Paloma Medina, a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at SJRC, contributes to the field of population genetics with a distinctly feminist mindset.
By Bradley Jin, SJRC Communications Intern, UC Santa Cruz undergraduate in Sociology and Feminist Studies
Biology has been integral in the formation of what is ‘natural.’ Concepts of the natural have shaped many of our understandings of what is normal in terms of race, sexuality, and gender. The history of population genetics is not immune to the prejudices carried by the people who seek to understand population diversity. Moreover, genetic population studies have been used as justification to promote systems of inequality. To learn from and change this history, Paloma Medina, a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at the Science & Justice Research Center, works with queer community members to inform the applications of her research in population genetics. She works in what is known as ‘queer ecology.’ Queer ecology has many definitions, but it can be loosely described as the interdisciplinary practice of biology that focuses on the gender and sexual diversity found in nature. Queer ecology is a way of practicing just and fair science.
Medina is inspired by the diversity she sees in nature and many biologists share her mindset. She leads a queer ecology research cluster reading group at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Here, graduate students meet to read about and discuss the variety of the natural world. “Biodiversity is almost sacred to biologists. When I tell them about sex and gender diversity in the natural world, they’re like ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’" In the Queer Ecology Research Cluster, Medina seeks to move beyond the critique of science and elevate the stories of queer animals, of which there are many.
For Medina, the side-blotched lizard is a striking example of biodiversity in the animal kingdom. Medina relates that “they have different coloration patterns on their neck that coincide with their lifestyle strategy.” Here, ‘lifestyle strategy’ is almost synonymous with gender expression. This pattern of coloration communicates the behavior of the individual lizards to others. Aggressive males are marked one way, non-aggressive males another. It forms a sort of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ style of dominance. This species, among others, challenges the concept of dichotomous, ‘biological and natural’ gender and sex. Animals like the side-blotched lizard inspire Medina to think of ‘queer’ animals as a reflection of the diversity of human identity.
Along with running the queer ecology reading group Medina has given presentations on biodiversity at the Brain Mind Consciousness Society at UCSC and at the Queer U conference at the University of British Columbia. Having given both lectures and workshops, she states, “I think students get more out of a workshop than a lecture because students can engage with other students and converse about ideas in a workshop setting. Of course the two styles are not mutually exclusive, but allowing the opportunity to talk about and relate to ideas is critical to learning and expanding.” In addition to workshops, Medina is working with the Youth Group of the Santa Cruz Diversity Center on an illustrated novel. The novel will tell the story of a clownfish who transitions from male to female when the matriarch of their colony leaves. She hopes this project will elevate the voices of queer and trans youth to a broader community.
Paloma Medina is a Science & Justice Training Program Graduate Fellow at the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. At the Center Medina strives not to practice science as justice, or justice as science, but instead view them as the same thing. For her, science is justice, and justice is science. Technology and science intersect with society to such a degree that they are inseparable.