LGBT+ History Month: Celebrating diversity in the climate community – Lara Lalemi

In this series we shine a light on some of the talented members of the LGBT+ community working or studying in climate change and environment.

Lara Lalemi, postgraduate research student (she/her)

Text saying 'Celebrating diversity in the climate community' and LGBT+ History Month' and an image of Lara Lalemi
Lara Lalemi, postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol

I’m passionate about creating spaces that are inclusive for people. It’s challenging because what people think is inclusive and what is inclusive are not always the same thing.  

Tell me about yourself. 

I’m a PhD Chemistry student in the field of Aerosol Science. My research is looking at climate relevant aerosols, the seeds of clouds, on a microscopic scale using lasers to characterise their properties. I’m a queer Black woman, originally from south-east London now studying at the University of Bristol. 

I am also the founder and CEO of Creative Tuition Collective, which provides free tuition in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] subjects, mentorship and mental health support to pupils from low-income families. We also plan to run extra-curricular activities which teach them things they don’t get to learn about in school, such as decolonising science, understanding the climate and our world, career aspirations and life skills. 

Additionally, I co-founded Kiki Bristol, a place for Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Colour (QTIPOC) to meet where we can create our own community alongside our supportive allies with a collective and shared vision of inclusivity and safety.  

What are you passionate about? 

I’m passionate about creating spaces that are inclusive for people. It’s challenging because what people think is inclusive and what is inclusive are not always the same thing. 

Often people don’t feel confident expressing their opinions because the spaces for discussion are not inclusive.  

You see this in movements like Black Lives Matter and environmental groups. In the past, little work had been done to make these movements inclusive for all but their latest actions has seen those barriers broken down with an olive branch connecting communities together in their activism. Though it is important to recognise more work needs to be done to relate these different but important movements to a wider group of people. This is why I am so passionate about the power of education and teaching for all through intergenerational/international communication. 

When it comes to climate change, often we don’t acknowledge the fact that the people who suffer the most are the people who contribute the least to the problem and are on the bottom rung of the ladder. Black, Brown and Indigenous people from around the world are currently bearing the brunt of the climate crisis with increasing incidences of draughts or flooding.

If you can’t see it, create it…Developing sustainable confidence – talk by Lara Lalemi
How does this relate to being LGBT+? 

Well, LGBT+ people are not on a sinking island, but when you see that Trans people are targeted or unwelcomed in women’s crisis centres this means they may not be safe as migrants when their home countries are affected by climate change.  

Other messages are more subtle, while not overtly unwelcoming. Are we interacting with these groups? Are we contextualising the problem in terms they understand and asking for their opinions? Telling them it’s their fight too? 

Climate change is a problem that needs changes from the top-down and bottom-up. It needs everyone to know what will happen to people in their area, with someone breaking it down for each school and community. Then everyone should have a platform where they can speak up about it and hold to account the people with power or big polluting companies. 

What first made you care about climate change? 

My first “Ah-ha” moment was quite late actually, during a presentation I saw in the first year of my PhD. 

I knew from geography lessons at school that climate change would mean low-lying places like Bangladesh and California would disappear underwater as the sea level rises, and that would lead to mass migration. 

But this presentation showed me how much more devastation there would be if the Earth’s temperature increases by 2°C rather than 1.5°C, and how many more people would lose their homes. 

It made me realise the planet is finite. Like if you were put in a room and the air supply was cut off you would soon start gasping and turn breathless, we will all soon be breathless. People should be working together against climate change, instead we’re still fighting for equality and inclusion. 

Do you have a pet environmental peeve? 

Although we might think we’re being good on an individual basis, do we know about the bigger picture? For example, we dump our clothes in recycling bins, assuming that’s the right thing to do. But, are they resold as second-hand or sent to another country where they become landfill or are burned? What about our diets? I’m a meat eater, trying to cut down – but I ignore the methane emissions and the destruction of the rainforest for land or animal feed. All these little things are out of our control and you just get numb to it. 

Image inside Lara's lab. There are green lasers being reflected by mirrors and a number of plastic test tubes containing colourless liquid in the foreground.
Lara’s research looks at climate relevant aerosols, the seeds of clouds, on a microscopic scale using lasers to characterise their properties.
Tell us about your best times in higher education?  

I was reminded the other day that I never used to feel confident in science. In my third year atmospheric chemistry project, I designed and build a mobile unit measuring organic carbonyl sulphides (OCS) and I had to interview a professor. When it was finished, they said it was the best interview ever and graded me 47/50. I’d never been affirmed so much in my life! 

The second thing was being voted into the Bristol BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] 100 Power List. This was voted for by people in Bristol and means my picture is hanging in the university’s Wills Memorial Building next to all the white cis men who have been Vice Chancellor. At graduation, everyone will walk past my photo and I get to say, “that’s me”. 

What could be better about higher education? 

There are many ways I think higher education could do better. Firstly, the curriculum of both arts and sciences need to be readdressed, reformed and recreated with students best learning at the heart.  

Further representation of diverse individuals in the halls of universities need to be seen, an example of this can be seen when I set up an Inspirational Bristol Scientists board in my department which allows all to see the brilliant scientists that walk our halls who happen to be BME. This is so visitors, students and staff can begin to see and acknowledge the role models in the science that have contributed to society and their studies. All it took was support from my department and willingness to make a difference. 

For students, they should know it’s ok not to know the answer, but they will improve if they do their own investigations. Active learning is more exciting, so is being involved and asking questions as well as being asked. Students must have the confidence to email academics or industrial professionals to ask for support, mentorship or advice. Doing this has helped me develop my career path and understand who is best to help me get to where I need to go. We must be our own forces of nature.  

Tell us about an LGBT+ figure you admire (current or historical)?  

James Baldwin wrote: “not everything that is faced can be change, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” There’s no better quote out there and from the most under-appreciated civil rights campaigner. He went into white universities and educated the students about the fallacies of racism and prejudice. We stand on the shoulders of giants like James, we have so far to go, but I think the giants probably felt the same. When you’re only at the beginning, you cannot see where you’re going, but you just start the ball rolling. 

You can even start with little things to be greener, just helping yourself, or your school or people your town. It’s okay to start small.  

Connect with Lara on LinkedIn.
Follow Lara on Instagram: @creativetuitioncollective
Follow Lara on Facebook: @kiki_bristol

For more information about the LGBTQ+ community at Imperial see Imperial600, the LGBT+ staff network and IQ, LGBT+ student society. See past and future events run by Imperial600.

News story

Climate and environment researchers talk about their LGBT+ heroes

Discover more about LGBT+ History Month, find out why pronouns are important and read more Q&As in this news article.

Upcoming events

Imperial 600 & Women@Imperial Week | Featuring Inspiring LGBT Women

9 March, 12:00-13:00, online  

Imperial 600 is supporting the broader International Women’s Day (IWD) programming happening across Imperial College London in March 2021, and we’re very pleased to host Michelle Raymond, a senior leader at MyGWork a global networking hub and job board for LGBT+ professionals and graduates.

Additionally, Michelle is an accomplished musician who’s played with some of the biggest names in music today.

LGBT History Month edit-a-thon

26 February, 14:00-16:30, online  

Wikipedia – the world’s largest online encyclopedia – overwhelmingly recognises the achievements of white men.

This event is your chance to help change that by learning how to become a Wikipedia author and editor then putting that knowledge into practice straight away to start chronicling the achievements of LGBTQ+ people on this online platform.

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