Museum Exhibit Celebrates Queerness In Science

10:30 minutes

A person looking at a big photo poster of queer scientists.
Credit: Gayle Laird © California Academy of Sciences.

Last year, the California Academy of Sciences debuted “New Science: The Academy Exhibit,” which celebrates 23 incredible LGBTQIA+ scientists. The folks in this exhibit are challenging the exclusionary practices that are all too common in scientific spaces, with the aim of creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment. It is a celebration of queerness in science.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with the curator of this exhibit, Lauren Esposito, who is a curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences and founder of 500 Queer Scientists, based in San Francisco. They discuss the exhibit, the importance of LGBTQIA+ representation in STEM, and, of course, arachnids. 

The exhibit is free and open to the public at the California Academy of Sciences, and it is also available online.

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Segment Guests

Lauren Esposito

Lauren Esposito is curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California, and is founder of 500 Queer Scientists.

Segment Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA: Last year, the California Academy of Sciences debuted New Science– The Academy Exhibit, which celebrates 23 incredible LGBTQIA+ scientists. The folks in this exhibit are challenging the exclusionary practices ubiquitous in scientific spaces and creating a better environment for everyone to participate in. It is truly a celebration of queerness in science.

Here to tell us more is the curator of this exhibit, Lauren Esposito. She’s also a curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences and founder of 500 Queer Scientists, based in San Francisco. Lauren, welcome back to Science Friday.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Hey, Maddie. How’s it going?

MADDIE SOFIA: It’s going. It’s going. I’m excited to talk about this exhibit.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: I love talking about this exhibit. One of my favorite topics, I would say.

MADDIE SOFIA: OK. So the exhibit was made in partnership with an organization you run, 500 Queer Scientists. First, tell me a little bit about 500 Queer Scientists.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: 500 Queer Scientists is a visibility campaign that was founded in 2018. The point of it, the goal of 500 Queer Scientists, is for people to be able to tell these first-person stories about not only their identities as incredible people working in science, but also being able to share that space with their queer and trans identities and really celebrate their identities within a professional context.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right, and the exhibit and 500 Queer Scientists are very much connected. So tell me a little bit about the exhibit, like what people will see when they check it out.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Sure, so the exhibit is in the spirit of 500 Queer Scientists, which is like these first-person stories, which I think is so, so important for people to be able to tell their own story in their own words. And what we’re attempting to do, and I think what we’ve been able to do with New Science, is really amplify the voices of queer and intersectional identities. And these are not only people who happen to be queer or happen to be scientists. They’re people that are really revolutionizing the way that science gets done.

And what you’d see walking into the public floor of the California Academy of Sciences is this panel of really beautiful portraits. In addition, what you’ll see is little snippets of information about them, telling their story in first person, so really highlighting who they are and what they do. And then lastly, what you’ll see is a QR code that takes you to a page that has tons of information about them, including videos where they’re telling their narrative and their story in first person, like short essays where they’ve written about themselves and why their queer identities have been so important to their own research and their own understanding of science in the world.

MADDIE SOFIA: Let’s talk more about that, because I think the unique thing is that the exhibit really portrays scientists as their full selves, like celebrating their identities as well as their work, how those are tied in. Why is it so important for scientists to be able to bring their full selves into a space?

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Well, I think that one thing that’s really clear within science professional contexts is that there’s this heteronormative culture that silences conversations about gender and sexuality. The effect of that is that people are not out professionally, that people stay in the closet, that people hide parts of their identity. And I think ultimately that’s really damaging for science itself, because it’s really this idea that science runs on innovation, right? And where you get innovation is through ideas, but it’s diversity that breeds ideas. So if you want people to be the greatest innovators, to really bring their best and full selves to tackle the challenges that we’re facing in this century, then we need people to be able to bring their full selves to work. And that includes making space for queer and trans identities in the fields of STEM.

MADDIE SOFIA: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, there’s just– everybody deserves to be who they are, right, and have that be accepted, full stop. But what you’re alluding to is this element that your identity can also really help inform your work in your science.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Absolutely. And I think that what many of these people say in their own narratives is that it is exactly their identity that’s caused them to ask questions in different ways, that’s caused them to really push the boundaries of their own fields in ways that have never been pushed before, and that that’s really an exciting way to progress as a scientific community. But also, I think what’s amazing about each of these 23 people is that they’re holding the door open. They’re envisioning a new version of science– which is where we got this title New Science– that is inclusive, that’s for everyone, where people are celebrated because of their identities, not in spite of them. And I think that that’s what’s exciting about the future for science.

MADDIE SOFIA: Absolutely. Absolutely. OK, I kind of want to talk about this and ground this in the present moment. I mean, as you’re well aware, there is an onslaught of anti-LGBT bills on the table, most targeting trans folks. I mean, what does it feel like to be talking about this exhibit in this present moment?

LAUREN ESPOSITO: I think it’s a scary moment. And I would say that the one thing about this exhibit is that all of these people hold intersectional identities. So we’re really centering people of color who also happen to be queer or trans or gender non-conforming. And so these people are being marginalized along multiple axes of their identity. They’re experiencing this marginalization not just because they’re queer, but because they have these other parts of their identity that make up their whole unique selves.

And I think that at this present point in time, the queer and trans community are more under attack than we’ve been for decades. Over 300 bills have been introduced at the state level that are anti-trans or anti-LGBTQ. And that’s an exponential rise. It’s an entire order of magnitude from where we were at in the entirety of 2018. I think in 2018, there were like under 50 bills introduced at the state level that were similar in substance.

And so it’s kind of terrifying. But I think it’s also exactly the moment where we should be forefronting identities, where we should be speaking out and saying, no, I’m here because you need me. You need my identity. You need my perspective, because we’re facing major challenges as a global community, as a nation. And my unique identity that I’m bringing to the table is important and needs to be heard. And I need to be able to be my whole self in order to bring those unique perspectives.

MADDIE SOFIA: I’m Maddie Sofia, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with Lauren Esposito, curator of a new exhibit celebrating queerness in STEM. Lauren, I’m wondering, what’s been the reaction to this exhibit? Because it’s fairly unique, I think.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: I think by and large, it’s been actually kind of amazing. And we are here. We’re in San Francisco, right? San Francisco is a super queer-friendly, queer-inclusive city. And yet this is the first exhibit focused on LGBTQ identities in science that’s ever been displayed in a science museum.

And so people are coming to San Francisco. Maybe they already live here. They’re visiting the public floor with their children as a queer family, and their children are seeing the representation of their parents or of themselves for the very first time in the context of science and understanding that there is a space for them, that it is possible for them to play a part.

And the feedback that we’ve been getting is just, like, thankfulness, people just really feeling appreciative of being able to see themselves included in the public floor of a science museum. Some aspect of their identity, whether that’s being a Black American or a Muslim American or a trans American, their identity is represented here. And the stories of other people are being told by the people themselves, which I think is a really important aspect of it.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right. You know, personally, I’m wondering, as somebody who’s worked so hard to increase visibility and support of LGBTQIA folks in science through this exhibit and 500 Queer Scientists, what does this feedback mean to you, Lauren?

LAUREN ESPOSITO: I think for me it’s really touching. I spoke recently at a university. And in this talk, I played a little video that we had created. And the story includes a number of the people that are featured in the exhibit telling a little bit about their story in their own words and why they think it’s so important to put on an exhibit like this. And a few of the people in the audience cried.

MADDIE SOFIA: Oh my gosh. That’s lovely.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: That was very– I was like, oh, I wasn’t– I wasn’t ready for it, you know what I mean?

MADDIE SOFIA: Normally different types of tears in scientific talks, so I like these.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Absolutely. Normally, there’s just people weeping because their hypothesis was just rejected. But in this case, it was people just crying kind of tears of joy, of being able to see their identities represented and valued.

MADDIE SOFIA: I love that. I love that. OK, so before I let you go, we have to say you are featured in this exhibit. You study arachnids– spiders, scorpions, that kind of stuff. Tell me a cool spider fact or a scorpion fact.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: I mean, first, I’m going to say it’s so embarrassing to me that I’m featured in this exhibit. But our advisory panel was like, we want you to be in it. And I was like, I feel weird about that. But at any rate, I am featured in the exhibit.

And OK, so I feel like every time I read anything about spiders or scorpions or arachnid facts from new research, I’m perpetually amazed. One of my favorite facts that I just learned recently is there’s a kind of little spider called a bolas spider. And they’re called that because they make a thread of silk, and at the end of this thread, they put, like, a glob of glue. And then they swing it around kind of like a lasso.

MADDIE SOFIA: [LAUGHS] Spiders are wild.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Spiders are so wild, right? And they, like, glob the glue onto, like, a moth flying by.


LAUREN ESPOSITO: But one of the things that they do is they secrete these chemical odors that mimic moth pheromones so that male moths out looking for mates smell the pheromones and are attracted to the spider. And then the spider whips its globby glue silk at it. So they’re false signaling to attract moth mates and then eating them.

MADDIE SOFIA: Wow. There is intent in the execution there.


MADDIE SOFIA: OK. That’s all the time we have. Lauren Esposito is a curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences and founder of 500 Queer Scientists. Lauren, thanks for being here. And happy Pride, by the way.

LAUREN ESPOSITO: Happy Pride. Thank you always, Maddie.

MADDIE SOFIA: If you’d like to visit the exhibit, it is open to the public at the California Academy of Sciences, or you can find it online and even download parts of the exhibit for free to share with your school or community center.

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