LGBTQIA+ STEM Day: Faculty Spotlight

In 1960, Dr. Frank Kameny brought the first lawsuit in the US for workplace discrimination against sexual orientation. In recognition of Dr. Kameny's tireless pursuit of justice and the contributions of countless other queer scientists, we celebrate LGBTQIA+ STEM Day.

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This year at Communications Biology, we wanted to celebrate LGBTQIA+ STEM Day by highlighting researchers and STEM professionals at multiple career stages, including trainees and academic editors. Here, we asked LGBTQIA+ faculty about role models, what it means to be queer in STEM, and how they promote an inclusive environment in their own research groups. 

Dr. Sam Giles

Dr. Giles is a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, England. Her research group uses 3D x-ray imaging (CT scanning) to unlock the external and internal anatomy of living and fossil vertebrates, particularly bony fishes.

Being queer in STEM shouldn’t be any different to not being queer in STEM! But unfortunately, many people are still - even in 2020 - discriminated against for being queer, whether that’s because they’re gay or trans or asexual or any other queer identity. It means repeatedly coming out every time you meet new colleagues, go on an international research visit, or take your family to a conference, and never quite being sure what the reaction will be. But it also means getting to know and making friends with other amazing queer scientists and allies!

I try to promote a diverse and inclusive environment by being up front about my own queerness - my partner is a woman and we have two children. I hope that I can be welcoming and supportive by doing things like including my pronouns in my email signature (and asking my students and colleagues theirs), having a rainbow trilobite sticker on my office door, and speaking out against homophobia and transphobia, as well as other forms of discrimination. I view equality, diversity and inclusion work as important as my research, and encourage my team to also work on these issues.

My main mentor has always been my PhD supervisor, Matt Friedman, who is a wonderful friend and colleague. My oldest child was born while I was a PhD student, and he encouraged me throughout, pushed me to keep believing in myself, and supported me while trying to juggle parenting, commuting and PhD-ing. I’ve also had a huge amount of support from people like Tamsin Mather and Emily Rayfield, who never formally mentored me but were amazing and visible women with children who gave me advice when I needed it. There are very few queer women in palaeontology, especially with children and in senior roles, so I never really had any queer mentors or role models in my field. But in the last few years - since joining Twitter! (@GilesPalaeoLab) - I’ve been so inspired by people like Anson Mackay, Izzy Jayasinghe and David Smith.

Dr. Marie Herberstein

Dr. Herberstein is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University, in Australia. Her research group combines natural history and theory-driven hypothesis testing within a phylogenetic context to investigate various behaviours in spiders and insects.

My earliest role model was Cay Craig whom I met at a spider conference in Switzerland when I was a PhD student. Cay had published on the function of web decorations in orb-web spiders and this fascinated me. I talked a lot to her at the conference (I may have said that I was her greatest fan) and later, during my postdoc, we collaborated and published several papers together. 

For me, [being queer in STEM] mostly means to be a visible and positive about who I am. My hope is to inspire other queer students or researchers to study and work in STEM. We have a very open and friendly culture in my research group and we discuss all aspects of inclusion, gender, background, sexuality. Group members are very supportive of each other, hang out socially and collaborate. Any new group members are quickly integrated and the culture is carried on. It all started with my first 3 group members, when I started my lectureship: Matt Bruce, Greg Holwell and Anne Gaskett, who helped me set a supportive and inclusive lab culture. And of course, my research group is heavily invested in Eurovision: it does not get much more inclusive than Eurovision.

Dr. Rebecca Lawson

Dr. Lawson is a Lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, England. The Lawson lab uses mathematical models, neuroimaging, and pharmacology to understand how learning affects brain plasticity in health, development, and disorders.

I came out of the closet and started my PhD at the same time, so it just kind of happened that I was out in life and in the lab. I have been open about my sexuality in every lab since, including the one that I now run. For me, being out in STEM means being visible to challenge stereotypes and to make it easier for LGBTQ+ students feel welcome in science. I believe that positive representation and role models are extremely important. There are many tragic cases (e.g. Alan Turing or Oliver Sacks) where the brightest scientific minds were either persecuted for being gay or had to hide it completely. I don't want anyone in STEM to have those same experiences today.

In general, I try to create a space where people feel comfortable to be themselves. I strongly believe that people do the best science when they are feeling relaxed and happy about spending time in the lab, and that means not having to hide any aspect of who you are. Beyond the lab I support the Department in running events to showcase queer scientists for LGBT STEM day and LGBT history month, and I'm always happy to informally mentor early career scientists and students whenever they reach out for support with LGBTQ+ issues. 

I'm fortunate to have had several wonderful mentors throughout my career. Profs Jon Roiser and Geraint Rees (both at UCL) deserve a notable mention for championing women in STEM and supporting me through the successes and setbacks I've encountered on the road to scientific independence. I've probably faced more barriers in science as a result of being a woman than being a lesbian, and I can't stress enough how important it is to have senior men who recognise that those barriers exist and support women to overcome them. I also met my wife when we were both working in Jon's lab so I'm very grateful to him for that!

Dr. Carmen Marsit

Dr. Marsit is a Professor of Environmental Health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. His research group focuses on the impact of the environment on children’s health, particularly in how environmental exposures and stressors during pregnancy can alter placental function and health outcomes in children.

I really never had, and still don’t really have a LGBTQIA+ role model, but I have had incredibly supportive mentors throughout my career. My doctoral advisor, Karl Kelsey, who is a professor at Brown, has been an amazing mentor and role model. He really inspired me and shaped the way I mentor and lead today, particularly to not be afraid to speak up for myself and more importantly, for those with lesser or no voice. Also, to let my trainees shine, express their creativity, and do the research that they are passionate about. I am there to support that, and often to stay out of their way and let them be brilliant.

[Being queer in STEM] means that I get to be me in a complete and open way. I think I appreciate that now, partly because I wasn’t always as open about it, especially as a new faculty member in my first position. At that point it took me a while to feel more comfortable expressing myself, and then grew to me trying to serve as a role model and educator about being queer in STEM and academia. I realize now that I am very privileged with how open I have been and can be and now see it as my responsibility to assure that others can enjoy that as well.

I am visible about being gay, about being anti-racist, about being inclusive, about loving science, and about the need to communicate all of those pieces clearly and openly. I have learned just how important even quiet visibility can be. Doing little things like having a pride flag on a wall in my office lets people know they can be open there. Being open and honest on social media like twitter (@CMarsit) as well… yes I use it to promote our science, but I also am not afraid to share my opinions. Whether you see me in real life, online, on zoom, you get the same person. Though, most of the time it isn’t about big outward statements, it is about quiet but solid support for my group. It is important to me that everyone in my group knows they can come to me about anything, that I will not judge, and that I always have their back. I also make sure I demonstrate that, by representing their opinions and needs, by standing up for them. I also always try to put myself in their shoes and recognize where they are coming from, and what else might be weighing on them. Particularly in the current world, everyone is facing so many different challenges, stressors, and emotions. I am not afraid to share that I am too, and I think that helps in making people feel comfortable and feel like they are not alone.

George Inglis

Associate Editor, Springer Nature

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