Rainbow Research: Nature

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are posting a Rainbow Research series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag.

In this post, Justin Stewart discusses their research under the flag theme of ‘Nature’.

About me 

Hi! I am Justin. I spend most of my days overthinking, cooking overly complex meals for myself, making memes on my Twitter or Instagram (@thecrobe) and trying to enjoy time outside. Last week I got into a cooking frenzy and made French omelettes for about 5 meals straight. I had to perfect the curds! I also am a chili pepper fanatic and have a 5 kilogram bag of guajilloes in my spice closet…like an actual closet filled with spices. I am originally from Texas but now live in Amsterdam where I can’t wait to go dancing and bike over the canals at 4am.

My Research  

I am an ecologist and evolutionary biologist researching microbiomes, plants, and geography. One of my research goals is to understand microbial strategies and processes for sustainability.

Over my 6+ years as a scientist, I have climbed buildings, strapped vacuums to car roofs, hiked through the rainforest, and used satellites. Microbial communities live in every ecosystem in the world and influence the ecology and evolution of all life.

Currently, I research the symbiosis between bacteria, fungi, and plants with an emphasis on root architecture, domestication, and urban environments. The microbes living in and on plant roots are the backbone of global agriculture and drive the aboveground biodiversity we see in the world. During domestication of plants we lost a great deal of plant genetic diversity. What microbes have we lost and how does this vary across evolutionary history? How can we enhance microbial symbiosis for plants in agricultural and urban ecosystems?

My Identity

I am a queer and non-binary scientist and think nature reflects my identity quite well because it encompasses things that are hard to define but are also beautiful (which I think are both my identity and research). Being a scientist in itself is a massive privilege and requires sacrifices in where you live, how much money you earn, and time. Academia likewise can give off an air of being professional is key; but as I am learning that does not mean I cannot be my true queer self. I had applied to PhDs around the world but it was limited by finding a safe environment where I could be open and live my life unencumbered by discrimination.

One of the major challenges left for queer individuals in science is dismantling ideas of proper behaviour and rules for navigating academia while being authentic to yourself. I was told one that I should not be picky about where I want to live and wish to have this brought up in conversation more. Often it is simply a question of personal safety for queer individuals to live in accepting places, or else we have to hide who we are. A difficult trade-off. I want to share my experiences with all queer scientists at all career stages that we are a large, powerful, and beautiful community. Anyone experiencing difficulty being themselves in this world, know that this community accepts you. At least I do ❤. Something I wish I heard years ago.

What Pride means for me 

Pride for me is not partying or the commercialization of the queer experience. It is the community supporting itself and in doing so celebrating the individual diversity of all queer people. This fits back into why I love nature, as there are so many beautiful things to celebrate, and pride is just another time to do the same.

Justin Stewart

You can read all the posts in our Rainbow Research blog series here (new posts will be added throughout June 2021!)

If you are interested in contributing to our Rainbow Research Pride series, you can find out more information here.

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