Celebrating Pride Month: an interview with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

07 June 2021

This month, we interviewed Dr. Alfredo Carpineti, Founder of Pride in STEM, an astrophysicist, activist, and science journalist.

He spoke to us about how the idea for Pride in STEM came about and what it was like to set up LGBTQ+ STEM Day, and he shares his advice for students who want to get involved in STEM.  

Please introduce yourself to our audience!

Hi, I'm Alfredo, my pronouns are he/him. I am an astrophysicist, a science journalist, and a social activist.

Five years ago, I founded Pride in STEM, which is now the largest charitable trust in the UK focusing on supporting and showcasing the work of LGBTQ+ people in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

Can you tell me about your journey in STEM from school to now?

I've always been quite passionate about science from a very young age. I was always doing experiments and trying to understand things. I was lucky that my parents were very encouraging. They provided me with books and would take me to museums. I first realised that I wanted to be in astronomy when I was around 10 and my parents got me a telescope and it was the only thing I could think about.

Since I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from quite a young age, I picked the subjects in school that would help me get there. During high school, I realised that I didn't just enjoy looking at things in the cosmos but I also wanted to understand how they worked. I wanted to see the wizard behind the curtain, so I started studying astrophysics more and became very, very passionate about it. I went to university in Italy to study physics and astrophysics. From there, I moved to the UK to do a Master’s.

At that point, as much as I still loved astrophysics and I wanted to eventually go into it professionally, I decided to study theoretical physics for my Master’s because I thought, maybe I am limiting myself. I wanted to see the rest of the little field and I really enjoyed it, but I also realised how much of theoretical physics was beyond my skill set in terms of maths and even just some concepts. So I went back to my first love, and did a PhD in astrophysics at Imperial College London on galaxy collisions.

What was your experience like when in school? Did you get encouragement from your teachers or peers to study a STEM subject?

Definitely! The teachers I had encouraged me and they could see that I was passionate about it. I was always the person that put their hand up and asked lots of questions. However, I think the biggest encouragement came from my family. My family has always been supportive of me wanting to be in science, despite my parents not having university degrees. They were always 100% behind me in all my endeavours. I think that made quite a difference.

What difficulties or barriers did you face going through university and school and what do you want to see changed?

I personally have experienced very few barriers and I put it down to my privilege. I am a white man, after all, and have the support of my family and my friends. This meant the instances of discrimination I faced were occasions where I was able to be strong-headed and put my foot down on the issue; I could easily stand up for myself without worry and say what I needed to. That it's not something that everyone can do, and it comes from knowing that no matter what the other person might say, I had a support network that would 100% have my back, and not many people have this.

What I would like to see in STEM, and in computer science in particular, is a broad change in the way we perceive who belongs in this discipline and what they look like.

We need to understand that the ease of access to this discipline often comes from people that have the opportunities. I started using a computer in the early nineties. I was the first of all my friends to have a computer because my parents had a little supermarket and that meant they could get one.

This computer had Windows 3.1 and while I didn’t have an internet connection or a printer, I could use Microsoft Paint and MS-DOS and try to do things and learn things; this shaped me because, when the internet arrived, I knew so much as I was fortunate enough to have access to a computer from very early on.

So there are barriers that are overtly discriminatory like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and ableism still in universities, and these need to be stamped out at the widest possible level.

However, there are also subtle things that we don't pay attention to much: kids from these underrepresented groups, do they have the same access to computers? Are they being encouraged from an early age to get into computer science? Are girls encouraged in the same way as boys? Do they see role models? When young LGBTQ+ kids look at people in computer science, are they going to see an LGBTQ+ person?

So when we add all of this to the possibilities of identities, we see that there are major barriers, but also tiny little barriers that underrepresented groups need to break through, just by sheer force of will, to achieve a career in STEM. And I think this is why the work we do with Pride in STEM and so many other organisations is important, just to say to these kids, “Look, here are role models. Here are some resources. You are not alone.”

All these people managed to do it. There is still work to be done to make it easier. But you can do it. And we're here to help you to achieve your potential.

What inspired you to set up Pride in STEM?

It didn't start with any grand plan, I have to admit that. In the beginning, we were a group of people from STEM, looking to march in Pride London. This was back in 2016, and when we set it up, we started getting messages from people asking for advice and asking for resources. We thought to ourselves this was not our intention, but we were fortunate enough to be able to help those people. We were all people that had been involved in LGBTQ+ activism in university, so we were able to easily get contacts and put together something to send to people. As the volume of these messages kept increasing, we realised, OK, there is clearly something missing in the landscape and we could be that thing.

From there, we applied to become a charitable trust so we could have a formal structure and we can have formal goals on what to do and how we can help people, because we didn't want to overpromise and we wanted to be accountable and useful. We understood that there was a lot to do, but we were told that if we could find some aspect of it and do it well, then we would be making the world a better place.

What achievements are you most proud of so far?  

That would have to be starting International Day for LGBTQ+ people in STEM, which is 18 November. I was contacted by a few groups that wanted to start a day of celebration, but none of them had any experience with this and they weren't sure how to do it. They thought I could spearhead this initiative, and we took it very much on board.

We think it's very important as a day to simply focus our activities and raise awareness, and my hope is that one day it will be community-led. It will take a few more years, but it's good to see that so many organisations are just completely welcoming of the idea and are taking part in the event in a serious and joyous manner.

As you said, LGBTQ+ STEM Day is 18 November — can you tell me what it was like to set up a day that is dedicated to what you do?

It was a lot of emailing! The first thought for me was the only way this will happen is if we have some critical mass, if we have other organisations and people that just decide, hey, this is the day and we are going to celebrate it.

I think, over the first month while we were deciding the date and starting planning, I sent around 500 emails. Well, I got six replies. But they were six good replies. The important thing is that we got replies from some of the best laboratories and some of the largest education societies in the world, those contacts were key. When we launched, we announced there was going to be this date, then suddenly a lot of people and businesses who did not reply to my first email got in touch, saying, “Hey, we'd like to be involved”. And it's been growing ever since.

What is fascinating is that there are some organisations that never replied to me but they are celebrating it with events and messages of support. This is exactly what I wanted for LGBTQ+ STEM Day, I want it to be something that's natural, organic, and grows by itself.

It’s wonderful seeing that so many people all around the world are now embracing it.

What steps can companies take to create safe and inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ+ staff?

I would say the first step is always to talk to your LGBTQ+ employees about how to improve the company. And if you don't have LGBTQ+ employees, you might wonder, why not?

You need to create a company in which people are comfortable being out if they want to be. But again, you can then wonder, OK, why are we not attracting LGBTQ+ people?

Companies need to consider what they are putting out into the world, from social media, to your websites, to whatever kind of image you are transmitting. Are people seeing it as a place where it would be fun, safe, and a place where they could be 100% themselves? That is the key.

What advice would you give to students who are LGBTQ+ and who want to get into computer science/STEM?

Do it! I can tell you this, you should do it and while there are barriers, there are barriers everywhere. There are things that could and might upset you, but there is an enormous community of LGBTQ+ people in STEM and in computer science, and we are there for you.

You are not going through this alone. And look online, it's not just Pride in STEM: there are so many organisations that are doing wonderful things and connecting people.

If the only thing that is stopping you from getting into computer science is your identity, consider that it is not at all something that would stop you being successful in your career. And again, I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say it's all rainbows and unicorns, but we are working to knock down those barriers and we probably need you to help us along the way.

So if you want to do it, we're here for you and just do it!

And lastly, what are your hopes for the future of STEM and computer science?
I hope that we can change the entire system. I have a very big — maybe utopian — hope, but I think an overhaul of the system is not only necessary, but something that we should welcome. We need to start considering that the system is not perfect and immutable, but it is made by humans and often fails people. It would be silly to change people. What we need to do is to change the system, to make the system work better for all people. So my hope is that the people that have the power to make changes actually take on the challenge, and sit down and listen to the people that are asking for the changes, and then make them happen.

Thank you, Dr. Carpineti!