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International Day of LGBTQIA+ People in STEM 2022: An Interview With Dr. Sebastian Groh

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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. Dr. Sebastian Groh identifies as bisexual and transmasculine, “somewhere between non-binary and a trans man”, in his own words. Groh is a research associate at University College London and cofounder of Trans in STEM, and in this interview, we spoke to him to learn more about his research and experiences working in STEM.

Kate Robinson (KR): Your current research focuses on the evolution of Crocodylomorpha. Can you tell us more about this work and why you decided to focus your research in this area?

Sebastian Groh (SG): I actually stumbled into this area completely by accident! My PhD program was slightly different in that, once you had secured a place, you had also secured funding to do any PhD you wanted so you could pick whichever project you preferred. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do yet (I knew I wanted to do something paleo/evolution/ecology related but my expertise thus far had mostly been in invertebrates), so I chatted with several supervisors. I talked to the one I ended up working with because he was offering a paleo PhD, although I knew nothing about vertebrates or crocodiles! We got along amazingly well and by the end of the hour we had enough ideas to fill three theses and I knew I wanted to work with him (this turned out to be the best decision – having a supervisory team you get along with well and who can motivate you is far more important than getting your dream project). Long story short, I learned all I could about Crocodylomorpha and have stuck with the subject ever since!

They are an incredibly fascinating group, as old as the dinosaurs, with hundreds of different species throughout evolutionary history. These species used to be hugely diverse – marine crocodiles, miniature crocodiles, even plant-eating crocodiles! My research looks at how, when and where this diversity evolved and how we can improve the research methods in this area in general.

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

SG: I love learning and teaching myself new things and I still get incredibly excited about science and research in general. Every time I go on a literature search for a new method/new insights, I feel that old excitement rise up inside me again, that hunger for knowledge that I don’t think will ever be quelled. I also very much enjoy academic teaching and lecturing – my proudest moments will always be when students come to me and tell me that they’ve previously had no interest in paleontology, but now that they’ve heard my lectures they love it and want to know more about the field and potentially work in it! (Also, on a more humorous side, I managed to publish a paper titled "How to date a crocodile” which I am still happy my co-authors and the editor agreed to)

KR: You are the cofounder of Trans in STEM. Can you tell us more about the group, its aims and impact? How important are groups such as this to the LGBTQIA+ community?

SG: I co-founded the group in 2018 with another transgender scientist after we realized that there wasn’t really a network for trans people who are studying or working in STEM. We are very loosely organized, with a Facebook group and Twitter account – the closed group on FB is meant as a safe space for trans people to discuss their experiences and ask for advice and we have over one hundred members now! There’s more of us than you’d think. On our Twitter account we try to spread awareness about the issues faced by trans people in STEM and boost the amazing science that is being done by us. It’s great to see how many people have found others to connect to via our little virtual network and are now feeling less isolated and alone in their experiences.

KR: Have you faced any obstacles in your career due to identifying as LGBTQIA+?

SG: Of course, things are never easy – besides the usual transphobia/queerphobia that I’ve experienced just like everyone else (deadnaming, misgendering, slurs, insults, etc.) and that weighs down your mental health, something that will always sadden me a little is that there are quite a few places I cannot safely travel to because of being queer, be it for field work/museum work or conferences. It has also proven a big challenge to have my name changed to in journals where I published before I came out and began transitioning. Transitioning itself also is a limiting factor – hormone therapy for me requires GP visits at least every ten weeks so if I were to do fieldwork or go somewhere for a visiting semester, I could never stay away for longer than that. Also, the lack of gender-neutral toilet facilities in many buildings/conference venues is a problem. Of course, these are things that you try to work around nonetheless but they do make life a little harder!

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

SG: Find your people! Try and join organizations or groups of people facing the same challenges at you, be it at your institution or the wider academic world (e.g., Pride in STEM, 500 Queer Scientists, your own local LGBTQIA+ staff or student groups, etc.). And remember to have a life outside research and academia, the job isn’t everything!

Dr. Sebastian Groh was speaking to Kate Robinson, Editorial Assistant for Technology Networks.