Honoring the LGBTQ+ community in science

June 24, 2022

June is LGTBQ+ Pride Month — a time to celebrate the contributions that the LGTBQ+ community have made to society and throughout history.

At Arizona State University, one faculty member is supporting LGTBQ+ students in STEM and sharing what she does to provide support to these students to ensure success in the field of science.

Katelyn Cooper and members of her lab. Photo courtesy Katelyn Cooper
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Katelyn Cooper is an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, an expert in undergraduate biology education, and was recently named one of NBC’s Pride 30: The New Generation. She also developed a course-based research experience for ASU Online students to create publishable research, and is passionate about inclusivity and studies the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in academia.

Here, Cooper talks about her own experience within the LGBTQ+ community, and how she makes her students feel welcomed and valued.

Question: What does Pride Month mean to you?

Answer: Pride Month is a reminder of the importance of advocating for our rights and our privileges as LGBTQ+ individuals. It’s also a time to feel exceptionally proud of this identity and the progress that we, and especially the people who came before us, have made. I also think it’s a time to reflect on how far we’ve come, and the progress we stand to make in the years to come.  

Q: Can you tell us how and why you strive for more inclusive learning environments for students? 

A: It’s important to consider that our students enter our classrooms with different backgrounds that are going to influence their experiences in science courses. Therefore, we want to be intentional to maximize the experiences of all students in our courses and not just those in majority groups. Striving for more inclusive learning environments means first taking into account that our classes include women, gender nonbinary individuals, students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students and students struggling with mental health. Additionally, some students are financially unstable, some commute over an hour to get to ASU, and some are the first in their families to attend college. Each of these identities and characteristics may affect how that student experiences a science class.

I start trying to create inclusive science learning environments by surveying my students to see who is in my classes and what challenges they may expect to encounter. Then I’m able to draw from my own research, and the research of others who study how to create inclusive science learning environments, to make decisions to try to maximize inclusion. For example, we know women report higher value in group discussions when they have a friend in their group and we know that LGBTQ+ students feel safer when they can choose their groups. Therefore, if I want to maximize the comfort and performance of women and LGBTQ+ students, I may intentionally let students choose with whom they want to work throughout the semester.

Q: Tell us about the courses you teach and the importance of representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in your line of research. 

A: I teach course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs, where students engage in a real biology education research project with the intent to publish their data. We know that LGBTQ+ students leave the sciences at higher rates than their straight and cis peers, but we also know that more diverse scientific collaborations lead to better and more objective science. Therefore, it is important to increase the percentage of LGBTQ+ individuals who are doing science. Each CURE that I’ve taught has led to at least one peer-reviewed scientific publication co-authored by students. Of the 63 CURE students, the LGBTQ+ community is well-represented, and because of that diversity, we are able to be more confident that the different inherent biases we unintentionally bring to our research are counteracted.

Q: How did you first feel being in a science class or lab?

A: In college, I fell in love with science during my first chemistry class. Each additional chem class, I became more excited about science. But, as an LGBTQ+ person, I didn’t have any role models to look to. I didn’t know very many LGBTQ+ people at all, let alone LGBTQ+ scientists. So, despite feeling like I found what I wanted to study, I was always looking for an example that LGBTQ+ people could be successful in academic science. It can feel very lonely when you don’t see yourself reflected by a field that you want to join.

Q: How can different people from different backgrounds bring better study to the science field?

A: People from different backgrounds will bring different perspectives to the table, which allows teams of scientists to think about problems more holistically and also helps counteract biases present in our thinking.

Q: Who mentored or inspired you to come out and explore this group of students?

A: My former doctoral adviser and now colleague, Sara Brownell, was the first openly LGBTQ+ mentor that I knew in the science field. I was very lucky that the person who was studying exactly what I wanted to study in graduate school also happened to be a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. Sara helped me realize the importance of not checking your identities at the door as a scientist. 

Sara and I began to systematically study the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in academic biology. Throughout this process, I became increasingly more comfortable with my own identity, especially as I learned how similar my experiences had been to other students’ experiences.  

Throughout the years, we have grown this line of research, and now it is one of the primary areas of focus of ASU’s Research for Inclusive STEM Education Center; most recently, we received an NSF grant to study the impact of LGBTQ+ instructors coming out to their students in less than three seconds in class. We are finding that it can have a very positive impact, and disproportionately so for women and LGBTQ+ students.

Q: Do you have any advice for LGTBQ+ women wanting to enter the field of science?

A: For women: Research shows that scientists are more likely to hire men, pay them more and mentor them more, which brings to the forefront how important it is for women to find mentors who will support them, advocate for them and promote their accomplishments. If you’re a woman wanting to enter the sciences, I often recommend finding a mentor as early as possible. For example, this can be someone in your local community who has a career in science, a teaching assistant, an instructor or a professor. As you encounter new and challenging experiences, it is helpful to know that others have navigated similar challenges and been successful. Mentors can provide advice for how to navigate uncertain situations, help with identifying what opportunities to pursue and which ones to say no to, support you when you’re struggling, and celebrate you when things are going well.

For LGBTQ+ students: I think the scientific field as a whole is actually making some great strides toward being inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. So my biggest piece of advice would be to start connecting with people who will help you navigate the field. There are now fantastic resources like 500 Queer Scientists, a website featuring over 1,500 LGBTQ+ people in the scientific community. Our science organizations and societies have also become increasingly thoughtful about making their respective communities more inclusive. For example, the American Society of Cell Biology formed the ASCB LGBTQ+ Committee to assess, promote and ensure the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members, with an explicit goal to provide career advice for LGBTQ+ people. There are many other scientific societies that have formed similar committees. So I suggest leveraging the resources that have been created to find a network that is doing really amazing science and who you feel accepted by.

Story by Stephanie Rodriguez, senior media relations coordinator, EdPlus at Arizona State University.

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