This is part of a Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.
Grace Williams was 9 when her dad learned he had Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists don’t yet know what causes this incurable brain condition, which makes people more confused and forgetful. By age 12, Williams had become her father’s main caregiver. She spent hours in hospitals with him and saw how he struggled to get good care and information about his disease.
“I was in a part of Louisiana that didn’t have the best healthcare system,” she says. His sickness “devastated” the family. While dealing with her father’s disease, Williams found her future. She says the experience “sparked my interest to find out more about how the brain works, how the body works.” She became determined to help others so they wouldn’t have to go through the same ordeal.
Williams, though, had to overcome many hurdles before she could achieve her dream of being a biomedical engineer. Her career in STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and math — involves designing medical devices, tests and tools for patients.
Her family was poor and Williams had to stay in Louisiana to help take care of her dad. She was the only student of color in her honors program in high school, and one of only three women in her honors engineering program in college. She heard comments that questioned whether she, as a black woman, should even be in the program.
Then in graduate school, she came across a new type of discrimination. An older student told her that LGBTQ+ students shouldn’t be trained in the same place as other students. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. The “+” sign refers to people with sexual or gender identities who don’t fit in the other categories.) That older student said he would refuse to train or work with LGBTQ+ students if he found out about them.
Williams is bisexual and was only out to her friends at the time. (“Out” means being open and honest about your sexual orientation, or who you’re attracted to.) That older student’s comments left her hurt and discouraged.
Unfortunately, Williams’ experience is not uncommon. LGBTQ+ individuals experience discrimination in many areas of life. And that includes in STEM.
Bryce Hughes is an assistant professor of education at Montana State University in Bozeman. He is studying why some LGBTQ+ students decide to quit their STEM careers. Students can get discouraged if other people exclude them or question why they’re in STEM, he’s found. “It’s usually a factor that we don’t think about with majority students — this idea of, ‘Do I belong?’”
In a 2018 study in Science Advances, Hughes found that students who identify as sexual minorities (LGBQ) were less likely than straight students to make it to the fourth year of a STEM program. For every 100 straight college students who made it, in fact, only 90 LGBQ students did.
Why? Feeling alone, unwelcome or unsupported may be one reason. Another, he says, may be due to gender stereotypes. These are beliefs about how men and women should dress or act. Many people view gay and bisexual men as more feminine than straight men. Because of that, some people may discourage them from working in fields seen as more masculine, such as engineering.
But to help solve some of our biggest problems, the world needs the best and brightest people — regardless of their gender identities or presentation, he and other experts say. If some of these people quit because they feel excluded or are told they don’t belong, science and engineering will never benefit from their talents.
“For LGBTQ kids who want to pursue these paths, I think it’s important for them to realize that we’re trying to make it better,” Hughes says. “Shouldn’t everybody be able to do science if that’s something they’re good at and it’s something they want to do?”
Finding their place
Growing up in North Carolina, Joey Nelson loved playing in the woods by his house. He became curious about the world around him. While in college at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he was drawn to environmental science and math. He began to think about smaller and smaller things. Eventually, that led him to geology, the study of the Earth, its rocks and the small ways in which they can change over time.
Nelson’s father is Mexican and his mother is white. He sometimes wonders where he fits in. He used to wonder the same thing about his role in science. Geologists spend a lot of time outdoors. “You’re trouncing around with a rock hammer breaking open rocks,” Nelson says. Anyone can do field research, but some people hold outdated stereotypes that men are better suited to the outdoor work in geology. Nelson is a more feminine man who identifies as queer. He felt that some of the other geologists weren’t always welcoming and supportive of him.
The word queer used to be hurtful for LGBTQ+ people. Today, many of them use it as an inclusive term to describe themselves and anyone whose sexual orientation or gender identity puts them in the minority.
Nelson began to doubt whether he should be a geologist at all. But then another part of him said of course he should go for it. “You’ve been in the woods since you were a little kid interested in these things,” he remembers thinking. “This is first and foremost where you belong.”
Nelson earned his PhD and is now a geochemist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. His research examines how metals and other molecules in water attach to the surface of rocks. “This is important because all things that are dissolved in water have a use or a danger,” he says. Some may be nutrients while others are poisons. “So it’s important to understand how things stick to and get unstuck from these rocks within groundwater,” he explains.
For a separate project, Nelson joined other scientists to conduct the second of two large surveys called Queer in STEM. These surveys have given thousands of LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers, mostly from the United States and Canada, a chance to describe their experiences at work, school and home.
This second survey recently found that about 60 percent of LGBQ scientists and engineers were out in their personal lives. But only 16 percent of them were out at work. That means they had to go back “into the closet” every day, or keep their sexual orientation a secret. The more welcoming and safe their workplace felt, though, the more likely they were to be out. Even so, LGBQ people reported being harassed and hearing mean comments at work about sexual orientation more often than straight people did. A separate part of the survey looked specifically at transgender and gender nonbinary scientists, and found similar results.
Rochelle Diamond remembers the pain of being harassed decades ago. When a coworker found out that she was a lesbian, he tried to ruin her career by sabotaging her lab experiments.
Fortunately, she found a far more supportive workplace at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In one of her roles, she has managed the same lab for more than 35 years. Her lab studies how immature cells in the immune system decide which kind of specialists to become. The cells have many decisions to make, and the lab is examining which signals help them take one path or another.
Being out at school or work can be difficult. But Diamond says scientists and engineers are more productive when they can be themselves. By being out, they can bring all of their energy to help solve problems. “Even though we learn from the same textbooks, we all have different perspectives and different ways of interpreting information. And that is extremely valuable,” Diamond says.
Nearly 40 years ago, Diamond helped to start a support group called NOGLSTP. That stands for National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals. The group connects LGBTQ+ students and professionals in STEM fields and helps to protect their rights. The organization educates the public about LGBTQ+ topics, holds get-togethers and helps scientists and engineers find good places to work.
Gaining support, facing obstacles
Like Nelson and Diamond, Williams stuck with it, despite that older student’s hurtful comments. In graduate school at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, she worked on research to create a better test for Alzheimer’s disease. With an earlier diagnosis, patients might get help sooner than her dad did and live longer. She also worked with the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association to help improve patient care in Louisiana.
Williams received support from a campus group called Prism that offers help and safe spaces to LGBTQ+ students. She also received support from students like her across the country through an online group called the Student Doctor Network.
Other students have found support through a nonprofit group called oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The group has more than 100 chapters at colleges and universities in the United States and other countries.
Websites such as 500 Queer Scientists have raised even more awareness and helped people find role models. On the site, people around the world in STEM professions have shared their pictures and stories. One goal is to “help the current generation recognize they’re not alone.”
Beyond the growth of supportive groups, many universities and major companies in the United States have pledged to protect and support LGBTQ+ students and employees. Same-sex couples can legally marry throughout the United States, and more states and countries are passing laws to ban discrimination at work.
Despite the progress, LGBTQ+ people still face many challenges.
In seven states, for example, teachers can’t discuss LGBTQ+ topics in the classroom in a positive way. That means some students may never know how much of a trailblazer astronaut Sally Ride was. She was the first American woman in space and a lesbian who had a Navy research ship named after her. They may not learn the full story about British math genius Alan Turing either. During World War II, Turing invented a machine that solved the “Enigma” code the Nazis used to send secret messages. Turing’s efforts helped the Allies win the war, but he was later arrested for being gay.
Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., now protect people from being fired from their jobs based on their sexual orientation. Another 12 states protect public employees, such as people who work in state-run labs. But in 17 states it’s still possible to be fired from any job for being gay, bisexual, lesbian or queer.
A project called the STEM Inclusion Study recently partnered with 17 professional groups to survey people who work in STEM fields. The survey found that LGBTQ people work just as hard and are just as educated as other members. Even so, the survey found that LGBTQ scientists and engineers didn’t receive as much help and their work wasn’t valued as much by others. That’s like having less time to finish a quiz than your classmates and then getting a worse grade for the same answers.
As a result, LGBTQ+ people said they were more likely than their straight peers to want to leave their STEM careers.
A unique perspective
Researchers who have found their way, despite the discrimination they’ve faced, say they’re determined to make the path easier for others. That includes Mohamed Yakub. When he was 12, he moved with his Indian parents and sister to Wisconsin from the East African nation of Kenya. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, he says. But there was a big problem: He found the two days he spent volunteering in a hospital emergency room far too stressful.
Still, Yakub loved biology. So he began studying plants. He received his PhD at the University of Minnesota by studying how plants evolve and survive in cities. Urban plants have to grow in warmer and drier conditions than those in rural areas, where there’s more grass and less concrete.
Yakub realized that even more than research, he enjoyed teaching others about science. With two friends, he started a program called Market Science. “We would go to the farmer’s market, host a science-based booth and talk to people about what science is,” he explains.
Because he wanted to be himself, Yakub sometimes wore high heels or brightly colored nails to the market. He identifies as gay and wanted to show others that they can be themselves and still be successful in science.
At the market with his friends, Yakub felt safe. But many places are not as welcoming to people who are a bit different. And so, Yakub says, he’s been much more cautious when traveling for work to other places that are less safe for LGBTQ+ people, whether in northern Minnesota or Africa.
And there’s good reason for that caution. In the United States, reports of people harassing, intimidating or acting violently toward others based on their sexual orientation are increasing. They’re known as hate crimes. But it can be even worse in some other places.
In about 70 countries, it’s still against the law for same-sex couples to be together. If someone is caught, they can be put in jail for years. In eight countries and in parts of two others, those who break the law can even be put to death. (These places are Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and parts of Nigeria and Somalia.) That means LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers need to be very careful about where they travel, whether for work or fun.
Yakub now works in Washington, D.C., for a service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This SciLine service helps journalists connect with scientists so that the public can learn more about what scientists do and why it matters.
Why does diversity in STEM matter? “There is no one else out there that brings the perspective that I do,” Yakub argues. His unique experiences may help him ask questions that others haven’t even thought of. Or he may look at the same question in a very different way.
Alone no more
Kei Koizumi (KAY Koy-ZOO-me) grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He was one of the only Asian-Americans in his high school. He didn’t start meeting other gay men until he was in college. Being a minority within a minority, he notes, can be lonely. “I always felt like I was the only one.”
But it didn’t stop him from continuing to study science and engineering. Koizumi was fascinated by how STEM fields help governments make plans and decisions. He decided to pursue a career in science policy. For eight years, he worked in Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Koizumi created guidelines that the government uses to pay for research. He also made sure that the President and his team had the best scientific information and advice to help them make good decisions.
He now works as a senior advisor for science policy at the AAAS and teaches classes in science policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Students of all backgrounds need to know that a career in STEM is open to them, “even if they don’t always see people who look like them or who are like them,” Koizumi says. “It’s important to show students that you can be gay and Asian, for one thing.”
Research suggests that diverse and inclusive labs and workplaces do better science, he says. One key to making people feel like they belong is to give them diverse mentors and role models. Being visible also helps those who are afraid to be themselves, Koizumi says. “I think those of us who can come out need to, because there’s so many who can’t.”
Angel Kaur (COOR) wants to be another one of those mentors and role models. She was born in India and moved to the United States for college when she was 18. Kaur was always drawn to biology and is now director of the neuroscience program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Kaur is working with her research students on a project to understand how nerve cells die during a disease known as ALS. That’s short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (AY-my-oh-TROW-fik LAT-er-ul Sklair-OH-sis). As nerve cells die, signals between the brain and muscles are lost. Without the proper messages, muscles can no longer move, she explains. To prevent that, she wants to figure out why and how the cells die.
She also teaches a popular class on science fiction movies that include neuroscience, such as “Get Out!” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Kaur has four-year-old twins and identifies as queer. “There’s a lot of things that make me different,” she says. But she has refused to let these differences define her or hold her back. As a queer woman of color, Kaur says she feels lucky to have received support throughout her career.
Now, she wants to make sure that her students have the same opportunities. “I strongly believe that representation is one of the most powerful tools that we have.” She says, “It can show people that they are capable of whatever it is that they want to do.”
Some LGBTQ+ students and researchers have to deal with hurtful comments and discrimination. But seeking out and talking to friends and allies — whether supportive students, researchers, mentors or local or national groups — can buffer them from the worst. “There will be things said that may be upsetting,” Kaur acknowledges. “But that community — there’s so much power in that.”
Kaur, Koizumi and Diamond say that being open about who they are helps others know that it’s okay to be themselves. Being out shows that diverse people can do well in STEM fields and that they’re all needed and valued.
Williams is likewise using her position to help others. After receiving her PhD, she moved to Washington, D.C., to accept two fellowships. For her current one at the U.S. Agency for International Development, she is helping to think of new ways that science and technology can aid people around the world.
Eventually, Williams’ dad could no longer recognize her because of his Alzheimer’s disease. But he still told everyone that his daughter would become a doctor and help people when she grew up.
And now, she is. Williams wants to follow her passion of using her training to improve herself and the health and well-being of others. Everyone, she says, deserves the chance to get an education and follow their dreams.
Like Williams and so many others who grew up with doubts, Diamond says, students need to know that they belong in STEM. “Whoever you are, it’s OK,” she says. “You’re valuable.”
Alzheimer’s disease An incurable brain disease that can cause confusion, mood changes and problems with memory, language, behavior and problem solving. No cause or cure is known.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (or AAAS) Formed in 1848, it was the first permanent organization formed to promote the development of science and engineering at the national level and to represent the interests of all its disciplines. It is now the world’s largest such society. Despite its name, membership in it is open to anyone who believes “that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can help solve many of the challenges the world faces today.” Its members live in 91 nations. Based in Washington, D.C., it publishes many peer-reviewed journals — most notably Science.
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS) A disease that attacks and progressively kills motor nerve cells over time. These cells control the movements of many muscle groups. As the motor nerve cells die, people with ALS lose their ability to speak, walk and swallow. ALS sometimes is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the 36-year-old baseball player who was stricken with this disease in 1939.
astronaut Someone trained to travel into space for research and exploration.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
biomedical Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.
biomedical engineer An expert who uses science and math to find solutions to problems in biology and medicine; for example, they might create medical devices such as artificial knees.
bisexual A term relating to people who are sexually attracted to both men and women.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
cisgender Someone whose gender identity matches that of the sex they were assigned at birth.
development (in economics and social sciences) The conversion of land from its natural state into another so that it can be used for housing, agriculture, or resource development.
discrimination (in social science) An attitude of prejudice again people or things based on a bias about one or more of their attributes (such as race, sex, religion or age). It is not based on the actions of an individual but instead based on yet-unfounded expectations that are being applied broadly to a whole group.
diversity A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds.
emergency room Also known as the ER. It's that part of the hospital where doctors initially attend to the immediate medical needs of accident victims and others who need critical care.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
environmental science The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.
evolve (adj. evolving) To change gradually over generations, or a long period of time. In living organisms, such an evolution usually involves random changes to genes that will then be passed along to an individual’s offspring. These can lead to new traits, such as altered coloration, new susceptibility to disease or protection from it, or different shaped features (such as legs, antennae, toes or internal organs).
factor Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.
feminine Of or relating to women.
fiction (adj. fictional) An idea or a story that is made-up, not a depiction of real events.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
gay (in biology) A term relating to people who are sexually attracted to members of their own sex. Gay had been a fairly general term. In recent years, people have tended to use it primarily to refer to men (with lesbian being the preferred term for women).
gender The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as being the norm. Behaviors that are incompatible with these expectations are described as non-conforming.
gender identity A person’s innate sense of being male or female. While it is most common for a person’s gender identity to align with their biological sex, this is not always the case. A person’s gender identity can be different from their biological sex.
generation A group of individuals (in any species) born at about the same time or that are regarded as a single group. Your parents belong to one generation of your family, for example, and your grandparents to another. Similarly, you and everyone within a few years of your age across the planet are referred to as belonging to a particular generation of humans.
geology The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists.
graduate school A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
groundwater Water that is held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock.
high school A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
immune system The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.
lesbian A woman who is sexually attracted to other women.
masculine Of or relating to men.
mentor An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.
metal Something that conducts electricity well, tends to be shiny (reflective) and malleable (meaning it can be reshaped with heat and not too much force or pressure).
molecule An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
muscle A type of tissue used to produce movement by contracting its cells, known as muscle fibers. Muscle is rich in protein, which is why predatory species seek prey containing lots of this tissue.
nerve A long, delicate fiber that transmits signals across the body of an animal. An animal’s backbone contains many nerves, some of which control the movement of its legs or fins, and some of which convey sensations such as hot, cold or pain.
network A group of interconnected people or things. (v.) The act of connecting with other people who work in a given area or do similar thing (such as artists, business leaders or medical-support groups), often by going to gatherings where such people would be expected, and then chatting them up. (n. networking)
neuroscience The field of science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.
nonbinary (in gender issues) Meaning “not one of two.” People who identify this way might feel they are both male and female, neither male nor female, or somewhere in between. Instead of he or she, nonbinary individuals may choose to go by the pronoun “they.”
nutrient A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.
online (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.
out (in gender issues) Someone who is open about their gender identity or sexual orientation with other people.
peer (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.
PhD (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).
policy A plan, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.
queer A word that used to be an insult to describe people as strange or different. LGBTQ people now commonly use it as an inclusive and positive word to describe anyone who isn’t straight, who is transgender, or who doesn’t identify as only male or female.
role model Someone whose skill, behavior and/or personality makes them an inspirational ideal, the type who inspires others to model themselves after this person.
science fiction A field of literary or filmed stories that take place against a backdrop of fantasy, usually based on speculations about how science and engineering will direct developments in the distant future. The plots in many of these stories focus on space travel, exaggerated changes attributed to evolution or life in (or on) alien worlds.
sex An animal’s biological status, typically male or female. There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs, and external genitals. It can also be a term for some system of mating between male and female animals such that each parent organism contributes genes to the potential offspring, usually through the fertilization of an egg cell by a sperm cell.
sexual orientation A term that describes who you tend to be attracted to: people of the opposite sex (straight), of the same sex (lesbian or gay), of both sexes (bisexual) or of neither sex (asexual).
STEM An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.
stereotype A widely held view or explanation for something, which often may be wrong because it has been overly simplified.
straight A man who is sexually attracted to women, or a woman who is sexually attracted to men.
survey To view, examine, measure or evaluate something, often land or broad aspects of a landscape. (with people) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
transgender An adjective for someone who has a gender identity that does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, based on their genitalia.
unique Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.
urban Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.
Meeting: E. Cech. The STEM Inclusion study: LGBTQ professionals in science and engineering workplaces. American Association for the Advancement of Science 2019. February 16, 2019. Washington, D.C.
Meeting: J. Nelson. Productivity measures of participants in the Queer in STEM 2.0 study. American Association for the Advancement of Science 2019. February 16, 2019. Washington, D.C.
Journal: B.E. Hughes. Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances. Vol. 4, March 14, 2018. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aao6373.