Queer Atlantic Canadian STEMist - Stephen Finnis


Name: Stephen Finnis

How do you Identify: Gay


Current Job: MSc. student

Scientific Field/Discipline: Oceanography

Affiliation: Dalhousie University

Tell Us about yourself:

I am a master’s student in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University. My interests outside of research include biking, hiking, arts and crafts, and 90s pop divas.

Tell us about your work

Fish farms have been proposed as an alternative to commercial fishing to supply protein for the world’s population. My work looks at the environmental impacts of wastes from these farms in coastal settings. Specifically, how far they spread, how long they persist in the marine environment, and what are the most effective indicators for tracking these wastes. My research is supported by a Nova Scotia Graduate Scholarship and an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship.

How is your work informed by your identity as an LGBTQ+ person?

It can be hard to tease apart different aspects of your personality and attribute behaviors to one specific trait. Broadly, being gay has affected how I function, both good and bad. I was born and raised in a conservative small town in BC, which in many ways was an amazing place to grow up. However, it was quite close-minded towards sexuality and gender expression. To get through, I learned to block out these criticisms and ultimately this became a skill that has made me a better researcher and academic. I became focused, driven, and good at short- and long-term goal setting. This has also made me more guarded as a person. Not caring what people think brings its own challenges including a sense of disconnection and disengagement. Throughout my life I have fluctuated between these two extremes of caring too much about what people think to caring too little. Many LGBTQ+ people have to navigate this balance on their own in their childhood and often into adulthood. Science requires both collaborative and independent work, and things like your interests, working style, and how you interact with others are all shaped by your background. It is exciting to see platforms such as QAtCanSTEM which brings together a community of LGBTQ+ researchers with shared experiences and sense of understanding.

Who are your LGBTQ+ role models?

I wouldn’t say I have any specific LGBTQ+ role models that I try to emulate directly. I think with each LGBTQ+ individual I meet, I gain a sense of reassurance and validation, and they are a collective source of inspiration that I draw from at different times in my life.

Where do you see yourself in 5 - 10 years?

These days I find it hard to plan 5-10 days into the future, let alone 5-10 years. I don’t have any specific goals set in stone and like everyone, I am finding it difficult to navigate the uncertainties of this new COVID world. A vague but stable goal is that I end up in a career that challenges and values me. I would also love to have a dog.

What would you like to change about Academia (or equivalent) to make it more welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks?

I think there needs to be a readjustment and rebalance of bottom-up and top-down EDI initiatives in STEM. There is often an intense focus on the recruitment of undergrads, but typically, the larger issue is the promotion and retention of minority individuals within the higher levels of academia. I think it is slowly changing, but survivorship bias is real, and we need to listen and acknowledge why many choose to leave. From my own experience, I entered my undergrad with a general interest in science, but no particular draw to one field over another. Over time I noticed there were subdisciplines that were less welcoming that I gradually steered away from. I worry there has been an enormous loss of talent where people have realized they can have equally fulfilling careers completely outside of STEM without this (real or perceived) hostility.

Any other comments?

I have found there is an entrenched view that STEM is a meritocracy, where sexuality and gender expression do not and should not matter. As a result, people are generally very quiet about these issues. I have been in many environments where my sexuality is embraced and has truly been a non-issue. Other times, people say they are okay with it but are clearly uncomfortable around even the slightest sense of flamboyance. A lot of work still needs to be done where we move from learning to say the right things to actually addressing these internalized biases. Also, many LGBTQ+ people still carry a large amount of shame which requires time and attention to work through. I hope we address these problems externally and internally to avoid burnout and have rewarding careers.