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This is What a Scientist Looks Like: Transgender


When you think of a scientist, who do you imagine?

If you’ve been following my #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike series, perhaps you picture a #STEMinist. Right on! But have you considered the multifaceted nature of gender? For this installment, I’d like to introduce you to Lynn Conway and Ben Barres, both world-renowned scientists known for speaking out about transgender issues in science.

Breaking the Gender Dichotomy

The belief that humans fall into two distinct and complementary genders where each have natural roles in life is known as heteronormativity. This heteronormative view of the world pops up all over the place: at gender reveal parties, in the toy section of Target, and even in science.

Why is this a problem? The gender dichotomy is not an accurate representation of the spectrum of people living, breathing, and doing science on this Earth! When we expand the public perception of who actually does science, our discipline becomes more inclusive and welcoming to diverse groups of people. So let’s meet two individuals who expand our knowledge of who a scientist can be:

Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway is a famous computer scientist known for her pioneering work in computer chip design. She created internet-based platforms for the development and testing of circuit designs, ultimately co-authoring a book on the subject that became a standard resource in chip design courses during the 1980s.

Lynn Conway. Image credit: Charles Rogers via Wikimedia  (CC BY-SA 2.5)

After graduating from Columbia with a Master’s in Electrical Engineering in the 1960s, Conway was recruited to work at IBM. At this time Conway was a man married to a woman and they had a family together. It was also during this time that Conway began her transition from male to female. After revealing her intention to transition, IBM fired Conway in 1968. Conway took a new name and started a new life.

Once Conway established herself as a woman, she kept her past private and started working as a contract computer programmer. She quickly worked her way up in the field and was recruited by Xerox as a research fellow – a job that ultimately led to her pioneering work in chip design. It was only as others started to take credit for her early work at IBM that she revealed her gender transition to the world by adding a section dedicated to it on her personal website.

Ever since, Lynn has acted as an activist for transgender people, especially in the technology sector. One of her greatest accomplishments in this role was in 2013, when Conway and one of her colleagues succeeded in obtaining transgender inclusion in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Code of Ethics.

Ben Barres

If you’re a neurobiologist, the name Ben Barres may fire some synapses. Dr. Barres was the first to grow and culture glial cells – the non-nerve cells in the brain. Along with his students, Dr. Barres went on to show that the overlooked glia dictate the life and death of synapses, or junctions between neurons, in the brain.

Ben Barres. Image credit: Myelin Repair Foundation via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0) 

Aside from his intellectual merit and contributions to neurobiology, you may also know the name Ben Barres from his 2006 opinion piece in Nature. In this work, Ben argues against the comments of certain academics who said innate differences in aptitude (rather than discrimination) was the reason behind fewer women making it to the upper echelons of academia. As the first openly transgender person to be admitted to the National Academy of Science, Ben Barres had a unique insight to provide: at birth, Ben was assigned female, however, at the age of 43, Ben transitioned to male.

“By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect. I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.” – Barres in his 2006 Nature essay

Sadly, in December 2017, Dr. Barres died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 63. A beloved mentor to all his students and a role model for many transgender scientists, his passing was a great loss to the scientific community. His life and work, as a champion for both glial cells and historically marginalized groups in the sciences (women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people), has left a mark. A mark that says it’s okay to be different, especially in science.

Towards an Inclusive Future

Individuals like Lynn Conway and Ben Barres used their clout in their respective fields to de-stigmatize transgender scientists. Perhaps with their stories and transgender activism brought into the spotlight, science can become a more inclusive and welcoming place to all.

Featured image credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stephanie Halmo Stephanie M. Halmo is a former middle school science teacher turned graduate student, actively pursuing her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Georgia. Stephanie currently serves as an Assistant Editor for Athens Science Observer. In her spare time she likes to dance, volunteer at local schools and tie-dye anything she can get her hands on. She is currently ASO’s News Editor. You can connect with Stephanie on Twitter and Instagram @shalmo or by email: shalmo27@uga. More from Stephanie M. Halmo.

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