Transgender Day of Visibility: Trainee Spotlight

This year at Communications Biology, we wanted to celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility by highlighting researchers at multiple career stages. Here, we asked predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows about their own achievements, academic experiences, and how STEM can better support trans researchers.

Like Comment
Read the paper

Dr. Beck Wehrle (he/him/his)

Dr. Wehrle is a postdoctoral research fellow in ecological physiology at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on nutrients and relies on marine invertebrates to determine the mechanisms of digestive enzyme responses during heat stress.

For much of my scientific career, Drs. Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres were the only trans biologists I knew of. Their visibility offered some hope that it was possible to be both trans and a biologist, which I've unfortunately been brought to question that more than once. Dr. Roughgarden’s activity in evolution and ecology (particularly herpetology) was especially inspiring, given its proximity to some of my own research interests. Her book, Evolution’s Rainbow, is an iconic example of how our trans and queer identities can inform our scientific philosophies. I regret that I never reached out to Dr. Barres before his death. I assumed that more established trans scientists would not want to be contacted in conjunction with our shared identities - perhaps that they had more important work to do. However, I recently learned that he, like me, was clear about his interest in mentoring young trans biologists. I wish that I had not missed out on that connection.

As for non-trans (cisgender) people, my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Donovan German, has been my constant champion for the past decade. Scientifically, his passion for nutritional physiology has helped me develop my niche in the field; personally, his practice of elevating scientists' human experiences has encouraged me to thrive, and influenced my choices regarding academic cultures. Drs. Virginia Brothers and Joan Egrie have worked for decades to encourage girls in STEM, and I have benefited greatly from their attention since childhood. Their immediate, uncomplicated acceptance of my transition offered a beacon of stability in a complicated time, and their unwavering support of my career goals has been immensely valuable.

Trans people face real danger in our lives because of our gendered experiences. Efforts from our scientific and academic communities to include us are important, but working to further our safety and survival are essential This is especially true for trans women/femmes of color. Many of us have encountered barriers specific to our trans experience that have hindered or isolated us from a "normal" experience of science. Recognize the implications of these distancing factors, and help us connect with each other and those who will help us achieve our goals. For trans people,  just getting by in the world often involves "off-the-clock" pursuit of scholarship in fields other than our science (e.g. gender studies, critical theory, public health, endocrinology, etc.). As a side benefit, we bring an unusually high level of interdisciplinary knowledge and approaches to our fields. Encourage us, and help us foster these skills. Listen to us, use your voices to make space for our perspectives, and you will find your academic communities enriched in a multitude of ways.

Dr. Iris Young (he/him/his)

Dr. Young is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, with a focus on developing structural biology data processing methods, including how to better reconstruct electrostatic potential maps from cryo-electron microscopy data. He also acts as one of the team leads for the crystallography subgroup in the Quantitative Biosciences Institute Coronavirus Research Group. @irisdyoung

My greatest accomplishment so far has been my Ph.D. project investigating the water-splitting mechanism of oxygenic photosynthesis by way of time-resolved X-ray free electron laser diffraction experiments — that was extremely demanding and extremely cool.

All five of my formal mentors during my graduate and postdoctoral work have been amazing and critical mentors in different ways. Vittal Yachandra, Junko Yano and Jan Kern (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) had this enormous confidence in me and gave me every opportunity to find out what I was capable of, and Nick Sauter (also LBNL) took a huge chance on me, taking on a grad student with almost no coding experience to join a software development group. Now at UCSF I’m working with James Fraser who is just the epitome of supportive and is incredibly skilled at directing people’s energy to help them get where they want to be, and I'm working closely with Alexis Rohou at Genentech who is equally amazing. I’ve been ridiculously lucky.

I would like to see a wider understanding of the fact that science is political and politics shapes people’s lives, including the lives of our colleagues. My existence is political now. When something is “political” it does not mean every stance is equally valid; it means powerful people disagree on it. Some of those stances are work-appropriate to condemn. Of course everyone has a right to their opinion, which is their extrapolation of “should” and “shouldn’t” given the facts, but it is our responsibility to debunk misinformation that is weaponized against marginalized people and to demand the humane and equitable treatment of our colleagues. 

Nic Janto (they/them)

Nic is a first-year PhD Student in the Genetics and Molecular Biology program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. They are currently rotating in Dr. Adam Gracz's lab, working on a project to understand the genetic regulatory mechanisms by which biliary epithelial cells transdifferentiate into hepatocytes following liver injury. @NicJanto

I’ve been really excited about the research I’ve been able to get involved in during my first year of graduate school, and my proudest accomplishment so far was simply getting here! I earned my undergraduate degree from a small, private, non-research institution and I wasn’t sure I would be able to get accepted to grad school on my first application cycle since I didn’t have as much research experience as most other applicants. But I surprised myself and wound up here at Emory the fall after I graduated with my Bachelor’s.

Growing up in a rather conservative town and attending a small Catholic college, you can imagine I didn’t have many queer role models in STEM or in any other areas of my life. But a key mentor who played a major role in getting me to where I am now was my college professor Dr. Ryan King. I ended up taking three different biology classes taught by him during my time at St. Norbert College, in which he must have seen potential in me that I wasn’t always too convinced of myself. He encouraged me to apply to NSF REUs for a summer research experience at a larger institution and to apply to grad school, both of which he wrote letters of recommendation for. I haven’t decided quite yet what I want to do after earning my PhD, but it’s professors like Dr. King who make me want to stay in academia to teach and mentor students and help them realize their potential the way he did for me.

By far the most powerful thing STEM can do to support transgender researchers, and the transgender community as a whole, is to stand up against those who wield science as a weapon against transgender people and to justify their transphobia. Many people try to use oversimplified “basic biology” to invalidate the trans experience and bar access to trans related healthcare. But the truth is that biology is highly nuanced and almost always operates on spectrums. Our current understanding of biology cannot explain why people are transgender, and it’s possible it never fully will given the profound social influence on gender and transgender identities. But the absence of an explanation for a phenomenon does not negate or invalidate its existence. In fact, any scientist knows that unexplainable phenomena are precisely what drive science forward. We’re good scientists not only when we acknowledge the unknown, but when we embrace the unknown as our source of inspiration.

Helena García-Cebollada (she/her/hers)

Helena is a predoctoral researcher in structural bioinformatics at the University of Zaragoza, in Spain. Her research assesses molecular dynamics and static structural properties to better understand and predict the impact of single amino acid mutations on the structure and function of proteins. @elhectro2

I am very proud of the two web tools we have developed: Protposer, for predicting potentially stabilizing single point mutations on proteins, and Pirepred, an interpretation tool for neonatal screening protein variants (writing in progress for both tools at the time).

My first key mentor was my Biology teacher when I was 17, who passed his passion for Biology on me and, most importantly, taught me than being different from the normative majority was not a thing to be ashamed of, on the contrary, it enriched our vision of the world and life. Further in my career, women in STEM and, specially, Dr. Margarita Salas, a Spanish biochemist whose career and speeches (which I was lucky enough to hear live) reinforced the idea that, even being part of a minoritized group, it was worth trying to develop a career on science. In the last few years, Dr. Juani Bermejo was a great example for me of being trans, activist and successful in science.

The whole STEM system needs to be rethought to support minorities, not only transgender people, from allowing name changes in academic publications (which many of them are already possible), to questioning the criteria used for establishing your career in academia. As it happens with women in STEM, the percentage of LGBTQ researchers drops in academia as the responsibility of the charge increases. This is most probably due to prejudice and evaluating criteria that do not take into account other circumstances out of the white male cis-heterocentric gaze. Thus, we scientists, science activists and science policy makers need to take active measures on creating diverse evaluating committees, safe workspaces and, especially in the case of trans people, debunking false myths used to harm and deny rights to the trans population, such as the idea of gender being fully determined by genitals.

George Inglis

Associate Editor, Springer Nature