Soy Jessica: A Grad Student Spotlight on Ms Jessica Salas

Author: Ms Jessica Salas (she/her/ella)

**The English version follows the Spanish version**

Soy Jessica (ella). Soy Costarricense, primera generación y queer.

Viví en Costa Rica hasta los 24 años, con mis papás y mis dos hermanos. Vivimos en un barrio conflictivo donde la pobreza y problemas de drogas no pasan desapercibidos. Sin embargo, es un barrio ubicado en un hermoso valle, rodeado de vibrantes montañas y  volcanes. 

Water sampling in Rio Celeste, Volcan Tenorio, Costa Rica. November, 2018.

Mis papás no terminaron la secundaria y se desempeñan en trabajos modestos donde no siempre ganan el salario mínimo. Para ellos, la educación de sus hijos siempre fue una prioridad y se esforzaron mucho para que mis hermanos y yo tuviésemos acceso a educación de calidad. Aunque la cantidad de dinero ha sido siempre una limitante, tuve la dicha de crecer en un hogar lleno de amor, respeto y comprensión.

Gracias al esfuerzo de mis papás y al apoyo de mis hermanos, terminé mi Licenciatura (título académico entre el bachillerato y la maestría) en Química Ambiental en la Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, en el año 2018.

Durante mis últimos años en la Universidad Nacional, trabajé como asistente de investigación en el Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica (OVSICORI-UNA). Las inolvidables experiencias en los cráteres activos de los volcanes de Costa Rica y la curiosidad que siempre había tenido por entender cómo funcionaban tan impresionantes procesos de la tierra, me inspiraron a formar una carrera en vulcanología. 

Las oportunidades para hacer investigación en Costa Rica son limitadas y ni yo ni mi familia sabíamos cuáles podrían ser mis opciones para lograrlo, ya que la academia nunca ha sido parte de nuestras vidas. En los investigadores del OVSICORI, muy especialmente en Maarten deMoor, encontré un mentor. Él me acompañó y guió para encontrar una universidad fuera de Costa Rica donde yo pudiera especializarme en este campo.

En agosto del 2019, llegué a Montreal, donde actualmente soy estudiante de segundo año de doctorado en el departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra y Planetarias, en McGill University. 

Mi proyecto de doctorado lo realizaré en mi país, Costa Rica. Costa Rica alberga 5 volcanes activos, los cuales son una gran amenaza para las poblaciones que habitan cerca de ellos. Mi proyecto consiste en diseñar un instrumento que sea capaz de medir las concentraciones de los gases volcánicos en las fuentes termales en tiempo real. Con este equipo se medirá la relación entre los gases que provienen del manto y los gases que provienen de las fuentes termales antes, durante y después de una erupción. El incremento en la relación de estos gases podrá ser utilizada como un parámetro para pronosticar una erupción volcánica. Con este proyecto espero cooperar con la toma de decisiones para la prevención de riesgos en mi país.

Finalmente, otro aspecto de quien soy, es mi orientación sexual. Yo me identifico como “queer”. Mi orientación sexual la he mantenido en secreto por algunos años y hoy es aún un secreto para algunos de mis familiares. En  las carreras de STEM, los miembros de la comunidad 2SLGBTQIA+ carecen de representación (» What it feels like to be queer in the Earth Sciences? GéoBlog (mcgill.ca)). Por lo tanto, la visibilidad para las personas de la comunidad 2SLGBTQIA+ en STEM es crucial, ya que proporciona una sensación de apoyo e inspiración para personas como yo, están tratando de navegar en este campo. Es por eso que decidí compartir mi historia como queer, primera generación y latinoamericana en STEM.

 

**English Version**

I am Jessica (she/her). I am Costa Rican, a first-generation University student, and queer.

I lived in Costa Rica with my parents and two brothers until I was 24. We lived in a conflict-ridden neighborhood where poverty and drug abuse were common. This said the town is located in a picturesque valley, surrounded by scenic mountains and volcanoes.

My parents did not finish high school. They have always had modest jobs, and at times this has meant not earning the minimum income. Nevertheless, my parents always prioritized the education of their children, working relentlessly to make sure my brothers and I could access high-quality education. Despite our financial situation, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family filled with love, care, and respect. 

Thanks to my parents’ effort and my brothers’ support, I graduated from the National University of Costa Rica with a “Licenciatura,” a degree between my Bachelors and Masters, in Environmental Chemistry in 2019.

The last years of that degree were spent working as a research assistant in the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica OVSICORI-UNA). The unforgettable experiences in the active craters of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, combined with my long-held curiosity for better understanding Earth’s processes, inspired me to pursue a career in volcanology.

The opportunities for academic research in Costa Rica are limited. My family and I did not know what my potential options were, since academia had never been a part of our lives. Fortunately, my research mentor from OVSICORI, Maarten de Moor, introduced me to the academic world and guided me in finding an institution where I could build a career in volcanology.

I arrived in Montreal in August of 2019, where I am currently a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, at McGill University. 

Volcanic gas sampling in the active crater of Poas volcano, Costa Rica. January, 2019

My Ph.D. project takes me to my home country. Costa Rica is home to five currently active volcanoes that pose threats to the communities living nearby. My Ph.D. project involves designing an instrument that is capable of measuring concentrations of volcanic gases in hot springs in real-time. More specifically, the instrument can measure gas ratios between gas sources from the mantle and those from hot springs, before, during, and after eruptions. This research can potentially be used as a parameter to forecast volcanic eruptions. Therefore, I hope to mobilize this research with regards to decision-making in my country for risk prevention and hazard assessment. 

Finally, another aspect of who I am is my sexual orientation. I identify as queer. My sexual orientation was a secret for a long time, and even today, it is still a secret for some of my closest relatives. In STEM fields, the  2SLGBTQIA+ community is underrepresented ( See: What it feels like to be queer in the Earth Sciences? GéoBlog (mcgill.ca)). Therefore, visibility for people from the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM is crucial as it lends a sense of support and inspiration for people like me who are currently trying to navigate in this field. As a Latin American, first-generation and self-identifying member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, I want to lend my support to those who are facing similar challenges, and that is why I decided to share my story.

 

Resources:

https://geolatinas.weebly.com/

Being First-Gen in STEM: https://blogs.agu.org/onthejob/2019/10/21/first-gen-stem/

https://500queerscientists.com/

https://queerinstem.org/

Subcommittee on Queer People, McGill University of the Joint Board-Senate Committee on Equity: https://www.mcgill.ca/queerequity/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversation with Prof. Olivia Jensen, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

Interview transcribed by Ms. Margaret Whelan (she/her), and Ms. Meghomita Das (she/her)

Question

Please introduce yourself and your research!

Answer

Dr Olivia Jensen, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

I am Dr. Olivia Jensen and I have never taken a geology course in my life! I did, however, complete my undergraduate and graduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Geophysics and Astronomy as they were considered closely related at the time. UBC was very comfortable to me. I played the industry game in Texas for a while after my undergrad and master’s but ultimately came back to UBC and British Columbia (my home province) to complete my Ph.D. I came to McGill in 1973 and joined the faculty of Engineering in what was then called the Department of Mining Engineering and Applied Geophysics. In 1984, I and my colleagues, who considered ourselves to be scientists and not engineers, joined the Department of Geological Sciences. The 1980s were a very difficult time for the university and eventually, the department morphed into what it is now called: the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

At present, I am not conducting any active research but what I used to focus on were the characteristics of the processes happening in the deep earth. I was trained as a seismologist but my background is in physics so I have a very physical view of the earth sciences. More recently, my role in the EPSC department at McGill is teaching/lecturing undergraduate introductory courses. I don’t know if that has been affected by my being transgender (it isn’t the case as far as I’m concerned) but I do feel I became ever less involved in the research community after I went through my transition in 1989.

 

Question

What induced your move from UBC to McGill?

Answer

I came to McGill intending to stay one year but my life changed dramatically when I met my wife here and started a family. At this point in my life, I was doing research that was quite interesting to the public which involved looking at how time may be changed due to the rotation of the earth through general relativity. We ended up being entirely wrong and sometimes I joke that my way out of such a major blunder was to change my sex and name (this was obviously not the case). Anyways, I was smitten by this person who planned wonderful international research trips at McGill and decided to abandon my aspirations to work at other universities. We ended up divorcing in 1989 because I am me and while I do play father really well, I don’t do it looking like a father all the time. I am no longer attached to anybody but I think I am happy however I am still not sure I fully understand what happiness is.

 

Question

What does EDI mean to you?

Answer

The EDI concept is new to me. I feel that the policies related to EDI blossomed very late at McGill. When I transitioned back in the 80s, I found McGill to be an insular place that wasn’t welcoming to differences amongst its members. It had a very conservative outlook. Over the years, the growing student population has somewhat “shaken McGill’s tree” and forced the faculty to consider all types of people on this planet. I like to think of it as a flower that has been growing for a long time at McGill but now it has finally blossomed. 

 

Question

Have you ever taken part in initiatives/projects similar to this in the past? If so what shortcomings do you feel those had and what can we do to improve these initiatives? Is there room for McGill to do more?

Answer

There was a group called LAGEM (Lesbian and Gay Employees at McGill) which was formed by a few McGill faculty members in the 1980s. They were about 5 people, composed of gay men and one lesbian woman, and they would regularly meet at Thomson House but entered through the backdoor so as not to be seen. I didn’t join the group until 1991 and I joined as an associate member because, while they were nice to me, they still didn’t quite understand my experience. I really didn’t understand the need to hide our identities and so at these meetings, I would use the front door to enter. I refused to be closeted after my transition and wanted to be seen as me.

LAGEM disbanded in 1995 or 1996. After that, I started giving lectures about my trans identity and personal history for a course at McGill called Human Sexuality and Its Problems, run by the Department of Psychology. I quickly became a regular guest lecturer for this course and still am to this day. Over my 25-or-so years doing this, I have seen a considerable shift in identities through my interactions with the students. In the courses early years, I would start the lecture by asking if anyone had ever met a transgender person; very few students would raise their hands. Now when I ask the same question, I get more responses and some students are even comfortable sharing their own identities during the class. I think this is largely due to LGBTQ2+ people becoming visible people. For the longest time we were invisible. I like to think that my standing up and deciding to be visible had something to do with this.

 

Question

Do you have any formative experiences or reasons for pursuing earth sciences that you wish to share? These could be from your childhood, undergrad, grad school, or professional career.

Answer

I would like to talk about the transition first. People like me at that time (in the late 80s) typically transitioned after a rather desperate feeling known as gender dysphoria. Which is basically the feeling of being trapped and held away from “being” altogether. Around this time I began organizing my coming out by talking to psychologists and therapists over quite a long time. I really didn’t want it to be a “medical coming out” whereby the procedure is highly medicalized and people essentially manage your (my) life. In 1989 I remember my first time going into work at McGill as Olivia. It was rather an interesting experience. The chair of the department at the time, Bob Martin, was actually sitting outside my office and all he said to me was “hello” before he walked away. It wasn’t the most hostile of welcomes but it definitely wasn’t welcome. There was a professor in

Dr Olivia Jensen before her transition.

the faculty of engineering, John Jonas, who left me a letter inviting me to lunch. He has since been a very supportive figure in my life. The last thing that was particularly interesting to me that day was my interaction with the janitor. He would normally throw open the door to do his duties. On that day in 1989 he threw open the door, looked at me, and exclaimed:

“Hey, what’s this?”

To which I gave him a short explanation of the direction I was heading. He responded:

“That’s okay.”

This was a very important affirmation for me, for some reason. It was a good day.

Around the same time as my transition, two other notable things happened to me. I remember there was a big inter-university meeting regarding the broader part of my research and someone had said to me that what I had done was going to ruin my career. This wasn’t terribly important to me at the time because I am not terribly career-ist or career-oriented anyway. I was never chasing awards or seeking to impress, I was more so doing a job. On the other hand, a colleague of mine told me to be twice as good as everybody else after hearing about my transition. I thought to myself, I’m not going to do that that’s ridiculous.

I think that every trans person that I know (perhaps) knew there was something different about them by the time they were maybe four years old. So, from about 4 years old, I tried to keep the whole story hidden from others. One thing, in particular, I had to hide was my early interest in cross-dressing. This lifestyle took me to about 50 years old when I finally said to myself I have to do something about this, I can’t hide forever.

 

Question

Do you feel that being transgender has brought about any specific challenges in your academic career that you feel comfortable sharing?

Answer

I think LGBTQ2+ people are discounted, without question. Women are also discounted, without question. Something positive I have noticed, however, is that women seem to have blossomed in geosciences. This is particularly the case for seismology and structural geology where there are now more women seismologists than men. Once upon a time, this would not have been possible.

I would also like to talk about my history of going to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting. Well into the 1990s, the AGU was still very one-dimensional and nondiverse. There were zero BIPOC people and an incredibly small group of LGBTQ2+ people. In fact, I was the only openly transgender person until another American scientist came out. What I found interesting was that shortly after, in the same venue, the American computer scientists held their annual meeting where there would be almost one hundred LGBTQ2+ people. I think this demonstrates how geology was once a very “macho” discipline and how now when you look through our department, in particular, the female and international presence is not only strong but numerous. This is an incredible shift.

 

Question

How did you overcome these challenges? 

Answer

My approach to overcoming any challenge is pure defiance and no apologies. I remember my signature line on my emails after my transition basically said I wasn’t going to apologize for being who I am. People in the LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC communities once felt they had to apologize for being who they are. You don’t have to apologize for this! Once we show our defiance and stop apologizing, things work out for us. We belong too and we have to say it. I had to support my own defiance by repeating this to myself.

 

Question

Is there anyone, perhaps a role model or mentor, that got you through these tougher periods? If there isn’t anyone, do you think that’s a reason trans people feel discouraged to join fields like this? 

Answer

There were very few role models out there in the 1980s. The Montreal trans scene basically came out of the cabaret world and I enjoyed that world. However, there was no success for trans people outside of this scene and so, no, I don’t think there were any models to follow. Someone whom I have never met but do know about, named Dr. Carolyne Van Vliet of the Université de Montréal, was a strident trans person. She sued Sears (the department store) because a guard had abused her for using the women’s change rooms. I think she actually won a substantial damage claim and I’m not sure there have been “change room issues” for trans people in Quebec since.

One other notable person in Montreal is Dr. Vivian Namaste. She was appointed as Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in 2006-2008 and is one of the only trans people I know that was hired into a university position after transitioning. I think this was a very good thing.

 

Question

Do you feel any pressure being a role model for other trans people in STEM or the Earth Sciences specifically? If so, how do you deal with that and how do you feel you can be supported?

Answer

I don’t think being a role model is the pressure or my goal. I am just being me and I might not be a very good role model actually. In the 1980s people wanted to transition and become invisible, but I knew that could never happen for me because you can’t just erase your history; history comes with us. We actually have to live with this history, and it’s so much easier to live with it than to try to re-hide or go “stealth” (a common term for going invisible at this time). The fact of the matter is this doesn’t work, and there is always a hole in your story. You might as well confront this story upfront and say well this is who I was and this is who I am. I think that who I was, is a very important part of who I am because who I was, was a strong enough person to become who I am. I would never hide that person.

 

Question

Do you have a closing message to the students (both old and new), faculty, and staff who will likely see/read this interview? 

Answer

I think in general students have been very good to me. I remember a time when I was being seriously challenged by a group of students (who have since become friends) and they actually held a presentation to ask if I could no longer teach them any classes. This was sort of the last challenge I really experienced in the department. Nowadays, people coming into this department from all sorts of different backgrounds, will generally TA one of my introductory classes by default and they display no hostility towards me. I think the students in this department are remarkably good at accepting all people of all kinds. 

I would also like to say that many of the stellar hires in recent years have been women. We have gone from a predominantly male department to one with some very remarkable and “high-flying” female scientists. I suppose my message is that I want people to know there are opportunities out there for them despite the gender box they tick on their applications.

 

Resources

https://speakingofgeoscience.org/2020/10/28/queer-visibility-in-geoscience-has-been-almost-nonexistent-for-decades-a-new-generation-is-working-to-change-that/

https://eos.org/articles/shining-a-spotlight-on-lgbtq-visibility-in-stem

Honourable Mentions

 

What it feels like to be queer in the Earth Sciences?

Authors: Jessica Salas (she/her) and Meghomita Das (she/her)

Two spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (2SLGBTQIA+) individuals scientists face higher rates of workplace discrimination, exclusion, harassment, assault, and more than their straight colleagues in their professional and academic environments. 

In June 2019, The Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society, and Royal Society of Chemistry surveyed more than 600 scientists working in academia and industry. The purpose of the survey was to explore the working place for 2SLGBTQIA+ people in the UK and Ireland. The survey reported that 18% of the 2SLGBTQIA+ responders have experienced exclusionary behavior in their workplace, while 30% of all respondents have reported witnessing exclusionary behavior towards 2SLGBTQIA+ community members. 

2SLGBTQIA+ people are misrepresented in STEM due to a reinforced heteronormative standard in science careers. The lack of visibility of 2SLGBTQIA+ members is strengthened by a STEM culture that encourages 2SLGBTQIA+ people to remain closeted at work.  A 2013 survey found that more than 40% 2SLGBTQIA+ identified respondents working in STEM are not out to their colleagues.  The fact that scientists interact within an international community that includes many less inclusive cultures is one of the most common reasons why 2SLGBTQIA+ people keep themselves closeted. 

Sciences that have a significant field-based component, like the geosciences, pose an additional challenge for members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Field-based sciences are riddled with cases of sexual harassment and assault during fieldwork. Alison Olcott and Matthew Downen conducted an online survey of geoscientists to understand the diversity in the field. Part of the survey also asked specific questions about fieldwork and remote research. Their survey showed that almost 55% of respondents indicated that the researcher did not feel safe because of their identity, expression, or presentation while doing fieldwork. A third of the respondents refused to do fieldwork due to concerns about personal safety related to their identity. As of July 2020, there are 72 countries where homosexuality is illegal, and many other countries or parts of countries where it is not illegal but the culture is not 2SLGBTQIA+ friendly. There is also a lack of faculty and department support for 2SLGBTQIA+ graduate students who are pursuing fieldwork in these countries. There should be awareness programs available for institutions and faculties related to safety issues associated with fieldwork and the potential dangers to 2SLGBTQIA+ geoscientists at field sites. 

The rainbow flag, as designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018.
Photo credits: iambirmingham.co.uk

This invisibility of 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM, and the lack of prominent 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals in faculty and leadership positions, leads to a lack of mentorship for current and future generations. It causes a sense of isolation within STEM that could potentially alter a person’s career trajectory within the field. As we move towards more inclusive policies and initiatives in STEM, we should engage with the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities to understand and develop training programs and resources that will address their representation in STEM. Some things to start of could include: 2SLGBTQIA+ specific mentorship programs, dedicated funds for graduate students to attend conferences like Gay AGU* (American Geophysical Union), field safety training programs in the department, and using gender-neutral lesson plans in class. While looking for more visibility, online 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM communities are becoming more important to fight back against the reality that STEM has offered to this community over the past decades. Below you can find links to the most popular online 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM communities:

-Out in STEM: https://www.ostem.org/

-500 queer scientist: https://500queerscientists.com/

Recommend reading and references:

 

*Gay AGU: This year, AGU 2020 had a special session and panel related to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Policies in Geosciences, and 2sLGBTQIA+ representations were discussed during that session. Unfortunately, the authors were not able to find a dedicated link for Gay AGU.

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