Pride at Princeton Neuroscience Institute

June is Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) pride month. It happens in the United States to commemorate the Stonewall riots which occurred at the end of June 1969. Every year, many pride events are held during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world. One of the areas where LGBT individuals have made an impact is in science. While the increased visibility of LGBT scientists in recent years has been encouraging, there have been setbacks as well. A recent study published in Science has shown that LGBT STEM professionals were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-LGBT peers.

Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI) is doing its part to ameliorate the situation for LGBT neuroscientists and improve their visibility.  In 2020, Empowering diversity and Promoting scientific equity (EPSP) was established at PNI.  It made sure to include those who identify as LGBT at the leadership level and in the different committees. As part of its activities to support the LGBT community, they hosted Florence Ashley, a transfeminine jurist and bioethicist based in Toronto,  who talked about gender inclusive language and its importance in scientific research.  PNI members are also active in advocating for LGBT equality outside the Institute. For example,  I am a member of the gender and sexual diversity working group in the ALBA network that was formed to ensure inclusivity and diversity in brain sciences globally.

Princeton Neuroscience Institute is the home for many LGBT academics who are out and proud. I reached out to some of them asking how they feel about being an LGBT neuroscientist:

"Luckily for me, I have met and established relationships with incredible individuals at PNI ranging from the graduate program administration, EPSP, my Ph.D. cohort, and my lab who empower and encourage me to succeed as a queer-identifying researcher. These wonderful people are the reason that I have always felt celebrated and accepted in our department and that my time at PNI has been as fulfilling as it has been thus far!"

Kenny Igarza, PhD Student, PNI

"We have come a long way. Being able to walk around the department and see small rainbow flags in office windows is unfailingly heartwarming. I like to think we’re objective, but scientists are humans, and equally prone to prejudice and dismissal. So, there’s certainly work still to be done. Those of us who don’t have to deal with being visibly different from our peers often carry an origin story that, emotionally, makes us feel distanced from colleagues, and at worst, unwelcome. Conversations like these help, and we’re getting there, I see the progress everywhere. Progress hangs in the hallways as a flyer for queer coffee-hour, its in the lines of articles like these, and standing in front of posters at SfN in our youngest trainees. It certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago, and from that change, we can be proud.”

Jesse Gomez, Assistant Professor of neuroscience, PNI

“I am a queer woman and I have felt completely supported and accepted by my peers and mentors at PNI. In particular, my existence as a queer person from a low-income background informs the way I think about my science, and my perspective is consistently heard and valued”.

Dakota Blackman, PhD student, PNI

As Trans issues are now at the forefront and the question of representation is very pertinent, I talked with Mae Guthman, a transwoman neuroscientist, working in the lab of Annegret Faulkner. She told me the following: “The research at PNI is phenomenal and the tools I have here help give me the ability to do cutting edge work that I hope has real positive impacts on my community. Currently, I am studying the role of gonadal hormones in orchestrating the activity dynamics of a brain-wide macrocircuit of hormone-sensitive neural populations to control social behavior. Studying the ability of hormones to drive plastic changes in neural circuits is directly translatable to the transgender community, many of whom take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as of part of their transitions. I am drawn to this work, in large part due to my own transness and how that inspires me to help my community. Yet, at the same time, my transness in a cisgender and heterosexual dominated field is inseparable from my feeling of isolation and not belonging, even when the community is supportive. I love my coworkers and lab mates, and would not be able to do the work and do and achieve what I have without them. Nevertheless, I'm still always the only trans woman in every department where I've worked, and I carry the knowledge that biomedical science has always sought to work to keep folks like me and of other marginalized identities out. In particular, I feel like I would be remiss as a white trans woman if I didn't point out that all the systemic issues I face are even more suffocating for individuals with multiple, intersecting marginalized identities. For me, these feelings are hard to separate from my experience being trans at PNI because despite the immense support I receive personally -- I want to be clear that the department and my lab have been incredibly supportive -- my awareness of the systemic injustices that pervade the academy and our everyday working environment is ever-present. The work isn't done. Won't you join us in make the academy a better place for all?"

At the end, we would like to wish to all our LGBT scientists and their allies a happy pride month.

by Ahmed El Hady