Dr Alfredo Carpineti is an impressive multi-hyphenate. Astrophysicist, co-founder of LGBTQ+ charitable trust Pride in STEM, creator and host of both his own podcast – The Astroholic Explains – and the IFLScience The Big Questions podcast, consultant on LGBTQ+ inclusivity at institutes around the world, and of course, IFLScience’s very own Senior Science Writer. If you’ve watched any of our IG Live interviews you will have seen him in action.
For LGBTQ+ History month in the UK (yes, IFLScience is based in the UK), we talk to Alfredo about his work for the LGBTQ+ community in STEM, having been recognized by Attitude Magazine as one of the 101 LGBTQ+ Trailblazers in 2020, as well as the advice he may have for those who want to follow in his footsteps, and how easy it is to make the journal PNAS sound NSFW if you’re Italian…
Introduce yourself, what do you do?
I am the Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent for IFLScience as well as being the chair and founder of Pride in STEM, an award-nominated charitable trust working to showcase and support the work of LGBTQIA+ people in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics.
Imagine you meet yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
Trying my best to be a mixture of Piero Angela and Margherita Hack, who were, respectively, the most notable science communicator and astronomer in Italy when I was growing up. I write articles (almost 4,000 just for IFLScience), give talks, record videos and podcasts, and even invent astronomy-based cocktails and mocktails to share interesting research and simplify difficult concepts.
In the alternative timeline where I’m meeting my younger self, I think teenage Alfredo would also be amazed to meet a gay scientist. In the prime universe, I did not meet one until I was well into my twenties.
What did it take to get here?
It is undeniable that I have been very fortunate. For my whole life, I have had the support and love of my family in all my academic decisions, which took me to London twice, first to do a year abroad during my Bachelor's Degree in Physics and Astrophysics and then a master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces and a PhD in Astrophysics, both at Imperial College London. It was there that my interest in talking about science was rekindled and I was able to build a set of skills in communication that eventually got me to this job at IFLScience.
For Pride in STEM, we did not start the group with any grand plan to make an impact. We were just a group of friends. But it became obvious that there was a need for such an association to help share information, provide support, and push for change. It’s definitely been a lot of hard work but again I am privileged enough to have the free time that I can dedicate to this cause.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
A common misconception in science journalism, I believe, is that it is a solo endeavor. Sure my byline is mine on the article but my work is enhanced 100-fold thanks to our copy editors that make sure that I’ve written everything in the best and most accessible way.
When it comes to the work done by Pride in STEM, the pervasive idea that discussing stuff like gender and sexuality (but also race, disability, etc) takes away from The Science. Nothing could be further from the truth. People are always fascinated to learn more about the people behind the science (the popularity of this series is a testament to that) and everyone ought to be able to be, if they want, their true self in their workplace.
Funniest moment on the job?
Among the many hate mail I have received as a journalist at a company whose platform means hundreds of thousands of people read my articles, there was one objecting to my declaration that Earth is not flat who called me a “hardcore space dork”, and I had to admit that the anonymous hater was 100 percent right. I got my husband to design a T-shirt with that on.
Proudest achievement in your line of work?
I think my article on the first photograph of a supermassive black hole back in 2019 will always have a special place in my heart. Our Managing Editor Katy and I worked on the story as I was sat on a plane to a conference in the US. So, the excitement of this incredible achievement and the rush to write the article as quickly as possible before take-off was exhilarating. When I saw that spectacular image I started crying from both joy and relief of having delivered the article in time. The people sitting next to me were a bit confused but I did give them a brief explainer about the discovery. I never waste a chance to talk about space.
[Jumping in to add, something I think Alfredo should be incredibly proud of is creating fascinating, fun, and, vitally, easily understandable articles on subjects that range from black holes to quantum mechanics — all in a second language. They aren't always easy to communicate in a first language! - Ed Katy]
I am beyond proud that Pride in STEM is one of the organizations that started the International Day of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM, celebrated on November 18. This was marked on every continent this year (yes, even Antarctica), by astronauts, by the White House. It's just another small step in the fight to make science for everyone, but I’m proud to have been behind that one.
Any memorable missteps/hairiest moment on the job?
Picture this: London 2015, probably just a few weeks on the job and my double curse of being a scientist and Italian struck. You see, scientists turn everything into an acronym, and these acronyms are often muddled in my accent as I don’t spell the letters out but just treat it as a word. And I would argue that it mostly works. You don’t say the “En-A-Es-A” to mean NASA.
In an editorial meeting, I was discussing an interesting paper I had read in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Its acronym is PNAS. Can you see where this is going? Of course, I said that as penis! A valuable lesson in spelling acronyms from that day forward.
Do you have dream career goals yet to be ticked off?
Well, I did apply to become a European Space Agency astronaut but I wasn’t selected (I will try again in 10 years) so until then I hope someone wants to bring a journalist to space or Antarctica or the bottom of the ocean.
What’s the best advice someone gave you that helped you in your career?
Swallow your pride, ignore your anxiety, and ask questions. Even if you think they are silly or that you should know the answer already. Better understanding is worth the fear of putting your hand up.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on a similar career?
Start by writing about things you are passionate about. Make it easy for yourself to put down words on a page. That will help build your confidence in your skills.
Do you have advice for how places of work and study can ensure they are inclusive for the LGBTQ+ community?
Talk to the LGBTQ+ people in your organization about what they need in terms of support. Make sure to put recommendations into action. Train staff on how best to support each other and educate them on topics that many might not be familiar with.
In science, LGBTQ+ professionals experience more exclusion and harassment than cis straight peers, and this difference is even higher when ethnic and gender minorities are considered. There should be a zero-tolerance policy on harassment, and organizations should guarantee that the processes set to deal with that are transparent.