When you have specific identities, engaging in a career in STEM can be difficult. Sadly, this is the case if you identify as intersex. However, what can we learn from those who are intersex to address their specific barriers? Joining Craig Poku (he/they) is Claudia Astorino (she/they), where she’ll talk about her career in STEM as someone who is intersex, the challenges she’s faced personally, and what we can learn to address barriers as a community. 

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00:00:04 Craig               Hi, I’m Dr Craig Poku, and you’re listening to the Pride in Stem podcast, a series that explores the different barriers faced by members of the LGBTQIA+ community, as scientists, we are always taught that numbers and objectivity are the solutions to address problems faced by society. However, story-telling is just as important, especially when it comes to assuring equality for marginalized communities. Through this series, I hope that you, the listener, will come away with a new insight into what these barriers are, and discover pragmatic ways to help us overcome them. In today’s episode, I’ll be talking with Claudia Astorino about what it’s like to work in STEM whilst being intersex. When working in STEM, it’s quite common to find that your needs are not met when you do not fit the convention. Sadly, this is strongly the case when you are intersex. Here we spoke about Claudia’s career journey, engaging with the US healthcare system as an intersex person, and what she’s learned from her experience. The beauty of working form home, and us being in a pandemic, while us coming out of a pandemic eventually, is that people now realize that video calls are a thing. And so, that means we can also invite guests overseas, which…where are you based in the states at the moment?

00:01:12 Claudia          So, I live in the Boston area right now.

00:01:21 Craig               Okay, so Boston is one of the places that I’ve been meaning to go to. I haven’t gotten around to doing it. I wanted to do it, I think it was, funnily enough, May of 2020, but we’re fully aware of what happened during that time.

00:01:35 Claudia          Yeah, I guess you didn’t make it.

00:01:36 Craig               I definitely did not make it there. Let’s, I guess, start the interview. So, Claudia, could you start off by just giving an introduction about yourself?

00:01:45 Claudia          Yeah, sure, so…I am a PhD candidate at the City University of New York, the Graduate Centre. I’m part of a bigger graduate training program called Nicep 00:02:03. It’s the New York consortium for Evolutionary Primatology. So it’s a lot of people that study humans, recent human ancestors, and our closest living relatives, the primates. Studying the morphology, genetics, behaviour, lots of stuff. And it’s multi-institutional. So it includes the grad centre, NYU, the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia, it’s associated with other stuff like the Conversation Society…yeah, lots of stuff. So it’s a really cool program. But I am actually getting my degree conferred from the graduate centre of City University of New York.

00:02:48 Craig               Okay, what got you into biological anthropology? Because I, on record, have stated that I failed human biology, and when you mention biological anthropology, it makes me feel like there’s a bit of science, but I’m not entirely sure what it is.

00:03:03 Claudia          Well, I think when people think of anthropology, I think they tend to think of more cultural anthropology, where your…looking at differences among different cultures of people. But biological anthropology—not that you can’t be looking at that, and considering cultural differences—but biological anthropology is really the study of humans, our recent ancestors, and our closest relatives the primates from a biological and an evolutionary perspective. So we are interested in bodies, the genetics, the behaviour of humans, our ancestors, and primates within the context of evolution, how we’ve changed over time, why we have the traits that we have, how they differ among different species, or groups of primates, humans, fossil hominids.

00:04:06 Craig               Nice, and I guess my second question to that is, how do you end up going from a kid who was interested in the natural world, then going biological anthropology, which, again, sounds quite relevant to a lot of, like, you know, human society and way in which you sort of like view life. How did you go from A to B, I’m most curious, because I’m a mathematician by trade…that looks at data in air quality, so…yes.

00:04:38 Claudia          Yeah…well, I mean, like a lot of kids, I was really obsessed with dinosaurs and palaeontology as a kid. I mean, every kid that grew up in, like, the eighties and nineties I feel like at least knew someone that had, like, forty little plastic dinosaurs.

00:04:59 Craig               I am not commenting on that, because I am guilty of this whatsoever.

00:05:04 Claudia          Oh yeah, I was absolutely that kid. And I was friends with a bunch of kids who were like really into that. Yeah, so I was really interested in that, but I was interested in that natural world in other senses too. I really liked being outside as a kid. I remember, it feels actually kind of mean now that I’m thinking about it, but they had one of those, like, playschool or whatever bug collecting sets, where you could pick up a bug from outside in these little plastic tweezers. And then put them in, like, it was a little cabinet drawer of plastic stuff. I know, super mean, right, as a kid….

00:05:45 Craig               The good thing about this being audio podcast as opposed to a visual podcast, is the audience is not going to be, like, witnessing my face going, “Haaaawww”, the whole time. So imagine….

00:05:56 Claudia          Your face scandalized. I know, my mom was like, “Yeah, punch some holes in the jars you’re putting these bugs in kid”, and I was like, “Oh, right, okay, that’s fine.” I remember collecting newts, holding frogs, just interested in living things. And…honestly I think a lot of the reason I became interested in science as a possible thing I wanted to do a bunch of in my life was because of intersex.

00:06:30 Craig               So what, so that was one of the questions I had to ask, is what do you mean by intersex, because I remember being back at school, again, human biology where we were told that you have XX or XY, i.e. you’re either male or female. Those were the two things that I remember being told, like that is the only sex. What does intersex actually mean?

00:06:54 Claudia          So, intersex people, or living things, because it’s not just people that are intersex, there are lots of different species of living things that can be intersex. But the individuals of whatever species are intersex are those that have a combination of traits that are considered male, traits that are considered female, and sometimes additional traits that aren’t typical for typical male or females, all in the same body. So this is pretty different from I think a lot of perceptions of, or stereotypes, of what intersex has been conceived of in the past. And so, I think a lot of people confuse intersex with hermaphrodites.

00:07:48 Craig               What does hermaphrodites mean?

00:07:50 Claudia          Yeah, so a hermaphrodite is an animal that has two fully functional sex organs, wither at the same time in their body, or that they switch from one to another during their life cycle. Yeah, so humans don’t qualify as hermaphrodites, so we don’t have fully functional sets, two of them, that are functional, either at the same time. And we don’t switch from one to the other for reasons during our life cycle. So human aren’t hermaphrodites. Although, this was a word that was commonly used much more so in the past, I don’t really hear that much today, to describe people who were difficult to clearly categorize as male of female.

00:08:45 Craig               Did you find that there are barriers for people who are intersex, who want to engage with in STEM? And, more specifically, did you find that any of those barriers impacted your journey to where you are now?

00:08:59 Claudia          Well, I wouldn’t say, I mean, most of the barriers I faced was receiving unwanted medical treatment that actually had nothing to do with my health. They were just, essentially they were just trying to make sure my body looked and functioned normally enough, so that my future husband, apparently, would be, like, okay with it. Like that was the goal. Which backfired for so many reasons. But, yeah, it’s one of those things where, when you’re intersex. So I found out that my body was different from the age of eight. I wasn’t directly told I was intersex when I was eight…I was taken to, like, a really big fancy hospital, and was, like, “Okay, this is different.” And I was informed that I was born without a uterus, and I was like, “What’s with all the pomp and circumstance, like, couldn’t my paediatrician have told me that.” Like that’s not that big of a deal. And they were like, “Okay, you won’t be able to have your period of have kids”, and I was like, “Great, this is perfect, I love this news.” Like, I was like, “That’s excellent, my body is the best.” Because I had never wanted to have kids. Like, I never played games where I, like, had a baby as a kid…and, like, what I knew from periods is that they hurt, from my mom. And I was like, “Well, if I can avoid that, that seems great.” So I was just like thrilled with the whole thing. But I found out later that there were reasons why I didn’t have a uterus. That it wasn’t just, like, that it was more complicated than that. And…when I was…I remember being fourteen and my mom says I’m sixteen, I still don’t know the actual answer. But I was told, like, “Okay, the reason you don’t have a uterus is because you’re intersex, you were born with XY chromosomes, you were born with testes which were removed like really shortly after I was born.” I would say I was about a year old. And in every other way my body developed a lot like a female developmental track…. And yeah, it was really confusing. But most of the barriers I faced was feeling just really isolated and alone. But they tell you from a young age not to talk about it. That this is private, that if you tell other people, and they find out, like, you will be made fun of. Like, it will not be good for you, like people will see you as different. And, like, only bad things can come from that. So it’s like you’re carrying this secret, and essentially, even though they’re not saying this, you’re made to feel like the secret is you’re a freak and you can’t tell anyone. That’s hard.

00:12:25 Craig               Firstly, thank you for sharing that. What’s really terrifying about that as well, because when we think about science, one of the things that they always go on about is this idea of diversity of thought. And in order for you to have diversity of thought, you need to have people of, literally, all walks of diversity. But from what you’ve told me there, because they’ve essentially seen you as an outsider, and in your words, “A freak”, that means that you’re not able to celebrate the bits of you that make you, which in turns means that when you enter science, you’re already then conforming to what society or what the academy wants you to do.

00:13:13 Claudia          Well, I think that’s why I really go interested in biology, because, on the one hand, you’re sitting in classes, and they’re talking about, like punnet squares. And I’ve sat in on statistics classes where they talk about, like, categorical variables.

00:13:30 Craig               Can you explain what categorical variables are?

00:13:34 Claudia          Yeah, when they’re talking about different kinds of variables that you will encounter in statistics…one of the kinds is a categorical variable where…a…individual or an observation will fit into one category or another. And, like, the quintessential example that is used in classes, and in textbooks is sex. Sex is a categorical variable. You are either male or female, and that’s it. And I’m like sitting in the class trying not to get stinkeye, because I’m like, “Okay, but it is actually a little more complicated than that.”

00:14:13 Craig               Yeah, it’s a bit like when…the argument used to be you have night and day, and that was the one that I remember back in statistics class, but you never talk about the transition periods between day and night. And, yeah, because when you try to fit things into a binary, and you have something that fits slightly outside of that binary, then everyone either, one, freaks out, or, two, they go, “Oh no, we need to try and make that thing fit”, and that’s not how human bodies work.

00:14:49 Claudia          Absolutely, like it’s a very human thing to want to put things into categories and simplify stuff, so you can understand them. So I understand that, but at the same time, like when you yourself are part of a category that is said not to exist, it is kind of like…you can only hear, like, “Oh well, you know, those people are exceptions or outliers”, so many times before you’re like, “Okay, but, you know, is that good enough?” I think at a certain point I think you have to look at the rule you created and say, like, “Does this rule actually hold water? Does it make sense?” Because if it doesn’t really capture all this variation, is the problem that real people and real biology doesn’t fit into these categories you’ve created? Or is maybe it’s the categories that are the problem. And we need to re-evaluate the categories.

00:16:00 Craig               And I think, and the reality is is that when the categories are being based on what people are seeming as normal. So if you are looking at the fact that we live in a white, cis, patriarchal society, those categories have really been devised. And so, from a power dynamic, they don’t necessarily want to go against these categories. And so, anything that is seen as outside of that category, they will just go, “Well, we’re just going to brush that off to the side.” But I guess for me what’s quite reliving is the fact that your…discovery of you being intersex has allowed you to shape the research that you’ve done. So could you tell me a little bit how you now, I guess, taken that into the work that you’re doing now?

00:16:55 Claudia          Yeah, so I mean, yeah, my interest in biology really started as an opportunity to understand why I was different and what that meant. Initially when I went to…university, I guess…I studied mostly like molecular and cellular biology and genetics. And part of that was because I thought it was cool. But another part of me also knew that genetics had something to do with why I was different. Like, I have XY chromosomes, but I knew that I was more that just, like, you know the big chromosomes that I had, that there were alleles for genes that I had that resulted in me being me. I wanted to try to understand that better. So part of it was, “I like this, and think I could see myself doing that as a career.” And part of it was, “I just want to understand why I am the way that I am.” Eventually going through…I realised that I was really drawn to evolutionary questions. And I sort of remembered, like, “Oh yeah”, like being really obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid, and all this other stuff, and being, like, “Oh, it makes sense that I’m interested in this.” But I think maybe in part because of intersex I was interested in human diversity. But I was also, again, always loving palaeontology. I was really interested in our recent fossil ancestors, and why humans are the way that we are. So…biological anthropology was the field that best fit the kind of stuff that I was really interested in. And so, I went to grad school for that.

00:18:59 Craig               You were able to use the parts of your identity that society deemed as abnormal. And then actually been able to push the field in a way where your identity is going to be seen as a massive credit. Have you found that the lack of representation of intersex people within your field has effected your personal journey, or your field of biological anthropology as a whole?

00:19:23 Claudia          Well, in terms of my personal journey, yes and no. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. I mean, intersex people, the fact that we exist, and, like, what that means, is much more on people’s radar now that it was, like, ten years ago. And certainly way more than when I was a kid just learning all of this. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword, because on the one hand, if people don’t know that you and people like you exist, they’re not going to overtly discriminate against you. Because it’s not even a thing that is on their radar. But at the same time, if no one knows that you exist, that is extremely lonely. And this obviously influences the way that I think about science, and, like, what I do. One of the things that…I do, that my dissertation is focused on is looking at sex differences in the human skull across populations and age groups. And do I genuinely think that’s just a cool topic? Yes, I do. But was I drawn to looking at sex differences because of my own history of identity? For sure. And to feel like you can’t talk about a lot of the nuances that you’re thinking about because you know things about intersex people and that they exist. It can feel really lonely to have this part of how you view the world, and a lens through which you look at your research, and feel like you can’t talk about that.

00:21:15 Craig               The double-edged sword aspect that you’ve mentioned, I think is so important here. Have you found that because you are physically intersex that the reception to people who may think that they’re intersex, based on their own biological history, has increased in the work that you’re doing?

00:21:34 Claudia          Not in the work that I’m doing necessarily. But as a caveat I’m not doing research directly on intersex people. At least not, like, meeting with people that are intersex. I’m interested in looking at how intersex biology fits in with what we think we know about variation in sex traits. But I don’t, like, interact with other intersex people for my scientific work. So not professionally in that way, but, yes, I’ve definitely gotten emails from people being like, “Hey, like, I, you know, read something you wrote or heard you talk at something and have been wondering if maybe I’m also intersex.” That is a thing that does happen. It’s weird, because on the one hand society in general doesn’t want to really admit that there are people outside of the typical ways that we think that males bodies are set up, and female bodies are set up. And then there’s also this feeling that if you have a biological difference, it someone, the reasons that you’re different, it validates it. So I’ve had people contact me sometimes talking about things, but they’re just like, “I’ve always felt different from a young age”, and it’s like, okay, maybe that means that you’re queer or maybe that means that you don’t have, like, necessarily a binary gender. Or maybe you’re trans or other things like that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re intersex. Like, feeling different isn’t the same as being born with a combination of traits. But I think there’s this idea that if you can point to a physical difference that it somehow validates it. I think that even though intersex is really stigmatized, people think like, “Oh, but there are biological things that you can point to, like if I had something like that it might make me feel more valid, that maybe I feel like I’m non-normative in terms of, like, sexual orientation or gender identity.” So I have had people contact me for that reason. And I’ve also had people contact me and they’re like, “Hey, I’m intersex, I’m out to everyone including my work colleagues and stuff, and it’s really cool to meet another intersex person in STEM.”

00:24:37 Craig               Yeah, and I think that idea of not feeling alone is quite a comforting feeling. I’ve definitely found with my marginalized identities that having people who’ve got similar marginalized identities makes me go, “I’m not the only person that’s feeling that. And I feel that if society at large, in the education system at large allows us to not exist in that binary. Then the stigmatization against intersex people would not be the same. And I feel that if I know there are some people who are looking at doing that in terms of educational materials, primarily from people in the states. I wonder what you feel would be some of the solutions kind of, I guess, address the barriers that are faced by intersex people, both within their personal lives as well as their careers within STEM?

00:25:32 Claudia          I mean, if more physicians committed to, you know, stop performing surgeries and other medical treatments that…are not actually tracking health. And that are performed with our consent. Let us decide what we want our bodies to be and do. Give us control of bodily autonomy. And I think professionally it is a very strange thing to be in a room full of people who [laughs] at least at biological anthropology…there are people who spend their entire careers arguing that because a bone has this bump or that bump that they should be this species and not the other one, right. And so, to be sitting there and being like, “Okay, that’s cool, but we can’t even talk about the fact that there are more than just, like, men and women biologically, that there’s other ways that you can be set up.” We can acknowledge that there’s variation in certain things, but stuff that’s about, you know, sex and gender, like, that makes me feel weird to talk about that there might be more variation than just typical men and women. So, no, sex is binary, like I can’t handle it. Which is ultimately not scientific, and also unhelpful for people that are, like, me, who are like, “Okay, but I’m sitting right here.”

00:27:15 Craig               Before we end this chat, I just want to ask, like, where can people find you, and are there any projects, or anything that you’re sort of working on?

00:27:25 Claudia          Yeah, so, I have a website, cnasterino.com… where I talk about research and advocacy that I have done and am doing. I am also active on Twitter, @claudistics. Yeah, that’s pretty much where you can find me. Other things that I’ve done are mainly in those two places.

00:28:00 Craig               So do not worry if you want to follow Claudia after this, all of the details will be in the [inaudible 00:28:03]. So, with that in mind, thanks for the chat, and hope you have a lovely day.

00:28:11 Claudia          Oh, that was to me, I thought you were talking to your listeners. Okay, thank you! [laughter]

00:28:19 Craig               Let’s just do that end bit again. Claudia, thank you so much for joining me to have this really important chat.

00:28:22 Claudia          Thank you so much.

00:28:27 Craig               I would also like to thank Pride in STEM for providing us with the space for having these conversations, as well as to our lovely production team, Matthew Young, Alfredo Carpineti, Eshvani Dabe, who have been brilliant in putting this podcast together and making it come to life. If you can, please rate your podcast wherever you get your podcasts. And finally, if you would like to find out more about Pride in STEM and the work that we do as an organization, you can follow us @prideinstem in both Twitter and Instagram. I’m your host Dr Craig Poku, and I hope to see you soon.