I started writing this blog post because I wanted to tell you about the outstanding IScientist 2019 Conference I attended in Berlin last month. But I got about halfway through and trashed it. The writing was dry, academic, boring. It did not convey my experience, nor the emotions I felt while there and in no way captured the energy of the scientists who attended. So, let’s try this again. 

I’ve never seen so much bravery in my life

IScientist 2019 was unlike any scientific conference I’ve been to before. It was full of scientists from all over the world committed to discussing and addressing the myriad of diversity issues STEM workers face as they build their careers as their authentic selves. Plenary session topics included stereotypes and unconcious bias, mental health, queer in science, and power abuse, alongside discussion sessions on women in STEM, parenting, and activism. As you might imagine, this conference was far from tame and full of emotion, something scientists are often thought to not have a lot of. There was a rousing chant in solidarity with the protestors just outside the building for the #ClimateStrike. There were cheers and tears for those sharing their stories, daring to be scientists in a culture that is constantly turning them away and driving them out. There was laughter over shared meals and new friends being made left and right. 

Not everything was fun and games though. The stories shared were full of pain, sometimes decades of it. Pain from the plagues of discrimination and harassment that have followed the careers of every person there. Pain from the realities of being themselves in academia. Scientists who just want to be scientists, but instead spend so much of their time fighting for the right to safely exist in the research space, fighting for those around them.

I’ve never seen so much bravery in my life; everyone there had a story to tell. Some were familiar with sharing theirs, as the lineup included some true pioneers, and some were sharing their stories for the first time. The atmosphere was welcoming and supportive, the culture was open and inclusive. Every story shared was honored in the warmest way possible among the cold architecture and bare decor of TU Berlin. I cried for Dr. Pauline Gagnon, who has spent decades being harassed for being a lesbian in physics. I cried for Dr. Clara Barker, a trans woman who told her inspiring story of finding her space at Oxford, where she’s a materials science researcher. I cried for Dr. Ro Jefferson, who had never shared their story publicly but has found strength in paving the way for others like them. So. Many. Tears. 

Sharing individual stories may not seem like much in a scientific conference, but it’s the beginning of a  powerful shift. There were some leaders in the fight for diversity in STEM, but these are not the only heroes that were present. Each attendee is actively working within their local community to make science a safer place for all, and none of them intend to quit. They are having conversations with their colleagues, they are standing up for others in need. Some are even using a nerf gun to shoot their colleagues in the knees every time they make a sexist comment. Culture change happens one conversation, one nerf gun at a time, not in one big flip. These are the champions who will change the future of science for everyone. 

The brilliant organizers of IScientist have created a space for revolution. Mark your calendars for IScientist 2020, you won’t want to miss it.  

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