An Interview with Christopher A. Schmitt

Current Job: Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Boston UniversitySchmittCA_pic2

Scientific Discipline/Field: Biological Anthropology – Behavioral ecology and genomics of non-human primates

Country: USA

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): G, Q

Website:

http://www.evopropinquitous.net

http://evopropinquitous.tumblr.com

http://www.twitter.com/fuzzyatelin

What does your job involve?

My research explores mechanistic and adaptive aspects of developmental variation using techniques from behavioral ecology, physiology, morphometrics, and genomics. In other words, I use a few different perspectives to study the biology of growing up, from infancy to adulthood. I currently focus on two nonhuman primate models: New World atelins (woolly and spider monkeys) and Old World vervets. Although my work with atelins is primarily conducted in the field (Jane Goodall style, if that helps you picture it; see #fieldworkfail for some prime examples), my work with vervets involves the integration of both wild and captive studies to seek out not just the genomic underpinnings of complex traits (like developmental patterns and obesity), but also how those traits evolve in the wild. As an Assistant Professor, I also do a fair amount of teaching, and in my courses I like to emphasize not only my research, but also how biology informs (and doesn’t inform) traits relevant to societally important identities (such as those we associate with race, gender, sex, and sexual orientation).

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I attended Milwaukee Public Schools growing up, and while at Rufus King High School was fortunate to win an Earthwatch Scholarship to study wild howler monkeys with Dr. Govindasamy Agoramoorthy in Argentina (which was clearly a life-shaping experience). From there, I did my undergraduate degrees in Zoology and English Literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, after which I worked for a year as a field assistant on Dr. Susan Perry’s Lomas Barbudal Capuchin Project in Costa Rica. I then did my graduate work at New York University with Dr. Anthony Di Fiore at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (which involved spending about a year and a half in the Amazon following monkeys around, collecting their poop and writing down everything they did). After my doctorate, I did postdoctoral research with the International Vervet Research Consortium under Dr. Nelson Freimer through the Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics at UCLA, with fieldwork in South Africa, The Gambia, and St. Kitts & Nevis. I then taught for a year in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. Finally, I worked for a year as a postdoctoral scholar with Dr. Leslea Hlusko in the Human Evolution Research Center at UC Berkeley, after which I was offered my job at Boston University.

Academic job paths are rarely, if ever, straightforward these days.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Most definitely. When I was younger it fueled a kind of defiance in my decisions: I felt that I needed to show that a queer guy could do the hardcore field work that my career requires (at the time, there weren’t many visible queer role models in my field, or at all, although it’s getting better). I’ve also not applied for or withdrawn applications from some positions for fear that I’d be putting myself in mental (e.g., having to hide or stay firmly in the closet) or physical danger (e.g., working in areas of the world where being queer carries harsh or life-threatening penalties). I was more willing to take those risks when I was younger, out of some sense of defiance or hazardous glamor, but now I’m more circumspect.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

The majority of the reactions I receive from my colleagues have been very supportive, even celebratory. By and large, biological anthropologists are wonderful and welcoming when it comes to making out colleagues and students feel welcome (a good example here). There are, of course, some circumstances (primarily in the fieldwork, where prevailing cultural attitudes may be less welcoming towards LGBTQIA folks) where reactions have been more mixed, and at times negative.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

I suppose I had quite a few. My family served as role models while growing up in a number of indirect ways that have influenced my career: my dad was a park ranger, my mom was a very savvy and hard-working entrepreneur (she founded a day care center), and my older sister took a lot of risks growing up that I didn’t, all of which have inspired me. The only real queer role model I had before college was Ms. Celichowski, our freshman year Health teacher: an out and proud, sex-positive bisexual biker who refused to shy away from discussing taboo subjects and respected the intelligence of her students. Aside from Ms. C, there weren’t a lot of visibly queer role models for me when I was a kid, but Milwaukee Public Schools (whose student body was and continues to be predominantly African American) were strongly invested in teaching us about the Civil Rights Movement, which provides quite a few amazing role models for intelligence, perseverance, and strength in the face of overwhelming adversity. As for STEM, I have to admit that my role models have shifted with my career and the roles I’ve taken in science. It all started with my third grade science teacher, Mrs. Krause, and has peaked at the moment with my last postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Leslea Hlusko. Everything Leslea does is wonderful; if I can be even a fraction of the scientist and mentor she is I will feel like I’ve succeeded immensely.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m just settling in at BU, so I’m really looking forward to going back to the field in South Africa while continuing my research and teaching. In my personal life, although I’m currently single I would eventually like to make a family (in whatever form that will eventually take).

Anything else you’d like to add?

If you’re at least 14 years old, you should probably be reading Fiona Staples’ and Brian K Vaughan’s ‘Saga’. Just sayin.

An Interview with Cassie Urquhart

Current Job: Graduate Research Assistant at University of Tennessee, KnoxvilleCassie

Scientific Discipline/Field:  Medical and Veterinary Entomology

Country: USA

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): L & Q

Website? Twitter, Linkedin

What does your job involve?

I do research on insects and sometimes ticks that transmit pathogens to humans and animals. I’ve worked with mosquitoes, house flies, horse flies, and ticks. I’ve collaborated on projects involving La Crosse virus, West Nile virus, Avian Malaria, and Canine Heartworm and I’ll be soon collaborating on a project involving Rana virus. I do field work collecting mosquitoes and other insects in the summers and a lot of molecular screening in the off-season.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I was a natural resources major with a minor in entomology as an undergrad. I also held various internships, lab tech positions, and volunteer positions in different entomology labs.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Not at all. I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was a small child.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

Most of the reactions from colleagues have been neutral to positive. I did have one guy who worked with me, very briefly, say he thought people were nice to me despite my orientation because I “don’t look gay”. I can’t say I was a huge fan of that comment.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

My mom. She worked 80 hours a week at two jobs to keep my sister and I in a good school and she still had time to make me do my homework over and over again until it was perfect. Otherwise, I thought E.O. Wilson and later (because you always learn about the women later) Edith Marion Patch were pretty cool.

What are your plans for the future?

To do a PhD and continue a career in Medical entomology.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that my experience in Tennessee has been a lot more positive than I was lead to believe when I lived in Massachusetts. My message to queers interested in, but a little nervous about the south would be this: While there are some problems, it is not a death trap and you don’t need to hide all the time if you go to school or work down here. I make a conscious effort to be out as much as possible and have had very few negative reactions. If you’re willing to be a bit brave and open, you can find some really good people. Plus, there are so many salamanders, it’s crazy. Fear of homophobia should not be keeping other queers from enjoying all the adorable salamanders.

An Interview with Alex Bond

alexbondCurrent Job: Senior Conservation Scientist, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Scientific Discipline/Field:  Ecology & Conservation Biology

Country: UK

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): G

Websitelabandfield.wordpress.com / alexanderbond.org

What does your job involve?

I do research to support conservation efforts in the UK Overseas Territories, and build capacity with local partners.  Right now, this means supporting our efforts on Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, and the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. Most of my work involved demographic modelling, and in many cases, getting a baseline monitoring programme off the ground.  Our projects at the moment are centred around the effects of mice on Gough Island, and understanding the causes of population declines in albatrosses and penguins.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I’m originally from Canada, and did an undergrad degree in biology at Mount Allison, a M.Sc. at the University of New Brunswick, and a Ph.D. at Memorial University of Newfoundland, all involving questions of avian conservation and ecology.  Then I spent 3 years as a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan and Environment Canada before jumping the pond to the UK.  Most of my background involved the application of stable isotopes to ecological questions (particularly the effects of mercury on wild birds).

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Yes.  When I was looking for work, my partner and I decided early on that the US was off the list, and that limited the jobs I could apply for (particularly if we wanted to stay in North America).  On the whole, Canada is pretty accepting (even 10 years ago), so it didn’t play a role in deciding where to go to grad school.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

I’ve had good experiences from colleagues.  I was rather apprehensive about coming out to colleagues during my M.Sc. because I was still terrified of the possible reactions, but I can’t think of anyone reacting negatively, to be honest.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

I don’t think so.  There weren’t that many visible LGBT scientists visible when I was going through university, but I’ve managed to connect with quite a few over Twitter, which has been quite nice.  One of the challenges of being an LGBT scientist in Canada is that many of the larger US organizations (like NOGLSTP, which does fantastic work) operates in such a different social and legal environment than exists in Canada.  We’ve had marriage and largely equal rights for the last 10+ years, so the challenges we face in Canada differ from those of our colleagues south of the border.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m in a permanent position, so I’d like to leverage that to the advantage of others by being a visibly out scientist.  It would also be great to finally meet some of my out colleagues in the UK in person one of these days, and think about what we can do to support each other, as well as younger LGBT scientists.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m on Twitter – @thelabandfield

An Interview with Kirsty Flower

Current Job: Research Associate, Epigenetics Unit, Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College London7036_926896817054_4203539344879017700_n

Scientific Discipline/Field: Cancer Epigenetics, mainly ovarian and breast

Epigenetics is broadly defined by changes to the DNA or the proteins which package DNA (chromatin) and affect how genes are expressed, without changing DNA sequence.

Country: UK

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): L

Twitter: @cassyorkirsty

What does you job involve?

I was first employed on a very specific 3 year postdoc project. The project was to investigate DNA methylation patterns in breast cancer tumours, and compare tumours with BRCA1 mutations to tumours with normal BRCA1 protein expressed. Using these patterns, we developed a prediction model to try and categorise sequence variants of BRCA1 of unknown significance into either “pathogenic” or “neutral” to allow better diagnosis in families with high familial risk of breast cancer. This project required a lot of development of lab methods initially, so I spent a lot of time optimising protocols in the lab. Then I spent a long period learning how to analyse the data, and develop the prediction model, before writing up the paper (which is about to be submitted to another journal after being rejected). During this time I also took on various responsibilities in the lab, for example training users on specific pieces of lab equipment, supervising masters students, reviewing manuscripts.

My job has changed recently due to a change in funding sources, so my time is split between finishing up what is left over from the last project, providing postdoctoral support to a group of PhD students whose supervisor is a clinician and therefore less present in the lab, day to day supervision and input on the direction of 2 PhD student projects, as well as developing my own project (this part is still to be decided! But I’m interested in developing some ideas on DNA methylation in sub-populations of blood cells in ovarian cancer patients).

I’ve also become involved in postdoc career development as a postdoc rep for our division, which means I attend exec meetings and also I sit on the academic opportunities committee, which is involved in our department Athena Swan application. I sit on Imperial I600’s committee (Imperial’s staff LGBT) but I’m not a particularly good committee member, as I work on a different campus and struggle to get to the meetings…

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I did an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at Sussex University. During my final year I did a project in a lab, and was not expecting to want to do a PhD. The PhD student supervising me managed to convince me to consider a PhD. The lab I was already working in had a position coming up, it suited me to stay in Brighton at the time, so I applied and was offered it. I was convinced I’d failed my finals though – I sent my future supervisor a very pitiful email, apologising for wasting her time because there was no way I was gonna pass my exams… Thankfully I did, got a 2.1, which was all that was required, and started my PhD after that summer.

I worked on Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), a virus associated with some cancers including lymphomas for 3 years. I looked at how DNA methylation affected the way a viral transcription factor bound to DNA, and where these sites were in the viral and human genome. I took an extra 9 months to write up, it should not have taken that long but because it was unpaid I needed to work to pay rent so I did a lot of undergrad teaching, which in turn slowed down the writing process. It was the right thing for me to do though, as I wasn’t ready to leave Brighton.

I started looking for postdocs during the write up time, and was lucky enough to be offered interviews for the first three I applied for in London. However I definitely had a favourite, and that was my first interview. I really enjoyed how the interview went, and the people I met on my tour round the lab. They later told me that I had been their favourite candidate as I didn’t just talk about my own work as they showed me round, I actually took an interest in what they were working on! Not a hard thing to do, I’m surprised that was the stand out thing… seems it pays to be nice! I was definitely under-experienced for this role, so did not expect to be offered it. When I got the phone call I was very surprised. I took the job, started in July 2011, submitted my PhD in Sept 2011 then defended in Dec 2011. This job was for 3 years, in the last year of that my boss and I applied for money to stay, one of which, a 2 year grant, was awarded. So now I’m here until mid 2016.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

I don’t think it’s affected my decisions, although I haven’t had the desire or opportunity to go somewhere where it would be an issue.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

People often assume I am straight and I don’t always find an appropriate time to come out, or I feel like I am constantly coming out to different groups of people. Yes, sometimes it is not something that comes up in general conversation, but I think its really important for people to know. Its good to to challenge expectations and stereotypes in all situations. Leaving my Brighton bubble was definitely weird, as I think I shocked a couple of people in my new lab by being very forthright about being gay and talking about going to gay bars. But overall there was barely a reaction, which is exactly as it should be, and my girlfriend was always included in social events without question. Its definitely easier to come out whilst being in a couple, and as I have recently become single for the first time in years I need to find new ways to come out, as I have always relied on being able to refer to “my girlfriend” to make it clear.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

I don’t remember having any specific role models growing up. I feel like I have more role models now. My PhD supervisor (Prof Alison Sinclair) and co-supervisor (Dr Michelle West) are definitely amongst my role models, unapologetically successful women in academia who balance their work with their home life. Prof Dame Athene Donald writes a brilliant blog at Occam’s Typewriter, she is definitely a role model/idol too. I have also come into contact with brilliant women at Imperial through the Athena Swan application committee.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d love to stay in academia and become a lecturer, but I am fully aware of how difficult this can be. I really enjoy what I do, I like being busy and being challenged. So I’m happy to work really hard over the next few years to give it as good of a go as possible… if it doesn’t work, I’ll find something else. My career so far has been based on what I enjoy doing (which has been labeled as hedonistic by some!). I hope to continue to do that.

An Interview with Robert Williamson

robertCurrent Job: PhD Student

Scientific Discipline/Field: Population Genetics

Country: I’m from the US but live/work in Canada

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): G and Q I suppose. I’m also fond of Å, because who doesn’t like tiny circles?

Website? www.genomicconflict.com

What does your job involve?

I do primarily computational research, analyzing genomic sequences and simulating fake populations. I spend a lot of time in front of my computer programming in Python and reading Reddit.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I e-mailed my advisor to see if he needed a grad student, then the magic happened.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Not really, I’ve always wondered if my interests in genetic conflicts and mating system evolution are related to it though.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

Not particularly, evolution and biology in general is a pretty accepting field.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

Probably my mother. She was a single mom who ran her own business and was very active in our community, trying her best to make things better. She also has many gay friends who were around as I was growing up, that certainly made coming out easier.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ll be finishing up my PhD soon (fingers crossed) and move on to a post-doc somewhere for a couple years. I’m not ready to move back to the States yet, partially because of the atmosphere towards LGBTQ people. However, I really love teaching and want to be at a university where that is a major part of my job, so I feel that I’ll likely end up back in the States somewhere for that.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did you know that giraffes use their necks like giant maces to compete for mates? It’s awesome to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzQDJY-oaGY

An Interview with Beth Hellen

Beth Hellen

Current Job: Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Rutgers University

Scientific Discipline/Field: Computational Evolutionary Genetics

Country: Currently USA, but I’ll be going back home to the UK soon

Pick some letters: L, Q

Website? https://rutgers.academia.edu/BethHellen

What does you job involve?

I’m a Computational Evolutionary Geneticist. This means that while I am interested in researching evolution, I work using a computer rather than at a lab bench or out in the field. As a postdoc I mostly work on projects that other people have come up with the initial idea for and obtained the funding for. Currently I’m working in Andrew Kern’s lab at Rutgers in the USA, a lab which specialises in population genetics. I’ve been out in the USA since November 2013, but before that I was based in various different locations around the UK.

At the moment, the projects I’m working with are involved in comparing the genomes of different species and seeing how they have diverged over time. One of our projects is looking at differences between humans and other apes, to attempt to identify the human differences that led to the things we think of as human characteristics, such as language. The other main project is looking at a number of damselfly species (Enallagma) and looking to see whether differences in gene expression (which genes are switched on when) are responsible for the ability of different species to evade different predators.

I also do some research into transposable element evolution (segments of DNA which move about the genome and replicate with no known consistent advantage to the host organism). I was introduced to Transposable Elements in my last postdoctoral position at the University of Nottingham and this is where my interests really lie. However, at this point in my career I think it’s important to gain experience working in other systems as well.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I went to Manchester University to study Molecular Biology as an Undergraduate, the program had a year out in industry which I was very keen on as I thought it would improve my career prospects (probably right in that regard). In hindsight, I wished I had changed my degree to Genetics, I was never very good at the practical side of Molecular Biology, some people love long involved practical sessions involving pipetting solutions you can barely see, but I wasn’t one of them.

I loved Manchester though. I came originally from a small market town and I was very keen to try myself out in a big city. I love cities now and one of the great things about working in Universities is that so many are in them.

My year in industry was at HGMP-RC which was on the same campus in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire as the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Sanger Institute. Unfortunately it no longer exists, but it introduced me to Bioinformatics and if I hadn’t gone there, I probably would be doing something very different now.

After my undergrad I went to the University of York to do an MRes in Bioinformatics for a year and then did a PhD at the Sussex and Brighton Medical School where I was researching genes possibly involved in human response to the BCG vaccine. After this I worked for 3 years at the University of Nottingham as a Postdoc in John Brookfield’s lab, a job which I really loved. It was my introduction to the field of evolutionary genetics and was where I think I really found my niche.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

I think in some ways it affected the places I wanted to move to. I moved to Manchester partly for the course, but partly because I liked the idea of a large, cosmopolitan, gay friendly city. I came out in the Summer between school and University and was keen to start a new life that was more me! Equally, the fact that my Phd was in Brighton definitely added to it’s appeal.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

I’ve never had any really obvious bad reactions, the ones I have had have mainly been from people who’ve liked me as a colleague, but are quite religious and can’t quite seem to square my sexuality with their religious beliefs. I tend to think this is their problem not mine though!

One of the things that does happen to me quite often in a work context or at conferences or on twitter, is that people come out to me when they aren’t necessarily out to other people. I think it happens because I’m quite butch and therefore quite easy to identify! It definitely make me feel like there’s a need for visible LGBT people in STEM subjects. Often these people who confide in me are either quite worried about what other people’s reactions are going to be, or they’re just a bit bemused as to where all the non straight people are and can end up feeling quite alone because of it.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

My Dad’s an engineer and he used to do science demonstrations (the eclipse one sticks in my mind particularly) with me & my sister when we were little and I think that was what always drew me to science.  In my later teenage years the person who probably had the most influence on me was (the fictional) Willow Rosenberg, so I guess I have to partly thank Joss Whedon and Alyson Hannigan  for my scientific career.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m looking at coming back to England in the near future, I’ve got a few irons in the fire, but nothing definite yet. I’m hoping to continue working in the academic sector and in the next few years to have funding to work on projects I’ve initiated.