Buggin' Out w/ Lauren Esposito

Episode · 1 year ago

Buggin' Out w/ Lauren Esposito


Today on Pride, we're going to be talking about some seriously misjudged creatures - spiders and scorpions - and how these joint-legged invertebrates sent one scientist on a path towards scientific discovery, conserving natural resources, and uniting the community of LGBTQ+ people in STEM.

Be sure to follow Lauren on Twitter! Your host is Levi Chambers, co-founder of Gayety. Follow the show and keep up with the conversation @Pride. Want more great shows from Straw Hut Media? Check out or website at strawhutmedia.com. Your producers are Levi Chambers, Maggie Boles, Ryan Tillotson and Edited by Silvana Alcala Have an interesting LGBTQ+ story to share? We might feature U! Email us at lgbtq@strawhutmedia.com. *This podcast is not affiliated with Pride Media.

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Straw media. Today on pride we're going to be talking about some seriously misjudged creatures, spiders and Scorpions, and how these jointly get in vertebrates, sent out scientists on a path towards scientific discovery, conserving natural resources and uniting the Community of lgbtq plus people in stem. I'm ly by Chambers, and this is pride. Dr Lauren esposito lives in San Francisco with her partner and their two kids. She's also a CO founder of a Science, Education and Conservation nonprofit called Island and seas, the creator of five hundred queer scientists, a network of lgbtq plus people working in the stem field, and an arachnologist at the California Academy of Sciences, which means that I study spiders and Scorpions and their diversity on earth. When you think of Arachnets, you probably don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, and it's more likely you'll feel a cold chill running down your spine. Right. I mean, I guess I would agree that spiders and Scorpions, on face value, are not very cuddly. Many of us would jump back when facetoface with a spider. But Lauren, she went looking for insects. Even as a kid that consisted of was dumping over rocks and planters in my garden and looking to see what was underneath them, which often times was like not the cutest or friendliest of organisms. It was like cockroaches and crickets and like a lot of the things that you find in urban areas when you look in nooks and crannies. And I but I was fascinated by them. I thought it was so interesting. I remember once I filled up a jar with marshmallows and like gummy bears and put it outside and when I came back it was full of like these, the grossest of gross cockroach doesn't it was like amazing to me. I's so excited. Lauren loved exploring the commonplace bugs found outside her Texas home and bringing them inside to showcase her discoveries to her mother. I would bring like, according to my mother, this is an unsubstantiated claim that she says, but she says that I would bring live cockroaches inside and like give them to her because I was so excited. Lauren's mother was a biologist, so instead of criticizing her daughter's hobby, she encouraged her to continue collecting and preserving insects into rachnets. She taught me how to make what's what in like entomology vernacular is called a killing jar, which is basically like a jar, but like a old in this case it was an old peanut butter jar with a cotton ball soaked in fingernail Polish remover and it like basically gases and sucks humanely. And then I brought them inside that from then on and I kept them in a like old a curtain in my bed room. That was my in the first insect collection. But bugs weren't Lauren's only fascination as a kid. She tried her luck at a few hobbies like dance and soccer, and eventually left her insect collection to gather dust on the shelf in her childhood bedroom. Actually, the reason I even went to college was because my mom enrolled me. I had like basically almost dropped out of high school. I like only graduated because I went to night school and like summer school, because I just hated it. Like as a young queer person, I was very unhappy, and so I my mom then enrolled me in college I was sixteen years old and I like attended because that was like what was expected of me. Lauren decided to study biology and one day start medical school, which is, I think, like what ninety percent of biology majors go into biology with the plan of doing. But during her studies she came to an important realization. I didn't really like people like...

...so much so as to want to be a doctor. What I realized was that I really loved questions about ecology and evolution, questions about how things evolved on this planet and what they do nowadays in their environment. This revelation brought back memories of her five year old self playing out in the dirt collecting bugs, playing with weird things. Remember what it felt like to be a five year old and a backyard with a like bold peanut butter jar with fingernail polished from over cotton balls in it, just gas and bugs just gasp on them right and left. And she thought, what job can I pursue that will let me have the freedom to play with nature and make biological discoveries about our earth? Like around the same time, just by coincidence, I applied for an internship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Lauren knew she wanted to get out of the small towns she had grown up in and see what the big city had to offer. There had to be bugs, but I didn't know, like when I applied for it, that I was going to be paired with a Scorpion scientists. I didn't know that this man existed and I don't think he knew that he was going to be receiving a college intern for the summer. But we were like put together just like that. Lauren was a little kid playing with insects all over again, and I realized that Scorpions and spiders, like a rack and it's generally a sort of a model of how evolution and ecology work, are fantastic because Scorpions in particular have been on earth longer than any other terrestrial Predator. So they like before there were other things eating animals on land, there were Scorpions. They were they came on land, they were probably actually mostly feeding off of like things in the ocean, so they were kind of like amphibious, probably eating like fish and stuff. They were huge at the time. They were like a meter long. Wait, did she just say a meter long? Is that few sell like three feet? Yeah, they were huge. They were like basically like the the carboniferous version of Grizzlies. They would go in rivers and eat spawning fish. Can you imagine a Scorpion larger than your household dog walking around? I can't. I mean I can, but wow. And so, if you want to know about how life evolves on earth and how things like adapt and change in the face of global change, like climate change, like what, we're better to turn than the thing that's been around the longest and has really survived and thrived. They also live in basically every ecosystem on earth, which means that they're really good. Okay, cold, Yes, coold. So if you're like me and we're under the impression that you could escape from all the creepy Crawley's by moving somewhere really cold, think again. Lauren completed a summer undergraduate program at the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the City University of New York. She was utterly hooked on a racknets and returned to earn her PhD in Arachnology, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. It was here that Lauren realized that I hated doing science, like I just hated it, like I hated everything about it. I didn't want to do it anymore, I wanted to leave, I wanted to do something else. And like in no small part of this was because I felt like I wasn't doing anything, like I wasn't changing the world or helping it or saving it. I was like sitting in my office and like the Ivory Tower of Science, looking at scorgings on our microscope and like who cares? And so I quit completely, like I made a grand announcement that I from now on, will no longer be a scientist. I left. I got a job writing middle school science curriculum. So like still science mate, helping shape the future of science. Okay, but I wasn't doing science and I am. My Best Friend started a nonprofit called islands and...

...seas. Lauren met Eric Steiner during her time at the Museum of Natural History. They both dreamed of creating something around scientific discovery and environmental stewardship, which is how islands and seas came to be. Through public engagement and education, the nonprofit empower students and citizens scientists in the US and abroad to share in the scientific process of research and discovery. The organization is currently building a global network of small research and education stations on islands and along the mainland coastlines where residents, scientists and tourists can work together to help conserved unique natural resources and really like the goal of our nonprofit is to try to bring communities into the fold of science and, in particular, communities that are near the really, really special places on earth. And so we develop some criteria or where we wanted to try to find places to do this work, and the criteria were like really close to super important protected area, so like a national park or a UNESCO biosphere reserve or something like that. Close to a community that doesn't really have much access to science or science education, so like a small community that's kind of isolated or, you know, just in parts of the world where it's like hard to get to and lastly, a place where there's not a lot of scientific research going on but would really benefit from scientific research so that we could bring scientists to gather with the community to really not only explore this place but also to inspire the stewards of this place, who are the community that live there, to protect it, to really like value it and appreciate it and want it to persist for their children and their children's children. And we're working with a community and in a town called San Juanico, which is a community of about five hundred, mostly Fisher people, like men and women and children who fish, because the community relies so heavily on sea life for food. Lauren's team aims to educate the people about the terrestrial animals inhabiting their land, because they know all about what's in the ocean, but they don't really care and are kind of scared about many of the things that live on land. Would would just like make sense. They live in a desert where there's like scary things and they're isolated. It's hard to get medical care if you get injured or like bitten by a snake, and so we've been working with them for five years now and just finished construction during the pandemic and are excited to open. Our Center wants things with covid calm down enough that we feels like we're not going to like harm the community by bringing scientists down or bringing them together and our in our education center. Most of the citizens in San Juan Eco never went to school past the eighth grade. So working with islands and seas has led to a real breakthrough in their appreciation for the world around them. And we'd ask them to help us by, over the week they were there, collecting like a snakes, like snakes and lizards and insects and anything that they thought called. We'd build a little terra Aria for them to keep them alive, and then we'd take them to the community center and talk to the community, like just let the community get up close and personal with the stuff in a controlled way, and they love it, like they go crazy. We see every single school kid every time we go and like then we start to get weird groups, like like religious groups, come because they want to see this stuff and like we find common ground about like things that are written in the Bible, about like not taking more than you need and the protecting the like animals around you. And so they're yeah, they've been really incredibly pers like receptive, and they also ask us like the most bizarre questions, which often times are come from wives tales or myths about these animal, these desert animals, for example, there's one really common lizard.

It like often lives around houses on fences. It's a fence Lizard and there's a myth in town that it crawls into your orifices, and so women are very scared of it and they kill them as a consequence, and so we've been trying to put people's fears aside. That like, this lizard is totally fine. It's eating the roaches and crickets and stuff that live here on your house and you should not kill it. It's not going anywhere close to you. When we come back, Lauren introduces us to a species of Dun Scorpion and five hundred queer scientists. Welcome back. Today we're chatting with Dr Lauren Esposito. She's a queer arachnologist whose love for entomology stemmed from her desire to go in her backyard and flip over rocks to see what critter she could find underneath. Accompanied by a few science degrees, Lauren turned her hobby into a career and now studies these animals and their evolutionary secrets, formed over millions of years. She says they tell us important information about our environment. Like this marangerous Messiensis Scorpion, which is native to California, Arizona and parts of Mexico. It's a really cool Scorpion because it's a dune specialist and so it lives in the sand dunes and it digs up like crazy dirt and it has these insane hairs on its feet that let it dig up like what would you would think is loose sand and make like somehow form this sand, which, like you can't make a structure out of, into a burrow that it lives inside of. And sometimes those burrows are like a meter deep and it just lives inside those those sand Dune burrows. And it had, like most spiders have, these essentially hearing organs on their feet and smringers when it's sitting on the sand. Like sand, sand transmits sound waves really, really well because it's loose, and so it will sit on the sand and have all its little feet spread out and through those hearing organs on its feet, it can tell the direction of a potential approaching prey item and it like faces and orients itself towards the prey so that it can nab it right when it right, when it comes close enough. So they're they're pretty awesome scorepions. They're also like ten to have their like most scorpions, but I think even in to a greater extent, they have their activity patterns linked to the Moon. So, like very queer, they don't come out on a full moon, so maybe they're like the inverse of queer in that sense, but they come out on totally moonless nights where the stars are really, really bright, and some people have hypothesized that they use the stars to help them navigate around these featureless Dune systems where there's no like landmarks like trees or rocks to help you find your way around and back home to this burrow that you build. Despite being one of the oldest living terrestrial anthropods on earth, Scorpions do not have the best reputation among humans. Many people fear Scorpions and associate the creature with violence regarding their stingers and the venom they can produce, but Lauren attributes a lot of this fear to a lack of understanding. Fewer than one percent of spiders and Scorpions pose any real threat to humans, and Scorpions Venom is tied to advances in cancer treatments, thanks Scorpions. So in a way, Scorpions have this otherness that sets them apart from other creatures on this planet, making them a target for people to channel their hatred. Sound familiar when you think about the diversity of things that you see and the insect in aracnet world, like there's so much diversity out there, and I like that is similar to the queer community, where there's like everything that you can ever imagine yourself as, like you can be and be accepted within the queer community, which is amazing. And like, in that same sense, everything that you could ever imagine something could be out in the world doing it is but as a Scorpion, the spider or an insect, like it's a hundred percent there and doing it and that color and exactly what you like have in your head. And we see that like in movies, right, like a lot of the monsters from movies are inspired from insects and Arachnids and that's because they're crazy. Yeah,...

I mean for sure, I I'm with you there, and I would like a pride for Scorpions. Let's start that. Start the march. We've just have to figure out a day. Lauren has started a march of her own, but it's not for the Scorpions yet. Before Starting Her nonprofit islands and seas, Lauren renounced her love for science and said she never wanted to return to the field. That is, unless she's somehow landed a job in a museum. But in terms of natural history, museum jobs that are about Aractisers for and like. People stay in these jobs so they're like a hundred years old and like can barely move anymore and they're like, okay, maybe I'll retire now, the like Gandalf. You knows where else you're gonna go. Yeah, like what do you do after that? Like you are basically a museum specimen at that at that point, when Lauren caught wind that a position had opened as the curator of a Rachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, she jumped at the opportunity. And then I got a call for an interview and got the job and was like okay, well, I take back that I'm leaving science forever, not that anybody was listening when I said it, but I came back and I started my job as a curator. While working at the academy. Lauren was helping to arrange an event for the organization five hundred women scientists. It's an organization that's really focus on networking women scientists and it came about like after the trump election, like basically by angry women scientists who are like what is happening in the world, and but in the time since then it's really grown into this like amazing network that like provide support for women scientist but also like elevates them and provides visibility for them and really fighting for sort of like equality with Lauren was drawn to the organization in terms of its purpose and its message. Yeah, it. She didn't feel at home in that community. I like had this like a piphany where I was like, Oh my God, is because I like, I mean I identify as one by also identify as Gender Queer, and so I had this realization like during the the development of this event, where I was like, okay, well, I have never I don't even know another Queer Rachnologist, I've never worked in the lab with a queer and brachnologist and I'm the first openly queer curator in the history of this institution, which is a hundred and sixty eight years old in San Francisco. Like San Francisco's so gay. How could I be the first openly queer curator in the history of this city at this really old institution? And so it was like really just kind of a moment for me. And and so I decided that I would do something about it and start telling my story of being queer, like within the context of my professional identity, and launched this visibility campaign called five hundred peer scientists, which really focuses on providing a platform for people to tell and celebrate their queer stories alongside their their science stories and who they are as a scientist. The LGBTQ community faces higher exclusion rates, harassment and assault in professional and academic environments and their straight coworkers. A two thousand and thirteen survey of stem workers found that more than forty percent of lgbtq plus identified respondents are not out to their colleagues. Why is that? Well, I think to really understand, like why it doesn't feel comfortable and professional spaces, you have to think about who started the professional spaces. Like who were the first scientists and what do they look like, and who were and like what were they about? So, like I think if we think about modern science, so science from like the I guess I would say like the late eighteen hundreds or seventeen hundreds on words. It was Arist, aristocratic white men from Europe. That is what we think of as like modern day science, which is a really exclusionary view of science, because it excludes, like earlier work which these modern day scientists based modern science...

...upon, but it also excludes, like, huge parts of the world, like the Middle East and Asia, which which had advanced science and mathematics and ways. That also again like allowed these modern day formulations of science to exist. But what it ultimately created was this really super straight, super white, like pretty well to do view of science. And in that view, like in that world view, it was just these men coming together and they didn't need to talk about their identity because it was the same, like they all shared an identity and they use that identity and in many ways to exclude all sorts of people, to keep the practice of scientific philosophy dominated by white European wealthy men. And that's carried on like that is a legacy that we're carrying. It's like a backpack that's just weighing a sky own. You know all the way up until the present day. And and and I think you know you're exactly right, the the average percentage based on self reported surveys, because I think it's really important to note that neither the US census nor the primary way that we gain demographics for people who work in science, which is a National Science Foundation, offer any reporting statistics about lgbtq identities. So we don't know, first what the prevalences of Lgbtq people in the US population like. We don't even know how many queer people they are. I mean, if you're queer, you know it's everybody, but if you're not, then we you can only sort of estimate, and the estimates for the US population are that about forty percent of the people who are queer in the US population are not out and that's basically the same statistic as estimate for people that work in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, which is, like you said before, shocking because people think of science as like this place for freedom of expression. More freedom of expression is hope, is welcome and open. A two thousand and fourteen study of stem faculty at universities found that sixty nine point two percent of out faculty members felt uncomfortable in their university department. Those who were out were seven point two times more likely to experience exclusionary behavior by colleagues. So why would you come out if you're going to be excluded or harassed on the basis of your sexual or gender right identity? And if you're a student working in the same lab of people that are harassing or excluding their queer colleagues, like obviously you're not going to feel like it's a welcome place for you. And so in the end what happens is people are less likely to talk about their identity, meaning that they're not visible. Young people don't see that visibility or experienced harassment or exclusion themselves because it's behavior modeled by like the people in charge, and and so they leave. And what that's ended up with is about an estimated a hundred and twenty Threezero Lgbtq people working missing from the current stem workforce in America. Hundred and twenty three thou like bright minds that could help us solve the global problems that we're all facing are missing from our stem workforce. That innovation is completely missing and that's like, quite honestly, a tragedy for science, not just for lgbtq people. Laurens platform aims to ensure the next generation of stem has lgbtq plus role models and helps the current generation recognize they're not alone. Those in men where I was like is anybody gonna answer this, like, is anybody going to care? The answer is hell, yes, well, I guess it's. It's started with a tweet and a website that I had built and I had managed. I had like emailed around and I emailed colleagues and I was like, do know any queer sciences that you could like maybe get to share their story? It was...

I was just asking people for a picture and two hundred words about themselves and I managed to collect fifty stories when I launched. So I had a website with fifty people on it, which was like, I felt like a huge success already, and I posted a tweet from the five hundrecre scientist twitter account. That was my story on launch day and ask people to contribute their stories to the website through like a just a contribution form that we have, and it like within the first day we probably had two hundred and by the end of three weeks we had five hundred contributions and now or in three years, and we have over one thus six hundred contributors from like all over the world. I do think that there's hope and and I think that the hope is demonstrated by really brave people who are incredible scientists but also just like incredible human beings that are finding their way through the door into the club, but then holding the door open for everybody that comes behind them. And and I think we're really like I would say that we're really in this moment, this sort of tipping point and stem where, if I take a look at like the people who have contributed to five hundred greer scientist who have contributed their stories, proportionally their graduate students and post Docs, so like really early career folks who are part of a generation that's like no, we are not willing to stay closeted. It's not an option and like we're here with our whole identity and you can embrace us and celebrate us for that or you can like take a hike, basically, and and that's, I think, like a very exciting thing and makes me super, super hopeful for the future of stem and society. Quite frankly, because these are that these are the future innovators. Lauren never expected to be an activist for the LGBTQ community or to devote part of her time away from science to speak about queer scientists. Like everything else in her life, it just happened. Like I never thought of myself as an activist and then I like had this moment where I realized, like I needed to do something because I had had this experience. But I had had this experience from our really privileged place where I went to graduate school in New York City, I had a job in San Francisco and like, I had been afforded all the opportunities of being able to be out and open without like a whole lot of potential punitive damages because of my identity, in my willingness to be out, and so, like, what about all the other people that are living in Idaho or living in Utah or living and I don't know wherever, like Iron I love that you made that comparison people living in Utah or a rod well. I mean, like, quite honestly, like the way that the way that those two that those two like religions treat queer identities is not entirely this similar, although some of them are not allowed to be executed by law. But like the University of the the the University of UTAH. Come when you compare, like the Queer Culture of the University of Utah Versus Byu, which are in the same city, like they're they're like night and day. Right, people at University of Utah, that our graduate students in science, are able to be out in Queer people that are at Byu, in the same city, like will be fired. They'll find a reason, like you said, like they can't legally be fired, but they'll find a reason to fire them. So yeah, I mean I think I do feel this way and I've and so like to that end, I have like a policy now, and all my students that are in my lab know that this is my policy, that if somebody asks me to do something, I will say yes. Like if you asked me to be on a podcast at by you, I will say yes. Have you asked me to come and give a talk to your undergraduate students and I have to like spend two days flying to give this like one hour presentation about the importance of queer visibility, like I'll do it. I'm there and I'm there to stand up for it and and and what that means is that oftense, like there are moments where I'm choosing to do that above choosing to devote time to science, and so it...

...does impact my like scientific productivity as a consequence, but I think that in terms of the future of science, this is more important than Scorpions. Quite frankly, the Scorpions will still be around. They've been around for millions of years, four hundred and thirty. If you want to connect with Lauren, you can find her on twitter. My twitter handles are Rachnology Nerd, or you can find five hundred per sciences, of five hundred per scientistcom or like similar twitter and instagram handle so that you can read that stories of mine, but stories of one thousand six hundred like absolutely amazing scientists and connect with a community of over thirtyzero. So please check them out. They're all worth talking about, worth celebrating, and they certainly give me inspiration for the future. And if you're a queer scientist out there who has not submitted their bio and it's feeling just a little bit nervous, should go ahead and do that. Yeah, just do it. It's like pulling off a bandaid. Pride is a production of Straw hut media. If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review on Apple, podcast, spotify or wherever you listen to podcast. Then follow us on Instagram, facebook, twitter and snapchat at pride for more episodes. Be Sure to share this episode with your friends and subscribe for more stories from Amazing Queer people. If you'd like to connect with me, you can follow me everywhere at lead by chambers. Pride is produced by me, lea by chambers, Maggie Bulls, Ryan Tillotson, Caitlin mcdaniel and Brandon Marlowe, edited by Silvana I'll Calla, and Daniel Ferrara. Sound mixing by Silvana, I'll calla. Well, I think there's two things that everyone should know. First, Scorpions don't jump like they will not jump on you, and secondly, Scorpions are the only kind of a Rachnid and like almost the only kind of Arthur Pug, that gives birth to live young. So they actually become pregnant. They don't have eggs, they become fully pregnant with embryos. Those embryos develop inside their body, they give birth to the babies. The babies crawl up on to their back. Then they take care of the babies and tell the babies are big enough to like, go off on their own Scorpion lives. So that is very adorable. Also, they slow downce when they mate. So just saying. Look how relatable they are. They're just like you and me.

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