On the Surprising Sources of Research Motivation

A year ago today I made a post on Facebook about some of the surprising places that I find the motivation to do my research. Unfortunately, in my line of research, quite often the motivation that keeps me going comes from tragedy, although it does also come from positive experiences as well. A year ago, I was uncertain of where I would find a home for my research and so the need for motivation was that much stronger. I doubt that I am alone in finding motivation from the tragedies that surround us. In fact, it seems that almost all researchers are motivated in some way by something that is "wrong" - whether that be a problem with the environment, a health condition, or, in my case, societal levels of discrimination. 

Below is the post that I made a year ago. I think the words are equally important today. Please be forewarned, the post does cover upsetting topics, including death, suicide, and discrimination. 

Yesterday, I was driving in the car contemplating alternate career paths. A few things were probably exacerbating this line of thought in particular this week: the news about changes to CIHR funding, a review that I recently finished that had parts in it you could almost consider hate propaganda, and maybe the review that a co-author and I received a couple of days ago that accused us of some pretty horrible things (in the world of academia at least) solely on the basis that the reviewer disagreed with our (well-supported) argument. 

Then, two things happened. First, while I wasn't even supposed to be at home, I happened to be on Facebook at the precise moment that Dr. Ruth Neustifter posted a link to a live interview that they were doing on the radio and noted that they were going to talk about me! (Ears burning and all!) In answering a listener's question about increasing the diversity and inclusivity of sex education, wonderful Dr. Ruthie (whom, by the way, has an absolutely ENTRANCING radio voice) mentioned the need for funding in order to conduct inclusive research that can then be used to inform inclusive education. This, of course, lead to mentioning the lack of funding for such things, which lead to mentioning my crowdfunding campaign for my PDA study! In the process of doing so, they also said some rather nice things about me and my research, (thank you!) - and even though Ruth didn't know it, they really couldn't have been timed any better given the "in-the-car pondering" that had taken place just an hour or so earlier. I had planned on posting about the impeccable timing already -- but then, the second thing happened. 

The second thing, is not as happy. A few hours later, again, on Facebook (hmmmm), I found out that one of the generous people who donated to that same crowdfunding campaign that Ruth mentioned in the interview had passed away earlier in the day. This person - whom I will call Mark - was a complete stranger to me. I don't know how he found out about the study or the crowdfunding campaign, but he did, and he made a donation. He didn't stop there either. He 'friended' me on Facebook and he shared the campaign multiple times - always referring to it as his "friend's research study." His sharing of the study even lead to additional donations.

We were never more than Facebook friends. We 'liked' each other's posts over the last year, we occasionally commented on posts, exchanged a few words here and there, but that was the extent of our friendship. I could tell that he was an avid LGBTQ rights activist. He lived in the south, had a partner, and seemed like a very happy man who cared deeply about advancing LGBTQ rights. I also noticed that he did not let people off the hook easily; he called them out when they crossed the line - and from what I could tell, the news feed he must have seen on Facebook every day rarely lacked for posts that crossed the line.

This is something I think about a lot in reference to my own research (and life). How lucky am I that I am able to effectively create my own "bubble" and live within that bubble - almost entirely untouched by much of the prejudice and hate that exists in this world? I abstractly seem to know of it and it obviously informs my research to a great extent, but for the most part, I do not often 'live' that reality. When I do, it is most often for only fleeting moments in time. In fact, the crowdfunding campaign was one of largest forays into that world beyond my bubble - as many of the posts about the study and news articles written about the study elicited horrible replies and comments. Not everyone is as lucky or as privileged as I am - not everyone can create their own bubble. Sure, you can unfriend the people who offend you occasionally, but what if the large majority of your social network offends you regularly? How do you choose between having a social network at all and creating your own little 'bubble'?

I got the sense that Mark was the kind of person who didn't want to unfriend people because he a) didn't want to give up on them, and b) valued being a voice for equality in a part of his country that probably needs more of those voices. The messages of condolence that are now flooding his wall all attest to what a loving, kind and generous person he was. Reading these posts, one gets the sense that he was very much loved and respected - by close friends, family, and by more extended friends and even random Facebook strangers (like me).

The family has not revealed how Mark died, but from some of the comments that they have made, it seems likely to me that Mark took his own life. I respect that this is a deeply painful time for his family and his partner - and I can understand why they might want to keep the manner of Mark's death private. Being more removed from the situation though, it makes me question exactly how many LGBTQ individuals take their own lives and then don't even have this information made public. People take their own lives for many reasons and we often never get to know what those reasons are, but we do know that LGBTQ individuals continue to be much more likely than others to die in this way.

One of the contributing factors to suicide among LGBTQ individuals is minority stress - the day-to-day stressors of being a minority - the stressors of having to come out (repeatedly), the stressors of being a second class citizen, the stressors of having a Facebook newsfeed that is flooded with posts that tell you you are a sinner, that you are unwell, that you are sick, perverted, and twisted - that your love is not the same love - that your love is unworthy of recognition and protections - that your love and your family is not worthy of children - that you are a menace to society. Those things sound harsh. I don't see those things on my newsfeed - but I have a feeling that Mark did, every single day - from his 'friends'. Sometimes I would see them because they would pop up in my newsfeed as something that Mark had commented on - because, like I said, he called people out when they crossed the line.

What is frustrating to me is that Mark spent his life trying to bring awareness to LGBTQ issues, and in his death, one of the biggest issues facing LGBTQ individuals - the harms of social exclusion and sexual prejudice - is being ignored. Some of the very people who contributed to Mark's experiences of day-to-day stressors - aimed directly at a core part of his identity - are posting condolences - seemingly completely unaware of how they may have actually played a contributing role in his death.

Like I said, I can't even claim to know Mark. I can't have any idea about the actual motivations behind his death (or even be 100% certain of how he died)- but at the same time, I find it hard to believe that prejudice didn't play a role, at least on some level - who knows how big or small.

So now - someone that I met (online) - because they donated to my study that is aimed at reducing sexual prejudice - my study that is aimed at making LGBTQ lives better - has died - quite possibly due to that very same prejudice - and here I was, thinking about alternate career paths.

Of course, even if I pick another career ultimately, I would never abandon the studies that I already have running - but truly, how can I abandon my future potential studies either? A total stranger watched my little whiteboard video and read a blurb about what I thought my research could achieve and took a leap of faith - in me - and made a donation. He then shared it repeatedly with others, always asking them to either give what they could "to his friend's study" or to at least share the post because he thought the research was important.

In the grand scheme of things, reviewing journal articles that don't quite 'get it right' on LGBTQ issues really isn't that big of a burden - and in fact, it's quite possibly a privilege - as perhaps my scathing review will help change how they present their research or the very research questions they ask in the future. And maybe CIHR is going to make us find money elsewhere before they give us money - but maybe my crowdfunding will count as "elsewhere" - who knows.

But how can I consider alternate career paths when great people like Dr. Ruthie say such nice things about the importance of my work, and perhaps even more importantly, when the very people who dig into their pockets to help support my work are the people who live and breathe the very challenges that I'm seeking to shed light on? (I would say eradicate - but I think that might be reaching a bit far - for now). I can't. Even if I end up turning to crowdfunding for every single future study I ever run, I just can't. Even if I run studies out of my basement (mad scientist style), I just can't.

Reading the messages on Mark's wall, I wish that they could have all been posted there the day before he died. If they had, then maybe he would still be here, fighting the good fight like he did every single day he was alive. Maybe he would see that he did successfully make an impact on some of those people that offended him but that he didn't unfriend. Even if they don't "get" how they may have played a role, so many of them do mention how much they respected him for his opinions and for seeking to make the world a better place. Others blatantly state that he *did* change their minds and that he *did* successfully make them see the world through his eyes - but who knows if Mark knew that he had been successful?

Maybe, sometimes, we just need to know that we are being heard, that we are getting through to someone. Maybe that is how we make it to the next day, whether that's the next day of our jobs, the next day of our relationships, or even, the next day of our lives.


If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or looking for some additional support, here are some resources. 

The Trevor Project

The It Gets Better Project

If you are a student at StFX - you can access free, online counselling by downloading the iAspiria App. 

If you're an LGBTQ student or ally at StFX, check out X-Pride



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