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Surviving in cold environments: from microbes under glaciers to queer scientists in the current social context

Surviving in cold environments: from microbes under glaciers to queer scientists in the current social context

On the 5th of July we will celebrate the International Day of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, and people that do not identify themselves as cis and/or straight) People in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM). Many people will ask: “Why is this day important?” Being a queer scientist in particular, and a queer person in general, can sometimes reminds us of how living organisms feel in extreme environments. In this blog post, I will use the analogy of organisms thriving in harsh environments, to highlight the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in the science community.


I am a geomicrobiologist investigating how microorganisms interact with their surroundings in order to survive and what impact this activity has on the environment in which the microbes live. My PhD focused on the subglacial environment (underneath glaciers), and although it is a well-known fact that microorganisms can survive in extreme conditions, it was not until the late 1990s that the first subglacial bacteria were described (Priscu et al., 1999; Sharp et al., 1999). This discovery led to a shift in the way we regarded the subglacial environment: from a cold, dark, nutrient desert to a microbial oasis, an ironic “hot spot” for life within immense ice masses (Tung et al., 2006), showing a very high abundance of microorganisms (Toubes-Rodrigo et al., 2016).

 

How can microorganisms survive in a carbon poor and dark environment?

In illuminated environments, plants and photosynthetic bacteria are able to get energy from the sunlight, but this resource is not available under meters and meters of ice. At the bottom of glaciers, where the ice is in contact with the underlying ground, debris can entrain into the ice (Hubbard et al., 2009; Knight, 1997). Microorganisms are able to take advantage of the sediment and produce energy from the minerals to create organic matter in a process called chemolithotrophy. In addition, due to physical interactions between sediment and ice, there is always a thin layer of liquid water (even at sub-freezing temperatures) around the sediment grains, and it is well known that water is one of the most limiting factors for life. The bacteria which get their energy from the minerals and water under the glacier are called chemolithotrophs.

This process continues as glaciers flow across the ground. As glaciers flow, fresh minerals are picked up into the ice, becoming a supply for chemolithotrophs, which in turn enrich the sediment with carbon over time (Telling et al., 2015). The extra carbon then allows for the blooming of microorganisms capable of feeding on it (heterotrophs). Therefore, we have an active ecosystem in such a harsh environment.

 

How does this link to the LGBTQ+ Community?

This is a very good analogy for the conditions the LGBTQ+ community finds itself in: we usually find that our surroundings are very cold towards us. Just ask a homosexual person what reaction we receive when we are doing something as normal as holding with our partners or ask a trans person about the reaction they receive for their mere existence. Nevertheless, we queer people are capable of not only thriving but also making an impact and changing the mentality around us. As the visibility and representation of queer people continues to grow, people are becoming more educated about queer lives, queer history and the issues we still face. Much like the microbes that enrich the sediment, we enrich society through our diversity. Therefore, events such as the International Day of LGBTQ+ People in STEM are critical to maintaining and furthering the progress we have already made.

We can imagine glaciers as giant conveyor belts, able to transport sediment from the bedrock underneath the ice and release it downstream. The process of transport will not only affect the location of the sediment, but also the chemical makeup of it, due to the activity of microorganisms over years and years. The sediment released from glacier is richer in some of the nutrients, generating fertile soil. Yet again, this a wonderful metaphor: many people have questioned why LGBTQ+ Pride (in STEM) is needed, as LGBTQ+ rights have advanced so much in recent years. However, it is arguably more important now than ever before as, whilst we have made huge progress, we are still the target of hatred. For example, we still find attacks to queer people in cities such as London and Detroit only last week (see articles below) and in many countries around the world, queer existence is either passively ignored or actively threatened.

A number of museums associated with the University of Cambridge Museums are hosting LGBTQ+ Tours, to highlight research by the LGBTQ+ community and to educate the public. Just recently, the Scott Polar Museum ran the ‘Bridging Binaries Tour’ which included information about same-sex behaviour among penguins, and non-normative gender identities in the ancient world [Credit: University of Cambridge Museums].

How can LGBTQ+ initiatives help?

Initiatives such as Pride, LGBTQ+ people in STEM day or the Bridging Binaries Tours increase the visibility of the community: we prepare the soil for queer people to thrive. It helps internally-struggling individuals accept themselves, and highlights that it is ok to be different and that we exist. A discouraging fact for me when I was growing up was the lack of LGBTQ+ role models in science. A lack of role models has a terrible impact on LGBTQ+ people in STEM. Just to give a couple examples taken from PRIDE in STEM: more than 40% of LGBTQ+ people in STEM remain in the closet, having to disguise a fundamental part of themselves. Furthermore, gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are less likely to follow an academic career. When I first started my PhD, I was asked “edit it down” and be less overt about my sexuality, even by friends. Initiatives such as the International Day of LGBTQ+ People in STEM can make our surroundings more welcoming: it gives us a voice, a place. It gives us a space, in which we can express ourselves, and allows us to inspire the new generations of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. As with microorganisms, the whole of society needs to stick together, interact and positively feedback all its members. Just as microorganisms thrive and diversify the community under glaciers, LGBTQ+ people should be able to thrive and add balance to the scientific community. This is why we need to nurture, nourish, and celebrate diversity with days such as International Day of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer) People in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), especially in such politically divided and uncertain times. At the last EGU general assembly, a pride@EGU event was held which provided a meeting point for the LGBTQ+ community and allies (non-LGBTQ+ community members who support them). For more information about LGBTQ+ STEM day, please visit http://lgbtstemday.org.

At the last EGU general assembly, the pride@EGU event was well attended. Another event is being planned for the next general assembly in 2020 [Artwork/photo credit: Dr Stephanie Zihms].

Further reading

Edited by Jenny Turton


Dr Mario Toubes-Rodrigo is a post-doctoral research associate at the Open University, UK. Previously, he completed his PhD at the Manchester Metropolitan University. His research focuses on investigating microorganisms which inhabit extreme environments from the lowest layers of glaciers to sulphate-rich lakes, comparing their production of gases to those in the Martian Atmosphere. Mario is an active twitter user and goes by the handle: @micro_mario.

Image of the Week – Inspiring Girls!

Image of the Week – Inspiring Girls!

What, you may ask, are this group of 22 women doing standing around a fire-pit and what does this have to do with the EGU Cryosphere blog? This group of scientists, artists, teachers, and coaches gathered 2 weeks ago in Switzerland to learn how to become instructors on an Inspiring Girls Expedition. But what, you may ask again, is an Inspiring Girls Expedition? Well read on to find out more…


What is an Inspiring Girls Expedition?

In 1999 Glaciologist Erin Petit, Geographer Michele Koppes, and 5 high-school girls hiked out onto the South Cascade Glacier in Washington State. For the next week, this motley crew spent their time camped out on a glacier moraine, exploring the landscape and performing scientific experiments by day, and talking and listening to each others thoughts and stories by night – that was the birth of Girls on Ice.

Over the next 13 years, more expeditions took place and more instructors (scientists, artists and mountain guides) started to get involved. In 2012, a second Girls on Ice expedition was born in Alaska and, in the years since, there have been Girls on Ice expeditions in 4 different locations and in 2 different languages! The idea has expanded to other areas of wilderness expedition as well, with new projects starting up: Girls on Rock, Girls in Icy Fjords and Girls on Water – nowadays these expedition are collectively known as Inspiring Girls Expeditions!

But I haven’t really answered the question – what is an Inspiring Girls Expedition? It is a wilderness and science education program for high-school aged girls. Over the course of around 12 days, these girls get the chance to explore a wilderness setting, learn about scientific thinking, increase self-confidence, and push their physical and intellectual boundaries as part of a single-gendered team. And, importantly – it’s FREE – opening it up to girls who might not have the financial means to do something like this otherwise. Everyone who goes on the expedition from scientists to mountain guides and instructors is female, making this expedition pretty unique! I think the philosophy of Inspiring Girls is best described by their mission statement:

Our mission is to bring out your natural curiosity, inspire your interest in science, connect the arts and sciences, free you from gender roles, provide a less competitive atmosphere, and encourage trust in your physical abilities.

The workshop

I’ve been following the work of Girls on Ice for a while, so when I saw a chance to go on an instructor training course, I enthusiastically signed up! Over 4 days in June 2018, a group of women from at least 8 different countries got together in a hiking hut in Switzerland for an Inspiring Girls Instructor Workshop, hosted by Swiss Girls on Ice. We came from a broad range of backgrounds: glaciologists, climate scientists, biologists, artists, architects, professional coaches, teachers (I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!). We started off by learning more about the Inspiring Girls philosophy, what they expeditions aim to teach, and how they keep the girls safe and deal with any issues that might arise. Then came the thinking part for us…How do you teach in a wilderness setting? How to keep teenage girls engaged in what you are doing? What is a good leader? This gave us a lot of food for thought and we discussed a lot of these issues late into the evenings!

Then the fun part (although we all look rather serious in the pictures – below), working on ideas for new Inspiring Girls Expeditions (the current expeditions are often over-subscribed so there is certainly scope for more expeditions in more places) with the hope of inspiring more girls! So definitely watch this space for more expeditions coming to a mountain, cave or forest near you!

Figure 2: Workshop participants designing new Inspiring Girls Expeditions [Credit: Marijke Habermann]

It was a fantastic few days, with a fantastic bunch of women and I certainly came away feeling inspired myself!

I have to admit, this isn’t your usual Image of the Week blog post, however, I hope the relevance to scientists, science educators, and anyone else that follows the blog is clear! There is a need to show girls and young women that they have the potential to do what they want: be that a glaciologist, a mountain guide (both very much male dominated careers) or something entirely different! This type of expedition, in a single-gendered environment, is a very effective way to help build courage, confidence, and self-reliance!

This sounds cool – how can I get involved?

The team at Inspiring Girls are always looking for new people who are keen and enthusiastic about their project to get involved as volunteers, by donating a bit of cash or simply spreading the word about the expeditions – check their website to see how you can help out!

Edited by Clara Burgard