The trans scientist keen to promote Cambridge’s inclusive ethos

Rachael Padman was awarded last year’s Gay Times honour for excellence in science. Australian-born Padman arrived in Cambridge to take a PhD in the late 1970s. The university, she says, has been consistently supportive of her choices as a transwoman. To mark LGBT+ History Month, she looks back at some landmarks in her career.

Rachael Padman (Nick Saffell)

If I’d chosen to be famous for something, it would have been for research in astronomy. Unfortunately anything I’ve done there has since been overshadowed by the public fuss when people discovered Newnham College had elected a transwoman as a Fellow. Transitioning was a consuming and protracted process, and I’d hoped that, once that journey was complete, I’d be able to get on with my life, privately and productively. Instead, I’ve become a bit of a poster-child for the notion of a trans scientist.

I grew up mostly in Australia. In 1974 the Melbourne Age serialised Jan Morris’s autobiography Conundrum. It’s a beautifully written, if slightly mysterious, account of the author’s gradual realisation of being in the wrong body. Morris was born male and had gender reassignment relatively late in life. I was 20 when I read her memoir. It had a profound effect on me: from an early age I’d been a boy with an increasingly intense need to live my life as a woman.

My dad was in the Australian army. Both he and my mum were from working class families. He was passionately interested in science and it was something he shared with me. Neither of my parents had any inkling that I was unhappy with my assigned sex — and I was raised as the oldest of three kids, accepting that I was a boy, even while magically hoping things would come right at puberty. The word gender, as a way of describing identity, didn’t enter public discourse until much later.

Because of my dad’s postings, I went to eight different schools. Typically there would be a few bright children in my class — two or three girls and me. One girl from when I was about nine stood out. Susan was tall with short hair and she was clever. She was a model of what I aspired to. When, much later, I chose a new name for myself, I thought of Susan. But, at the time, there were already several Sues in my life. I wasn’t going to add to them.

Gender is the first thing we look for when we see someone. We normally decide instantly. I think it’s part of our flight or fight, friend or foe, mechanism — primitive survival stuff. When gender is unclear we feel very confused and don’t even know how to start interacting with the person. Trans people need to be a bit understanding when others misgender them — it’s almost certainly quite unconscious. Of course when it is deliberate, that’s another issue.

I’m convinced that there are biological differences between male and female brains. Most people like to think that gendered behaviour is mostly a question of conditioning. Lately I’ve been reading primatologist Frans De Waal’s books about chimpanzees and bonobos, whose ancestors only split off from ours six million years ago — I’m interested in how like ours their societies are. He reveals how deep-seated male and female behaviours are. Young female chimps carry stick “dolls”. Adolescent females beg to be allowed to hold the babies.

We’ve evolved to survive and reproduce. Some fundamental behaviours — for example, the ability to recognise raw emotions in others — are hard wired. I’m pretty sure our ability to recognise both our own and another person’s gender works similarly. I guess those parts of my own brain are just miswired. There’s a lot more to discover about the developmental biology of consciousness — and the overlapping influences of nature and nurture.

Mid-way through my PhD I became Rachael to friends and colleagues. The name just came to me one morning and shades into the name I was given at birth. It felt right. When I told my PhD supervisor that I was in the process of transitioning, and planning surgery, he wasn’t fazed. He simply said that it was all very interesting. He offered to tell the rest of the radioastronomy group.

As a PhD candidate, I was an able student. My sense was that in Cambridge this was the most important thing. My transition wasn’t treated as a big deal by my colleagues. I was buoyed up by their acceptance of me, and it seemed as though everyone just forgot. But 15 years later, in 1997, I was outed in the press following a debate about me becoming a fellow of Newnham, Cambridge’s all-female college. For a couple of weeks I was besieged by journalists. My friends and colleagues, and particularly the other College Fellows, were steadfast in their support.

I’d made huge adjustments in my personal life. I wanted to get on with my career — I had work to do. In the wake of the furore it was two years before I could concentrate properly again. I look back now and can see that I suffered from post-traumatic syndrome. While I was juggling with all this, my main research project had run into the ground over resource problems in our lab. I knew I’d never become a famous physicist so I decided to shift my focus on to things I could do — such as education.

I’ve been a member of the University’s Education Committee since 2004. In addition, I’m currently Chair of the Board of Graduate Studies. From 2009 to 2014 I was Director of Education for the School of the Physical Sciences. I suspect it was partly for these roles, which have given me the chance to influence our educational policy, that I was given the 2017 Gay Times award for excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

At university in Australia I studied electrical engineering rather than physics. Although I had five years of Latin, universities in Victoria required the equivalent of an O level in a modern foreign language to study science. So it was because of a lack of French or German that I went into engineering — which now seems bizarre. I never could see myself being an engineer, and had no idea what I was going to do. Then I discovered radio astronomy, which brought together all the things I was interested in.

I needed to move to a new environment. By coming to the UK I was distancing myself from the place where everyone knew me as male. But actually the UK wasn’t that foreign. When I was growing up chunks of Australian society still referred to Britain as ‘home’. And I’d lived here for several years when I was little and my dad had a UK posting. My first accent was British.

Cambridge was somewhere I could forge a career and redefine myself. I’ve now been here for most of my life — almost exactly 40 years. I did have a short stint at Berkeley back in the early 1980s. I went there six weeks after undergoing surgery — far too soon — and had a major crisis of loneliness and depression. I went back to Australia and spent a month with my family.

Newnham, my college, is all-female. Whether we need all-women institutions in today’s world is a fair question. But Newnham’s female fellowship has an almost experimental aspect — women collaborate in different ways to men and have different priorities. It’s significant, I think, that until very recently students from Newnham and Murray Edwards Colleges typically accounted for 50 per cent of all female students on many of Cambridge’s STEM courses.

I don’t consider myself a champion. I never set out to be an activist. I put my energy into my dual roles of university lecturer in physics and director of studies for natural sciences at Newnham, along with participation in University governance. I’m happy to support initiatives that promote equality and diversity and to write letters if I feel I have something valuable to say. I welcome any chance to stand up for and promote Cambridge’s ethos of liberalism and inclusivity.

I’ve been surprised and flattered by how many people have told me I am a role model for them of a woman in science. On thinking about that, I have concluded that the most effective role models are not necessarily those we set on a pedestal, but often those of lesser achievement who just get on with it.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.