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#CitSciStories 3: "My transition and me being a citizen scientist are strangely connected"

The third of our #CitSciStories is told by Melina Thévenot, who is a moderator at the Milky Way Project, which looks at infra-red light and nebulae in our own galaxy to study star formation. Thank you very much Melina for this extremely moving story.

Would you like to write the next of our #CitSciStories? Here's how. We'd love to hear from you.

“Hi Melina_t, The Milky Way Project is proving to be very successful yet again and Talk is very busy as I am sure you have noticed! We could do with some extra help moderating Talk and wondered if you would be interested in taking on the role of moderator...” is how the message from Julia Wilkinson (username Jules) began. I felt excited and also a bit insecure. People always described me as shy or cautious. I had reading disorder as a child and my English was not very good in school. Should someone like me take the role of a moderator for a citizen-science project?

I do not regret my decision and now I am a moderator for the wonderful Milky Way Project.

I was born in 1990 as M. Thévenot, assigned gender: male. I did not talk with the other kids in Kindergarten and later in school I was diagnosed with Dyslexia (reading disorder). Doing bad in school and an unsocial character are the foundation of a horrible school life. But it became worse. After primary school I was bullied and it was a very homophobic and transphobic environment. You can imagine how I felt when I realized that I felt unpleasant with the gender of my body and my gender assigned at birth. I had to change schools, but it did require better marks. I did learn almost every time to improve in every subject, even the unpopular subjects English and German.

At the new school there were for the first time science subjects and I loved them. Especially Physics and Chemistry were fun and I enjoyed thinking about atoms and molecules.

In my free time I did read books, mainly fantasy and science fiction, but also Science Books. My first contact with astronomy was two books, one about space, galaxies and stars and another about the planets of our solar system. I remember being obsessed with core fusion. I was a real book worm you could say.
So this was a good part of my school life. On the other hand I did not say anything about me being a transgender girl. Instead I buried the thought deep inside myself. As my body developed more and more, I felt disgust with myself. Being threatened as a boy or a young man was also uncomfortable. Everything lead to a depression and suicide thoughts. I entered a school focusing on Biotechnology and I studied two semesters of Geosciences in Heidelberg and Biochemistry in Mannheim, but I never finished university.

Finally I agreed on a therapy and there I was able to say I am Melina and not someone else.

This is where I began being a citizen scientist. I was unemployed, still in therapy and did not want to waste my entire time. Do you remember that I was obsessed with core fusion? Particle Physics and the CERN website showed me Higgs Hunters. This way I learned about Zooniverse and all kind of amazing projects. It was fun, but again I had problems if it came to communication. I did classify a lot in Gravity Spy, until I was able to write a comment about a glitch we call #eiffel, probably because it looks like the Eiffel Tower.

At Zooniverse you can change the settings for receiving messages. This way I did read about the beta of the Milky Way Project. Gravity Spy was currently not available for classifications, so I did move to this project and it was just a big Wow. I did drive into the project like I never did before. I learned about SIMBAD, an astronomical database. I also learned about SAO Image DS9, an application that I use to create images from raw telescope data. The science team was a great help in learning about any kind of astronomy stuff. One year ago I would not be able to tell you what an O-Type star is, but now OBAFGKMLTY is like the alphabet for me.

Soon the message from Jules arrived and together with Barbara (username: EcceruElme) I did become a moderator. I already knew her from Gravity Spy and she is the one who discovered the Glitch “Paired Doves”.
Maybe I should explain what the Milky Way Project is. The project aims to measure and map our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Massive Stars have strong stellar winds, so they create something we call stellar wind bubbles. Massive Stars can also escape from its home cluster if they interact closely and one star is pulled out by gravity or when in a binary star one star explodes in a supernova. The so called runaway star then creates a bow shock made out of dust. The birthplaces of those massive stars are dense clouds of gas and dust, called yellow balls. Like sparkling gems they are spread over our home galaxy.

Bubbles, bow shocks and yellow balls are what citizen scientists search for in the high-resolution infrared images of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

But there is more to discover in the Milky Way Project. The talk is like a treasure chest of useful information. The discovery of the coffee ring and a follow-up observation with the Green Bank Telescope was probably the most exciting for us.

After some time I did start my own small projects: I did search for the closest stellar bow shock nebulas, asteroids, galaxies and more. My website is where I collect and share the results of my small projects.

When I became a moderator I already used hormones and I did change my name and gender in my passport and birth certificate. Both sound easy, but it takes a lot of effort in Germany to get this. I am still mad at some people and how they treated me. Recently I had my sex reassignment surgery. A huge step forward!

My transition and me being a citizen scientist are strangely connected. There are a lot of decisions for both: Do I want hormones? Can I be a moderator? Do I need the sex reassignment surgery?

I think they were right decisions.

CERN website
Higgs Hunters
The Zooniverse
Gravity Spy
The Milky Way Project
Dailyzoo about the coffee ring
My blog