Queers in Science: Science at the Edge

by Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV

This piece appears in the July 2023 edition of Science Victoria magazine. All issues can be read online for free at rsv.org.au/Science-Victoria.

Queers in Science members at the 2023 Midsumma Pride March. Image: Kim Kwan.

We all matter. Because we are matter.

We are made of stardust; made of the elements that are forged in stars as they are born, as they live, and as they die. In this sense, we are all the same, yet we all have different stories. Queers in Science celebrates these different stories. Three scientists at the cutting edge of their fields shared their research, their personal journeys, and their vulnerability as part of the annual Queers in Science lecture.

It is an uncomfortable truth that researchers have faced race and gender inequality in STEM for decades – and they still do to this day. Multiple studies, including recent surveys in the US and UK document the disadvantages that LGBTQIA+ scientists face.1,2,3 Studies indicate that the persistence of heteronormativity, homophobia, and transphobia in STEM has a significant impact on the personal and professional development of LGBTQIA + academics and students. They are more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and health difficulties compared with their non-LGBTQIA+ peers – and are hence more likely to leave STEM altogether.

While academia largely remains a cis-heteronormative space, there is increasing support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Queers in Science (queersinscience.org.au) is an example of an organisation that champions change and inclusive environment for LGBTQIA+ people in STEMM. Each year, the Royal Society of Victoria and Inspiring Victoria collaborate with Queers in Science to present a lecture series featuring LGBTQIA+ scientists. This year, Associate Professor Deanne Fisher, Dr Kay Hodgins, and Krystal de Napoli shared their “science at the edge”.

Giant Telescopes and Exploding Galaxies – Associate Professor Deanne Fisher

We live on a planet that orbits a star. That star, the Sun, is one of hundreds of billions that are going around the centre of our galaxy. Extending beyond the Milky Way Galaxy, if you counted all the stars in all the galaxies, there would be more stars in the entire universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth. How did they all come to be?

Deanne Fisher has always loved looking at the night sky. After being given a telescope as a child, she went outside every single night to gaze at the Moon – all that her simple telescope would allow. She was hooked, and continues to gaze at the stars today in an endeavour to better understand their birth and life. The telescopes she uses now, however, are a significant upgrade from what she began with – and they are only getting better and better.

Stars form from accumulated dust and gas. Gravity forces them to come together into dense clumps, squeezing the atoms until their nuclei fuse and a star is born. Prior to radio and infrared (IR) telescopes, all we had was a blurry vision of the stars and distant galaxies. But during star formation, the surrounding area heats up, which can be detected in IR. In 2006, astronomers had their first view of a galaxy in IR with the Spitzer Telescope, providing details they had never seen.

With more information from more powerful telescopes, more questions followed. Why did some sections of a galaxy have more stars than others? How much gas needs to collapse to make stars? One telescope is never enough for astronomers.

To answer these questions, astronomers used radio telescopes. Deanne spent time at ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), an array of 66 radio telescopes in the Atacama Desert, Chile. By looking at how much gas is in any given spot and counting the number of stars, she and other astronomers could graph star formation. But it seemed as though most of the gas within a galaxy did not become stars. Furthermore, there were symmetrical holes in the gas – something had to be in the middle, blowing them up.

Further images of the cosmos revealed what that something was: supernovae, exploding stars. As the technology of ALMA advanced, Deanne could determine the mass of the outflow material for the first time. Surprisingly, the outflow of gaseous material being pushed out of the galaxy by supernovae contained more matter than the material within the galaxy itself, but in a telescope, it appears 100-500 times fainter. This outflow explained the reason so little gas is involved in star formation, and it had finally become visible.

As Deanne progressed through her career and answered these questions, she was also discovering who she was as a woman. In Deanne’s words, ‘it is not possible to decouple this change from my scientific career’. The man who worked on telescopes was alone and afraid of talking to others, while Deanne is now a group leader who happily works with students and collaborators, and presents at conferences. She believes that letting people express themselves and be comfortable is always better than not. Science is conducted by people, and the way we live our lives impacts our work.

There are only three trans Professors in astronomy around the world. However, as Deanne says, ‘three is greater than zero’, which was the number when she started.

Rapid Climate Adaptation – Dr Kay Hodgins

Content Warning: The following section mentions suicide.

Invasive species pose a great ecological and economic challenge: they compete with native plants and animals for limited resources and alter habitats, thereby reducing biodiversity and even causing extinctions. Factoring in costs for management interventions and direct loss and damage, pest plants and animals have cost the Australian economy at least $390 billion in the last 60 years4.

Invasive plants are the biggest burden, spreading rapidly through the environment. How does a single species do it when the environment is not homogenous around the world? Kay Hodgins studies how the common ragweed can be so common.

The common ragweed has disseminated across the world despite different climates and ecological communities. It is a pest in agriculture and also the cause of allergies in one in four people5 – and as Kay discovered, even if you weren’t initially allergic, working with it for years will bring on the hay fever.

Looking at the genetic ancestry of common ragweed, it appears to have been introduced to Europe from North America multiple times between around one and half centuries ago. It then came to Australia 90 years ago from a single source.

Timing is everything for the annually flowering ragweed: they only get one chance to pollinate, germinate and flower. There therefore tends to be a trade-off with plants that flower earlier remaining small and producing fewer seeds, while those that flower later are larger and have more seeds due to the additional resources for photosynthesis.

To determine whether there were any genetic changes in ragweed that dictated whether a plant would flower earlier or later, Kay and her partner Kristen drove around North America to collect ragweed to grow in a controlled greenhouse. The flowering times correlated to the latitude where they were collected: those in warmer regions have long growing seasons, while those in cold climates flower sooner – because if it gets too cold, they may not reproduce at all. The same patterns were seen in ragweed collected in Europe and Australia, even though those plants have only had at most 160 years to evolve in one place as opposed to the thousands North American plants have had. When Darwin proposed natural selection, he thought it was slow, but this is an example of it being very fast.

To investigate the DNA changes responsible for these timing differences, Kay sequenced 600 genomes from modern ragweed plants as well as historic ones preserved in Herbariums. Rather than single genes, there appeared to be whole regions of the genome responsible for flowering times that were affected by climate variables. In fact, she found that 15 whole chromosome inversions (flips) contribute to rapid adaptation in ragweed, which is less common than mutations to individual genes. These inversions have been repeated in the invasive plant as it spread and adapted to its new homes around the world.

Much of Kay’s research – and ability to answer these questions – has been aided by her late partner, Kristen. They spent nine years together as research and life partners, and Kristen moved with Kay from Vancouver to help her set up a new lab at Monash University in 2014. But things weren’t easy for Kristen. LGBTQIA+ people in Australia have six times the risk of depression and nine times the rate of suicide attempts compared to the general population, and academia does not make it any easier. Kristen committed suicide at the age of thirty after battling mental health crises. The Kristen Nurkowski Scholarship was established at the University of British Columbia in her honour, and Kay shares Kristen’s story in the hope that it removes the stigma around mental illness and suicide.

Deadly Dark Skies – Krystal de Napoli

The Australian continent is home to a diversity of communities and cultures, enduring tens of thousands of years. With over 250 language groups and even more dialects, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures hold Knowledge systems that span time scales vastly longer than anywhere else. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people observe the Sun, Moon, and stars to inform navigation and calendars, and predict weather. Krystal de Napoli is a Gomeroi astrophysicist, who shares Indigenous Knowledge to highlight its intrinsic ingenuity and science.

An iconic Indigenous astronomy constellation is the Emu in the Sky. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people observe the emu formed by a series of dark patches in the Milky Way. The Milky Way and the dark patches within, caused by gas and dust that obscure light from behind, are a prominent feature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomy but not in European astronomy. This could be due to the tilt of our solar system within our galaxy (similar to Earth’s tilt in its orbit around the Sun), here in the southern hemisphere, that points us towards the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy.

In Gomeroi traditions of northern NSW, the emu, Gawarrgay, is a totem that informs observers about the bird’s breeding behaviour throughout the year based on its orientation on the horizon at sunset. When it is fully visible in the Milky Way during April and May, it assumes the form of a running emu, representing a female emu chasing the males during the mating season. Because emus begin laying their eggs at this time, Gawarrgay’s appearance is a reminder that the emu eggs are available for collection. In June and July, the legs disappear, representing the male emu sitting on the nest, incubating the eggs. Later in the year, the emu appears to “sit” in the waterholes when water is bountiful, and by late summer, it dips its head below the horizon, indicating that the water has dried up. Krystal likes this story for the way it demonstrates the interconnectedness of stories of the stars with seasonality, animals, and weather.

Stories of the sky passed down generations also represent rare celestial phenomena. In Gomeroi traditions, the Sun is a woman named Yhi who falls in love with the Moon man, Bahloo. Yhi chases Bahloo, who has no interest and constantly tries to avoid her, zig-zagging across the sky. In astronomy, the Sun’s path across the sky during the day defines the ecliptic, and the Moon follows a similar path, albeit bobbing up and down in a small band relative to the ecliptic. The tale of Yhi and Bahloo incorporates this celestial dance, but sometimes, the story has an alternative ending: Bahloo will give in and cover Yhi in an embrace. This is an eclipse.

In order to continue telling these stories and maintaining her culture, Krystal advocates for dark skies. Light pollution, or artificial light at night, is the excessive or poor use of artificial outdoor light. It is largely the effects of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine upward into the sky or other places where it is not wanted, instead of focusing it where it is. The brightness of artificial lights has ecological impacts by disrupting the natural patterns of wildlife, and it also destroys our ability to see the stars, particularly disconnecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from their deep connection to the sky.

In Melbourne, we can only see around 50 stars with our eyes in the night sky because of the city’s glow, yet in the countryside, it is possible to see thousands. Krystal, who now lives in Melbourne, is always relieved to return home to Country where she sees more stars in comparison, but rather concerningly, her family tells her that the skies are getting brighter there too. Some rural places are committed to keeping their skies dark, but cities can implement changes too. By darkening our skies with better lighting design, we will be able to maintain the rich heritage of Indigenous astronomy.

By connecting the dots in the night sky, we can form all sorts of stories. Stars have helped Indigenous astronomers shape their continuing narratives and cultures, creating meaning in the sky above that guides them in life on the ground below. Hopefully their stories endure tens of thousands of years more.


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  2. Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society of Chemistry. 2019. ‘Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists’. rsc.org/globalassets/04-campaigning-outreach/campaigning/lgbt-report/lgbt-report_web.pdf
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  5. Arbes SJ Jr, et al. 2005. ‘Prevalences of positive skin test responses to 10 common allergens in the US population: Results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.’ Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Vol 116 pp 337-383. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2005.05.017