An interview with Sofia Forslund

Name: Sofia K ForslundSofiaForslund

Current Job: Beginning May 1st as Junior Group Leader at the ECRC (MDC/Charité joint facility) in Berlin.

Scientific Discipline/Field: Computational biology.

Country: From Sweden, now living in Germany.

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q,+, etc.): B, T, Q (also I am polyamorous but that is only tangentially related)

Website: http://www.forslund-lab.net/

Twitter or other social media handle (if applicable)? @forslund_lab

What does your job involve?
I’m just starting my own research group! We will do 90% computational work (data integration of gut microbial metagenomics, host serum metabolites, immune cell measurements and clinical parameters) to try to reach useful conclusions about cardiovascular disease. The other 10% will be laboratory work such as preparing samples for sequencing, biobanking etc. My job specifically will involve programming and data analysis and interpretation and hypothesis testing (probably less of this as time goes by), paper and grant application writing, setting up studies, supporting my team in learning and using these technologies, and trying to look for possible validation and followup and exploitation options. Right now this means a lot of logistics, bug checking, and sending out recruitment calls. Hoping also to get to do teaching, outreach and other things eventually.

From a science angle, I am interested in any kind of medically relevant questions (disease risk, treatment efficacy, what have you) that can be answered from routine high-throughput checks. I especially want to build data driven models for how human host and microbial microbiome together develops towards health or disease (cardiovascular, metabolic, immune…) under different conditions, and how the building blocks of living things go together to allow successful maintenance of health. My dream is that twenty years from now, your MD has an app that can predict what needs to be done to you in order to make you healthy and long-lived in the specific way you individually want to be. Part of this is making sure fewer people die from progressive diseases by understanding them better. I also have a special interest in gene functional evolution across species, and in antibiotic resistance. Please see my lab web page for more information!

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?
I trained in Uppsala as a biotechnology and bioinformatics engineer, then did a PhD in Stockholm in bioinformatics. Then seeking the best postdoc option I went to EMBL in Heidelberg, where I spent the last six years learning new techniques, trying out ideas and networking. I published some work and got to know interesting people in research consortia. Then two years ago I started looking for independent positions within my field and in places where I’d like to live. It took many applications and interviews and reference letters provided, as well as kindly allies rooting for me, but finally I got and accepted an offer; I will now have five years to establish myself and hopefully make enough further allies and collaborators that I will be able to establish permanently.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?
Inversely. I ended up more closeted (and in denial about being trans) for many years since I feared it would be a career breaker. It probably would not have been. Then a few years back I realized that I had to start at some point to live authentically. So when looking for positions, I would try to be as out as I could – in my case in terms of androgynous presentation – so as not to land somewhere where I would have to stay repressed. It also informed my choice of geographic locations – a city has to be very very queer friendly for me to be willing to live there long-term. Then now when I had gotten the offer, I realized I had to sign it using my new name, starting out as myself is a chance I never will have again. Then that meant coming out to everyone else as well… so more career decisions affecting expression of my LGBT status? To those of you thinking about it, you probably should transition as early as you realize you want to! Don’t wait for the best time career-wise, at least not in STEM academic research.

I also feel minority stress. At least at this stage, I worry that unless I am a perfect scientist, my fall will be harder because I am also LGBT, and then I will also be a bad ambassador. So I feel very driven to be diligent and to produce good work. That is useful, but stressful also. Probably it is all in my head!

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?
Surprisingly no bad reactions whatsoever so far. Many have been supportive, and I cherish and treasure these allies for that. I will seek to pay this forward (and perhaps that is why I write this…). I first came out as polyamorous, and perhaps that paved the way for them not being so fazed by the trans thing (and I never made a very convincing man anyway, judging by how essentially no-one has expressed surprise at me transitioning…), as did trying to be as useful as I could to others. Sad that being useful may be helpful in being accepted at this point in history (and something likely familiar to most cis women also), but at least actionable.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?
My grandfather remains my greatest role model. His was a simple philosophy of nurturing – never use force against anyone weaker than you, in any regard. Nurture all who are weaker, no matter what they did. I strive to emulate him in this. Various scientific leaders have inspired me – Dannie Durand, Siv Andersson, Karissa Sanbonmatsu, Anne Ephrussi, Yana Bromberg, many others. Other friends and family, chosen or acquired, more than I can name – I’ll especially note how the amazing A. Shieber and K. Hyll have inspired me. Activist and academic Carol Siegel. Other openly trans people, especially the Wachowski sisters. Really, I collect role models all the time, and wish I could connect with each of them more!

What are your plans for the future?
Professionally, within the next years I need to establish my lab enough for the right people to need me enough that they offer me tenure. So I need to deliver on all the currently ongoing projects, land some good grants, start some new projects, publish some last-author paper in top tier journals. To do this I need to build up a good team – I am currently recruiting! So if you are a computational biologist and want to work with me, please get in touch!

Anything else you’d like to add?
This world is ours to inhabit and touch. These lives are ours to realize. These roles and social constructs are ours to choose, embrace, reject or modify. Slowly, surely, we are winning the culture war. Nurture and be nurtured, do your best, reach out, be kind, give aid, seek aid. You can do this.

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