created in fall 2016
Letter from the Editor
ll research scientists share the desire to understand the natural world, the creativity to design novel experiments, and the skepticism to critically analyze results. We have all worked very hard for the privilege of being the first to uncover natureâ€™s secrets and are proud to stand behind our scientific findings. However, each of us are multidimensional human beings with different identities, skills, and interests. Now, more than ever, it is important to celebrate these differences -- to embrace that there is richness and value in diversity. When we do not understand someone, we must defer to our scientific inquiry and ask â€œwhyâ€? instead of making assumptions. We must seek to understand others with an open mind and listen. Scientists stand not only the shoulders of giants, but on shoulders of peers as well. I invite you to read the stories of some neuroscientists at UC Berkeley and perhaps even create a project to promote inclusion within your own community.
Sara popham Iâ€™m interested in learning how different sensory systems work together to come up with one coherent representation of an object or scene. Most of the time, one sense is studied in isolation, but thatâ€™s not how we experience the world, so I want to work in more naturalistic experimental settings to get a more realistic idea of how we integrate information from different modalities.
How did you get interested in neuroscience research? I actually took one Psychology class in college with the intention of it just being an elective, but then I really liked it and added it as my second major. Since my other major was in Applied Math, my undergrad research was in computational psychology, but I later realized that I could get much larger datasets to work with if I went to Neuroscience, so here I am!
What led you to choose UC Berkeley? A large part of why I came to UC Berkeley was because of the people that I met here. Sure, the research is also fantastic, but I donâ€™t want that to be my whole life. The people here seemed overall just so much happier than anywhere else I visited, and the graduate students here seem to have good work/life balances whereas some other places the students seemed to only exist within their labs.
Who are you in the lab? Who are you outside of the lab? When I’m in lab, I’m often seen glaring at my computer with headphones in, ignoring the rest of the world, but this is interspersed with periods of excitement when I actually get my data to work nicely with me. Outside of the lab, I’m still usually pretty quiet, but there is much less glaring involved! Sometimes you’ll find me upside-down in the air doing circus-y things like taking classes in aerials silks and trapeze.
Why aerial acrobatics? How do you feel when you are doing aerial silks/ trapeze? Well I’ve always been drawn to circus-type activities; in college I was
president of a firespinning club! I frequently make jokes about how if grad school doesn’t work out I will genuinely be running off to join the circus. I also have a very hard time focusing on athletic activities for extended periods of time, but this is one of the few things that has actually kept my attention. It’s surprisingly calming for me when I’m way up in the air just hanging out in the silks in stable positions.
How are you different from the rest of the scientific community? Working in a computational field, it’s hard not to notice how often there are few or
TA for an applied math course in college, I was the only female TA and there was another TA who made it very clear that he thought I did not belong there until it became known that my students were getting the highest average grades of any section of the class. I had to prove that I was doing a better job than others were before I was even treated as an equal. This isn’t the only time that something like this has happened, and I don’t suspect it will be the last. no other women in the room. My current lab does not have this problem quite as much as other groups I’ve been a part of in the past, but it can be hard to look past those other experiences.
Describe challenges you have overcome to get to where you are now: There have been so many times where I’ve been talked over in meetings or had peers talk down to me even when I’m confident that I know what I’m talking about. When I was a
feeling these sorts of things. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you’re just being overly sensitive and making these things up in your head, but if you find out that you’re not the only one feeling this way, then it starts to feel more like a real problem. So, I try my very best to listen to others’ similar experiences so they also feel validated.
Do you feel like your experience in computational neuroscience is different as a woman versus if you were a man? Oh definitely. Some of the time this is due to expectations that I think I’m putting on myself though. In meetings where I’m the only female, I am so afraid of saying something incorrect that I don’t speak at all because I don’t want to have people remember that and possibly reinforce stereotypes that women just “don’t belong” in these kinds of fields.
Who are your best supporters? How do you try to support others? It’s always nice to talk to other female scientists to get some validation that I’m not the only
Do you feel like you need to change how you present yourself when in the lab or amongst colleagues? Why or why not? This happens less so than it used to, but I used to be very hesitant to dress femininely in lab. But I think now that I’m in a group of people that I’m more familiar with, and because I’m not the only female in the group, I can give lab meeting while wearing a brightly-colored dress and feel confident that I’m being evaluated only on the content of my presentation. It’s a different story when I’m around a group of people that I’m not so familiar with though, and in those situations I’ll probably try to appear more masculine in case there happen to be people
present who will judge me based on stereotypes they hold rather than what I’m actually saying.
What does it mean to be able to express yourself freely? Not having to think about these things, like how I’ll dress for a particular presentation. It would be great to not spend 5 minutes in the morning trying to decide if it’s okay to wear fancy earrings in front of a new group of people while talking about my research or if that’s something that I’m going to be anxious about later.
By being yourself, have you improved freedom of expression of people around you? Even just by being visible in computational research settings is reassuring to others who are newer to the field! This semester I’m a TA for a computer science class, and I am one of very few female TAs. But after an exam two of my female students came up to me to say that they appreciated seeing me there “representing the ladies,” and hopefully seeing people similar to themselves represented amongst the course staff gives them more confidence in their own abilities!
krishan aghi How do glial cells contribute to synaptic plasticity and transmission, and how can this be computationally modeled?
I was actually interested in going into medicine for an incredibly long time. I think seeing my grandmotherâ€™s dementia kick in resonated with me strongly, and motivated me to try and understand how the brain learns and codes memories. It wasnâ€™t until my senior year of college, however, that I decided that blood was too much for me and that I loved math and its applications to neuroscience far too much to leave research. One thing led to another, and voila here I am as a PhD student.
What led you to choose HWNI/ UC Berkeley? What are the best/ hardest parts about being a scientist here? I think it was definitely the strong spirit of collaboration between different subfields of neuroscience. Berkeley is also quite renowned for its computational sciences, and I think its commitment to fostering interdisciplinary interactions resonated well with my desire to continue my study in both the biological and computational sciences. Also, it’s pretty darn open of an environment (I feel). I appreciate the sheer diversity of people I see at Berkeley and its desire as a university to bring together so many queer, trans (femme) people of color. The hardest part, I think, is really being consciously (or subconsciously) seen as a representative for that subpopulation of people. I have to hold myself to a very high standard, and overall I think
I’m doing pretty ok but there’s a consistent fear of fucking up and being looked at as inadequate.
Who are you in the lab? Who are you outside of the lab? Well, for this semester the only me is the one in lab. I kid. In lab I am a lot more serious and while I do socialize with fellow scientists I feel like I am in a constant rush to do something or the other. Part of that subdued nature is reflected in some of my clothing standards, where I won’t wear heels of make-up for the fear of being singled out or being a target of transmisogyny. I’m generally quite introverted, and it often takes a significant amount of energy for me to leave my room or lab and take a break. That isn’t to say I’m not personable, however! I’d like to think I’m an incredibly shy person hiding behind a very sociable person.
What story does your non-lab photo tell? I love art, and I love bright colors and dressing up and being very flamboyant and femme and visible. As I said, I’m generally quite shy in terms of expressing myself, primarily because over the years I’ve internalized a lot of dysphoria and negativity re: the body that I was assigned male in. Dressing up the way I do and partaking in the arts has helped me beyond any perceivable measure. I am genuinely happy wearing what I wear and painting what I paint because it offers me an outlet that my professional environment doesn’t necessarily offer.
and accommodating to me. However, I think that some of the shortcomings of the support systems here are representative of larger societal issues. A lot of folk get confused in using gender neutral pronouns, and sometimes even frustrated even though they’ve used singular gender neutral pronouns many, many times before! I get misgendered quite a bit, and feel
Describe your experience in HWNI as a non binary scientist. Do people respect your pronouns and identity? So, theoretically people do. I want to start off by saying that there has been a dedicated group of people who have been INCREDIBLY welcoming
I’m forced to to overplay the womanly part in order to have my identity be respected. I am trans feminine and do identify
more with the concept of “woman” and dress up in a very femme manner but it’s a pain in the ass to constantly shave, wear femme clothing, and then to be promptly be called “dude” or “man”. Undoubtedly there are people who don’t know but I don’t think the concept of being non-binary even exists in most people’s minds or understandings of Western conceptions of gender. I am rambling a lot at this point but it’s also quite scary to have to call people out when these are your mentors, colleagues, and friends
who will indubitably have some role in your success in science! I often feel like others see me as wanting “special attention” because I am so particular about pronouns and identity.
Do you feel comfortable coming out to people in HWNI? What about the larger scientific community? To be very honest, I want to be able to just tell everyone in HWNI that I’m trans femme so that any misunderstandings are cleared up. The issue with this, however, I am still quite afraid of the potential backlash,
and the ensuing conversations that it will inevitably lead to. Because I cannot rely on my family for support on this topic, I am always hesitant in informing my immediate community as the potential backlash would mean that I have no true support system in place. However, regardless of my hesitations I have faith that the HWNI community as a whole is supportive. If I could walk onto the main stage at SFN and shout it, I would. Absolutely I would let the larger scientific community know.
How are you different from the rest of the scientific community? How do people react to those differences? Are your differences celebrated? Legitimately I know of no other queer, trans feminine person of color in neuroscience. It might just be an issue of visibility, and people could be coming into their identities at this very moment but I can think of no one off the top of my head. There are definitely trans folk in neuroscience and I am so grateful for their visibility and the mentorship they have offered me, but I kinda occupy a very niche set of identities.
One issue I have with the field of science in general is that these differences in identity are often passed over, and relegated as not relevant to our roles as scientists. I contend very strongly against that because we are still human beings who move through the world normally once we leave lab. I say this all the time but me being a scientist doesn’t automatically prevent the world from throwing racism, transmisogyny, or homophobia in my face. In fact, I have looked for stronger support system in science where people are touted as “open-minded” and don’t often see that.
What is your background? Tell me a story about yourself: I once got hit by a car in the style of a raucous 70s comedy. I was 5 years old and learning how to rollerblade.
What challenges are you currently facing? How do you overcome those challenges? My family doesn’t know and won’t know. If (more of a matter when) my parents find out about my identities, it won’t be a pretty sight to behold. I’m not sure how I’ll overcome it but I suppose by that time I’ll be as comfortable with myself as I can be. I’m open about it now because I honestly don’t care. I love them but I’m self sufficient and have a supportive group of friends, and that’s all that I really need. I also don’t know what being so open about my identities is going to do for my career. I’m terrified that much of the older establishment in neuroscience is going to be very unaccepting or openly derisive about my ability to be a neuroscientist because I am queer, trans, and nonwhite. As I am more and more openly femme, I am frightened for each new day. Trans women of color have been said to
have an average life expectancy of 35. I don’t know what the future will hold but regardless of my fears I am hopeful.
How can we do better as a scientific community? Interrogate ourselves constantly. Interrogate the ways we claim objectivity and “truth” in our field, and how it might be disingenuous to deny the different lenses of analysis we
bring that are steeped in our personal experiences. See who is conducting science and who isn’t conducting science. Make it as accessible as possible to the broader public, especially to low-income communities (of color).
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t be yourself? Yes every day.
Do you feel like you need to change how you present yourself when in the lab or amongst colleagues? Why or why not? Oh absolutely. Having to be more androgynous or gender ambiguous when I am among new people is a common theme. I have to scout out people’s beliefs, and even then it takes a lot of courage for me to get over the thought process of “what if they don’t like me”. I think I am at the point now here if I get stuck in that rut I just think to myself “well fuck it, you don’t have to like them if they don’t respect you.”
What does it mean to be able to express yourself freely? To dress the way you want, to love the way you want, to study and learn what you want.
By being yourself, have you improved freedom of expression of people around you? I would like to think so! It would a lot of hubris for me to think that I could single handedly improve the conditions for
queer + trans scientists of color in science, but I think there is a value in being visible and openly available for advice and mentorship. It is risky in a lot of ways, but I also think it is so SO important for budding QTPOC scientists to see someone who is queer, trans and a PoC in a position of power because it reifies the notion that they too can do science and be scientists.
Any words of wisdom? Do you have any advice for others? It’s fine to want to build up an internal resilience to your environment and believe yourself to be indestructible, but please don’t feel like it’s inappropriate to rely on others. I too thought that being cold, unfeeling and purely rational was the way to go but emotional ways of thinking are equally as valid as “rational” ways. I don’t know how to articulate this without sounding super sappy but think about yourself and all the pieces you value about yourself, and if you can’t find people who will help you think about those traits.
Tobias schmid I study mammalian vocal learning, using bats as a model species to understand the circuits that underlie the ability to learn vocalizations. I combine neuroethology with modern electrophysiology and calcium imaging techniques to observe how cortical and subcortical areas work as a system to facilitate learned changes in behavior.
How did you get interested in neuroscience/research? I started traveling at a young age and loved learning new languages to be able to connect with people. I became fascinated with how our individual perspective could drastically change depending on the language we speak via the meaning we give to abstract sounds. I wanted to understand how the brain works as a biological system to encode these sounds and give us a very personal, yet shared representation of the world.
What led you to choose HWNI/ UC Berkeley? What are the best/ hardest parts about being a scientist here? I chose the HWNI graduate program at UC Berkeley because it stands on the forefront of scientific and personal discovery. The opportunity to pursue my dream research projects in an environment that promotes revolutionary scientific thinking alongside progressive personal development makes this place perfect for me. I appreciate the balance. The hardest part of being a scientist may be learning to say no. Truly, the vast resources and abundance of opportunities to explore inside and outside the lab can make your head swim. Though the bureaucracy appears to pose a challenge to scientific freedoms at times, it seems that it is always possible to succeed as a scientist and as a person in HWNI/UC Berkeley.
Who are you in the lab? Who are you outside of the lab? I try to be myself inside and outside of the lab. In the lab, I enjoy the hours I spend intensely focusing on trying to solve my research problems. Clothingwise, Iâ€™m actually fairly boring
when in lab. I canâ€™t be bothered to making decisions so I wear the exact same clothes every day. However, I also try to incorporate my outside life into my time in the lab. I get very excited by my work and my hobbies, and I hope to be able
to share that excitement with those around me. Outside of the lab, I like to disconnect from the fast pace of lab life. I like to escape to nature as a creative space to allow my thoughts to mature. Whether looking into my microscope, surfing at
Ocean Beach, or dancing in the city, I enjoy the thrill of new experiences and novel waves of discovery.
What story does your non-lab photo tell? My non-lab photo is meant provoke others to question ‘who is this person really?’. I like to explore the stereotypes that people box themselves into and demonstrate to others that you can jump cross many boundaries, while still remaining true to yourself. If one were to base their judgement of who I am on only one of my photos, they may end up at completely opposite conclusions. However, it is the diversity of my past experiences in combination with my current interests in life that make me Tobias, not my lab coat nor my tutu.
When did you start dressing up in unique outfits? How do you choose the outfits? I was fortunate throughout my life that my family was always very supportive of my personal styles and choices. I can distinctly pinpoint two experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Florida that precipitated my joy for wearing funky outfits: hiking with a group of goofball friends along the Appalachian Trail and attending Burning Man. I learned that dressing up in these outfits allowed me to become an entirely new character in the eyes other people I met, accompanied by different expectations of who I was. However, I am really just the same me. I choose the outfits depending on who I think I will be spending time with. I like to use my creativity in styles to push others’ preconceived notions of what is normal.
Why do you like to dress up? Why do people NOT like to dress up???? It’s just fun to create new avenues for communication simply because of the clothes I’m wearing. I treat my outfits a little bit like wearable art, which may induce responses in people I come across. Not everybody has to like what I’m wearing, but they can’t help form some sort of immediate judgment (good or bad) upon seeing the outfit on me. I like to force people to question their superficial reactions when they are confronted with how I look on the outside and how I
connect with them through our interactions.
How are you different from the rest of the scientific community? How do people react to those differences? I am just me. I’m a little bit weird, a little bit wild, and never afraid to push comfort levels. I like to take risks to allow myself to grow inside and outside the lab. Despite different attitudes or interests, I try my best in everything and like to go about my work with a smile, which I believe helps break down any walls of judgment.
What is your background? Tell me a story about yourself: I was born in Switzerland to an Italian father and English mother. After living in Switzerland and England, I moved to Florida where I spent many of my formative years. Reflecting back, I believe that my unique childhood experiences living and traveling with my family across cultures helped me develop into the well-rounded person that I try to be. I was always the weird European kid with an accent while in high school in Florida. Now, despite the fact that I look and sound American, I still don’t feel entirely American at heart. Yet, the Europeans consider me to be the weird American. I think my cross-cultural upbringing enabled me to become the resilient person that I am today, adapting between different environments and outfits while staying me at my core.
Describe challenges you have overcome to get to where you are now: Haters gonna hate but I’ve got the drive to make it happen.
What challenges are you currently facing? How do you overcome those challenges? I feel very lucky that my main challenges currently are my science. I am challenged each day to notice the small insights that may reveal the next solution to my research question. As I am early in my career, I do feel the challenge of having to prove myself to my colleagues through my dedication and my results. I’m excited to face this challenge over the next few years but it’s pretty scary at the moment.
Who are your best supporters? How do you try to support others? My best supporters are my friends and family. My family
has always been supportive of letting me make my own decisions for my career and my life choices, which gave me the confidence to achieve whatever I wanted. I am also very fortunate to be surrounded by a strong group of friends who are there for me daily to hear the good and bad. I try to support others by listening to their ideas and trying to instill in them the confidence that they can make their thoughts become a reality. I love focussing on the positive and working towards our goals together.
How can we do better as a scientific community? I think we can always stand to try to become more
understanding of our peersâ€™ perspectives. Each member of the lab community comes from a different background with unique technical and personal skill sets. I think that developing more empathy for our colleagues could facilitate better collaboration and ultimately help us solve our research questions more effectively.
Describe a moment when you felt victorious: A moment sticks out to me while I was cycle touring in Africa in 2012. It was my last day in Malawi and I wanted to try to cross over the mountainous border into Zambia before nightfall. I fought up one endless climb after another but a cold rain and a brutal headwind all day were intent on making my life miserable. I persevered against cold wet feet, saddle sores,
and utter physical exhaustion, managing to reach the border as the sun went down just minutes before it closed; access granted into a new country! The serene victory of reaching the peak, and pushing onwards into new territory in the pitch black of night, sticks with me when I approach personal and professional problems today.
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t be yourself? Never
Do you feel like you need to change how you present yourself when in the lab or amongst colleagues? Why or why not? I recognize that the lab is a professional environment where I must respect that others are focused on their research. I try not to create distractions for myself nor those around me. As such, I do try to tone down my clothing choices and lessen the provocation during lab hours. However, I still try to stay myself when I am amongst my colleagues because it’s important to impassion others with the joie de vivre.
What does it mean to be able to express yourself freely?
To me, it means being able to
do and say as I feel without fear of repercussion. I like to say what comes to my mind and I feel very lucky that I can (respectfully) express my thoughts without worrying what others think of me.
By being yourself, have you improved freedom of expression of people around you? I hope so. I try to lead by example to show others that you can be as exactly who you want to be, on your own terms. I hope to break through that awkward space so that my peers feel comfortable expressing their own point of view too. We’ll have to ask them.
Any words of wisdom? Do you have any advice for others? Follow your heart. I believe in the wisdom of intuition and doing what feels right. On my great-great-aunty Flo’s 97th birthday, I asked her for one life lesson she learned that kept her so happy. She said to always do exactly what feels right to you, that way you’ll have no regrets at the end because you were able to do what you wanted to do. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to put that advice into practice every day.
I study the development of the circuit in the retina that enables neurons to selectively respond to motion in certain directions. This is then communicated to the rest of the brain, where extracted features of the visual field are then pieced back together, allowing you to seamlessly see what you see!
How did you get interested in neuroscience/research?
Who are you in the lab? Who are you outside of the lab?
You know that story about how Because I study the retina, where we don’t know if the red you see light IS the stimulus we use to record responses, I conduct is the red I see? I thought about all of my experiments these things a lot as a child, in the dark. It’s when I lived mostly in the interesting to navigate world created in my head a space illuminated - feeling like others don’t by only one spot of see what I see-- that red light-- your we’ve all just learned surroundings are to name things reduced to the the same. I still stagnant hum of retain these the vents, and ideas in my the scanning of current the two-photon research laser. It’s pretty and they’ve peaceful and brought such like nothing a romantic you would light to the study experience in of the circuits the outside world. mediating vision. Outside of lab, I’m constantly I am a people amazed at person. One of how we can my hobbies is characterize circuits taking black and and identify neuronal white portraits of subtypes with such detail, people, and I develop yet NEVER ACTUALLY and print the film know what these neurons myself. I think film SEE - isn’t that absurd? But, photography captures I’m totally content with the an essential element idea that the brain is and that our bustling daily, always will be a complete technology-driven mystery and that’s why I lives make us forget: became a neuroscientist.
presence. You need to think about the photo before taking it; you need to think about the highlights, about the shadows, about contrast and aperture. You are capturing a moment in someoneâ€™s life when they are present and candid. Film photography also ties into my research because I can think about basic features in the visual scene and how they are translated on film and in the brain.
Describe your experience as a Muslim, Egyptian woman in science: I am proud. Being an Egyptian woman, to me, is synonymous with strength and grace. We have had to overcome countless
forces that have oppressed our potential and our belief in ourselves, including ourselves. I look at women like Helena Sedarous, the first Egyptian female doctor, and Sameera Moussa, the first Egyptian female nuclear scientist and I feel so honored and proud to be part of a community of growing Egyptian female scientists. I am proud I represent so many underrepresented minority groups, all at once. In the past few years, the region of the world I come from, and the people I identify with, have been portrayed negatively by the media, so those who do not actively seek out the truth, can easily believe these
stereotypes. The Middle east is a place bursting with culture and knowledge and my hope is to change people’s perception about my culture -- that it is founded by science and beauty not by war.
What story does your non-lab photo tell? Despite the fact that I wear baggy jeans to lab, I am still very feminine. I try to remain homogenous in my work space, in terms of what I wear, but outside work I enjoy wearing things that reflect my more feminine and creative side.
Describe challenges you have overcome to get to where you are now: I’ve chosen to live across the world to pursue my passion in science - away from my family and the friends I grew up with. I thought the cartoons, movies and TV shows I had watched as a child had familiarized me enough with American culture, that I’d have no problem living here on my own. But, I’ve
definitely felt alienated, confused and lonely living here, away from the people who know me the most. My passion for science has allowed me to power through those feelings -- to endure being alone and being scared and challenged all the time. The beautiful thing is that I’ve found that everyone feels the same - we all share similar emotional profiles whether we choose to express them or not. The idea that I can relate on a very deep level with people who have no idea about my background, no idea who I was and no idea where I went to high school, has allowed me to create my own little community and family wherever my work takes me.
Describe a moment when you felt victorious: When I proposed a project to my advisor and she called me creative! Maybe I was not being totally scientific with my reasoning, but I think a lot about converging my research with my creative interests, and it’s nice to have that validated.
Dr. Joni Wallis Iâ€™m a cognitive neurophysiologist. We record the activity of neuronal populations in order to figure out the computations that underlie cognitive processes such as decision-making and working memory.
A few weeks into my PhD, my supervisor introduced me to patients with damage to orbitofrontal cortex. They have a very unique pattern of symptoms. Their intelligence and cognitive processes are all intact, but they have a terrible time making everyday decisions and their lives fall apart as a consequence. I found that fascinating, and twenty years later, I still do.
Who are you in the lab vs. outside? I’m increasingly the same person inside the lab as I am outside, but for a while I definitely wasn’t. I was a closeted crossdresser for most of my life, and a couple of years ago, I realized there was more to it than that and I began the process of coming out as a trans woman, which culminated in me publicly coming out earlier this year. It’s been simultaneously a very painful yet life affirming process.
How are you different from the rest of the scientific community? Until recently, I only knew of one other trans neuroscientist and that was Ben Barres at Stanford, so I guess that makes me pretty different. The honesty with which Ben lived his life and talked about his experiences was inspiring and
made it easier for me to come out.
Describe your experience in HWNI as you transitioned. Do people respect your transition? I have to admit, I don’t like the word transition. I feel like it reinforces the gender binary and implies that you’re changing into something. I prefer ‘coming out’. I’m still the same person I always was, I’m just being more authentic now. That said, everybody at HWNI has been very kind and supportive and I couldn’t have wished for a more positive experience from our community.
Have you noticed differences in how people treat you after coming out? Of course, but that’s kind of the point, right?
When you’re first coming out there’s a tendency to worry about whether you’ll ‘pass’ as your preferred gender. That wasn’t an option for me (as it isn’t for the majority of trans women) due, in part, to my ridiculously deep voice, but you learn that it doesn’t matter. It takes surprisingly little for people to unconsciously treat you as a woman, for better and for worse. For a trans woman, that is kind of liberating. It allows you to just be yourself without worrying about whether you’re passing as a cisgendered woman. Having felt boxed in for most of my life by the gender expectations of being a man, the last thing I wanted to do was put myself in another box.
Do you feel comfortable coming out to people in HWNI? What about the larger scientific community? There was a period where I considered being out only in private and not professionally. I know a number of trans women who work in other industries and felt they needed to take that approach, but I decided that wouldn’t work for me. There’s an enormous amount of shame attached to being a crossdresser or a gender non-conforming male and I felt that if I didn’t fully come out in all aspects of my life I would be allowing that shame to be a part of me. It was hard, but I’m glad I took this path.
What challenges are you currently facing? How do you overcome those challenges?
Do you feel like you need to change how you present yourself when in the lab or amongst colleagues?
The challenges I’ve faced at work are really pretty minor compared to the challenges associated with coming out to the people you love. I’d been with my wife for twenty years and we’re currently getting divorced, so that has been incredibly painful. But I’ve been fortunate that my family and friends have been very supportive and my kids have been very accepting as well. I know that not all trans people get that same level of support, so I am very grateful for that.
I do struggle with regulating my femininity. Whenever I’m in a position of authority, be it teaching, at a conference or running the lab, I feel myself ‘butching up’ and leaning on my remaining male privilege, but psychologically, that’s not a particularly comfortable feeling for me. I also recognize that this behavioral regulation is something cisgendered women experience, as for that matter, do people of color. As a white male, I never really gave a second thought to the fact that I could
be more or less the exact same person at work and outside of work. I didn’t realize how dispiriting and annoying it is when there is an expectation of how a scientist should be that doesn’t necessarily match your authentic self.
By being yourself, have you improved freedom of expression of people around you? I hope to some extent I have. By and large I think scientists are extremely liberal and accepting. On the other hand, we’re not a very diverse group. It’s not just that we’re dominated by white males – the white males don’t even represent a particularly diverse group of white males. So I hope in a small way I’m contributing to the gradual chipping away of the stereotype that you have to be a white, nerdy guy to be a scientist.
Any words of wisdom or advice? I didn’t realize it at the time, but the closet is a horribly toxic place to be. Coming out can seem like it is just not an option. I remember worrying that I would lose people close to me and end up feeling isolated. But the reality has been completely the opposite - more people have moved closer to me than have moved away and I feel more connected with people. Steve Jobs has a quote about “not living someone else’s life”. When you’re in the closet, that’s exactly what you’re doing. So if there are closeted individuals in our community, I hope they can gain some courage from my experience and begin to take some steps to coming out. It’s a difficult process, but definitely worth it.
About the Editor
Christine Liu I am a PhD student at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley. While I come from a low-income background and identify as a person of color, I have a lot to learn about diversity from others. As I reviewed fellowship applications by my peers, I was moved by the stories of hardship that many encountered on their way to graduate school and beyond. I gained a greater understanding and increased compassion for others by listening to their stories with no chance for interruption or questioning. I hope to emulate that feeling by sharing the stories of scientists, especially those who are underrepresented in science in hopes of creating a more inclusive community. I encourage you to emulate this project with your own colleagues and would be honored to be involved in the process with you. Together we can do great things, in science and beyond.
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About the Photographer
Reynaldo Cayetano Jr. Portraiture is a language of responsibility and storytelling. It takes great patience and a deep commitment to capture a portrait that translates the soul of an individual. Christine Liu of Two Photon shared a vision to portray fellow peers in and outside their Neuroscience Department. Within this vision, Christine conveyed that her colleagues have unique personalities, vibrant identities, amazing talents, and an impassioned affinity to their field of study. Amongst a rigorous program, all the scientists endure many obstacles to establish their stake of breakthrough science. My role of photographer in this project was to portray the essence of each person. There was an inspiring blossom of each individual as they expressed who they are and what they love to do.
For more by Rey, visit instagram @minna.sixth @inksoftruth