Careers in academia: the LGBTQ+ perspective.
Press release issued: 23 April 2021
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) people have often not been well represented in STEM careers. Academia should be an environment where sexuality and gender identity does not matter. Nevertheless, some LGBTQ+ scientists have faced discrimination. Last year, the Wellcome Trust commissioned Shift Learning to investigate research cultures*. The survey of over 4000 researchers revealed culture report 24% of respondents would not feel comfortable discussing LGBTQ+ identity discrimination in the workplace. Furthermore, 25% of LGBTQ+ participants who had experienced discrimination or harassment said this was due to sexuality. Therefore, often individuals in the LGBTQ+ community have opted to suppress their gender identity and sexual orientation, which is likely to negatively affect productivity and mental health. Sadly, LGBTQ+ individuals are also five times more likely to commit suicide (The TREVOR Project)**.
To address these topics, Will Gibbs and Luis Martinez Robles interviewed Dr David J. Morgan, a Reader in Immunology in CMM. His research is focused on examining the T cell response within the tumour microenvironment, aiming to define the factors associated with both T lymphocytes and tumour cells which influence the generation of effective anti-tumour responses. For example, the role of inhibitory receptors such as TIM-3 and PD-1 expressed by intratumoral T cells.
Your research is focused in understanding the tumour microenvironment. Can you tell us why the tumour microenvironment is important for immunotherapy?
It’s become clear over the last 10-15 years that the tumour microenvironment is not just comprised of tumour cells; in fact, there are lots of other types of cells within it. Interestingly, upon entering the tumour, anti-tumour T-cells lose their function and capacity to kill and control. This is because tumours are mutated cells, and selective pressure facilitates them to evade the immune response. We are now understanding that multiple immune evasion mechanisms are at play within tumours. Therefore, although single-targeted immunotherapy approaches are likely to have benefit patients, the tumour is likely to escape this therapeutic mechanism. In recent years, our lab has been beginning to show that single immunotherapy approaches e.g anti-PD1 actually drive the tumour to develop further mechanisms of immune escape, for example, via recruitment of regulatory T-cells.
What has been the most exciting finding in your research career?
It was a long time ago! I think it has to be when we showed that tumour cells could switch off anti-tumour cytotoxic T-cell function. It was exciting to observe something that other labs were also observing around the world. It validates what you do, it’s not about being the first or getting the glory. In fact, it’s nice when you do something in science, and it’s validated because other people confirm these findings and your scientific approach. This gives you a sense of belief in yourself as we all have lots of ideas but unfortunately a lot don’t pan out. These sorts of findings have now become the foundation of cancer immunotherapy – targeting these off-switch mechanisms. Also, it’s worth noting that in the 90s, this sort of research was not very “hot” but now due to many discoveries about immune regulatory circuits in tumours, we now have some immunotherapies which are helping patients today.
Why did you decided to have a career in immunology research?
My final year undergraduate project here at the university of Bristol back in the 80s really got me excited about science. I was investigating antigen presenting cells in the skin of mice infected with Herpes virus and I liked studying the control of infectious disease. I really enjoyed the lab group I was in too, they made it really fun and exciting! Bill Blyth and Terry Hill were real characters, and it was a really fun group of people. It was great to be doing research rather than just laboratory practicals. I found it very exciting to try and to answer a question no one had potentially asked before. I just really enjoyed learning about the immune system as it's involved in every aspect of disease. This really spurred me on to continue!
You’re a first generation academic in your family. What made you to go to University and why did you pursue research?
Growing up, I never had any aspiration to go to university at all. I grew up in the 80s in a Warwickshire mining village at a point of mass unemployment. The prospects of somebody at my school was either go on to the a Youth Opportunities Programme, funded by the government, where you worked on a so say ‘Apprenticeship Scheme’, but this was often nothing more than a job such as sweeping floors in a warehouse. The other option was you would work down a the local coal mine, and really I didn’t want to do that either. However, I had a conversation with my biology teacher, Mrs Marsden, after I was getting involved with the wrong people at school in order to fit in. I remember her asking me why I was getting involved with people not interested in school. She was the one that said if I worked hard, I could go to university – I’d never even thought about it prior to that. So, I thought to myself OK, I’ll work hard, pass my O-levels, do A-levels and I will go to university. So, that one biology teacher inspired me, gave me a talking to because she belived in me, and allowed me to believe in myself and pursue a degree, in Bristol. Interestingly, my A-level Biology teacher at my 6th Form College, Dr Knowles, also inspired me; but for other reasons. When I suggested applying to Bristol to study Microbiology, he responded by saying, I wouldn’t bother applying to Bristol, they don’t take people like you there. Clearly Bristol did take people like me then, and hopefully they still do.
Have you had any difficulty for developing a career in research? What do you think that has to change in the Universities to avoid those obstacles for new gens?
I was recruited by the head of school at the time, and I came in as a temporary lecturer. I was living working as a Post Doc at Scripps Research in California, and I didn't really expect to come back to the U.K., but when I was at at Keystone Conference in Colorado, I met somebody I knew from Bristol when I was an undergraduate who was in the School of Pathology and Microbiolgy as CMM was known as back then. I had a conversation and found out there was a lectureship going and I thought, I should apply for that. So, I came back to Bristol here, and it was great, but what was missing, I think in hindsight was mentoring. There was no real structure to support new members of staff.
It was really up to you as an individual to go out and find support. I think if you're quite outgoing, fairly confident and you're somebody who finds it easy to ask for information and support, then you would get it and I got that support. However, I think if you didn't have those connections, or you hadn't developed relationships very quickly, or you're not the sort of person who's very outgoing, I think you'd have really struggled then because there was no formal mentoring and/or training. You were recruited on your research portfolio, your list of research achievements, but you were expected to then essentially become a project and people manager. However, you were not given any real training in how to manage people and how to manage, not only, to developing your own interests, but also developing the careers of others (postgrads and postdocs). You also did not receive any formal training in teaching at all. I think if you were naturally good at it, you'd do well. However, the ones that don't do well will just fall by the wayside. However, what I'm starting to see now is mentoring schemes, such as the mentorship scheme at the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching, the Cultivating Research-rich Education and Teaching Excellence (CREATE HEA) Fellowship. I think those things are really important; to have training because you're not recruited based on any of that, you are still recruited on your papers and grants and not your ability to be a leader or manager. There are also many leadership programmes available now. So, I think things are changing a lot and that’s good.
We all know there is a lack of representation of LGBTQ+ community in STEM careers. How do you think more young people in the LGBTQ+ community can feel inspired to develop careers in science?
Quite a difficult question. I think the environment is key - feeling it’s inclusive and that the inclusivity is genuine, rather than just a box checking exercise of let's all put stickers on our doors and wear LGBTQ+ coloured lanyards. It's about actually feeling that these decisions are sincere and made by people within the LGBTQ+ community. These strategies have to be in place at every stage within education from schools through to universities. Also, I think things change because the public's attitude changes. I'm fifty-four and grew up in the 80s, during the AIDS crisis. At that time, you just didn't really have any inclination to talk about your sexuality in any environment, whatsoever. I think those things have changed massively. I think having stickers on your door is really important and I'm not trivializing that because if I was a student and I was questioning my sexuality and I wanted talk to someone about that or to feel that sexuality is not going to be an issue, I would go and talk to somebody with a sticker on the door. However, I think it has to come across as genuine, and I'm not sure how you do that. I think that might be something that younger people need to think about, how they make that LGBTQ+ inclusivity real and genuine.
Throughout your career, have you ever felt uncomfortable introducing yourself as part of the LGBT community? Has this impacted workplace relationships?
Loads of times. Walking up to a group of heterosexual men at a conference or in an academic environment when the majority of scientists in my generation were men, and not being able to talk about football is quite intimidating because that, along with families, was often a standard conversation topic in male groups. I've been in situations where people have talked about their family and their children. But, tThe assumption is was that [because you are gay] you don't have that. Therefore, in the past no one asked, in fact it felt like it was purposely avoided, and I guess you end up feeling that you are being ignored. That's one of the things I have found quite hard to deal in the workplace [as a gay man]. For someone to ask me, “what does your partner do” or “do you have any children?” is rare, the assumption is that, because as a gay man, you won't have children; but there are lots of gay men that have children, and gay men that adopt children. There's lots of men my age who got married and had kids and then came out when they were in their forties, because when they were younger it was a much a safer and easier life to pretend that you were straight with children. So, it's when people assume things - I think that is sort of ignoring you - and that's something I find quite difficult to deal with. I’d rather someone actually be offended by me or be offensive to me, because that at least validates me and acknowledges the fact that I exist, and they have an opinion. It's obviously something I don't want to perpetuate [people being offended], but for me it's better than feeling being ignored. I think obviously, if you're at a conference, the idea is that you probably would talk about science more than anything else. It makes everything else sort of slightly irrelevant in a way. But it was in those sorts of work related social group settings: the sort of mingling session I often found difficult. I'm not a big fan of mingling because I've always often found straight male chat really difficult to engage with. It sounds stereotypical, but football is the sort of topic that many straight men talk about. It's a cliché: smartly dressed, interested in anything but football and probably would prefers to go and talk to the women, “Oh, he must be gay”. All of that is of course stereotypinges, but these stereotypes exist for a reason. I've never experienced direct homophobia in the workplace, absolutely not. Although I do remember when I came for my interview, I was told a lot of people said after my meeting me: “he must be the gay one”. I have found things out, that were said, but I've never experienced it face to face. But I have experienced lots of it, outside of work , and certainly when I was growing up-violence and hateful comments, but fortunately never in the workplace.
It’s common to see people in science struggling with mental health issues, how do you deal with workplace stress and what advice would you give to early careers researchers that may be struggling?
I think it’s really important to have a hobby that is completely out of science, not a science hobby. It doesn’t need to be a race car driving but something that allows you to switch off on the things you do day to day. For example, when people play in team sports, you have to forget about everything else. Have something outside of work, totally unrelated to the work you do. Acknowledge that other people have stress. In a way, stress is a good thing because it drives productivity and makes you feel alive as well. But I think when you become ‘distressed’, you need to get some support. You can avoid a lot of stress by having something as a way of escaping, that might be something like reading or scuba diving.
1. Favourite drink?
2. Favourite place for holidays?
Somewhere where there is not a lot of people, I like Maldives.
3. Any new hobby during lockdown?
Not new, but I’ve been cooking more and gardening.
4. Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
Probably nearly retired.
5. Soundtrack for your career/life?
Stayin alive by Bee Gees.
6. Favourite part of your job?
Diversity of people that I interact with on a daily basis.
7. Any advice for people who feel underrepresented and would like to become a scientist?
Find somebody who supports you and you can connect with.
At CMM we celebrate our differences. We recognise that diversity of thought is not only the key to success in any workplace (especially one that focusses on scientific innovation), but also what makes CMM a special and interesting place to work. We know that each individual’s journey to academic excellence will be different and exciting, so the CMM Spotlight Series uses interviews of our staff and students to shine a light on the wonderful individuals at CMM working together on our mission of #TurningScienceIntoMedicine.
Thank you to our postgrads Carissa Wong, Drinalda Cela, Fernando Garcia, Luis Martinez Robles, Michaela Gregorova and Will Gibbs who started this initiative, and to all those who are willing to tell us their story.
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