Non-binary people in STEM: Camelia Walker

Dr Camelia Walker provided vital modelling for Australia’s COVID-19 response. They talk about the joys of epidemiology research and the challenges of being a transgender nonbinary person in STEM.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw epidemiology hit the headlines as we pored over the latest case numbers and predictions of what might come next. 

Dr Camelia Walker is one of the experts responsible for those predictions. A mathematical epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, Camelia uses mathematical modelling and advanced statistical techniques to answer public health questions. 

But Camelia almost took a very different career path. ‘I was deciding between studying jazz or mathematics at university,’ they say. ‘I decided to keep music as a hobby and study a Bachelor of Mathematical Sciences, which saw me gain an interest in probability theory and statistics.’

After finishing their undergrad degree, Camelia received a masters scholarship to research statistical inference methods for infectious disease models. They followed this with an internship at the Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre before starting a PhD to develop inference and model selection methods for pandemic preparedness.

Camelia finished their PhD at the end of 2019. They were planning to take a bit of time off to think about their next career move, but 2020 had other plans. 

‘After COVID-19 emerged I was asked to be involved with modelling to inform the Australian Government’s response,’ Camelia says. ‘Over 2020 I worked as a research assistant with a group of modellers to perform a border risk assessment. This produced one of the reports which informed the government’s decision to close the international border.’

Australia’s COVID rates were relatively low at the end of 2020, so Camelia moved into their current role as a research fellow in malaria modelling. But as vaccines became available and Australia looked to reopen its borders, Camelia was drawn back into COVID-19 modelling. They were one of the lead authors of the Doherty Institute report into transitioning Australia's national COVID response and also investigated the impact of COVID-19 on remote First Nations communities.

Camelia now splits their time between malaria modelling and COVID-19 modelling, as well as supervising many postgraduate students. ‘An exciting aspect of my work is that I’ve been able to translate mathematical skills into real-world outcomes that have saved lives,’ they say. ‘I also find teaching and training the next generation of excellent and diverse scientists highly rewarding.’

‘I wear many hats, so sometimes my tasks are difficult to prioritise and give the time that they deserve. Many senior academics work more hours than a standard full-time position, so I have to consciously try to maintain a healthy work–life balance. But a great aspect of my job is that the hours are flexible and I’m usually able to work from home if I need to.’

Photo of Camelia Walker writing calculations on a whiteboard

Photo credit: Gavan Mitchell

The challenges of being transgender and nonbinary in STEM

Camelia also does a huge amount of work for diversity and inclusion in academia. As a transgender nonbinary person, they have experienced many of the issues that LGBTQIA+ people face in the STEM workplace. 

‘I see inequity and a difference of experience for transgender and gender-diverse staff and students in my workplace,’ they say. ‘For example, there aren’t many gender-neutral bathrooms. As a result, I have to walk to a different building to use the bathroom. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the bathroom is in high demand because it’s the only cubicle across multiple buildings for both people who need gender-neutral bathrooms and people with accessibility needs.’

‘Technology also works against many transgender people. University systems will often be tied to your ‘legal name’, which leads to people like me being ‘deadnamed’ (having their previous name revealed) to colleagues and students. I also have academic papers published under my old name, which can be difficult or impossible to have changed by some journals.’

‘My job also expects me to attend conferences in other locations. Going through the airport may involve being deadnamed or an encounter at the sex-based security scanners. But before all of that I need to consider whether being trans at the destination is safe or even legal.’

‘Transitioning in any workplace can be challenging and many universities don’t offer additional leave for gender affirmation. This leads to some people being at work while, for example, going through a second puberty. And in the current political climate, visibly transgender people often get harassed on the street, which can go on to impact their productivity and mood in the workplace.’

‘All of this means that I have had to take many days of leave, I have had to make calls for my own safety when it comes to conferences that my peers can go to, and I must take extra time out of each day to go to the bathroom.’

Camelia’s first-person understanding of these issues led them to become chair of the LGBTQIA+ committee in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science and co-chair of the volunteer group Queers in Science.

‘I spend a lot of time in these diversity and inclusion roles to improve the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ staff and students, as well and educate others,’ Camelia says. ‘These roles are important, and seeing others benefit from my efforts to improve facilities and culture is really rewarding.’

‘I have some great colleagues and mentors who have also had a lesser experience in the STEMM workplace, which has traditionally been dominated by cisgender men. They put me forward to apply for grants and other opportunities, and they help improve the workplace for transgender people so I don’t have to do it all myself.’

How to make things better

When it comes to improving diversity at work, Camelia’s advice to STEM organisations is to start with some self-reflection.

‘Is your representation of different marginalised groups lower than in the general population? And does the representation of those groups go down as seniority increases? If so, it’s likely that employment and promotion practices don’t account for biases, or people from those marginalised groups don’t want to stay in that workplace. In either case, those inequities ought to be fixed.’

That could involve broadening the scope of current equity work in STEM. ‘There are positions and opportunities that aim to improve equity for cisgender women, which are really important for addressing this systemic issue across the sector,’ Camelia says. ‘But there are also measurable differences of experience for LGBTQIA+ (particularly transgender) people, disabled people, and culturally and linguistically diverse people. However, very few workplaces have measures and opportunities that aim to correct these other kinds of inequities.’

But it’s also important not to expect members of minority groups to solve all the problems. ‘Where marginalised groups are left to advocate for themselves, they are less productive in their other work when compared to their colleagues,’ Camelia says. ‘Workplaces should appreciate that people from underrepresented groups might not want to do any work in the diversity and inclusion space when they could work on other things instead’

‘Workplaces can instead use external resources to inform changes and check in with the employees these changes affect. Many questions can even be answered by Google searches.’

Despite the change still needed across the sector, Camelia thinks people from underrepresented groups should make the leap into STEM. ‘Do it,’ Camelia says. ‘The work is exciting, and you can really make huge impacts on the world in a STEM career. Find and connect with your community if that helps you, and make sure to surround yourself with colleagues that are respectful and supportive.’

‘But also learn to say ‘no’. You do not have to fix all the cultural and systemic issues or educate people in your workplace. Prioritise your health and wellbeing – it’s your life, and you’re in the driver’s seat.’