Join journalist, author, and the director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing Seth Mnookin as he chats with astrophysicist Andrew Chael about the team that got the first image of a black hole. Also in this episode: Kasha Patel talks with a researcher about his study on the effects of music on mosquitos and the subsequent flurry of news coverage; and journalist Michele Catanzaro reports on a veterinarian helping poachers in Uganda change their ways.
Kasha Patel: Hello, Undark listeners! It’s your host Kasha Patel. Today we’re going to talk about a veterinarian in Uganda trying to help chimpanzees that get tangled up with poachers. Then we’ll also talk to an astrophysicist who is a member of the Event Horizon Telescope team that produced the first photographic image of a black hole.
But first, in late March and early April, you might have seen a flurry of surprising headlines claiming the music of dubstep artist Skrillex could repel mosquitoes.
They’re talking about this 2010 song [sample of “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”] and a paper in the journal “Acta Tropica” called “The electronic song ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ reduces host attack and mating success in the dengue vector Aedes aegypti.”
According to the metrics listed by the journal, over 60 news outlets and blogs covered the study. Even Skrillex responded to the coverage and tweeted, “No more mosquitoes man.”
But the media couldn’t seem to agree about what the study actually said.
BBC’s headline read “Dubstep Artist Skrillex Could Protect Against Mosquito Bites”
Vice wrote “If a bit of Skrillex can fend off virus-transmitting mosquitoes and keep people from getting infected with deadly diseases such as Zika and dengue fever, then EDM could literally save lives around the world.”
But Forbes took an opposite stance, writing, “Mosquitoes Don’t Like Skrillex, But Listening to His Music Isn’t Enough to Keep Them Away.”
How did the same study produce widely different coverage?
As a science reporter, I’ve always found it harder to accurately cover stories when there are barriers like confusing language in the study, hard-to-reach authors, and questions about how far along the work actually is. And, of course, for many publications, there’s the temptation to take a more clickbait-y angle. When coverage goes wild like this Skrillex case, there are usually a few reasons like these behind it… and this one had many.
So first, I wanted to ask the main author of the paper, Hamady Dieng, how he felt about the coverage. Dieng is currently in the Cayman Islands working in the Mosquito Research and Control Unit.
Kasha Patel, on tape: Do you think a lot of popular media outlets missed the point of your paper?
Hamady Dieng: Definitely. The purpose of our study was just to see whether it has a behavioral effect on the mosquito.
Kasha Patel: Basically, he and his team set up a series of cages where they unleashed hungry mosquitoes on a hamster and played the music at them.
Hamady Dieng: I have never known Skrillex before the study. I choose it just because, uh, it’s noisy. It was perfectly what I wanted to check with the mosquitoes.
Kasha Patel: Dieng says that Skrillex mosquitoes also had a lot less sex, perhaps because the vibrations threw off the wing-beat patterns that the mosquitoes use to sync up and mate.
Hamady Dieng: Our result on mating was very clear compared to the bite.
Kasha Patel: So Dieng was trying to analyze a really basic question about how sound affects these insects, a question that lots of other researchers are working on too.
But to use it as a mosquito repellent at your backyard BBQ, like some media outlets suggested? Mmm…no. I talked to Dr. Cameron Webb, who was not involved in the research. He is a mosquito researcher from New South Wales Health Pathology and the University of Sydney. He says to create a repellent, it needs to be tested in real world situations.
Cameron Webb: I guess the most obvious step from here would be trying to adapt this into the field. And so going out into a real life situation and hooking up your stereo to the picnic table and seeing if playing the music stopped mosquitoes coming to you might be, you know, something that would be interesting to try. Because often what happens in the laboratory doesn’t really translate to what happens out in the environment. And this is particularly the case for mosquito repellent trials. Maybe that would be the next step that would have been good to include in the study.
Kasha Patel: Webb says there’s been misinformation about sound-based mosquito repellents for decades. People are buying these products because they are told it works, but it’s not proven yet.
Cameron Webb: Particularly this idea that, you know, you can carry around a little sound emitting device or something on your smartphone that releases or emits some kind of frequency and protects you against mosquito bites. You know, for decades there’s been products trying to be sold like that and there really is no good evidence to suggest that they provide protection.
Kasha Patel: And Dieng agrees with Webb that more testing would need to be done if his results were to lead to mosquito repellent.
Hamady Dieng: My paper does not say that Skrillex is a repellent. At this stage, there has been no talk about whether can use it operationally.
Kasha Patel: But reading through Dieng’s abstract, I can see where reporters got confused. Even though Dieng told me no it’s not a repellent, the abstract of the paper, says, quote, “The observation that such music can delay host attack, reduce blood feeding, and disrupt mating provides new avenues for the development of music-based personal protective and control measures against Aedes-borne diseases.” End quote.
And since this paper was behind a paywall, many reporters may have only had access to the abstract and they couldn’t easily discover the nuance of his argument…especially since he chose not to talk with outlets that reached out to him for an interview either.
Kasha Patel, on tape: Just to clarify, so these popular media outlets, they contacted you but you did not, you did not talk to them.
Hamady Dieng: I never want to talk. I don’t know what happened that you are that I talk to you.
Kasha Patel: Now, there were some outlets that covered this study well, like LiveScience. They included both major findings of the study right off the bat with no promise of a mosquito repellent. Forbes also did a good job of putting the research in perspective with commentary from an outside researcher.
So in the end, some outlets got the study’s results right and some overly exaggerated the health implications. We know how to fix some of these problems: give reporters enough time to actually report, including talking to outside experts. Make sure they have access to the full paper and the opportunity to clarify questions with the authors. Similarly, researchers, don’t be afraid to talk to the media or general public about your research. We can’t fix all of these issues immediately, but maybe we can start on a smaller scale.
And also, remember, if you want to chase off a mosquito, spray DEET, wear long sleeves, or use a net over your bed. Definitely don’t count on Skrillex.
Kasha Patel: Our next segment is about a veterinarian helping poachers in Uganda change their ways. This segment was reported by journalist Michele Catanzaro, in collaboration with journalist Marco Boscolo, photographer and videographer Gianluca Battista, and sound designer Miguel Arrieta, and with support from a journalism grant from the European Journalism Center. Look for a photo essay that accompanies this story on our website. Let’s take a listen.
[Sound of a beartrap shutting]
Michele Catanzaro: A bear trap snaps shut.
[Sound of a landmine snare]
Michele Catanzaro: A snare, hidden in a hole covered by leaves, goes off.
[Sound of an iron snare]
Michele Catanzaro: An iron snare clamps shut.
[Sound of a nylon snare]
Michele Catanzaro: And again, but this time with a nylon snare.
Caroline Asiimwe: Right now, we are in the middle of Budongo Central Forest Reserve, the biggest natural forest in Uganda, and it’s also a habitat for more than 800 chimpanzees.
Michele Catanzaro: This is Caroline Asiimwe, a veterinarian and conservation coordinator at the Budongo Conservation Field Station.
Caroline Asiimwe: For the chimpanzees that inhabit Budongo Central Forest Reserve, the biggest challenge that we are seeing right now is poaching.
Michele Catanzaro: Asiimwe must often run to free chimpanzees that have gotten tangled up in the traps and wires that poachers had set to catch other prey. Here she is, in the middle of an intervention in 2018.
Caroline Asiimwe, on tape: I need this thing out. [voices] Someone! Jacob! No more saline. [Incomprehensible] Clean! We need to clean this wound very fast!
Caroline Asiimwe: Since 2011, wow, I have worked on how many chimps? Over 20? But shockingly, just December to now February, we have already rescued five. That’s a very huge number.
Michele Catanzaro: Asiimwe works to heal chimps when they are injured. But she is also trying to help poachers to change their ways.
[ Steps in the forest]
Michele Catanzaro: I’m out in the forest with Asiimwe as she and six men are on patrol.
Caroline Asiimwe: Yes, we are in compartment N3. And we are with the eco-guards. They have a methodology they use when they are surveying for the snares.
Eco-guard: I have seen it, already.
Caroline Asiimwe: I have also seen one already.
Eco-guard: I have seen one.
Eco-guard: There’s another one. Nylon.
Michele Catanzaro: This is Seteson Ochokuru, an eco-guard and part of the snare removal team at the Budongo Conservation Field Station.
Seteson Ochokuru: These poachers are wise. They can set some time a hundred snares.
Caroline Asiimwe: And so they come and set some of the traps to get the animals that are edible to them. However, chimpanzees in Budongo forest have been falling accidental victims in these traps.
Michele Catanzaro: The snares are metal or nylon wires that snap on an animal’s limb. Sometimes they are hidden in a hole covered with leaves: poachers call this setting a landmine. And then there are the bear traps, or mantraps: metallic jaws that crush animal’s paws.
Caroline Asiimwe: When they are lucky, it just gets holds of the fingers, and it loses a few fingers, and then the animal survives.
Michele Catanzaro: Sometimes, helping the chimpanzee get free of a snare is very difficult. Like in the case of baby chimp Kefa.
Caroline Asiimwe: Kefa, our infant, got caught in a snare, and it caught it on the face, in the jaws.
Michele Catanzaro: The problem is that Kefa always sticks close to his mother and sister.
Caroline Asiimwe: So for us to really intervene on Kefa, we need to put down at least three chimpanzees with our sedatives, and that is a very huge risk we have to take. This happened last year and we haven’t still gotten an opportunity.
Michele Catanzaro: Budongo is under pressure. The human population has boomed around the forest, like everywhere else in Uganda. Refugees have come to escape the turmoil in the north of the country and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Other people arrived after oil and gas was discovered in the region. It all adds up to a high rate of deforestation, for agriculture and logging.
Caroline Asiimwe: When there is increase in the population and the land is not anywhere increasing, the problem of poaching is bound to increase, somehow. Around Budongo the population is very, very poor, so most of the poachers are the first-line, more at risk… the forest edge communities.
Seteson Ochokuru: I was a poacher in my village, I was trained by my father. We have been doing it illegally. Because maybe I’m lacking money, no job. That would earn me a quick money.
Michele Catanzaro: That’s Seteson Ochokuru, the eco-guard introduced earlier. In fact, each of the six men that patrol the forest with Asiimwe were once her enemy.
Caroline Asiimwe: Budongo Conservation Field Station has been working with the local communities, especially poachers. We convinced most of them to leave poaching and they traded their traps for goats. We have also employed some of them, for example here we have six of them who have now been trained to be eco-guards. And their role is to move around the forest to look for these traps and remove them. You use a criminal to get another criminal.
Michele Catanzaro: Their strategy is to tackle poaching at its cause: poverty. They have found that providing a poacher with two goats is enough to convince him to leave illegal hunting. Since 2009, more than 150 poachers have passed through their program. However, it’s unclear whether this will be enough.
Caroline Asiimwe: That approach has really helped a lot, because now the number of snares has gone down. However, the Budongo forest is so big, and we have only six eco-guards. So they cannot manage to patrol everywhere and the snares in other compartments are high.
Chris Galliers: For me, the work that she is doing is critical. The first and most important response to poaching is to really understand the landscape and the people in that landscape, and understand their drivers and their needs, etcetera.
Michele Catanzaro: This is Chris Galliers, the Africa regional representative of the International Ranger Federation, which is not involved in Asiimwe’s work.
Chris Galliers: There [are] three different kinds of poaching: the low level being that of subsistence poacher trying to put food on the table, the commercial poacher looking to sell any product derived from the park illegally, and then the political one where those proceeds generated from the acquisition of the product is sold to benefit or drive political agendas. In the case of Asiimwe and her park, she is seemingly dealing with subsistence poaching.[…] I think the challenge is when you get other kinds of poaching, particularly the commercial and political poaching levels, the ability to deal with them at a grassroots level becomes very difficult, at the park level becomes very challenging. Unfortunately, the ability to deal with it goes beyond that of a park manager or conservation manager.
[Steps in the forest, chimps calling in the background]
Michele Catanzaro: Out on patrol, the eco-guards hear chimp calls in the distance.
Michele Catanzaro: The team spots Kefa, the infant with the snare caught in its face, but there’s nothing they can do for him right now. Other chimps have been luckier than Kefa.
Caroline Asiimwe: I remember we had a Chimpanzee in Ngogo, called Garrett: a big male, but he couldn’t socialize because when he was young, he got a nylon snare on his hand. The hand had started stinking. It was smelling so bad that no other animal wanted to be near him. After 15 years, when we removed the nylon from Garrett, within one week, he was seen grooming others, and others grooming him.
When I save an animal that is caught in a trap, I feel so happy and relieved to see that I am able to give this life another chance. Chimpanzees are endangered species. So all our efforts are aimed at protecting these chimps so that also the future generations can come and find this chimpanzee, still living. This is our closest cousin, we need to protect it, rather than children hearing stories: “There used to be an animal that looked like human beings.”
Kasha Patel: This month, our in-depth interview is with Andrew Chael, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who was part of the monumental effort to give us our first picture of a black hole. Leading us in that conversation is Seth Mnookin, a journalist, author, and director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. Take it away, Seth.
Seth Mnookin: It is my absolute pleasure today to welcome Andrew Chael to the Undark Podcast. Andrew is an astrophysicist and a graduate student in the physics department at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Event Horizon Telescope team that produced the first photographic image of a black hole. Andrew welcome to Undark.
Andrew Chael: Thank you so much for having me.
Seth Mnookin: I wanted to start out just asking you a little bit about this work. I know obviously this was an effort that took many years, can you give us a little bit of a sense of both the scope of the project and the number of people that were involved?
Andrew Chael: Yeah, so this has been a goal for well over a decade. People have been doing these experiments to try to get more and more information about approaching the event horizon of the nearest super massive black holes. And so, for more than a decade people have known that these two super massive black holes, one in the center of our own galaxy, and one in the galaxy M87, which is the one we took a picture of, are just big enough to be able to image. And so people have been putting together these networks of millimeter radio telescopes in these very-long-baseline interferometry rays in order to take these pictures.
This has been, started out with small groups, small teams, primarily here and Europe, over a decade ago trying to make progress for this goal and then over the last sort of five years, over the course of my Ph.D., it’s coalesced into this big global collaboration where all the different teams across the world are working together and we have more than 200 people overall joining forces in order to put together all the telescopes we can in order to make the sharpest image that we can.
Seth Mnookin: I know in some fields of science, having sort of massive collaborations are more or less common, how common is this within astrophysics? Is it unusual to have this number of researchers from this number of institutions all sort of working together towards one goal?
Andrew Chael: Well, I think it’s not uncommon to have very large collaborations in astrophysics, I think it’s becoming more and more the norm, but I think in terms of radio astronomy and very-long-baseline interferometry in particular, the model is usually you have some telescope that may have been built as part of a large collaboration or a consortium of countries. And then it’s smaller groups of a few researchers or a local group at a university will apply for time on that telescope, and analyze the data themselves. It’s really new, I think, for us at least, the people participating in this project to bring all these people together to build our own telescope for a specific purpose to image these event horizons.
And we’re bringing together also people I think from all stages of astrophysics, all different types of astrophysics, we have theorists, we have people doing simulations, we have people building hardware to make these telescopes work as part of the network. We have people designing computer algorithms to image the data. And so it’s really a large cross-section of people and I think that is pretty unusual.
Seth Mnookin: Right, right. And can you describe exactly what your role was in this? I’m guessing that with 200 different people involved, there was both some overlap and also people working on very, very specific issues. So what were you working on?
Andrew Chael: One of the things I do is simulations of black hole accretion flow. So what we do is we do these large super computer simulations where we put matter around a black hole and we watch it fall in and we try to predict what it will look like to our telescope. So that’s been about half of my Ph.D., and that’s a large group. [A] huge assemblage of people has been brought together for this project which is very exciting because typically people tend to work on their own and not compare their models very much except, you know, with dueling papers. So now we’re really making it more collaborative.
And then, the other thing I do is to design and build imaging software which sort of, it seems very different, it’s more in the data analysis sphere than in the theory sphere, but I see them as really linked because it’s sort of how you know, how you’re able to test your predictions from simulations is you have to put them into the imaging and see how well the Event Horizon Telescope can test it by producing an image. And so that’s the second half of what I do.
Seth Mnookin: I know obviously not just on a collaboration of this size, but really any science that’s done these days is not done by one person, or even one or two people. It’s a collaboration between principle investors and grad students and post docs and often times multiple labs. In this case, there was someone who ended up getting a fair amount of attention at the outset, Katie Bouman, as almost every scientist I know, was very careful when she was interviewed to stress that this was not her project, that she was one part of a collaboration.
But the news media often looks for someone to sort of serve as the face of something. One of the things that was unusual about that was that for so long, not just in astrophysics but in science in general, women have both been underrepresented and, in many cases, have not gotten credit when they deserved credit. So, I think a lot of people were happy to see that. Can you talk about any of that, or some of those reactions?
Andrew Chael: Yes, this is a, you know, big, complex issue as I think you pointed out. I don’t want, first of all, I don’t want to speak for Katie but I do know that she very much views this, like we all do, as a huge team exercise and a collaborative project. That said, I think it’s true that there aren’t, especially in radio astronomy, there aren’t that many women involved. I think on our project, we were very lucky to have many, especially early career young scientists who are women who have participated an enormous amount. Katie is one of them, and she occupies I think a particularly special role in that she came to our collaboration from computer vision. So from computer science.
And she, I think, brought in a whole new set of ideas and approaches to these problems that we hadn’t considered before coming from astronomy and that really showed the best of the collaboration and that we were able to, you know, work together and incorporate these new ideas, to apply the astronomical principles and ideas that we had to sort of bridge this communication gap and I think make our ultimate imaging much stronger I think. So she really is definitely one of the key contributors to the project in that sense. I think also she would be the first to say that that was a collaborative endeavor, where she was one of the leaders for sure, but we were always working all together.
Seth Mnookin: So then, and this surprised me, although, in retrospect I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, it didn’t take very long for some corners of the internet to start saying that Katie was essentially only getting attention because she was a woman, actually was not the person who deserved attention. And at least in a couple of cases there were commenters, people on Twitter, people on Reddit, who were saying hang on, this guy Andrew did 90 percent of the work, I’m not sure exactly where they got that figure, but that’s what they were saying. And then said oh, of course, you know, there’s no way that anyone would let a white man get the attention here, that’s why they put her forward. My first question is, how did you first learn that this was this sort of post-factual narrative that was starting to appear in different corners of the online universe?
Andrew Chael: I don’t, for example, have a Reddit account, which is what I think, where a lot of this started…
Seth Mnookin: Yeah, neither do I, I think that’s very healthy for both of us. [laughter]
Andrew Chael: So I was not immediately aware of this, I sort of started noticing my followers on Twitter creeping up. I had for the past two years, used Twitter mostly as a chance to follow other people, scientists, politics, everything. Not really putting myself out there, and so I think I had 30 or something followers. And I started noticing some people starting to follow me, who, you know, had Pepe the Frog avatars and all this stuff and they were making comments that I was like wait, hold on.
And then a friend of mine sort of forwarded me this Reddit post, which apparently made it to the front page of Reddit on one of the days after the announcement, which said, basically, yeah, that, according to some stat they had pulled from this code repository, I had done 90 percent of the work or something and that therefore this whole media focus on Katie was not proportional to what she had done or that she was being just put in there as a symbol. Which is incredibly not a right interpretation of the facts, of the code or… It has basically no basis in fact.
Seth Mnookin: Yeah, it struck me that whoever wrote that post did not know a lot about either science or coding.
Andrew Chael: Right.
Seth Mnookin: Because the idea on any collaboration that you’d have one person who, either who wrote 90 percent of the code or I think they said wrote 850 thousand lines of code, or that even after a huge collaboration, anyone would have any idea who wrote what pieces, what lines of a huge program, is just…
Andrew Chael: Yes. I mean, so there are many things here, right? So one of the things that this code, that they were looking at, was only one of the particular libraries of codes that we used. One of the great strengths of our collaboration and I think one of the things that Katie brought to us was this sort of rigorous way of looking at imaging so that we really wanted to test multiple different software libraries against each other and to make sure that everything was giving us the same answer before we could be really confident in it. That particular library was only one of many software packages we used.
And then, it was true that I was the one who originally sort of created that library in the first place for a paper I wrote, it has been a huge collaboration effort between everyone here. Katie’s been one of definitely the huge leaders on it and we always write code together, we sit in the room and code together, we work on projects and yeah. Even if those numbers were true, which they’re not really a reflection of how many lines any individual person put in there, it wouldn’t be true to say that they reflect anything about the underlying work.
Seth Mnookin: Right.
Andrew Chael: And then I think the third thing is that yeah, those numbers include things like model files of, you know, just data that was uploaded. They probably include things like me uploading the entire code multiple times which you’re not supposed to do. [laughter] I probably did because I’m not a very trained software developer. So, yeah, it’s, yeah. It’s clearly people went and found a number to support a narrative they were looking for as opposed to really trying to understand what the collaborative nature of this project was.
Seth Mnookin: And so, I know you then went out and on Twitter, and this must have been a little bit surreal as someone who mainly uses Twitter to consume information as opposed to authoring tweets.
Andrew Chael: Yeah.
Seth Mnookin: You kind of tried to put a corrective out there and said thank you for the congratulations, however, I also just want to make clear to anyone who’s looking to me to show that Katie doesn’t deserve credit that you’re looking in absolutely the wrong place. And you laid out how this is a collaboration. What was the reaction to that, when you wrote that?
Andrew Chael: When I saw these people coming into my Twitter with all these very sexist comments about Katie and, you know, promoting me as their champion for this idea that they had about, I guess, white men being underrepresented in science or something. [laughter] I just, you know, originally I guess everyone when I was talking to people around here was hoping this was a very small number of people and that it wasn’t making a big impact, but then, as we started to see a bit more come in, I felt like we had to say something because at the very least, they were using my name and my face to promote this narrative.
So I just wanted to basically make these people stop following me, because I didn’t want to have this audience and I also wanted to set the record straight for those people on Reddit, like I said, a platform I’m not on, who were using me in this way. And I did not expect it to like gain any particular traction or anything, or to spread sort of beyond, I was just hoping it would address this community of people debating this topic. And then it didn’t go away.
Seth Mnookin: You went from, you said, you know, having somewhere under a hundred Twitter followers to now having something like 36,000. I was wondering if that has made you think about your own place within science or your own role within the scientific community in a different way at all?
Andrew Chael: Well, I think it has changed a little bit how I approach it. I’m definitely more careful now. I think I do want to use this opportunity to promote the issues that I care about, which is science and all the amazing science that the EHT is doing, that astronomy’s doing in general. But then also, yeah, representation of women and of career people in science in particular.
Seth Mnookin: In some ways, it was a little bit ironic that you were chosen to be a representative of how white men, this horribly oppressed minority, [laughter] was not getting the credit it deserved, because you also are very public and outspoken about being a member of the LGBTQ astrophysics community and a member of a community that also really needs more representation, not just in astrophysics, but throughout science.
Andrew Chael: Yeah. For me, what I’ve become increasingly aware of over the last few years is how much power we have as, even me as a senior graduate student at this point, have in terms of setting the tone and the community standards and the way that people act in science that can determine how people, what people end up in science and what people end up contributing to science. I don’t think I had internalized that when I was a young high school student or a young college student, but I mean, I remember being in high school and I think part of this might have just have been sort of a rebellious nature ’cause my parents were scientists and I felt like I didn’t want to be a scientist, but I think there was also a part of me that was saying, oh, science isn’t the place for you because you’re coming to realize that you’re gay and you should go and become a historian, which is something I also really wanted to do.
And then it was getting to go to a wonderful, inclusive college where I just remember, for example, my physics advisor was like probably the first person I had ever met in science who I thought he was queer before I realized he was actually straight. He just had a huge rainbow flag on his wall, and the atmosphere was there was totally different than what I had ever seen in science growing up. I didn’t internalize that at the time I think how much just that sort of being in that atmosphere encouraged me to keep pursuing this, and how much, in the inverse case, not having that example might have pushed me away from something that I ended up loving. And so, I just realized how much power we have and all that it requires you to, like we need to be conscious of it in setting this example in all these subtle ways. So, that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot more and been trying to model. So I think in the first couple years I was here, just because the sort of assumption I think in this community that people are by default straight and it was easy for me and the privilege that I had in order to not necessarily bring my whole queer self to work every day.
Seth Mnookin: Right.
Andrew Chael: I think as I’ve thought about what that kind of representation would have meant for me coming into the field as I’ve seen, even younger graduate students than me, even in my group, some amazing young grad students be more outspoken and more out at work and I’ve also, as I’ve advised undergrads, I’m sort of a resident tutor at one of the dorms at Harvard where I work with undergrads and I work with them as a LGBTQ life advisor in a residential setting.
That has really I think put into focus for me how important it is to be visible because I think there are a lot of amazing people who could contribute to astrophysics or physics, who might just not decide to join this field because as in all across science, because they don’t see people like them in these roles. There is an assumption of a default white man, and it was easy for the people on Reddit to slot me into that assumption and be easy for other people not knowing about me to slot me into that assumption as well.
Seth Mnookin: Yeah, in a way it seemed like in a sort of best-case scenario, by trying to take attention away from Katie, what actually happened is that both women and the queer community, who are two communities that certainly could use role models all across science and astrophysics, there were these now newly visible and public people who were doing incredible work, enthusiastic about their fields. So, in some ways, you know, what could have been a sort of nasty incident turned into something where I think now, we’re having discussions about how we need to be more inclusive in all areas of science.
Andrew Chael: Yeah, I think that’s definitely the most positive thing to come out of all this, and I think, again, not to speak too much for Katie, but both of us I think have been really surprised at just how supportive 99.9 percent of all the contact we’ve gotten has been. And yeah, I don’t think it’s, speaking only for myself here, that it’s ever a role I imagined myself playing when I was, you know, trying to, struggling 10 years ago between wanting to be a scientist and coming to terms with the fact that I was gay. To see that sort of reflected into the idea that I could, that that could be a sign to other people who are queer that this community is one where you can be out and you can be yourself and you can make huge contributions and you can be respected for those contributions, that’s something that does really make me happy and I hope that this experience does reach people that way.
Seth Mnookin: So, the last thing I wanted to ask you about or maybe just highlight, was the Astronomy and Astrophysics Outlist which is an online list of LGBTQIA+ scientists working in astronomy and astrophysics. Can you talk a little bit about that and what role that serves?
Andrew Chael: It’s basically an online registry where you can sort of publicly declare to the community and to the world I guess that you are a member of the astrophysics community and that you are out or that you’re an ally of those who are out, and for me that, even before all of this started a few weeks ago, since I put my name on that list I guess a couple years ago now, has been just an entry into this whole community that you may not expect as one person existing at one institution. You might have one or two people you know as out, queer scientists around you, but when you put your name on this list, suddenly you get emails from people all around the world, I’ve gotten emails from people interested in science as undergrads, asking about what it means to be a queer scientist in graduate school.
And so I think that is just an incredible resource not only for me, just looking at the whole list was a wonderful realization to realize that, you know, there are people who are queer and out in all of these different fields of astronomy, even in ones that you might not, you know, ones that are more traditionally male dominated or more traditionally straight laced fields. But then also to think about, yeah, if you’re coming in as a high school student or as an undergrad and you, you know, were just googling “Can you be LGBTQ in science? What does it mean?” just to see this and to know that there was not only this list of, you know, hundreds of out people, but then the list of many, many more hundreds of people, allies who publicly have supported us, I think it’s an incredible thing and it’s one thing that I’m really proud about the astrophysics community for putting it together. And so it’s a wonderful thing that we have.
Seth Mnookin: Andrew Chael, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, and thank you also for doing this incredible work and also helping to communicate this work to the public. And showing the scientific community and the world at large that astrophysics and astronomy is a welcoming place regardless of what your gender or background or sexual orientation is. I know that you are literally days away from defending your thesis.
Andrew Chael: Yeah.
Seth Mnookin: So thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Good luck and I hope we get a chance to talk to you again in the future.
Andrew Chael: Yeah, thank you so much.
Kasha Patel: Well, that’s all, Undark listeners. Thanks so much for joining us. We’re produced by Lydia Chain, music is by the Undark team and I’m your host, Kasha Patel.