International Day of LGBTQIA+ People in STEM 2022: An Interview With Dr. Christina Atchison
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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. Christina Atchison, who identifies as a cis-gender lesbian and is a principal clinical academic fellow at Imperial College London, to learn about her career in STEM so far and the challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ scientists conducting fieldwork.
Kate Robinson (KR): Can you tell us about your research interests?
Christina Atchison (CA): After qualifying in Medicine, I worked for several years rotating through clinical specialties. Subsequently, I obtained my PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
My research interests include the evaluation of child and adolescent public health programs. Currently, I am working on research into the longer-term effects of COVID-19 investigating why some people with COVID-19 experience symptoms for several weeks or months (Long COVID), while others have a short illness or no symptoms.
KR: What do you enjoy most about working in STEM? What would you say are your proudest achievements?
CA: I enjoy the constant learning, innovative thinking and adaptability to a changing world that a career in STEM allows.
My proudest achievement was my contribution to the UK response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a principal investigator on the REACT surveillance study which was recognized when Imperial was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for COVID-19 response.
The Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT) research program was a series of studies that sought to improve understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic was progressing across England. To do this the program launched two studies in May 2020; REACT-1 and REACT-2. REACT-1 was a community survey of SARS-CoV-2 prevalence in England, based on repeated non-overlapping cross-sectional surveys of random samples of the population. At each round, self-administered throat and nose swabs and questionnaire data are collected from between 120,000 and 180,000 people ages 5 years and above, over a period of ~17 days, at approximately monthly intervals. The aim was to examine how widely the virus had spread and to identify any trends in prevalence. The REACT-1 data collection finished in March 2022 following 19 rounds of survey. REACT-2 assessed several different antibody tests to see how accurate they were and how easily people could use them at home.
KR: Last year, you wrote an article on some of the obstacles faced by LGBTQIA+ researchers, can you tell us more about it?
CA: In many countries, there are fewer legal protections for LGBTQIA+ people than in the UK. The specific challenges, perceptions and experiences of LGBTQIA+ scientists at undertaking international working are poorly understood.
Last year, I conducted a survey and interviews with LGBTQIA+ staff and postgraduate research students across my university. Respondents reported that potential safety issues in relation to sexuality and gender identity were rarely discussed as part of travel risk assessments. About half of respondents had ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe based on their sexual orientation or gender identity whilst undertaking overseas work-related travel. A quarter of respondents reported harassment or discrimination. Finally, almost all respondents considered overseas international working to be important for career progression, yet 40% had, at some point, chosen not to do overseas work-related travel because they felt it might be unsafe based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Recently, a group of us within my department have come together informally to create an “LGBTQIA+ Travel Working Group” to discuss how to better support LGBTQIA+ staff, students and allies traveling or working abroad, or who collaborate with international teams. We plan to provide meetups for LGBTQIA+ staff, students and allies to raise awareness, contribute towards new policies, help principal investigators support LGBTQIA+ group members, and organize “safe-space” informal chats where LGBTQIA+ staff, students and allies can come together, share experiences, and learn from each other. We also aim to create an online space with helpful resources on international working for LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Over the past decade many STEM institutions have taken significant steps to improve access, participation and equal opportunities for LGBTQIA+ scientists in the workplace. However, we need to reach out further to ensure safety and support in the field. Only by raising awareness of this issue, collecting data to quantify the extent of the problem and creating solutions that foster safety and inclusion, can STEM institutions address the unique barriers and challenges of LGBTQIA+ scientists working in the field.
KR: You have worked in many clinical specialties, have your experiences of the challenges facing the LGBTQIA+ community differed throughout your career?
CA: I have not experienced overt homophobia at work, yet I have not felt comfortable coming “out” in many of my previous jobs in hospital and academic settings. A lot of progress has been made since I started my career over a decade ago, many STEM organizations in the UK, including the NHS and higher education institutions, are now formally committed to inclusivity, diversity and equity. In my current job, visible allyship, in the form of my colleagues wearing rainbow lanyards, has giving me the confidence to finally be out in the workplace. I am now a visible and active representative of our LGBTQ+ community.
Recently, I worked on an evaluation of an adolescent reproductive health initiative in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, which included in-country field visits to research sites. In Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania homosexuality is illegal. So, when asked about my personal life I would self-censor and switch pronouns to he/him/his when talking about my wife. Indeed, probably the hardest decision I have to make as an LGBTQ+ scientist whilst traveling with work abroad is whether to disclose my sexuality or gender identity. The decision to be out during fieldwork is exceptionally complex as the risks are location dependent. There are circumstances where staying in the closet may be safer than being out, particularly in Africa and the Middle East where homosexuality is illegal in many countries and sometimes punishable by death.
KR: If you could give one piece of advice to young LGBTQIA+ researchers beginning their career, what would it be?
CA: It is important to acknowledge and reflect on the fact that, as an LGBTQ+ scientist, your individual professional choices and career decision-making could be profoundly affected by your sexuality, particularly if your fieldwork takes you overseas. My advice would be to increase your awareness of safety issues associated with fieldwork for LGBTQ+ scientists. Prepare yourself for work in the field by identifying potential safety issues in relation to sexuality and gender identity and discussing these with your employer. If you know what to expect in terms of potential safety issues and cultural beliefs related to LGBTQ+ people, you can make an informed decision whether you still feel comfortable traveling, or whether you will need additional support or mentoring to handle the additional stress in the field.
Dr. Christina Atchison was speaking to Kate Robinson, Editorial Assistant for Technology Networks.