Last Friday, November 18th, was LGBTQIA+ People in STEM Day, which was also part of Transgender Awareness Week. We sat down with four COS members within the LGBTQIA+ People in STEM community, Naomi Trevino, Jasmyn Genchev, Savannah Swinea, and Dylan Titmuss, for a Q&A on their experience, inspirations, and resources for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, in and out of the classroom.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
SAVANNAH: My name is Savannah and I use she/her pronouns. I’m a PhD student in Marine and Environmental Sciences working with Dr. Steven Scyphers. I study how the public can collaborate with scientists effectively to understand social-ecological systems along coastlines. I was born and raised in North Carolina, and I went to UNC-Chapel Hill for my undergraduate education where I studied environmental sciences.
DYLAN: My name is Dylan (they/them), and I am a queer and trans researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I received my bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (and English) from Northeastern, and I’m now working as a research assistant in marine chemistry, primarily focused on the oceanic carbon cycle. I also do population biology work with seabirds on the side!
JASMYN: I am a first year PhD Candidate at Northeastern University. I am from Flagstaff, Arizona, one of the only places in Arizona where it does snow haha. There, I got my BS in Biochemistry with an ACS certification at Northern Arizona University. I have been doing research since my freshman year, where I focused on self-assembling peptide-based vaccines for HIV, HPV, and methamphetamine addiction.
NAOMI: My name is Naomi, pronouns she/they/e. I just completed a BS in linguistics at Northeastern and now work as Assistant Program Manager for DAILP, a Cherokee language archive here at NEU.
Q: What made you get into STEM?
NAOMI: In 3rd grade I cried in the carpool after seeing the light distorted by the hear on cars– I thought it was global warming. Since then, I have put my hands and mind to work in ecology, engineering, and linguistics!
SAVANNAH: I loved math and science throughout my early education. My path to environmental science began through a middle school summer reading project when I read Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. From that point forward I was interested in overcoming climate change!
DYLAN: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with the natural world: I was a child who collected acorns and searched for crabs and studied patterns in the waves, and as I got older, I never outgrew that love and fascination – so going into natural sciences seemed like a very natural choice for me!
JASMYN: I’ve always been interested in STEM since I was very young. Growing up surrounded by the forest in northern Arizona, I have always been fascinated by nature and understanding how the world works.
Q: What has been the most challenging concept to learn in STEM so far?
NAOMI: Probably minimalist program Syntax– I know a lot about it out of spite, but I can’t agree with the idea that all language can be formed as binary combinations in the mind. I will admit Chomsky’s Syntax has done a lot for Computer Science.
SAVANNAH: My training before grad school was strictly in the natural sciences. My dissertation work involves interdisciplinary ideas and methods which draw heavily from social sciences, so it has been challenging for me to learn how to study the ways that people and nature interact. In this way, I’ve gained perspective concerning the applicability of other disciplines within the STEM field.
JASMYN: Personally, the most challenging concept I’ve had to learn in STEM is not necessarily a concrete topic but more conceptually, learning how to learn from mistakes, accept failure without giving up, and time management. It is common as scientists to push yourself, but this can easily lead to overworking yourself, not prioritizing mental health and ultimately hurting your productivity. This can feel like hitting a dead end or failing if you don’t take care of your needs. Learning how to recognize this feeling and manage it has been a continual struggle for me as a scientist.
Q: Why is LGBTQIA+ representation important in STEM and how can students get connected?
NAOMI: We learn by holding each other up and listening to those with different experiences from our own; that’s a core part of teamwork and academia and industry. Queer voices are a core part of that (whether some people like it or not).
SAVANNAH: Many of us understand the benefit of seeing people like us succeed on paths we hope to take. Creating spaces where people with diverse identities can exist and be embraced benefits everyone. This is particularly important for LGBTQIA+ identities which can at times be invisible to others, making connections and finding support systems more difficult. Highlighting representation fosters a climate beyond tolerance which ultimately is not only important for acceptance within the STEM community, but for the research and practices we contribute to our disciplines. We want LGBTQIA+ people to be able to exist with their entire self without concern for retaliation or ostracization.
DYLAN: I see LGBTQ+ representation in STEM as incredibly important because it provides both a sense of community and a powerful affirmation of belonging. I don’t think I realized how much it could mean to see queer and trans scientists ahead of me who’d “made it” until I did see some – that felt like it refuted doubts I hadn’t realized I had about how likely I was to succeed in this field in the long term. There are times when it feels overwhelming or exhausting to work in spaces that aren’t always welcoming and aren’t always comfortable and knowing that there is a community of people out there who’ve had similar experiences and who are wholeheartedly in your corner – whether or not they know you personally – can make a world of difference.
Students can get connected to other LGBTQ+ folks in STEM through various avenues: the Out in STEM (oSTEM) professional society has chapters around the world (including at Northeastern!), and for nonbinary students, the International Society of Nonbinary Scientists (ISNBS) welcomes new members from all career stages, including undergraduates! Advocacy-wise, the newly launched TGnC Fieldwork Alliance – in which we’re working to build community among trans and gender non-conforming researchers, and to share resources for making field science safer for TGNC folks – is also open to anyone who’d like to join or contribute.
JASMYN: LGBTQIA+ representation in STEM is so important especially for students because many queer students do not have stable and/or safe environments at home. These students need a place to feel safe and accepted to succeed. Homophobic culture is also prone to making those in the queer community feel that something is wrong with them, that they are disgusting, perverted or, “unnatural”. This is extremely harmful to young minds especially in STEM where we are taught to use logic to understand change mostly within the natural world.
Q: Is there a LGBTQIA+ Scientist you admire or look up to?
NAOMI: Not really, although linguistics has plenty of queer thinkers who always give me something to roll around in my head! I heard a lot of interesting things at a sociophonetics talk some time ago. (Webinar Info)
SAVANNAH: Most LGBTQIA+ scientists familiar to me are close colleagues and friends, and I respect their capacity to weather these experiences greatly. This makes me think: how many notable scientists have gone their careers without revealing their identity within this community? I hope emerging scientists feel comfortable asserting their identities in ways our predecessors could not even imagine.
DYLAN: There are so many LGBTQ+ scientists whom I look up to! When I first started working in research, I knew very few other LGBTQ+ researchers, but sometime in the spring of 2019, I discovered the community of professionals and students on “science Twitter”, and gradually got to know many of the first LGBTQ+ folks in STEM I’d met. One of the first people I remember feeling really grateful to have connected with was Dr. Alex Bond, who’s a curator at the Natural History Museum in the UK. The perspectives he voiced and the experiences he shared in his tweets showed me that I wasn’t alone in feeling how I sometimes felt in science, and that he and lots of others would be behind me if I needed. I also really admire and look up to Dr. Elizabeth Carlen, who I originally met at a conference back in 2019 – she was the first person I ever saw to include her pronouns on the title slide of a research presentation, which meant the world to me then as a semi-closeted trans student. Now that I’m much more confident sharing my identity in professional settings, my memory of how I felt seeing that slide has made it really important to me to do as much as I can to create space for other LGBTQ+ folks to feel comfortable in science as well.
JASMYN: I admire Sally Ride an astronaut and physicist for being the third women in space to fly in space, since 1963. She didn’t feel safe to fully come out as gay until after her death in 2012. And although not necessarily queer, I also highly admire Marie Curie as the first women to receive the Nobel prize and the only person to receive a Nobel prize in two scientific fields, chemistry, and physics. She is an inspiration to all women especially in male dominated fields that nothing is impossible with enough perseverance.
Q: What can the STEM community do to foster an accepting environment?
NAOMI: Please listen to your peers across academia. I’ve seen too much elitism in STEM block us from hearing important things the arts, humanities, and other fields can share with us to help us grow. As a brown low-income non-straight trans person, I don’t know if there’s a long-standing place for me in STEM right now and that sucks!
SAVANNAH: Harness your privilege! Active education and practice are key. Engage in training programs provided through the university. Foster environments in your workspace where people who are underrepresented or marginalized can discuss their experiences and concerns. Know where to guide community members when they need support you cannot provide.
DYLAN: In my opinion, one of the greatest things the STEM community can do to foster an accepting environment is to develop a norm of explicitly supporting community members of all identities and encouraging (beyond just “allowing”) all community members to exist as and share their whole selves. In practice, that can look like modeling the inclusive behaviors and attitudes we want to cultivate, as well as speaking up in instances of prejudice or disrespect. We talk sometimes about the difference between “tolerance” and “acceptance” when it comes to building inclusive environments, and to me, a crucial piece of inclusivity-focused work lies in developing folks’ willingness and ability to provide outward support when needed – to stand up on behalf of LGBTQ+ (or other historically marginalized) people, and in doing so, to alleviate some of the burden they may feel. To that end, Drs. Torrie Hanley, Katie Castagno, and I co-founded a “You Are Welcome Here” campaign in Northeastern’s Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences during the winter of 2020-2021. Along with creating stickers that department members can display to indicate their support, we’ve also held a series of workshops aiming to guide members of the department to develop the language and understanding they need to become active supporters of their LGBTQ+ colleagues, students, collaborators, etc. It’s been a really encouraging and rewarding initiative to be involved in, and I hope other groups might be able to make use of similar approaches within their communities going forward!
JASMYN: The STEM community is already much better than it was just a few years ago which is wonderful news. But it still has a long way to go. The best was to foster an open environment to the queer community is to hire more open minded and queer faculty who feel safe to speak about their struggles and identities without fear of consequences from administration or students. What can also help is bringing in queer speakers in STEM to recognize their scientific work and maybe highlight their place in the queer community. This could promote positive discussion about gender identity and sexuality in a scientific environment.
Q: What are some resources for LGBTQIA+ People in STEM and campus-wide?
NAOMI: First of all, I must shout out mutual aid support networks and organizations for other queer people, getting things for cheap or free goes a long way! Similarly, go for any disciplinary-specific money you can get your hands on!
SAVANNAH: Within the university, the LGBTQA Resource Center has some wonderful people, as well as the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Confidential services can be sought out through University Health and Counseling Services and the Sexual Violence Resource Center. You can also file anonymous claims through the Office for University Equity and Compliance.
DYLAN: Outside of the university, those of us with You Are Welcome Here within the MES department have compiled a list of peer-reviewed articles, news articles, national reports, and LGBTQ-in-STEM organizations. Please feel free to reach out to one of us for more details!
During my time at Northeastern, I found one of the best resources for LGBTQ+ people (within and outside STEM) to be the LGBTQA Resource Center on campus – in my experience, it was an incredible source of support/resources in responding to challenges or issues that came up in institution-related contexts, and a really lovely place to meet other students and feel a sense of community.
JASMYN: OSTEM is a great resource for queer students in the STEM community, it is a nonprofit organization for LGBTQIA+ people in STEM. It aims to empower and promote success for queer individuals through a safe and supportive environment. Northeastern also offers a series of safe spaces run by student groups as well as helplines from parent groups (such a PFlag), students, and professionals in health.