The neuroscientist who champions LGBT+ equal rights

This Cambridge Life

The neuroscientist who champions LGBT+ equal rights

Duncan Astle

Duncan Astle is a neuroscientist on a mission to understand why the brains of some children develop differently to others – and how it affects not just their education but their lives. He also chairs the University’s LGBT+ Staff Network. He talks about the Network’s recent decision to sign a declaration that trans rights are human rights.

We study the developing brain in children – how it changes as children grow and the different factors that can shape it. We’re super interested in children who are in mainstream education but who are really struggling – so they might be three or four years behind where they are expected to be.

Our feeling is that the way these kids have been studied in the past has been too simplistic. If you try to put kids into neat groups, you miss lots of information. We believe that the variability between children isn’t noise to be controlled for, it’s something interesting to be studied. 

It’s vital to take this variability seriously as the pathways that kids are on can last a lifetime. There are knock-on consequences not just in terms of how they do at school, but also in how they transition into the work force, and their physical and mental health over time – affecting them as individuals, their communities and society more broadly.

One of the really big things that our research has shown is that a child’s diagnostic label doesn’t really predict the kind of areas of difficulty they have, and the diagnosis just doesn’t provide enough useful information to the teachers. When you say this to some people in our field they are horrified – they basically think you are a heretic. But when you go into a school and say that to teachers, they say: “well I could have told you that years ago!”

My favourite part of my job is the people I get to work with. They are very fun and very smart, and their conversations are vitalising.

I feel really lucky that in my research unit there are a number of out LGBT+ people. This visibility for members of the LGBT+ community can be transformative. We also have the rainbow flag up all year round – this creates an environment where you give everyone permission to be themselves.

One of the challenges for the LGBT+ community is to make sure that young people have diverse role models. I remember when I was a kid there weren’t really gay people I could look at and think: “I can identify with that, that feels like me, I can see myself in that scenario.” I think visibility matters.

Outside of the lab I’m part of the University’s LGBT+ Staff Network. I was asked if I would take a turn at chairing the group and so at the beginning of 2020, just before the first lockdown, I took up this position. 

The network is a mouthpiece to give voice to the concerns of the LGBT+ community in Cambridge. It’s also really good fun. Even in lockdown we’ve watched films together via Zoom – my knowledge of Queer cinema has improved dramatically over the last 12 months! 

Last autumn the LGBT+ Staff Network signed Stonewall’s declaration: ‘trans rights are human rights.’ The ongoing narrative and public discourse surrounding trans and non-binary people is overwhelmingly negative, and we wanted to say publicly that we are not okay with that. This declaration is so important as it sends a powerful message to trans-communities and everyone else that employers are on their side. 

I think as a country, we’re still at the stage where things can be said that sound superficially okay but are actually transphobic. We’ve become better at spotting homophobia dressed up as ‘legitimate concerns’, but we’re way behind when it comes to recognising transphobia for what it is. 

The UK is an increasingly hostile environment for trans and non-binary people. Recent data shows that in a 12-month period around 41% of trans people and 31% of non-binary people will experience a hate crime, and those levels are rising. 

A vocal minority seek to erase the identities of trans and non-binary folks and try to constrain or remove their rights. It is rare for a news piece about trans people to feature the voice or perspective of an actual trans person. This creates a fertile ground for a general campaign of misinformation. This happens in the outside world, but it can also happen in universities too. 

We want to make our institution as inclusive as possible and do everything we can to shift the wider conversation on to things that actually matter. It’s time to stop debating other people’s right to exist, and start discussing important stuff like how we improve access to quality support and healthcare. 

Duncan will speak about his research on the impact of COVID on young people's mental health at the Cambridge Festival. He will join with other leading academics to discuss: how does insecurity impact wellbeing? The event will take place on Saturday 3 April 1pm – 2pm GMT. Book your free place. 

He is a Programme Leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, School of Clinical Medicine, and a Fellow of Robinson College. In 2020 he won the Established Academic Vice-Chancellor’s Research Impact Award.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Michael Chapman.