Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Trans Science

Going through my database of over 20,000 lgbt people of note I was quite surprised to see how many trans people there are in science and technology. The majority of them transitioned after starting their careers and have encountered prejudice to some degree. What I hope this article will show is that there are transgendered scientists who have risen above the prejudice and have established themselves as respected members of the science world.

Deciding who to mention has been difficult as there are so many different fields in which trans scientists work. I have produced this short list (in alphabetical order) giving just a brief snap-shot of the careers of some transgender scientists and technologists. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space to recount the various transition stories, which may be more suitable for specific articles on the individuals in the future.

Ben Barres, currently Professor and Chair of the Neurobiology Department at the Stanford University School of Medicine : Ben has studied in both the US and London. He became Professor of Neurobiology in 1993. His main area of research is in the function and development of glial cells in mammals. These cells in the central nervous system supply oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells and destroy pathogens and remove dead neuron cells. One of the world’s most prominent male trans scientists Ben has written and spoken often about the prejudices and challenges faced by female scientists.

Lynn Conway, currently Professor Emerita of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor : Lynn is regarded as a leading trans campaigner and her website is the biggest trans site by an individual. She is one of several lgbt computer scientists whose work helped to create the computer age. While working at IBM in 1965 Lynn invented Dynamic Instruction Scheduling, the means by which a central processing unit can perform multiple operations simultaneously, something we take for granted today. Lynn’s work also led to the increase in the number of transistors on a microchip from thousands to millions.

Alan Hart (1890-1962), Director of Radiology at Tacoma General Hospital, Oregon, and later a Director at the Connecticut State Tuberculosis Commission : Alan was a pioneer in trans history as the first to have his case recorded in medical literature in 1920. After qualifying as a doctor Alan began to specialise in radiology, particularly in relation to the treatment of tuberculosis. He worked as TB consultant in Washington, Idaho and Connecticut. Alan wrote many medical articles, including on the use of x-ray detection of TB, and also 4 novels. His first marriage ended in divorce after several stressful years moving from one town to another when his gender became the subject of concern to his patients. His second marriage in 1925 lasted until his death.

Caitlin R. Kiernan : Caitlin was mentioned earlier this year when the Ology of the Month was geology. She is primarily a palaeontologist, though her expertise as a geologist was used in the 1990 film “Tremors”. Also an award-winning science fantasy writer Caitlin’s latest novel “Blood Oranges” was published earlier this year under her fiction-writing name of Kathleen Tierney.

Barbara Nash, currently Professor of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah : Barbara has directed the university’s Electron Microscope Laboratory since 1970, which analyses mineral specimens as small as 100th the size of a grain of sand. Barbara has also undertaken field work in the Colorado Plateau, and using the electron microscope extensively to analyse the chemical structure and physical properties of many minerals, including several new ones. Just 6 months ago Barbara had the honour of having a new mineral named after her – nashite, a mineral of complex chemical composition that has properties unique in it’s mineral group.

Femke Olyslager (1966-2009), Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, Ghent University : The late Professor Olyslager made outstanding contributions in the fields of computational and theoretical electromagnetics. In 1994 Femke became a laureate of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts of Belgium. In 2004 she became a laureate of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium. That same year she contacted Lynn Conway for advice on transitioning, and it was the start of a collaboration into a study of the prevalence of transsexualism. Femke died unexpectedly in January 2009.

Joan Roughgarden, currently an Adjunct Professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology : Joan’s main contributions to science is her work on evolutionary biology and ecology. In her book “Evolution’s Rainbow” Joan put forward an alternative to Darwin’s sexual selection theory, giving many instances of animals which don’t follow conventional sex roles, and giving examples of many species where unexpected sexual behaviour is present. Joan has also written on the compatibility of evolution and the Bible. In 1993 she became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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