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What is your job? At the University of St Andrews I teach astrobiology to years 1-3 undergraduate, at the University of Glasgow I teach robotics and mechatronics to year 4 students and electrical engineering to year 2 undergraduates. For my PhD I researched ‘crust-atmosphere coupling and carbon sequestration on early Mars’.
Scientific Discipline/Field: Geochemistry of Mars/geology and meteoritics/rover robotics
What does your job involve?
My teaching: For the robotics I work with projects that design and build self navigating autonomous robots that sense their environment. Students build their own printed circuit boards, code and mechanically build in the workshops. I also run electrical engineering projects based on acoustics and lighting. For the astrobiology I explore the scientific quest for the origin of life on Earth and the prospect for finding life on other planets, both in our solar system and on habitable worlds elsewhere in the Galaxy. I also discuss the societal implication of detecting life outside Earth and other philosophical points relevant to the process of science and the value of non-Earth life. Finally, I run a space rocket and balloon team with a history of successful launches with science payloads.
My PhD: I am researching the process of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the ancient Mars atmosphere being sequestered into stable mineral carbonate. Such carbonate minerals have been observed by satellite, rovers, landers and in meteorites from Mars that have landed on Earth. I examine these sources and attempt to resolve the mineralogy and reaction pathways involved. There is a lot of advanced microscope work of Mars fragments, which I love. I also conduct laboratory experiments in pressure vessels that mimic early Mars hydrothermal systems. But why is it important?
Because we can utilise the same reactions in rock formations on Earth to store atmospheric carbon dioxide as minerals. A method much more stable than other current carbon capture and storage methods. I am also working with Engineers in Space Glasgow to build a new prototype rover tool that uses ultrasonic grinding to expose a smooth rock surface, so that rock reactions can be observed more clearly.
How did you get to this job (education etc.)?
I studied part time with the Open University, who allowed me to overlap my undergraduate final year in geology with the first year of a masters in Earth Science. I was an escort during this time in Edinburgh. Unemployment is disproportionately high in the trans community as people do not want to employ early stage trans people as we can look like strange unicorns, thus many turn to sex work to survive, as I did. Upon finishing the BSc and halfway through the MSc I saw a fantastic PhD post funded by the UK Space Agency studying Mars and decided to send an enquiry to see what grades I would need for such work. I was encouraged to apply anyway and was lucky enough to be offered the PhD. If you are fascinated by a subject, or see a dream job, it is always worth sending that introductory email, just because you never know what wonderful places it might lead. I feel very lucky in where I am in life just now, and love my work.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to stay in science as long as it engages me and I enjoy it. I hope Scotland gains independence and Scottish geology surveys and space agencies need to be created (Glasgow leads in UK space science). Developing the applications of mineral carbon sequestration to counter global warming is something I would potentially like to pursue. I would ultimately love a cottage by the water somewhere beautiful, with maybe goats and some chickens. Science does not define me, I love writing fiction and poetry too, climbing mountains and exploring remote places. Life is wide and beautiful, I don’t like the idea of being fenced into career paths, rigid structures, or fixed things to aim for.
Did you have any role models growing up?
The very wonderful Ani DiFranco has been a life long role model, as has Arundhati Roy, Utah Phillips and Noam Chomsky. Google them, they are jewels of human beings and may change your life.
Tell us more about being trans.
What to say here? There appears fashionable at the moment that society is becoming all accepting and kind towards trans people. Transitioning permanently destroyed the bulk of my confidence. The incidents below were in early transition, and yes, I do not have them anymore, but it deeply taught me that the only reason that I do not receive a barrage of daily hate now is because I ‘pass’, not because society and people are accepting. I would get spat at and called a tranny while going to get bread and milk in the shop. People would laugh at me on the streets and public transport. People in power, behind counters (and in the university workplace) would insist on calling me Sir, despite my dress and makeup. These things may sound petty. What does it matter if someone laughs or stares? But when it is on every street, all day, everyday, it produces an effect on the individual far greater than the isolated acts. I used to hate having to leave my flat, and when I absolutely had to would scuttle along the streets like a mouse trying to avoid people. I understand why trans people kill themselves (~50% in the UK consider suicide), the public seem very keen on vocally telling us we should die, that we are abominations, that we are disgusting. Even if one pretends to have a thick skin and not care, it trickles in.
I am ‘ok’ now, I am accepted, but retain a deep and lasting dislike of people, a crushed self confidence, and a permanent craving to be alone. The PhD has actually done a vast, enormous amount to revive both my respect of people and self confidence. I speak in public to large audiences relatively confidently now, but it is too little too late.
I often found that those who expressed their hate in public desired me in private. This is not vanity. To provide an example, the road builders in Edinburgh used to shout trans slurs at me on my way to work (tranny, chick with a dick, freak, but then after a year, no small number of them had visited me as an escort. I have found this dynamic true in many environments since. Society ostensibly hates me, and crushes my sense of self by expressing this hatred, but then also sexually wants me; often this can occur in the same individual. Such dynamics have jaded and made me cynical of people. However, these experiences have provided me with the fuel I need to ignite as I have.
It is hard to separate the rape and violence I experienced while escorting into abuse due to trans or abuse every escort faces. It feels that ‘escorts cannot be raped’, and this becomes dehumanising to ones sense of self.
It is important to never feel sorry for oneself.
Do not plead victim, nor seek special treatment.
Be fierce fire. Blaze competently.
And never, ever, give in.