UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Coming out: the experience of LGBT+ people in STEM Barres, Ben; Montague-Hellen, Beth; Yoder, Jeremy Apr 4, 2017

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Q & A Open AccessComing out: the experience of LGBT+people in STEM3*[1] has shown that many STEM workplaces andprofessional culture can exclude people who identifytime I transitioned, all of my friends, students, andBox 1 Contributors’ research interestsBen Barres (BB): My lab is focused on understanding the natureof neuron–glia interactions in health and disease. Recent studieshave focused on understanding the role of synaptic phagocytosisby astrocytes in CNS synaptic plasticity underlying learning andmemory, how oligodendrocytes differentiate and myelinate, theroles of microglia, and reactive astrocytes. We have recentlydiscovered that reactive astrocytes are highly neurotoxic after CNSinjury and in neurodegenerative diseases; we are purifying andidentifying this neurotoxin to further investigate its contribution toneuronal death and synapse loss in these diseases.Beth Montague-Hellen (BMH): My research interests havemostly been in the area of mammalian comparative genomics,living communities and habitats creates and maintainslinatione andn wildflowerthat corresponds with my internal feelings and havenever regretted this decision.BMH: I’ve never really been in a position to hidemy sexuality; for most of my adult life it’s mostlybeen a case of confirming that I was gay rather than“coming out.” As a PhD student I was the LGBT SUBarres et al. Genome Biology  (2017) 18:62 DOI 10.1186/s13059-017-1198-y3Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of BritishColumbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canadainterior spruce.Fairchild Building D235, 299 Campus Drive MC5125, Stanford, CA 94305, USA2Research Services Unit, The University Library, University of Sheffield,Sheffield S10 2TN, UKcalled barrel medick, and I’m currently working on a study of thegenomic basis of adaptation to climate in lodgepole pine and* Correspondence: barres@standford.edu; e.hellen@sheffield.ac.uk;jbyoder@mail.ubc.ca1Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University School of Medicine,populations of plants—I’ve studied the intimate polmutualism of Joshua trees and adaptation to climatnitrogen-fixing symbiotic bacteria by a Mediterraneacolleagues have been very strongly supportive. I havebeen far happier living openly in the gender identitybiodiversity. Most of my research has focused on naturalBB: About 2 years after I started my lab at Stanford,I realized that I was transgender and decided to tran-sition from female to male. As this was 23 years ago,a time when there had been few openly transgenderscientists, I did initially worry about potential reper-cussions to my career. However, after discussing withseveral close colleagues, I decided that my friendsand colleagues would be supportive. Indeed from theparticularly regarding non-coding sequences such as transposableas LGBT+ (Fig. 1). Genome Biology spoke to BethMontague-Hellen, Jeremy Yoder, and Ben Barres abouttheir personal experiences.You’ve each spoken openly and publicly aboutyour experiences. What would you say influencedyour choice about coming out in the workplace/asa graduate student?Ben Barres1*, Beth Montague-Hellen2* and Jeremy YoderAbstractContinuing with our Q&A series discussing issues ofdiversity in STEM fields, Genome Biology spoke withthree openly LGBT+ researchers on their experiencesin biology.Despite growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual,transgender people (LGBT; subsequently LGBT+ toencompass a spectrum of genders and sexualities),discrimination and alienation remain. A recent report© The Author(s). 2017 Open Access This articInternational License (http://creativecommonsreproduction in any medium, provided you gthe Creative Commons license, and indicate if(http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zeelements and regulatory elements. However, recently my interestshave started moving towards research data management anddeveloping ways to help and encourage other researchers toshare data.Jeremy Yoder (JY): I study the ways in which interacting speciesshape each other’s evolution, and how adaptation to differentle is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, andive appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link tochanges were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiverro/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.alsBarres et al. Genome Biology  (2017) 18:62 Page 2 of 4officer at Sussex University, so I had a large profileas an LGBT+ student, I knew other LGBT+ PhDFig. 1 LGBT+ scientists aren’t all that out of the lab closet. STEM profession(no one knows) to 5 (everyone knows) [1]students and the campus was very welcoming any-way. In other institutions I have not always felt thatit was as easy to come out and talk about my life asan LGBT+ person, but I’ve also always felt that itwas important that I did, to provide a visible personother LGBT+ students and researchers couldidentify.JY: Well, for me, graduate school was the stage inmy life when I first met openly gay people and madegay friends. It’s embarrassing in retrospect, but that’spretty much all there is to it. I’d had a conservativeupbringing and hadn’t really been able to picture afuture in which I could be fully myself and have thelife I wanted—and then I met well-adjusted, happilyout folks and learned about senior biologists who’dbeen out for decades. It’s no exaggeration to say thatscience was my “safe space.”Can you comment on any barriers or unconsciousbiases you have experienced as a scientist thatare not experienced by straight/cis-genderedpeople?BB: Having lived life first as a woman and then as aman, like most transgender people, I am very awareof the different ways that society often treats peoplesimply based on their gender. These experiences havemade me very aware that women scientists still facesubstantial barriers in their careers that men do notgenerally face. These barriers indeed sometimes comerate their openness about LGBT+ identities in different contexts, from 0from unconscious bias, but also sometimes from quiteconscious bias. I have heard many senior male scientistssay they do not like to take women trainees for fear theymay have a baby while in their lab. The barriers also comefrom the persisting academic structures that were initiallyset up for men by men. The tenure clock is a very goodexample of such a barrier as it strikes just as women arein their final reproductive years. We should not eliminatetenure, but we should find a way to let all faculty makethis tenure at an appropriate rate. A solution I favor is togrant tenure on the day a faculty member begins theirassistant professorship. They would still have to make pro-motions but they could do this at the rate that was rightfor their circumstances. Yes the downside would be thatoccasionally people would be tenured inappropriately butin a supportive environment this is unlikely to happenoften as young scientists who win job searches havetypically been highly successful as PhD students, again aspostdocs, and then win a highly competitive search—howmany times does a young scientist have to prove herself?Granting tenure on the day assistant professorship startswould also have an enormous upside for men as well aswomen, as all young faculty would not be put in a risk-averse mode at the very start of their careers.BMH: Regarding unconscious biases, I’ve felt thatmy butch/masculine identity has actually helped mein my career. Bioinformatics tends to be one of theBarres et al. Genome Biology  (2017) 18:62 Page 3 of 4more male-heavy disciplines in the biological sciencesand I’ve often felt that it may be easier for me than forsomeone who was more feminine. However, it hasn’talways been rosy. I’ve found that while political de-bates regarding LGBT+ rights are happening col-leagues often feel free to discuss these issues as if youare not there or as if these issues don’t have a directbearing on your life. This was particularly the case forme while a postdoc during the UK equal marriage de-bates, so much so that at times I would actively try toavoid collaborating with or interacting with colleagueswho I knew might have views opposed to the progres-sion of LGBT+ rights.JY: I honestly haven’t been aware of bias or careerbarriers resulting from my identity as a gay man. I wantto emphasize, though, that I’ve been fortunate to be ina field that tends to attract liberal folks—evolutionarybiology. I also have advantages stemming from otherelements of my identity that make life easier—I’mwhite, my gender identity corresponds with what I wasassigned at birth, and I had a middle-class upbringingby parents who both went to college. In part because Iknew my experience might be unrepresentative, I wentlooking for data on LGBTQ representation and experi-ences in science a few years ago, and I stumbled into awonderful collaboration with a friend who is a social sci-entist, Allison Mattheis. We surveyed STEM professionalswho identify as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or otherwise queer,and called it the Queer in STEM project [2]. We foundthat experiences can vary quite a bit in different STEMfields and in different workplaces [1]. Of the more than1400 people who participated, a large majority told usthey were open about their LGBTQ identity in theirpersonal lives; but a substantial fraction also said thatnone of their colleagues, coworkers, or students knew.That’s bad for psychological well-being, career satisfac-tion, and productivity.What have been your biggest challenges andgreatest opportunities in your career?BB: The greatest challenge in my career was deciding towork on a cell type—glia—that was widely consideredto be unimportant and therefore largely neglected.Given that glia constitute most of the cells in the hu-man brain, I was just curious to know more about theirfunction. It seemed obvious to me that they were im-portant, but my grant reviewers often disagreed! Select-ing to work on glia was also a substantial challenge asit meant that I had to spend a lot of effort developingtools to study them. After 35 years of working on glialcells, the times have changed and due to our work andmany others it is now clear that neuron–glial interac-tions are critically important in both health and disease.So in a way deciding to work on glia turned out to beboth the biggest challenge but also the greatest oppor-tunity in my career.BMH: At the end of my first postdoctoral job I de-cided to move to America to work at Rutgers Universityfor a year. Given the current political climate I’m glad Iwent then rather than now, but the decision to move toa country where I felt many people were less welcomingof my sexuality and gender expression was a rather scaryone. Due to laws regarding the definition of a spouse,my wife stayed in England, which made the decisioneven more difficult; however, I believe that taking thatjump and facing my fears was an amazing experience,greatly helped my career and, if anything, made my rela-tionship stronger.JY: I think my biggest challenges have been the onesshared by most scientists of my generation—building aresearch reputation in an era of tight scientific fund-ing and an ever-more-competitive academic job mar-ket. I just accepted a faculty position that I’m veryexcited about, but it took more than 6 years of post-doc work, two cross-country moves, and scores ofapplications.What more can be done to encourage andsupport LGBTQIA scientists?BB: As an openly transgender scientist for the past23 years, I have come to realize that having openlyLGBT role models intensely matters to the young gener-ation. I have been contacted by many young scientistsstruggling with whether to be open about their sexualorientation or gender identity. Many have commentedthat it has really helped them to decide to be open toknow of other LGBT scientists who are open. I am al-ways surprised that even in the Bay Area there aremany LGBT students and scientists that are still in thecloset. I do not fault these people as their experiencesmay have been different than mine, they may live indifferent parts of the country where bigotry may bemore prevalent, and they may have experienced morebarriers in their lives. But I would argue that presentlythe advantages far outweigh the risk. The vast majorityof academics are highly supportive. It is very difficultto live life in a closet. It does not make sense to dothis because of an occasional bigot, and of course asmore LGBT people are open, ignorance is lessenedand the path forward gets easier for all. I alwayscounsel young scientists to be open about who theyare and I have yet to have anyone tell me they regret-ted this decision.BMH: While I think institutions have a duty to en-sure that their policies protect and encourage LGBT+scientists, I believe that one of the best things that canbe done is for us to stand up as a community to say“Here we are.” I’ve instigated several projects to thiseffect. The first project is the LGBT STEM blog [3] andTwitter account (@LGBTSTEM)—a collection of pro-files of LGBT+ scientists which is growing all the time.The second is the LGBTSTEMinar [4], a conferencewhich has been held at the University of Sheffield forBarres et al. Genome Biology  (2017) 18:62 Page 4 of 4the last 2 years showcasing science, technology, engin-eering, and maths research being carried out by LGBT+individuals and encouraging networking within thecommunity.JY: A key finding from the Queer in STEM surveyproject is that concrete employer policies really doseem to make a difference—participants who saidtheir employers provided same-sex partner benefits orsupport for name changes associated with gendertransitions, for instance, were more likely to be outof the closet at work. We also found an interestingpattern that participants were more open if theyworked in STEM fields with better representation ofwomen. That suggests to me that diversity could havea multiplicative effect, and as the “typical” image of ascientist comes to encompass more types of people,STEM will become more welcoming to an evenbroader array of identities. There’s a lot of work todo, but I’m optimistic to see the scientific methodcan be used to help make scientific careers accessibleto more people—which will ultimately make sciencework better for everyone.Authors’ contributionsBB, BMH, and JY drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved thefinal version.Competing interestsThe authors declare that they have no competing interests.Publisher’s NoteSpringer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in publishedmaps and institutional affiliations.References1. Yoder JB, Mattheis A. Queer in STEM: workplace experiences reported in anational survey of LGBTQIA individuals in science, technology, engineering,and mathematics careers. J Homosex. 2016;63:1–27.2. Queer in STEM. A study of sexualities and gender diversity in science,technology, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.queerstem.org/.Accessed 20 Mar 2017.3. About LGBT STEM. https://lgbtstem.wordpress.com. Accessed 20 Mar 2017.4. LGBT STEM. LGBT STEMinar. https://lgbtstem.wordpress.com/lgbt-steminar-2017.Accessed 20 Mar 2017.

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