Interview: Dr. Alfredo Carpineti on advocating for LGBTQ+ issues in STEM

November 18, 2021

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti is an astrophysicist and science communicator, known among other things for his podcast (The Astroholic Explains) and his work as a staff writer for IFLScience. He’s also one of the founders of Pride in STEM, the first organization in the UK that specifically advocates for LGBTQ+ scientists.

A few years ago, Pride in STEM and its sibling organizations designated November 18th as LGBTQ+ STEM Day, an annual event to highlight the work of and challenges for LGBTQ+ individuals in the science and technology fields. ResearchGate’s Elyse Franko-Filipasic checked in with Alfredo to talk about his work, his motivations for establishing Pride in STEM, and what it means to be a thoughtful ally.

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti
Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Elyse Franko-Filipasic (EFF): How did you make the move from research to science journalism?

Alfredo Carpineti (AC): I fell in love with astronomy as a child, and pretty much decided that was what I wanted to study when I was around 12. And as I was doing all my schoolwork and university work, I also realised that I really enjoy talking about science. So it became clear to me that I don’t just want to do research, I also want to talk about science. Every opportunity that I had to give talks to do public engagement, I jumped at it. And when I finished my PhD, I had opportunities in research and opportunities outside of research, in communications. And I found that for what I wanted my life to be, science communication was the better path.

I started doing some blogging, some more talks, some more events. And eventually, I found this job as a science journalist. So for the last six years, I've been working full time as a science journalist for IFLScience. But I also continue to do my sort of side jobs — with my blog, with my podcasts, and with video and stuff — which I really, really love.

EFF: Do you ever see yourself going back to research?

AC: I always say that it would be fun to do a little bit more research at some point. You know, I talk to so many astronomers — maybe one of them will just toss me something like, ”Hey, there's this database, and I have nobody that wants to do any research on it. Play with it, see if you can find something.” Yeah, I don't know. Overall, I am very fortunate that I didn't have to leave academia for any negative reason; I made the decision to go into science communication because I enjoyed it more.

EFF: What led you to start Pride in STEM? Was there any sort of key event that kicked it off?

AC: I started Pride in STEM five years ago with a few of my friends. We were all used to LGBTQ+ organizations in the university setting, and at the time we were all coming out of academia. Some of us were going to industry, some of us, like me, were still trying to figure out what we were doing. And mostly we were concerned with marching in the Pride parade — we were used to marching with our university LGBTQ+ organizations, but now we were all out of universities. So we couldn’t march with them anymore. But we thought maybe we could form our own marching group.

And at the time, you needed to create a little website and have an email address so people could get in touch with you and say, “Hey, I also fall into this umbrella term or group” or “I would like to be part of your group. Can I get involved? Can I march with you?” And we did.

What became clear very quickly, after a few weeks of having this little page up, was that people were getting in touch asking for advice about issues related to being LGBTQ+ in STEM. We felt that there was a real need to provide information and create a network. After Pride, Stonewall, which is the biggest charity in the UK for LGBTQ+ people, got in touch about a series of events that were running. And they asked us if we wanted to put together an event to celebrate LGBTQ+ people in STEM — so we thought that’s in our wheelhouse. And we put that together, and it was a huge success.

At that point, we realized we needed a formal structure and we needed goals to achieve. Our main goal has been to showcase the work of LGBTQ+ people in STEM, and to support that work by sharing solutions and challenging the barriers of our community in STEM.

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti
Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

EFF: Generally speaking, what issues do people usually contact you about?

AC: When we first started, we had quite a variety of questions. One was on how to start an LGBTQ+ group at the workplace. Another one was how to approach homophobic microaggressions. And another one was about how to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ physicists.

And the difference between then and now is that back then, we had to do some research to put resources together for people. Now, we can usually immediately direct them to information — if not to stuff that we've done, then to stuff that somebody else has done very successfully.

EFF: One issue we’ve talked a bit about in my team at ResearchGate is name changing — being unable to change your name on a paper you’ve written because a publisher doesn’t allow it, and therefore essentially losing credit for that work if you change your name. I’ve seen this issue raised by trans researchers in particular. How do you think publishers can be persuaded to normalize name changes?

AC: I don't see why it's such a big deal, because everything is digital now; you can easily change the name. And I see this presented mostly as a trans issue, but I keep thinking: there are so many people who change their names. Trans people are such a small minority among them but they are the one raising awareness and doing the work, but I am certain that the vast majority of people that will change their name will be cis, straight people who change their names because of marriage or divorce.

Sure, back when things only existed in print form, it was hard to change a name on paper. But now, everything is digital. Being able to change your name should be standard — something that could be changed in a system like ORCID, where if you change your driver’s license name and your passport name, then you’d also apply for a name change in the research archives. I think it’s going to get to a point where most of the big publishers just do it, and everyone else follows.

EFF: Many companies are having conversations around LGBTQ+ issues. They’re starting diversity, equity, and inclusion groups and considering how to get involved in Pride month, whether to put up a rainbow logo….but at the same time, there’s a fear of “pinkwashing” or seeming disingenuous. How can employers be thoughtful allies?

AC: In a work setting, I think it is very important to be able to discuss these things, especially in an environment where people can feel comfortable disagreeing. It is very difficult for companies to strike a balance to promote and support the LGBTQ+ community, but not do so in a way that is just (as you said) “pinkwashing.” Or perhaps I would say it’s more “box-ticking” — just doing it to say they’ve done it. This year, I noticed how many, many corporations were just putting rainbows everywhere. But at the same time, those companies would be in the news for supporting homophobic or transphobic politicians, or even like having transphobic staff at work.

Something like a logo change in Pride Month can be helpful to show that LGBTQ+ people are welcome. But I would always suggest that you don’t just have your rainbow logo. Organizations need to always think, “How can we support the community?” If you want to celebrate Pride Month, then think about paying for LGBTQ+ employees to go to Pride, or organize a big event to celebrate Pride month or something like that.

It can also mean placing emphasis on changing social issues at work. Maybe there are not enough gender-neutral bathrooms or traditional work policies are not up to scratch anymore. For example, do spousal benefits or family benefits also extend to Rainbow families? I feel that it's so important that people can see actions, not just words — actions are what matters.

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