Ep. 1: Fighting for a Just Science


In our first ever episode, podcast hosts R and Bri explore what queer science looks like with special guest Dr. Jamila Simpson. Unpacking how to go beyond diversity and inclusion in STEM to start fighting for justice, we reflect on the importance of representation and empowerment for marginalized groups in science. Dr. Simpson serves as Assistant Dean for Academic Programs, Student Diversity and Engagement, for the College of Sciences at NC State University.

Things Mentioned


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Bri: My name is Bri

R: My name is R, and welcome to our first episode of Queer Science!

Bri: Thank you to everyone who has supported this project so far. We are truly amazed by the outpouring of support we received for the first podcast centered around queerness in STEM.

R: Our podcast will elevate queer voices in STEM, and will take a deeper  ook at the ways in which science itself can be queer. 

Bri: This first episode explores the importance of visibility in STEM, going beyond diversity and inclusion by working towards a more just science. When discussing this topic R and I both knew right away who we needed to interview – and that person was Dr. Jamila Simpson.

R: We had the opportunity to sit down and ask her about her role at NC State University, the importance of researching diversity in STEM, and her own personal experiences as a Black woman in science.

Dr. Simpson: So my job at NC State is first – first of all it’s a long title, but I’m Assistant Dean for Academic Programs, Student Diversity and Engagement for the College of Sciences. And basically what that means to me, is that I am there to support students who want to study science and to help them find resources, connect across campus, and really just support them in being their best selves, whatever that looks like. And I am actually also a graduate of the college, and someone did all those things for me – they were an amazing role model, they’re still in my life, and so I feel absolutely privileged to also be in that role for, gosh, I think there’s almost 4,000 students in the college, and I don’t know all of them but I’m there to support as many as possible. So that’s my role…

Bri: Dr. Simpson has a bachelors in meteorology from NC State, in addition to a Masters and PhD in science education. Her research specifically focused on informal science experiences of black children and their families. During our conversation, Dr. Simpson reflected on her experiences as a Black woman doing science at a predominately white institution and how she decided to study education. 

Dr. Simpson: I came in 1995, I was the only black person in my meteorology classes, and one of the few in my other classes, especially in math and science… and I had a lot of great role models and a lot of great upperclassmen. I had an office – like the office I kinda try to have – that’s really welcoming, you know, puts students first. And when I graduated undergrad in 2000, my mentor told me, “You’re the first black woman to get a BS degree in meteorology” and I told her, “No that, that… that can’t be true because it’s the year 2000” and she said, “No I think that’s true” and… I didn’t believe her so I called the research office – like the office that does statistics for the university – to double check and they told me that it was true, that I was the first. And you just have one of those moments where you’re excited, and you’re devastated at the same time that you’re the first at anything, especially at that late time. Because I knew, even though I was the first to finish, I was not the first to start… 

And! No one in the department said anything to me about this, it was my mentor – who worked in the college – but the department never said anything to me like “Wow, this is a huge accomplishment, you’re the first one that has come through the program…” or, or anything like that. But the numbers are so small that I know – I know all the other black women who have come through the program and we just made it to like, the second hand… but there’s honestly like six of us so far. There’s not… there’s not a lot. That’s how rare it is. You know for me, what I want to be in a student’s life, because this is what I had, you know if this is your dream, if this is your passion, if this is what you want to study, I don’t want… I don’t want the obstacles of what other people think – those obstacles that institutions don’t even realize that they’re creating for students – I want to help mitigate those as much as possible so that students can be who they want to be in the world.

R: I’m just amazed by the whole “no one told you” thing… like just the… the impact that would have had, like going into it – like I’m still shocked that no one mentioned that. Especially with such a small program like meteorology, it’s the unspoken reality, like if someone could have commented on that, like that part still kind of shocked me when you talked about it. 

Dr. Simpson: And so while I was taking my science ed courses, I read an article and it was like “The status of black students in science” and it talked about how black students get a track out of STEM, and it talked about how if they don’t get tracked out – how the ones who make it through are usually the only ones. And I-I read the article and I- really it was like I was reading my life – that’s me, this is me everywhere! And then I realized “You can do research on this?!” – but that’s what, what changed my heart to – I’m just going to get this Masters and work at the science museum as the tornado lady – to whatever, whatever I do, I’m going to work on diversifying science.

Bri: The Draw a Scientist test is an activity that Dr. Simpson has done in her classes for several years. It shows how pervasive scientist stereotypes are, and how often they are reproduced in the media we consume.

Dr. Simpson: So the Draw A Scientist Test was created in 1983, with the idea being that – what you imagine the jobs and how people look in those jobs, and you know whether you match that or not – ask a student to imagine a scientist, and then draw that scientist – and draw in as much detail you know what does the science look like that they are doing, what does the scientist look like themselves… and what they found was that most people drew older, white, men with goggles or glasses doing chemistry, with explosions, and lab coats… just a very stereotypical image of a scientist. When they interviewed people, they found that most people get those images from media. It starts very young and so like a lot of stereotypes – it starts so young that you don’t even recognize that you formed those stereotypes. And so I do that with my class – so I teach a class for underrepresented freshmen – and so I do this test with my class when we’re transitioning to begin to talk about diversity and STEM, so that they can reflect on how their subconscious is really viewing a scientist. 

I will say that my students have begun to draw more women over time, or draw themselves – which I really appreciate. I love when I see them draw themselves, because for me that is one of my greatest concerns, is that they don’t see themselves in science

R: Honestly, not seeing myself in science has been my entire experience so far in higher education… I started off at community college because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I got my associates in arts and science, and still didn’t really know what I wanted to do – but I loved science, and learning things, and figuring stuff out, since I was a kid… and it was hard going into science classes and not seeing someone that looked exactly like me. And that was a little discouraging, um… because you sort of realized over the course of time that as you’re looking at stuff, you’re learning things – that maybe people like me don’t contribute to science… Maybe people like me aren’t meant to be in science, they aren’t meant to be studying these kinds of things. And that can be really, really discouraging and really hurtful. And it’s not necessarily intentional – it’s not like the professor is specifically saying to me like “you don’t belong here” – although that clearly happens… it’s a more subtle way to say that you don’t belong here. 

And so it’s just sort of a… it’s another barrier that you face, going forward in higher education and academia, and wanting to be a researcher, a professional scientist or even just learning things as a hobby. It’s another barrier that you face because it’s another way you’re told that you’re different, and that you don’t belong

Bri: I certainly felt as being a queer student, definitely that I feel like the only one, and I play this game where I sit in class and I’m like… “you’re queer, you’re queer – you give off queer vibes” and then the moment you find out that a professor you have, is actually queer… it’s like the most… exciting moment of your entire life!

Bri: Diversity and inclusion are two words we hear often in academia, but what do these words mean? What is the difference between diversity, inclusion, equity and justice?

Dr. Simpson: Diversity is difference across lots of different areas, right? You want to make sure that you’re bringing people of all different backgrounds into all sorts of different experiences – that’s different areas of study. Inclusion is, well you don’t just want those people in your group, but you want them to feel like they’re actually welcome in the group, actually fully a part of the group, and so it’s up to us to create those environments which they feel apart of it, they feel respected, they feel welcomed. So… you know, there’s a quote about diversity being invited to the dance and inclusion be invited to dance. Equity is where you’re talking about, like, the fair treatment of others, you’re giving- you’re making sure everyone has access and opportunity. That doesn’t mean you’re treating everybody the same, and sometimes people get caught up in that, but, you know, everyone’s like… everyone’s experience… Like “I have to do the same for you and you and you.” No, because if you really have a diverse group, then they have diverse needs. 

Justice is where we deal with the barriers… they could be present or historical, that are keeping groups from having full access to those spaces…. and… all of those things take intention, you have to be intentional about it, you know with everything that’s going on in the world right now, specifically, I think we’ve been in a place where people are like “Yeah! Diversity and inclusion!” but it’s the equity and the justice that people haven’t been so intentional with. And so… I kind of love that people have been putting out these statements, because now if you put out a statement I get to hold you accountable to creating these Just spaces, right? Because you told me that you were against, you know, structural inequality. Well great, now let’s not just talk about out there, but let’s talk about in here, you know, where we are, what we have control of. 

Bri: In April of 2018, Angela Davis gave a keynote speech at Chapman University in which she posed the question: “What about justice? We can be included within an institution that remains as racist and as patriarchal as it was before we were included.” This quote resonates with me because sometimes I feel like I see queer representation in STEM and then I’ll see someone produce a body of research that actively harms the queer community, so I’m like – ‘Yeah we may be included in STEM but how are we changing how science is done? Who’s asking the questions?’ And see this is the hard part because now we have to go beyond who is invited to certain spaces and actually step back and look at how that space was built. 

Dr Simpson: It’s too important, and it’s so hard to do the work of diversity and inclusion and then work in systems that are unjust. That is, because you don’t want to just, again, like you don’t want to just perpetuate the harm over and over and over to students that you care about. And not just students, but like, as communities we have to do this together! Because there are some barriers like yeah, we’re aware of because like you know… let me give you an example: standardized testing. That’s a barrier. That’s really a test of your income, that’s really not a test of how successful you’re going to be in college.

Bri: They don’t want to address, like, the structural inequalities of who is getting paid. They don’t want to talk about who’s tenured and who’s not, how much are grad students making – and it’s like, I don’t care! 

Dr. Simpson: Bri! It’s talking about what you just said. It’s like, how was your classroom? How did you set up that space? What does your syllabus look like? You know, what are you saying in the syllabus? Are you saying that you want to know pronouns, and that you will utilize those pronouns? That your office is safe? Are you on the university advocate list? Are you doing trainings? That’s what that looks like! Every single day, when you talk about scientists in your classroom, are you inclusive with that list of scientists? Do they look like everybody? You know, when you’re asking students to do research, are you opening it up to everybody? Or just somebody that reminds you of you? 

R: This past academic year was the first time that I had multiple instructors that had actually asked my pronouns, asked what name I wanted to be called by, like and respected that, and made that just as like, an assumed thing. It was as simple as asking like, what is your name? What’s your name, what’s your year, what’s your pronouns, and what’s your favorite color? Like that was the icebreaker thing for the class. And so, it was one of the first times that I’ve actually had multiple instructors just include that as part of the status quo, and it felt so revolutionary and radical at the time, especially for me, not experiencing that until like – I’m 25  and that’s the first time that’s happened. 

Dr. Simpson: Can I tell you, I’ve been interviewed so much, and people… When I say interviewed, it’ll be like, like I did the Diversity in STEM Symposium, and people will say “Why diversity in STEM?” And, I have to justify why that’s important. And so, I can’t wait for the day I don’t have to justify that anymore. Because honestly, it’s really a ridiculous question if you think about it. The world is diverse, so if you have spaces that aren’t diverse, your spaces are biased. Why do I have to justify – like if anything it should be reversed! They should be justifying how they can create spaces that are inclusive. They know what it should look like, they absolutely know what the population looks like, they know it should look like this. So either one of two things; they have said to themselves ‘this is inherent in these populations that they don’t have access to science, or they don’t want it or whatever’, or they have to say ‘we messed up the system and we have to look at the system that we created’. And… the harder work is looking at the system that they created, because, especially in higher-ed and especially in STEM, they’re the experts, they are THE experts, and there are answers, and, you know, they feel comfort in that. And, this is maybe not the area they’re an expert in, and that’s uncomfortable, and they have to do some different kind of thinking and some different kind of work and that’s uncomfortable. But it’s OK. Let’s get used to being uncomfortable, but let’s do it, let’s do the work. And I’ve had people that don’t want to hear that at all. I told a co-worker one time that they were biased, and they were so offended, and I was like, they were so offended, and I was like “you have to own that, because if you don’t own it and don’t look at it, it’s not going to change.” And they were like “Well that’s never good if someone tells you you’re biased.” And I’m like we’re all biased! That’s another thing, I don’t want to say we’re all biased to let people off the hook for holding onto their biases. You’re biased, and you have to do the work, to unlearn it. That’s the work you have to do. You have to own it and work to un-do it. 

Bri: In science we are often taught that bias equals bad, and objective equals good. But in reality it’s hard to be objective when asking certain scientific questions. I feel like sometimes we forget to look back and see who is asking the questions, how does that shape the questions being asked? We want to think science is unbiased and objective, and certainly not political, but sometimes that’s not necessarily true. 

Dr. Simpson: As an adult you realize where the research was going or not going, where the funding was going or not going, and then you begin to see, like the political implications. And so, you know… If science is honest, science knows it’s not apolitical and it knows it’s not always objective. It knows it. Because there is nothing that we work on that doesn’t intersect politics in some kind of way. Like, lets stop perpetuating the notion that human beings haven’t politicized science, and lets not ignore the impact it has had disproportionately on certain populations. Science has a lot of responsibility to bear for all these communities feeling like it doesn’t belong to them, because when science – you know, there’s science like ‘I understand the world, I’m learning about the world’ right? There’s that science. Then there’s the formalised way we do science. And, a lot of communities were participating in science before it got this very formalized way of being, and I feel like all that happened was, you know, it just became a very upper-class, rigid way of sifting out who does real science and who doesn’t. And so over time we’ve had to begin to break that down, and I think in that, people knew they didn’t see their culture in the way it was being perpetrated. And we also, we weren’t saying “oh, cooking is science”, we weren’t saying that at that time, ‘we’ as in like science as a whole. And so, we were making people give up their cultural ways of being to be a part of science, their identities, and we were telling them; your family and the way you’ve done it, doesn’t count. It’s only what we’ve done, what we’ve published, we’ve defined – so, hundreds of years of that? Yeah. We’ve got a lot of people, lower income, first-gen, different genders, ethnicities, and orientations that don’t see themselves at all, because that’s, the system was set up so that they didn’t see themselves in it. 

Bri: I feel like in this podcast we talked a lot about justice in science, how do we make science more just, and to me, I think making science queer or creating a so-called ‘queer science’ is a just science and I think it is because it ties back to the word ‘queer’ itself. To be queer is to challenge a heteronormative status-quo, a heteronormative society. It is being queer – which is a term I think that has gone back and forth because it was clearly an offensive term for quite some time but now it’s been reclaimed – but in being queer we can empower ourselves in saying ‘we are challenging that system, we don’t want to be included in that system, and we want to exist on our system and we are proud of it. And we have created this system, and it works, and it is just.’ And so, for me I feel like sometimes adding that queer aspect to science, like a ‘queer science’ is a more just science because we are saying we are changing the system. It is paralleled I think to, or works in conjunction with, decolonizing science. You know, are you going to bring an anti-racist, feminist, perspective to science and things like that. So, I don’t know what your thoughts are on queer science?

R: Ahh, sort of like the term ‘decolonizing’ or ‘making a just science’, like queerness is so broad that its hard to have one definition or one correct perspective, but I agree that queerness is being othered, its being pushed aside, there’s a standard that you’re not being a part of, you’re not being that cis heteronormative person that society expects you to be. And so, if you’re not A, then you can be B, C, D, E, F, keep going in the alphabet… but if you’re not A, that’s the important thing. And I think reframing and restructuring a system so that you acknowledge all the other letters, and all the other numbers, and the other symbols, and other languages is the important thing. Instead of it being the system if ‘not A’ then you must be B – to if you’re not A then it’s OK to be B, it’s OK to be C, it’s OK to be a combination of all of the above, of reframing and restructuring a system you allow spaces for all of those different identities to exist. And I think the root of that, being queer is a way to encapsulate that different-ness, being unique, being against the system. So, it’s hard to define, and I don’t have a working definition of it. It’s not something that like- you can go in the dictionary and look up a definition but it encapsulates more than that, it means way more than those words could ever represent. So for me, queerness changes day-by-day, as my experiences change. But I think in general, it means that you’re not part of the standard, you’re not part of the norm, and challenging that idea of well why is there this norm? Why can’t there be space for everyone to exist as they want to? 

Bri: Being queer is creating a new system because the system that existed was not benefiting you and was harming you. And the same can be said about science, science can harm certain communities. And it’s on us – 

R: It has!

Bri: Yeah it has! And it’s on us to be more just, to make science more queer, to create that science, that empowers those of us that are marginalised rather than just ignoring that it marginalised us all together. 

Bri: This isn’t the end of talking about justice in science. Our conversation with Dr. Jamila Simpson was only one small moment in the larger discourse that we as scientists and everyday people need to be having. We will keep exploring the importance of justice, empowerment and accessibility in science in further episodes. 

Thank you everyone for listening to the first episode of Queer Science! Be sure to check us out on Facebook at Queer Science, Twitter at Queer_Science, and Instagram at Queer_Sci. The Queer Science team believes that educational content should be accessible to all, and we are a small team of twenty-somethings working to bring this podcast to our audience for free. If you like our work, consider supporting us at patreon.com/queerscience. You can also donate to the Queer Science! GoFundMe to help us purchase equipment and cover production costs. Check out our website too at queerscience.show.