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Honoring the LGBTQ+ community in science

June 24, 2022

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

At Arizona State University, a faculty member supports LGTBQ+ students in STEM and shares what she is doing to help these students succeed in science.

Katelyn Cooper and members of her lab. Photo courtesy of Katelyn Cooper
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Katelyn Cooper is an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, an expert in undergraduate biology educationand was recently named one of NBC’s Pride 30: The Next Generation. She also developed a course-based research experience for ASU Online students to create publishable research. She is passionate about inclusivity and studies LGBTQ+ student experiences 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 reminds us of the importance of standing up for our rights and privileges as LGBTQ+ individuals. It is 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 time to reflect on how far we’ve come and what progress we have to make in the years to come.

Q: Can you tell us how and why you are working to create more inclusive learning environments for students?

A: It is important to consider that our students come into our classrooms with different backgrounds that will influence their experiences in science lessons. Therefore, we want to be intentional to maximize the experiences of all students in our courses and not just those in the majority groups. Striving to create more inclusive learning environments means first considering that our classes include women, gender non-binary people, students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and students with struggling with mental health issues. 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 can affect how that student experiences a science lesson.

I start trying to create inclusive science learning environments by surveying my students to see who is in my classes and what challenges they can expect to encounter. Then, I can draw on my own research and the research of others who study how to create inclusive scientific learning environments, to make decisions to maximize inclusion. For example, we know that women value group chats more 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 comfort and performance for female and LGBTQ+ students, I may intentionally let students choose who they want to work with throughout the semester.

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

A: I teach course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CURE, where students engage in a real research project in biology education with the intention of publishing their data. We know that LGBTQ+ students leave science at higher rates than their straight and cis peers, but we also know that more diverse science collaborations lead to better, more objective science. Therefore, it is important to increase the percentage of LGBTQ+ people doing science. Every CURE I have taught has resulted in at least one peer-reviewed scientific publication co-authored by students. Of CURE’s 63 students, the LGBTQ+ community is well represented, and through this diversity, we can be more confident that the various inherent biases we unwittingly bring to our research are counteracted.

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

A: In middle school, I fell in love with science during my first chemistry class. With each additional chemistry lesson, I became more excited about science. But, as an LGBTQ+ person, I had no role models to look up to. I didn’t know many LGBTQ+ people, let alone LGBTQ+ scientists. So even though I felt like I had found what I wanted to study, I was still looking for an example that LGBTQ+ people could do well in academic science. You can feel very lonely when you don’t see yourself reflected by a domain you want to join.

Q: How can different people from different backgrounds bring better study in science?

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

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

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

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

Over the years we have developed this line of research, and now it is one of the main areas of interest of ASU Research for Inclusive STEM Education Center; more recently, we received a grant from the NSF to study the impact of LGBTQ+ instructors speaking to their students in less than three seconds in the classroom. We find that this can have a very positive impact, and disproportionately for women and LGBTQ+ students.

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

A: For women: Research shows that scientists are more likely to hire men, pay them more, and mentor them more, showing how important it is for women to find mentors who will support them, defend and promote their achievements. If you’re a woman wanting to get into science, I often recommend finding a mentor as soon as possible. For example, it could be someone in your local community who has a career in science, a teaching assistant, an instructor, or a professor. When you encounter new and challenging experiences, it helps to know that others have faced similar challenges and succeeded. Mentors can give you advice on how to navigate uncertain situations, help you identify opportunities to seize and opportunities to say no to, support you when you’re struggling, and praise you when things are going well.

For LGBTQ+ students: I think the science field as a whole is making great strides towards LGBTQ+ inclusion. So my biggest 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 showcasing over 1,500 LGBTQ+ people in the science community. Our scientific organizations and societies have also become increasingly concerned with 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 the explicit purpose of providing career guidance to 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 does some truly amazing science and by whom you feel accepted.

Story by Stephanie Rodriguez, Senior Media Relations Coordinator, EdPlus at Arizona State University.