Transgender Day of Visibility: Faculty Spotlight

This year at Communications Biology, we wanted to celebrate Transgender Day of Visibility by highlighting researchers at multiple career stages. Here, we asked faculty about their achievements, academic experiences, and how STEM can better support trans and diverse researchers.
Published in Ecology & Evolution
Transgender Day of Visibility: Faculty Spotlight

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Dr. Sofia Forslund (she/her/hers)

Dr. Forslund is a Group Leader at the Experimental and Clinical Research Center at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. Her research group analyzes multi-layer human datasets to examine the roles of host-microbiome interplay in transitions between health and disease, with a particular focus on the gut microbiome-immune system interactions in cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. Her group is further interested in sex-differential disease risk, computational tool development (especially for confounder adjustment in biomarker searches), and the distribution of antibiotic resistance elements throughout evolution and the ecosphere. See their Nature Communications paper out today on microbiome immune modulation mediating health benefits of fasting! @forslund_lab or @inanna_nalytica

Re: Role models: As time goes by I see more and more of my post-doc mentor (Dr. Peer Bork) in how I manage my lab and team, and I am blessed for the trust and support of my current mentor (Dr. Dominik Müller). However, in this particular context (TDOV) I want to highlight Dr. Karissa Sanbonmatsu. Meeting her and seeing someone I could aspire to be like was crucial in my daring to transition sex/gender at the same time as I was searching for junior faculty positions.

Re: Workplace inclusivity: I feel the most inclusive, conducive-to-diversity environment is one where who we are as persons (normative or not) is neutral to our professional role, so trying in one sense to not narrow down implicit expectations on who my team members are (or love, or believe, and so on...) outside of our work context. At the same time visibility is a necessary thing; I try to stay visible in the ways in which I don't match the mainstream (being trans, bi, polyamorous and open about mental health challenges, for example). I suspect this is why when I've posted calls for positions in a computational biology laboratory, I got a majority of POC and/or female applicants (as for how queer my team is, that is up to each member to decide themselves whether to share or not). I try to always remember that each person's situation is unique, making some things easy for them, others hard, and finding a way for each team member to thrive starts with accepting that. Last, I try each chance I get to take part in those equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) positions where there is some chance to impact policy.

Re: Ways to support trans scientists: I believe even toothless EDI policies serve a purpose in changing norms and behaviours, and even performative action has some benefit to it. Clear, visible statements that we are welcome and recognized (and protected as much as other demographics are) matters. Obviously healthcare matters, if like in the US this is provided at the institutional and not the national level. Visibility - ways for us to know we can exist and be understood in various STEM contexts. Please recognize that “debates” about the validity of our identities cannot be just idle intellectual exercises for us. For me, simply treating me (whether you are institute or colleague or collaborator) as you treat cis women allows me to simply exist and focus fully on being the best scientist I can; if instead I am othered or misgendered, then immediately much of my capacities go just to cope with that and I will likely leave that environment. The same should hold for those others who are trans in the same way I am. But in all our diversity, please simply accept us as who we claim to be and thus let us do our work on a level playing field.

Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe (she/her/hers)

Dr. Jayasinghe is a Principal Investigator and UKRI Future Leader Fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology & Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, England. Her research utilizes super-resolution microscopy and correlative imaging protocols to solve how the spatial arrangement of proteins determines intracellular or intercellular signaling, which also leads to the development or refinement of new optical tools and materials.  

I have had quite a few mentors (and a couple of them who identified as LGBTQIA+) over the years. One of them was my high school physics teacher, Dr. Michael Hart. He was an out, gay man. It was in his class that I built my first experimental rig - a prototype viscoelastic damper - which I entered into the Auckland Science Fair in 2002, upon his advice. The project won the top prize in the physics section of the Fair; the award was a small fee waiver to study science at the University of Auckland. With it, I enrolled in their Biomedical Sciences degree programme that has led me into my current career path. I also learned a lot from Dr. Hart about the courage and optimism that is required to be open about one's identity at work. Observing the professionalism that he exercised whilst being heckled by many of his students in the classroom has helped me, as a university lecturer, become more resilient and bring my authentic self to the classroom. 

My research group so far has been small. However, I prioritise diversity when I recruit my team members. How to maintain inclusion and equality within the group and ways to stamp out exclusionary practices are regular themes of discussion in our team meetings. Maintaining an open communication style means that team members (including myself) can educate and learn from each other. We have developed a code of conduct document which forms the framework for a safe workplace and promote inclusive work practices. As a leader, I am also very transparent with my team members about the advocacy work and academic activism that I do with regards to equality and diversity; this is available on social media for all of them to see. 

STEM industries and workplaces need to move their workplace cultures beyond the never-ending ‘debates’ and performative allyship. As a sector, higher education and STEM institutes need accept the reality that many of our colleagues or students are likely to be transgender, nonbinary or gender diverse, whether it is visible in their outward presentation or not. The best way to make the workplace more supportive to trans colleagues is to ensure their safety. An effective approach to this is to develop strong trans inclusion policies and guidelines and to offer trans awareness training within the organisation, particularly to the leadership. Further to this, platforms to boost the visibility of trans researchers, creating a culture of solidarity, allyship and zero-tolerance of transphobia are all effective ways of supporting transgender colleagues and students.

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