it, but for those colleagues who remain, finding the little allyship they can find for each other has been the primary mechanism for coping with ongoing homophobia and transphobia.

KR: What are the main barriers for LGBT+ people entering and progressing in STEM, and what could be done to support them?

IJ: The main barriers are still the high prevalence of harassment, bullying, discrimination, stereotyping and targeted microaggressions. Exclusionary workplace cultures, discouraging LGBTQ+ colleagues or students from coming out are real red flags. The lack of representation of LGBTQ+ people in the leadership roles and the failure to recognize the intersectional impact of belonging to other marginalized groups in addition to being LGBTQ+ are also at the core of numerous types of barriers faced by our community in STEM. There is also a serious lack of data that allow us to study, understand, highlight and fix the negative experiences of LGBTQ+ people in STEM. That data is unlikely to arrive any time soon, due to the lack of impetus from academies, funding bodies and employers to collect that data in a responsible and trustworthy manner.

Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe was speaking to Kate Robinson, Editorial Assistant for Technology Networks.