LGBT and a Scientist

This post was written by an anonymous member in the geosciences who identifies with the LGBT community~

Being part of the LGBT community and a scientist can be a lonely experience. I have been involved with academia in some way since I began my freshman year in 2003. During this time, I have met just six openly queer people in the sciences. This includes my time at three different universities, in four different departments, and at three professional conferences. Of course there were probably others, but where were they? It’s a question that many are asking (Why Is Science So Straight?, Is Science Too Straight?). From what I’ve read, there are about the same number of self-reported LGBT people in the sciences as in any other career field, but they are not as out as some other professions.

Yoder and Mattheis (2015) created an online survey of LGBT people in STEM fields (Queer in STEM) and published their results in the Journal of Homosexuality. A second survey was completed just a few months ago, but the results from the first survey showed: 1) participants were more open about their queerness with family and friends far more so than with colleagues and students, 2) individuals in STEM academia were about as open as those in nonacademic fields, 3) however, people in geosciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology were less likely to be out than those in life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. They also found that people belonging to departments with more women were more likely to be out. Lastly, they confirmed that those who belong to departments that are perceived as being accepting and supportive were more likely to be out than those in departments less accepting and supportive.

So we’re out there, but there are many obstacles. Shame, fear, and the other usual suspects keep people in the closet. But in the sciences, there is the old idea that only the research matters, and the personal is not brought into the lab (‘No sexuality please, we’re scientists‘). It may be the there are some LGBT people who don’t care about revealing this aspect of themselves, and it may be indifference, not hostility on the part of their straight peers. Queer scientists are writing about their experiences and bringing awareness of our issues to a larger audience (Why scientists should march with Pride, LGBT in STEM: Progress but still many obstacles).

For me, whether I’m out or not has depended on a lot of variables. When I was an undergraduate in the early to mid-2000s, I was very cautious. As a freshman, only roommate knew, but I let more people know as I got older and made closer friendships. I was pretty comfortable with my bio cohort, but I really panicked at field camp because I just wasn’t sure how they would respond. It became a non-issue, I really worried about it. Grad school was fine, and I actually met other LGBT people in that department for the first time! However, there was an incident that has stayed with me. We were having a discussion about wild times in undergrad, and I told a story about going to the club (a gay one, of course), and one grad student said “Oh my god, everything has to be gay with you! You mention it all the time!” But that’s my life, and it was a gay club, so that is important. I’m still bothered by this.

I’ve been an adjunct for two different departments. With the geology department, I had no issues coming out right away to the faculty. Of course, I knew many of them already, so that helped. I even discussed it a bit with my chair. With the chemistry department, I’ve been very careful. I’m out to only two coworkers, and I don’t see that number changing anytime soon. As I’ve started preparing for new career as a teacher, I’m wondering what it will be like in a high school. There are no state or federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, so I may have to be in the closet again at work.

It’s been interesting writing and researching for this, because it’s made me look back on my time as a student, and I can see the progress we’ve made. The presence of persons who identify with the LGBT community is getting better, and we just have to be as authentic and honest as we can safely be. So if you are LGBT and can’t find anyone else, know that there are other scientists like you, and you will find us eventually!

Citations: Jeremy B. Yoder PhD & Allison Mattheis PhD (2015) Queer in STEM: Workplace Experiences Reported in a National Survey of LGBTQA Individuals in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Careers, Journal of Homosexuality, 63:1, 1-27, DOI:

Undergraduate Research Experience

Jen here-

All of us have taken wildly different journeys to get to where we are today. I’d like to share part of mine with you all and emphasize the importance of undergraduate research. Although I am currently in a geology PhD program I started out as a Biological Sciences major. When I started my undergraduate career I wanted to become an orthodontist – this slowly changed to medical examiner to I have no idea. The spring semester that I was supposed to graduate I took a course in the Earth and Environmental Science Department to fulfill my last 300-level course requirement. The course was “Introduction to Paleontology” with Dr. Roy Plotnick. I immediately became enamored with the content and scheduled a meeting to talk with him. He offered me a research assistant position to work in his lab and I accepted. I decided to stay for an additional year to get a minor in Earth and Environmental Science.

I did not know much about undergraduate research when I started out my new position as research assistant. Roy had several projects going on at the time. I started in on one working to assess how a specific type of brachiopod interacted with the seafloor. This involved me using a force gauge to measure the amount of force required to push the creature into various types of sediment. I also explored a specific type of crinoid holdfast (the part that secures them to the seafloor) and how it acted almost like an anchor. Roy gave me the freedom to explore the experimental process. He had a variety of tools and materials to experiment with and I was able to build different types of holdfasts and use the force gauge to drag them through different types of sediment. This was not only fun but it was a huge boost in my confidence. I was conducting my own experiments and collecting data.

A young, awkward Jen conducting undergraduate research in Dr. Roy Plotnick’s lab circa 2012.

I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in paleontology. I had become very interested in the extinction dynamics of the Late Devonian. I did an independent study with Roy examining the changes in cephalopod diversity during this dynamic time. I began applying for graduate school in all the wrong ways. I attempted to contact faculty members but they weren’t very good at emailing me back so I would go ahead and apply rather than attempt to contact them again. This mostly resulted in me losing a lot of money on applications. Many of the faculty I applied to work with simply had no funding for students that year. One day Roy brought in an article that was recently published in GSA Today by Dr. Alycia Stigall. This article was titled, Speciation collapse and invasive species dynamics during the Late Devonian “Mass Extinction” and, of course, sparked my interest. I exchanged several emails with Alycia before applying (late) to her program. A few months later I was accepted to work with Alycia for the fall of 2012. Thus, beginning my long journey through graduate school. Without the random chance encounter with Roy during my undergraduate career, I would not be where I am today. His encouragement, support, and enthusiasm provided the best working environment for me to officially become a scientist.

Not all undergraduate research experiences result in positive experiences as mine did. By reaching out to faculty members and participating in different research projects you will quickly find out what you like and dislike! There is no harm in talking to faculty or graduate students about your research interests. It is very likely that they have similar interests or know people that do.

Advice from a recent grad school graduate

Sarah here –
If you’re applying to graduate school, have recently started, or are even a year or two into your program, I’m sure you’ve gotten tons of advice from professors, current students, the internet, random strangers, all over. I hope you’ll read this, anyhow-I hope that my advice will be a little different from the others from whom you’ve already listened.

Jen and Sarah presenting their workshop material at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Nashville in 2016.
1. Find friends (and colleagues!) From the minute you step into higher education, it can feel very isolating. You take classes with the same people; you research with an even smaller group of people; often, you don’t even know other graduate students from outside your department. It’s a big change from undergrad to grad school, for sure, and even more than that, oftentimes, graduate students are pressured to compete with one another. It’s the sad truth, but there are limited resources-your advisor’s time, grant money, etc.-our first instincts are to compete with everyone around us to get ahead. In reality, there will always be a little bit of competition, no matter what. But what is often missed is that graduate school doesn’t have to be this a lot of the time-nor should it be. You’re surrounded by some of the best and the brightest around. Why not take this opportunity to learn from them?
If I had to pick the most important relationship I made out of graduate school, it wouldn’t be with my advisor, with my committee, or with contacts I made at conferences. It was my labmate, Jen. She and I traded every single piece of our written work back and forth and we edited them mercilessly until they were flawless-grant proposals, emails, papers, job applications, you name it. We encouraged each other through all of our applications, even though we applied to all of the same ones-and many times, one of us was chosen while the other wasn’t. We’ve come up with research project ideas for the other, and some that we could collaborate together on. While we were competing for the same grants, we never actively competed against one another and put the other down. As a result, I have a wonderful friend, an editor, and an irreplaceable research collaborator, all in one. When graduate school felt unbearable, I’d turn to Jen for help, and without fail, I’d feel like I could handle it again. This relationship is so important; academia is hard. You need someone that you can trust and someone who can remind you of how far you have come-everyone needs some kind of support-don’t struggle by yourself. Everyone is struggling, even if they don’t say it. Be that uplifting person for someone else-be humble, be kind, and build a supportive community for you and your fellow classmates.

2. Find a hobby! Many of us feel like hobbies take away from the whole reason we’re in graduate school-to learn! We need to read papers and research and teach (and sleep-but only if we’ve finished work!). This is probably the worst thing you can do for yourself. Grad school is isolating enough-don’t further push yourself into a bubble. Find a hobby-a club, a new sport, anything-to join. Go every week. Don’t make exceptions, even if you feel like you’re just too busy-make your one or two hours a week just as mandatory as your classwork. Make friends outside of your department and even-dare I say it?-outside of academia! I didn’t do this during my master’s degree-I spent two years at the office from 7AM-9PM most days (including the weekends). I was lonely, miserable, and as a result, I don’t think I performed as well as I could have. During my Ph.D., I took up Middle Eastern dancing-once or twice a week-I made many new friends, learned a new skill that had nothing to do with geology, and most importantly: it gave me something to look forward to every week: a reward for surviving another week of graduate school. My second hobby, which wasn’t something I did in a group, but was so healing all the same: reading for fun. I made both of these a priority during my Ph.D. I read for fun 15 minutes a night before bed (yes, even on nights I went to bed at 4AM) and always went to dance class. You’d be surprised what having hobbies can do to restore your happiness and sanity.

Sarah and Jen presenting fossil material to the local Girls Inc. chapter of Knoxville!

3. Do some outreach! I’m a paleontologist-this means that I get to spend my days talking about dinosaurs and playing in the dirt (even though I don’t study dinosaurs). This means that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to talk to countless K-12 classrooms and to fossil collecting clubs. A lot of people view this as a waste of time, that it might take away precious time from research-sure, you could look at it that way. But here’s what I got out of it: by all of these interactions-from working with girls’ after school groups to teach them confidence, to talking to families about the rocks they had collected, I learned to talk about my science in very understandable terms to all kinds of people. Communication isn’t a very easy skill-many of the scientists I meet at conferences, even scientists within my discipline, have a hard time explaining their research, even to other scientists. We forgot that if other people can’t understand your work, you’re not doing the best job that you can. My work with kids and non-scientist adults has given me so many opportunities to try different explanations and pictures so that I can talk to just about anyone about what I do-this has even helped me learn how to speak to scientists outside of my discipline. Also, consider what got you interested in science-a lot of us will remember learning about dinosaurs or volcanoes or something that really excited you. When you talk to these kids, you’re showing them that they, too, could become the next generation’s scientists. If you’re a woman, or a person of color, a veteran, a person with a disability, or someone who is LGBT-this can mean even more to kids who might not have had any idea someone like them could ever become someone like you. So go call an elementary school or find a local group that you can go share your love of whatever it is that you study-it will make you a better communicator and you might just be the inspiration for the next amazing person in your field. I know when I’m stressed or even sometimes really considering whether I made the right career choice (who hasn’t wondered that in academia?), being able to share my love of fossils with people who think dinosaurs are just as cool as I do is one of the best things to remind me that I am doing the thing I love most on Earth. Share your passion! You won’t regret it.

Grad school can be an amazing experience, as much as it can be a very stressful one. Remember to take time for yourself, share your love of science, find colleagues that support you, and try to be that uplifting person for someone else. It’s worth it.

Ten years in college, now what?

Sarah here to write about the slightly less fun, and the certainly less glamorous, side of science: becoming gainfully employed as a scientist after graduate school. My experiences are within applying to academic jobs (visiting professorships, tenure track professorships, postdoctoral researchers, museum curators, etc.). Academic job applications are quite a bit different than many other job applications. Here’s the step-by-step breakdown of how to apply to an academic job:

Lab group photo at Sarah’s graduation. Maggie and Jen were both ushers during the ceremony!
    1. Look for openings. Academic jobs are few and far between. A lot of the times, there are many more people applying than there are jobs in academia (essentially, universities or museums). Therefore, competition is stiff! To keep this from getting out of control in length, we’re going to keep this post about professor jobs. When a department decides they need a professor in a new area of research (like paleontology), they’ll make a request to the university. They’ll explain to the university why they need a paleontologist-what types of research they will bring to the department, what classes they’ll teach, what graduate students they’ll recruit, etc. The university will typically send all of the proposals they get in a year to the university board that will approve or deny the requests. Let’s say we’re approved for our paleontology hire-yay! We’ll send out a job advertisement for the position with a basic list of what the department would like to see (For example: “We seek a paleontologist for a tenure track position starting next fall. The candidate will be expected to develop a thriving research program, mentor graduate students, and teach courses”). This means that your college professors probably had little or no choice in where they moved for their jobs. It all depends on what university wants a professor in your field at the right time.

    2. Apply! Great! We have a cool job to apply to-what do we do to prove to them we’re the perfect person for the job? First, you write a cover letter. The cover letter is a one-two page document that is a brief overview of who you are, what your qualifications are, and why you think you’re the very best person for this job. Next, you write a teaching statement (or a teaching philosophy). This covers your general philosophy on how you view teaching-do you use active learning and hands-on examples? How do you grade students-by exams, projects, both? You talk about the types of classes you can teach at that university and the classes you’d like to add to their roster. This can be a few pages in length. Next comes your research statement -teaching is only a part of what university professors do; you’re expected to do a lot of research (that is hopefully funded by scientific agencies, like the National Science Foundation). Your research statement should talk about all the research you currently do-it should be framed as “the big picture”. For example, my research statement talks about how I study long-term trends in evolution and how evolutionary trends might be tied to climate change in the fossil record. Your research statement should cover where you think you’ll get external funding for research and new projects you’d like to get to in the future! Your C.V. (the academic resume) is the last thing that is typically required. It lists all your publications, grants, classes taught, outreach, and more, so the interviewers can learn more about what you do. Some universities require different statements in addition to your teaching and research, like a diversity statement. A diversity statement covers your commitment to supporting all people in your field and how you will help students from different backgrounds succeed.

    3. Interview! A committee of professors will read all the statements and compile a “short list” of a varying number of applicants. This short list will be contacted-a lot of the times, they’ll ask for letters of recommendation for the people who made the short list. A typical interview will consist of a Skype or phone interview. They’ll ask questions about your research goals, your teaching style, why do you want to work at that school, etc. If they decide you’re one of their top candidates, they’ll then invite you (and 2-4 others, typically) to come to a campus interview.

    4. Campus visit! The campus visit (one that I’ve made a few times) is a really weird kind of job interview-it starts when someone picks you up at the airport (typically a professor) and ends whenever you get returned. The interview day can last all day (I have had two that were 13 hours long). You meet with as many professors as can be met with, have lunch with students or more faculty, give a talk about your research to the department, and sometimes a second talk, a teaching demo, so they can see how good you’ll be at instructing their students. You’ll have a formal sit down interview with the search committee at some point during the day, too.

    5. Accept?! Congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a job! Now, you need to negotiate the terms: salary, money for start up (this means the equipment you want to buy for your research), a university position for your spouse, if you need one, moving expenses, teaching load, and more. If this position isn’t a good fit for you, you might not want to take it, even if jobs are hard to come by. Weigh your options and make the best decision for yourself.

It can take many years for a scientist to earn a tenure-track faculty position. Very few scientists are able to attain this type of position immediately after graduate school. But that doesn’t mean you should not try and tenure track positions are not for everyone. There are some industry positions available for people who obtain a Ph.D.

Sarah is currently working at the University of South Florida where she has a position as a visiting faculty member. She and Jen are currently compiling application packets for this upcoming cycle.

Non-Research Weeks

Jen here-

Today I’m going to talk about what I have been up to this past week. I recently traveled to Gainesville, Florida to participate in a workshop at the Florida Museum of Natural History through the myFOSSIL program. I’ll be writing up a full education and outreach post on that soon but check out my blog for photos by clicking here! After the workshop I was fortunate enough to spend time with some of my family in Tampa.

This week I have gotten zero research done. Sometimes this happens and it’s okay but it’s also very stressful. Work doesn’t stop while you are away so emails pile up and you may miss deadlines if you aren’t very careful. During my family time I had to organize a session for an upcoming conference with one of my mentors, work on Time Scavengers, help my project collaborator email teachers, and work on my job application packets. This was pretty minor as I don’t have any serious deadlines coming up. But I feel guilty about not working more even though this was my personal time to spend with my family.

Jen with the container of dead animal bits once we had gotten them to the new building.

Once I got back to work I spent several hours cleaning out my emails, catching up with my peers, and running to various meetings around campus. I also got to help one of our faculty members move her freezer full of animal parts (mostly cow… I think…). Things seemed to keep piling up one after another! It didn’t take us very long but one of her coolers was stolen so we had to pack up frozen bits into a large container in the back of her truck! Everything worked out well but man it was a weird morning! How do you get back to a regular week after a week of total chaos? Well, one day at a time I’m taking the weekend to relax and periodically finish catching up on work from the last week or so. I contact my friends and family that I haven’t been able to speak with a lot lately. This helps ground me and remind me that work should not be all consuming!

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of G. fistulosus a planktic foraminifera that Adriane saw earlier this week.
I’ve been really fortunate to get to speak with Adriane a LOT while she has been on her cruise. She is learning so much and meeting amazing people! Unfortunately, she has a bit of a cold but is on the mend. We miss having our weekly Google Hangout about Time Scavengers but are so grateful we can still communicate.

I hope this posts reminds people that self-care is vital for a productive life! Take time for yourself and it’s okay if your week is filled with meetings, travel, and bits of dead animals.