As a queer scientist, Jay Brett, who uses the pronoun they, has made advocating for inclusive policies in the professional sphere a crucial part of their time. Along with doing research in climate and oceanography, Brett has helped redesignate college campus bathrooms as "all gender," run a conference session on inclusive behaviors, and even co-authored a recent paper on best practices for including transgender and gender-diverse ocean scientists while at sea.
“What I hope for is that the LGBTQ+ community can be fully included in the science community,” Brett said. “Rather than working with a town, county or state for political recognition of and equality for LGBTQ+ people, I am focused on working with my institution and professional society. If they support LGBTQ+ students, staff members and scientists can amplify the call on the broader stage.”
Assigned female at birth, Brett knew from an early age they were headed down a rough road. With interests in mathematics and science, even identifying as female (let alone as bisexual and nonbinary) would make them a minority.
Moving through high school, college and graduate school, Brett had to decide how “out” to be about their identity. “Generally, my friends knew and my professors did not,” they said.
Partially closeted, Brett still tried to make strides. As an undergraduate at Skidmore College in New York, Brett joined an academic council that laid plans to establish all-gender bathrooms.
“We mapped the existing gendered bathrooms on campus and advised the school on which ones could easily be changed, like single-user facilities,” Brett said. “And which would have the greatest impact, like multiuser rooms where one gender would otherwise have to travel far to their designated facility.”
But as a graduate student at MIT and later as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, such changes were still being debated, leaving Brett a little more uneasy.
“Being partially closeted in graduate school was uncomfortable,” Brett said. “I knew my success in oceanography depended on me getting my degree, but that required endorsement from my adviser and committee, whose opinions on diversity I didn’t know.”
Some of that anxiety quelled around 2015 during an American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference. Someone, Brett recalled, brought rainbow flag pins and made them available, by the usual lanyard/badge station, for attendees to take.
“I saw far more people than I had expected wearing the pins that week,” Brett said. “That simple act of solidarity made me feel much more comfortable and gave me hope that I might be able to be out and have a successful career.”
Finally, as a postdoctoral fellow and after years of being partially in, partially out, Brett decided to come out professionally by simply adding the pronouns they/them/theirs to their email signature. “I’d deal with any questions as they came up,” they said.
To their surprise (and joy), no criticism came.
Since coming to the Lab in 2021, Brett’s career has taken off. They’re part of in an innovative project called PACMANS (short for Physics-informed AI Climate Model Agent Neuro-symbolic Simulators), which leverages the capabilities of artificial intelligence to predict climatic tipping points — critical thresholds that, if crossed, could throw the entire natural climate system into a new state.
The team Brett works with focuses on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the system of ocean currents that circulates warm water along the Gulf Stream from the South Atlantic to the Arctic Circle — and whose collapse, researchers and lawmakers worry, could have cascading effects, forcing other natural systems to tip. PACMANS creates a simulated artificial intelligence environment that leverages deep-learning methods, neuro-symbolic representations and surrogate ocean models to predict what conditions could lead to a tipping point.
“The hope is that by doing this work, we’ll be able to get much clearer answers about what could cause the AMOC to turn off,” Brett said. “Because we can fit all the global models into this simplified model, we can say which sets will cause the AMOC to turn off and which ones will say it stays on. That will allow us to get at what is causing those different projections, what it means for the real world and what we might have to worry about.”
Much of the data and models that make PACMANS possible came from oceanographers going out to sea. Brett is among those oceanographers, and the experiences they and others have had as queer and transgender scientists spurred them to publish an article called “Navigating Gender at Sea.” It was a way to share what individuals and institutions can do better to support LGTBQ+ people at sea, whether conducting diversity and harassment trainings or considering single bedrooms and more gender-inclusive bathrooms.
“In my mind, to develop innovative science and technology solutions to national challenges, we need all the contributors we can get in that process,” Brett said. “This means we must not drive out minorities but support them to do their best work. Every person is important to the aggregate success of our community, and no one should be left behind.”