Happy Pride Month! This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Lauren Esposito, an arachnologist, educator, and co-founder of the campaign 500 Queer Scientists, which launched today! 500QS is a new visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies working in STEMM and STEMM-supporting jobs. In this interview, Lauren chats about her work and the need raise awareness around issues facing LGBTQ+ members of the scientific community. You can follow 500QS and amplify their work on Twitter @500QueerSci and Instagram @500QueerScientists! [Main photo by Nate Dappen.]
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your work center on today?
That's a question I’ve never considered until this very moment! I suppose I never really started considering myself a scientist, but rather I started being presented as a scientist by others. The process of becoming an "expert" is rather odd in that way—there doesn't seem to be a single moment or a clear threshold for when you go from being a person who is interested in a topic to a person who is an expert on that topic. I've been interested in science for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a family of biologists, and my first-grade science fair project was on the Mendelian inheritance of color in pigeons! So perhaps I was predestined to become a scientist? It wasn't until I was in graduate school and started participating in outreach activities that I really had a realization that I was the "expert," the scientist. I guess I've been slowly accepting that it’s true ever since.
Today my work mostly centers on two things: arachnid biodiversity, and promoting science and scientific literacy through outreach and education. First and foremost, I am an arachnologist, but my research goes hand-in-hand with a fundamental commitment to do more than only science in my life and my career. My research is focused on the biodiversity and evolution of arachnids, and I use genetic and morphological study to unravel the evolutionary patterns and processes that have occurred in arachnids over the last 450 million years. I am also researching the role that venom has played in the evolution of scorpions. My outreach efforts focus on my local Bay Area community, and on leveraging media to discuss my research and the importance of biodiversity on a global scale. I also work a lot with the nonprofit I co-founded, Islands & Seas, at our research and field-based education center in Baja California.
Today marks the launch of 500 Queer Scientists, a campaign that you've spearheaded. Can you talk about what the campaign is centered on and what you're hoping to achieve through it?
This project was really inspired by the 500 Women Scientists movement and how inspired I’ve felt as a woman in science getting the opportunity to see other amazing women coming together. My experience as a queer person working in science, on the other hand, hasn’t shared the same feeling of camaraderie and sense of community that I’ve felt with female colleagues over the years. For example, my first year of graduate school, having moved to a new city with my partner and child, my cohort was majority women but included only myself and one other gay person. In the early years, I kept most of my personal life hidden from colleagues. Later, I was more open, but experienced "coming out" over and over again as I had to explain the intricacies of my personal life and family. Now I am fortunate enough to live in the gay capital—San Francisco—and work at an institution that is deeply committed to diversity, but I’m the only LGBTQ+ PI. I still "come out" every other week to colleagues, and I am often reluctant to speak about my personal life when working in the field or at scientific conferences. That's why I started this project. I want LGBTQ+ STEM workers to come out of the shadows of the heteronormative culture in science, to see each other, and to be seen by the world for the STEM accomplishments we have made and advances we have driven forward. In the long term, I hope this campaign will provide a resource for local organizing, and catalyze scientific societies and organizations to demonstrate a commitment to the visibility of diversity in STEM.
In what other ways do you think that isolation and non-recognition impact queer people in STEM, and science itself?
From the limited research that has been done on the topic, we know it does enormous damage! For example, A 2013 survey of STEM workers found that more than 40% of LGBTQ+ identified respondents working in STEM fields are not out to their colleagues, something which may be influenced by the fact that in 28 states it’s still legal for employers to discriminate against someone for their sexual or gender identity. The psychological effects of hiding a huge part of yourself from people you see and interact with every day is tremendous. I think a recent report on the LGBQ climate in physics really highlights some of the major issues faced by sexual minority STEM professionals, including a heterosexist climate that reinforces gender role stereotypes in STEM work environments, a culture that requires, or at least strongly encourages, LGBQ people to remain closeted at work, and a general lack of awareness about LGBQ issues among STEM professionals. This is substantiated by another study surveying university professors, which found that those who are out to their colleagues are 7.2x more likely on average to report that they have experienced exclusionary behavior by their colleagues. This is similar to the results of an informal reader survey conducted by Chemical Engineering and News, which found that 44% of respondents said they’d felt excluded, intimidated, or harassed at work in the course of their career. Feeling uncomfortable at work does not bode well for productivity or retention in the STEM pipeline.
Speaking of the pipeline, despite huge advances in rights and societal acceptance experienced by younger generations, it appears the STEM environment is no better at the undergraduate level. According to the Association of American University’s Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct from 2015, transgender, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming undergraduate and graduate students reported the highest levels of on-campus sexual assault and misconduct, with 60% of LGBTQ students respondents reporting incidences of sexual misconduct and harassment. Impacting the STEM pipeline directly, a 2018 study found that undergraduate sexual minority students were 8% less likely to be retained in STEM majors compared to switching into a non-STEM program, but more likely to have worked in a lab than their heterosexual counterparts, an experience typically associated with retention in STEM the pipeline).
How can 500 Women Scientists members—whether they identify as queer or as allies—get involved with or support your campaign?
Great question! You can help amplify the campaign by sharing it with colleagues and posting about it on your own social media, and by following us on Twitter (@500QueerSci) and Instagram (@500QueerScientists). If you see anything you like on our social channels, another easy way to help is just to retweet or “like” it—a simple action that amplifies the reach of 500QS content, helps to attract new followers, and makes it clear to others that this is a subject people care about—but we really encourage everyone, LGBTQ+ and allies, to create their own posts. If you need some inspiration or help finding the words, we’ve put together a quick toolkit with sample posts and hashtags at www.500queerscientists.com/toolkit. On our website, you can also contribute your story, and encourage friends and colleagues to submit their stories. If you belong to a society or institution that you think would like to collaborate or amplify the message, please let them know about it too.
When you're not launching campaigns or doing research, how do you relax and unwind?
I'm not sure that having a sports-enthused teenager at home is conducive to relaxing! I am very strict about my work/life balance, and try to minimize the work I bring home on evenings and weekends. My family and I love hiking and traveling, so we do a lot of that. Truth be told, I’m a field biologist through and through. When I’m working in some remote tropical jungle, I’m absolutely in my element, and I think it's those moments that I feel most at peace and happy. (Bonus if I get to bring my family along!)
Dr. Lauren Esposito is the Assistant Curator and Schlinger Chair of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences. She is also the co-founder/director of a science, education, and conservation non-profit called Islands & Seas. Lauren’s current research investigates the patterns and processes of evolution in spiders, scorpions, and their venoms. Previously, as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow through the University of California at Berkeley, Lauren travelled extensively in the Caribbean region studying the biogeography of arachnids in one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots in the world. She got her start in the world of science research while an undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso, and went on to complete her MS and PhD at the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the City University of New York, focusing on the medically important North American scorpion genus Centruroides. A passionate educator, Lauren has organized education programs on the importance of conserving biodiversity in local communities throughout the Americas, has worked in digital science curriculum development, and has taught courses on a range of topics for elementary through graduate students. She currently leads field-based education programs for undergraduate students in Baja California, Mexico, and teaches a conservation biology summer intensive at Columbia University. When she’s not sailing around the Caribbean islands or trekking through forests of the Darien Gap, Lauren can be found basking in the San Francisco fog.