LGBTQIA+ STEM Day: Trainee 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 LGBT STEM Day by highlighting researchers and STEM professionals at multiple career stages, including faculty and academic editors. Here, we asked LGBTQIA+ predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows about their proudest achievements, what it means to be queer in STEM, and their role models. 

Brent Allman

Brent is a fifth-year PhD candidate in Population Biology, Ecology, and Evolution at Emory University. His dissertation work focuses on viral evolution (particularly influenza A and SARS-CoV-2) and how mechanisms of sex (reassortment and recombination) influence viral population diversity and fitness.

My undergraduate research advisor is one of the biggest reasons I decided to pursue a PhD. He recognized my interest in science and always encouraged me to follow my interests. One of the first times we had a meeting together we talked for a long time about our backgrounds and experiences of being othered; he is Jewish and had faced anti-Semitic harassment in his career. It was the first time I had a friendship with a scientist, and he made me feel so welcome. He would ask me about my student activism. He came to the drag show that I co-organized with other members of the campus Pride group. He gave me a lot of responsibility in lab and allowed me to become the expert at times. He made me realize that I could contribute with not just one of my gifts, but with the ones that feel salient. 

Some colleagues or professors that I have interacted with will question my identity, or that identity can shape experiences and relationships. A subset of these conversations happen with the same people repeatedly. With one colleague we spent hours over the course of months debating identity politics. That time and energy would have been better spent working on my science, but because I had to work with this person, I wanted to feel like I could be myself on a regular basis. Particularly since coming out as gay, I have lost the drive to partition my life into spaces where I have to suppress parts of my identity. Because STEM can be a hostile environment for anyone from a historically marginalized group, I feel some sense of responsibility to myself and the community to create a more inclusive atmosphere. We can’t stay if we can’t bring our whole selves into lab. 

For me, being queer doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Intersectionality plays a big role in how I experience the professional landscape of STEM. Not only am I queer, but I am also black, mixed race, first generation college graduate, feminine, able-bodied… What some of these identities have in common is that they are often invisible identities. One wouldn’t know that I am black and mixed race just by looking at me. One wouldn’t know that I am queer just by looking at me (although most people tend to assume correctly). I have to come out about these things. While I enjoy sharing my identity and experiences with others so they can have a better understanding of who I am, it can also be fatiguing. 

I am still extremely proud of passing my qualifying exams. In our graduate program, we must write a dissertation proposal, a commentary or review paper, and do a sort of “ask me anything” oral exam with the qualifying exam committee. I really enjoyed the process of writing the commentary. I feel like it forced me to read a lot of literature and start thinking more critically about my scientific identity. It was the period during my graduate work where I feel like I learned the most about my field and the science I want to pursue. 

Yazead Buhidma

Yazead is a PhD student at King’s College London, studying the underlying mechanisms of pain in Parkinson’s disease.

Though my career in research is still in its infancy, I would say my proudest accomplishment to date was my first publication. Our findings led to me receiving an award from the British Association of Psychopharmacology and being invited to their annual symposium in Bristol to present the findings. It was the point that I truly felt my career and passion for science bloomed. 

The group in which I work has always been diverse and liberal, so I feel like my sexuality has always been a non-issue. As an outcome, I feel quite honoured that I am openly part of the LGBT+ community and that I am valued for my work and achievements, rather than judged for who I happen to love. I recognise, historically (and sadly, still in some areas of the world), this has not always been the case, and peoples’ careers in STEM are embroiled in discrimination. However, due to the continued and admirable work of advocates and activists, many people (myself included), are free to pursue their chosen career without prejudice. 

Brandon Chen 

Brandon is a second-year PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Michigan. His research aims to understand the metabolic implication of inter-organellar communication, such as mitochondria-lysosome and mitochondria-ER crosstalk.

My proudest scientific accomplishment was my recent contribution to my first publication in Nature as a co-author. However, my proudest accomplishment so far was being able to engage in outreach activity in undergrad and grad school to increase research exposure to URM students and communities. 

I came out to my close friends and family as a second year student in college. However, at that time I still was not comfortable coming out to my professional side of life. Therefore, I felt like I had to hide parts of my identity from being a scientist. It was not until recently as I started graduate school and engaging with more LGBTQ+ scientists in person and virtually that I became more comfortable with myself. Being queer in STEM means that I can proudly be a first-generation, gay, Taiwanese American, immigrant while doing my favorite thing; science. Moreover, hearing stories from renowned LGBTQ scientists gave me confidence that being gay does not interference with my success as a scientific researcher. I have had lots of role models along my academic journey. I believe one can never have enough mentors, and I am constantly searching for different people I can learn from, especially those who identify as LGBTQ. As a LGBTQ scientist, I strive to make STEM more welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community for the future generations.

Dr. Sarah Connolly 

Dr. Connolly is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA. Her research involves using a multiplex bead assay to measure population immunity to vaccine-preventable diseases in various countries.

I am very privileged in that my experience being queer in STEM feels just like being a scientist. I hope that by being out and celebrating our differences, we can work to make STEM a more inclusive place for everyone. I am relatively new to my position, but something in particular I hope to participate in is training in-country labs how to use the [multiplex bead] assay. The goal is to help countries develop the scientific capacity to conduct serosurveillance independently to monitor the efficacy and reach of their national immunization programs. 

[In terms of role models], I have always admired the work of Dr. Eva Harris. She leads laboratory investigations on the virology and immunology of dengue virus, and at the same time engages in community health and education programs in Nicaragua to interrupt dengue transmission. Her multidisciplinary work inspired my career goals to be both a virologist and an epidemiologist, and to work as a liaison between basic science and public health. 

Dr. Stephanie Pollitt

Dr. Pollitt is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, studying the nanostructure of synapses in the brain.

I’ve just recently graduated from the Neuroscience PhD program at Emory, where I held a three year Ruth L. Kirschstein predoctoral NRSA. That is probably my proudest accomplishment, as it took a lot of work but I earned an 8th percentile score. 

Being queer in STEM is...odd. It feels like you’re invisible. While the majority of the people I’ve worked with are perfectly fine with the LGBTQ+ community, the odd person out is often a very senior faculty member. As a result, my straight colleagues have typically already talked about the details of their spouse’s name, occupation, age, etc. before I feel comfortable even coming out to them. And that goes double as a bisexual, because I often get questions like “But weren’t you dating a man a few months ago? How does that work?” I don’t mind explaining things to people, but not at work, and not the same questions over and over that are easy to look up for themselves. 

As a grad student, it can be tough to find someone in the lab who is willing to take the time away from their own work to help you. I was lucky enough to work with a great postdoc who taught me a lot. When I came out, he didn’t blink an eye. He treated me no differently, neither ignoring my identity nor hyper fixating on it, which made the lab a much more comfortable training environment.

George Inglis

Associate Editor, Springer Nature

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