Episode 0: A Brief Introduction
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Charles: [00:00:00] How would you introduce yourself?
Tessa: [00:00:02] My name is Tessa Fisher. I am a fifth year PhD candidate at Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration. My research is primarily focused on figuring out better ways of hopefully detecting the presence of life on planets and other solar systems based on their atmospheric composition, um, and involves a lot of math.
[00:00:29] And I’m also very, very interested in science outreach and communication, and especially with, um, increasing awareness of the LGBT community and STEM fields.
Charles: [00:00:43] What kind of background do you have? Like what were your previous degrees in? How did you get to your current degree?
Tessa: [00:00:49] I knew I wanted it, to do astrobiology, which is the technical name for the field that I’m in, since I was probably 12 or 13, somewhere around that age. Um, so I went, did my undergrad at the University of Virginia, where I double majored in astronomy and biology. I figured that would cover all my bases. And then I went off to Washington State University to get a master’s, and it turned out there the astrobiology lab was actually part of the environmental science department.
[00:01:16] Um, so I ended up with a master’s in environmental science and then I come to ASU to get a PhD. And here the lab I’m working with is in the geoscience department. So ironically, I’m in the pursuit of a degree in astrobiology, I’m going to end up with four different degrees in four different disciplines.
Charles: [00:01:38] That weirdly doesn’t surprise me that much. Given like astrobiology feels like a field that wouldn’t… have enough people in it to have, like, an astrobiology department at a lot of different schools at this point.
Tessa: [00:01:56] Yeah. I mean, we’re getting there. ASU does offer an undergraduate major in astrobiology, which might be the first of its kind in this, in our country.
[00:02:05] Um, but the other part of this, that astrobiology is also an intensely interdisciplinary discipline, mostly because it…. to really understand it you need to know elements of astronomy, planetary science, biology, chemistry, atmospheric science, you know, you name it. And it’s probably been involved in our field in some capacity or another at some point.
[00:02:27] Um, so that’s also part of it is that it would be difficult to actually create a department of astrobiology because you’d need a whole bunch of different experts and a whole bunch of different fields. And it would probably get a little unwieldy.
Charles: [00:02:42] For my part, I am an entomologist. I actually wanted to be an entomologist when I was about seven.
[00:02:49] And then I moved on to other stuff until I circled back around to it when I was 20. And part of that was, I took a course in my undergrad that was “methods in the biology of organisms.” It was a requirement for my biology degree. And it was a lab course where instead of having lectures, you basically just had different lab modules that each lasted a week or two weeks.
[00:03:15] And one of them was, uh, ant systematics. And you like build a phylogeny based on morphological characters, and then you looked at genetic characters. At the time I was deeply depressed and then that afternoon was like the first time I had felt unreservedly good about something in like two years. So I like really latched onto it and it’s turned out pretty well because now I’m… seven years later, I’m still in systematics and I’m still in entomology.
[00:03:50] I’m not an ant specialist because there are already plenty of them. So my undergraduate degree was actually a double major in linguistics and biology.
Tessa: [00:04:03] Hmm. Good combination.
Charles: [00:04:05] Yeah, it was mostly a mistake because I did my undergraduate degree at McGill. I applied for the faculty of arts and sciences because I wanted to double major in psychology and biology, but… for the school as a whole psychology is in the faculty of arts, but in the faculty of arts and sciences, psychology counts as a science major.
[00:04:32] So you have to have an arts major and a science major, and I didn’t want to give up biology.
Tessa: [00:04:38] Right.
Charles: [00:04:39] I just had to choose another arts major basically. And I had always liked language. I was interested in linguistics. I was like, I’ll do linguistics, which actually turned out to be really fortuitous because I ended up taking a class called linguistic theory and its foundations, which was taught by a philosopher and was actually just a history of science course.
Tessa: [00:05:01] Oh, that sounds fascinating.
Charles: [00:05:02] It was great. Then, I enjoyed that course so much that in further pursuit of not having to take like a 400 level phonetics course or something, I ended up doing an independent study with that professor and just wrote a term paper on the status of biological taxonomy with regards to whether it counts as a science. It was barely a linguistics class and it was great. And that… those two classes together are what really sparked my interest in history and philosophy of science. So then when I was applying for graduate programs on a lark, I just googled history and philosophy of science graduate programs, which is how I found Arizona State.
Tessa: [00:05:47] Oh, right. It is like that sometimes, yeah.
Charles: [00:05:50] Yeah, because Arizona State has the biology and society program, which has, um, four different tracks that you can take. But three of them I’m not doing so who cares?
Tessa: [00:06:00] [laughs politely]
Charles: [00:06:01] And so one of them is history and philosophy of biology. And I was like, I’m interested in that. So I actually applied to ASU for the first time in 2015, and I got rejected.
Tessa: [00:06:14] Yep. I got rejected the first time I applied to ASU too in 2010.
Charles: [00:06:19] What if, what a fantastic thing that we have in common that was negative, but also ended up being pretty positive for me, because then I went and I did my masters at North Carolina State University in their entomology department.
[00:06:33] And I had a great time. I love North Carolina. It’s so beautiful. Um, trees everywhere. So I did my MS – pretty straightforward thesis project on the phylogeny and taxonomy of a relatively small group of flies called Ulidiidae. They’re lovely. And then I took basically a year to go work on a job. I reapplied to ASU and this time I got admitted.
[00:07:01] So the second time I was applying, it was like, there is a guy who has a background in philosophy who is interested in systematics and biodiversity data. There is an entomologist who is in systematics and collaborates with the philosopher, the point of intersection in their research is really where I want to be – great. And then I did get admitted and then I moved to Arizona and I’ve been so dry and so happy ever since.
Tessa: [00:07:30] Well, I’m glad that worked out for you, especially climate wise.
Charles: [00:07:33] Thank you so much. I love, I love Arizona. I wish there were fewer guns.
Tessa: [00:07:39] Well, yeah, we all do.
Charles: [00:07:41] So then I would ask what brings you to podcasting?
Tessa: [00:07:47] Well, you know, like I said, science communication is definitely one of my passions and particularly, I really liked the idea of sort of the premise behind this particular podcast, which is examining the work, especially of trans and nonbinary scientists, because we are out there. Most people don’t realize we’re out there, um, even if we’re in the same field or in one memorable occasion, my experience at the same conference, um, we don’t realize it. Uh, so I think, you know, giving this sort of fascinating intersection of communities, more of a platform is something that could really benefit everyone.
Charles: [00:08:30] I would, yes. And I would say also a large part of why I wanted to do this podcast is that often there will be things that will be about queer scientists or LGBTQ plus scientists, et cetera, or just like, even in general, people will say LGBTQ, et cetera. And then that often ends up being mostly G, somewhat L, maybe B… little sprinkle of T, you know, in my experience and Tessa, I would imagine in your experience, a lot of stuff, which is ostensibly inclusive, still tends to focus on trans people very, very little, either by design or because trans people are… it often feels to me, like there are more of us around than there are, because most of my friends are trans, but in the grand scheme of demographics, there are not a ton of trans people just around.
Tessa: [00:09:39] Right.
Charles: [00:09:39] And so if you want to hear from trans people, you often need to focus on them specifically. And so that’s what we’re aiming to do.
Tessa: [00:09:50] Right, exactly. Get that awareness out there.
Charles: [00:09:54] And also just, I, you know, I like listening to trans people and I like knowing trans people and going back to what you said also, it often does feel quite lonely to be a trans person in science, because, you know, we’re scattered all across the disciplinary stars.
[00:10:16] So I have connected with like a couple of trans entomologists on Twitter, but in real life, like in person, I’ve never met another trans entomologist. And so part of it is also just that I want to meet some trans, I just want to meet some more trans people cause they think we’re great.
[00:10:34] So the format of the podcast basically is. There’s you Tessa,
Tessa: [00:10:40] Mmhmm
Charles: [00:10:41] An astrobiologist, and there’s me, Charles, an entomologist. And we’ll have episodes where we tell each other about things, um, and then episodes where we both experience some element of pop culture and talk about that and then the main thrust of the podcast, which is largely dependent on people being willing to participate in it with us, will hopefully be bringing on as many different trans scientists from as many different life and disciplinary backgrounds as possible. Just to expand sort of the representation footprint of trans people in science, and to give everybody an opportunity to just be scientists and also be trans.
Tessa: [00:11:36] Right.
Charles: [00:11:37] And hopefully people will listen to it. If nobody does, that’ll be a bit of a bummer. Um, but I think like, I don’t think it’s going to be a runaway smash hit, but I think we’re reasonably charming people.
Tessa: [00:11:51] I mean, I certainly like to think so.
Charles: [00:11:54] Great. So do you have any sort of closing thoughts?
Tessa: [00:11:57] I like the fact this kind of ties into some of the things you said earlier about other podcasts. And you know how LGBT and STEM outreach is usually focused on cis gay folks, gay men, especially. It also often feels like there’s more of a focus on the fact that scientists… trans people who happen to be scientists, as opposed to scientists who happen to be trans.
Charles: [00:12:24] Mmhmm.
Tessa: [00:12:25] Whether the emphasis is much more on their gender identity, which, I mean there’s a time and place for, and I think that’s useful. On the other hand, I think by offering more of a focus on the research, people are doing, we are doing a real service to the community.
Charles: [00:12:41] I hope so. I keep thinking of one of my favorite podcasts. It’s called Switchblade Sisters and it’s hosted by possible-former film critic, April Wolfe, and the premise of the show is not like ours, but it’s also not unlike ours, where it is just, she brings on women who are involved in film and television in some way and the environment created by it being a woman, interviewing women then sets the stage where… they, there is a certain baseline of familiarity.
Tessa: [00:13:24] Right, yeah.
Charles: [00:13:26] Because there is that baseline already. They don’t need to start every episode with like, despite sexism in the industry, et cetera, et cetera.
Tessa: [00:13:36] Right, they don’t need to interrogate it because it’s already established.
Charles: [00:13:40] I hope that this podcast can effectively do something similar where, because we’re all already trans, we don’t need to be like, “and was it terrible being seven?” Cause like maybe, but we don’t, there is no spectacle to being trans… there is no novelty to being trans for any of us.
Tessa: [00:14:00] Right, right.
Charles: [00:14:01] Because we’re all already there.
Tessa: [00:14:03] Exactly. Yeah.
Charles: [00:14:05] And of course, just to, I think we’ve already said it, but to make it absolutely clear when I say trans I’m including non-binary people.
Tessa: [00:14:14] Oh, yeah, I definitely agree. I agree.
Charles: [00:14:15] Yeah. I’m including basically anybody who identifies, uh, with trans experience or trans identity, um… In looking for trans scientists, I haven’t necessarily found any, for instance, two spirit people, but if they wanted to come on the pod, come on over.
Tessa: [00:14:35] We are very welcoming here.
Charles: [00:14:38] Anybody and everybody. Come on the pod. Cause I’m even willing to have a cis person or two, if we think they’re particularly interesting or cool. Not too often, we don’t want to muddy the waters.
Tessa: [00:14:51] But, you know, it’s a token appearance here and there.
Charles: [00:14:54] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, I would love to just establish like our token, cis person who just comes on sometimes.