For most of human history, science has been a world of walls. Race, gender, wealth, and more have long defined not just who’s welcome in science, but who’s allowed to be present at all.
Today, queer representation in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) continues to lag behind societal progress, especially where the identities of women and gender minorities intersect with Black, Indigenous, and other person-of-color identities. Yet it’s this community that’s driving a sea-change within science: a shift away from gate-keeping and conformity, and toward valuing identity as a driver of insight and discovery.
The people featured here represent a range of backgrounds, career stages, and areas of work, but they share this: Each has hit those old walls and made an entirely new kind of door, pulling others through with them. On the other side? A very queer perspective indeed. One that’s inclusive instead of exclusive, diverse instead of uniform, and powered by the communities we hold. A better place, in other words, for science itself.
The stories below are part of New Science, a public exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences made possible by an IF/THEN Gender Equity Grant. Participants were nominated or self-nominated, and chosen by an advisory board of queer scientists, educators, and activists. New Science was designed to be easily downloaded and recreated by any museum, community center, or public space in the world.
Environmental Scientist (they/them)
My former self, known as “Annie,” was someone my parents expected to be a graceful Vietnamese woman with long, black hair. Instead, I dug my hands in the earth, I wore men’s work clothes, and I dreamt of exploration through tropical jungles and uncovering new species.
In Vietnamese-American families, the term “conservation,” or Bảo tồn thiên nhiên, is a luxurious word, heavily laden with implications of something frivolous, only meant for Caucasian men with financial means. My first introduction to the concepts of environmental justice and biology drew from my time working at the local community farm. I kept this job a secret from my parents, making sure to scrub my nails clean every time I came home.
To me, being queer in STEM means having to tell yourself that you deserve to be here, and having to figure out who’s safe and who’s not. But it also means finding a community with people who are changing the world through research, and changing science through being their brilliant, queer selves.
Nguyen with bird by Sophie NodaCalifornia Academy of Sciences
Much like the kestrels that nest in a church building or fireflies that mate in the smallest of green pockets in the city, I too am working to find my place in an unlikely field.
Dr. Jessica Ware
Entomologist & Evolutionary Biologist (she/her)
Gatekeeping, questions about who belongs—that’s old science. New science? New science is everybody participating, everybody supported and celebrated. That's the type of science I want to be part of.
My identity as a scientist has been greatly influenced by my lived experience as a Black woman and a queer person, yet I know far less about the history of Black, queer scientists. That's because barriers were put in place to actively exclude such people from participating in STEM, and because historians rarely recorded their stories. With colleagues, I co-founded Entomologists of Color, which works to diversify the field of entomology and make space for everyone to be able to participate.
Dr. Alex Hanna
Sociologist and AI Researcher (she/her)
Queer people resist fitting neatly in boxes. When it comes to data, failing to fit in can have consequences that are awkward at times, and dangerous in others. In my work on data and AI, I’ve wondered and asked where the data that machine learning uses comes from.
I’ve been a computer nerd since as long as I can remember, and I’ve known that I wanted to do something with computers since those early days. After I came out as a trans woman in graduate school, I began asking new questions about the connection of people and technology.
Dr. Jessica Esquivel
Particle Physicist (she/her)
I am a Black, Mexican, lesbian woman and proud of all the things that make me myself. I am a badass particle physicist because of—not in spite of—these identities.
My journey to becoming a physicist wasn’t easy. I didn’t fit the mold of what a scientist looked like, or who could be a scientist. Most of the time I've been the only (or one of a few) in these physics spaces, and the realization that these laboratories, these physics classrooms, these halls weren’t built with me in mind hit me like a ton of bricks.
Esquivel at work by Jessica EsquivelCalifornia Academy of Sciences
It took a lot of time and a lot of people in my corner for me to finally realize that if I don’t fit the mold, I need to break the mold.
Dr. Tiara Moore
Marine & Environmental Ecologist (she/her)
It didn’t matter that I was Dr. Moore, conducted research worldwide, served on scientific executive boards—no, it just mattered that I was Black, woman, other. And that broke my heart. I decided then to become a true advocate for myself and for other historically excluded folx.
Growing up in the Southern Bible Belt, being gay wasn’t an option—it was a disease, a sin, a one-way ticket to hell. I was made to believe anything other than heterosexuality was wrong, and if I didn’t comply, hell would be my home.
As I grew in my educational journey in the STEM field, I became hyper visible as the only Black person in the room, and I knew my sexual identity had no choice but to be straight. I was struggling simply to exist as a Black woman in marine science, a double minority. Exploring my sexual identity was definitely out of the question! So, I continued fighting to make spaces for women of color and Black people in my field.
One day I realized that no matter how hard I fought, the table was never meant for me. The thought of being a triple minority in STEM caused me anxiety, but seeing that nothing I did in these rooms was making it better for me, I decided I should at least be my full self!
Moore in the fieldCalifornia Academy of Sciences
I came out on Twitter a year after starting my first real relationship with a woman. I put on a shirt that said “gay” and made a video telling the world I was pansexual. It was the best day, and I’ve never felt freer.
Fisheries Biologist (she/her & they/them)
Like water, queerness gives life. Being Latinx, being queer, being genderfluid, it’s like the sunlight dancing on the surface of a stream—it’s endless. Waders just gave me a place to begin.
The first time I ever put on a pair of waders for work, I felt relief. They were leaky, too big, and the most unflattering shade of grey-brown known to humanity, but they were also comfortable in a way I didn’t really understand in that moment. The first time I slipped my feet into the unisex-sized boot and rolled the coarse material over my hips, it felt like putting on armor.
That was nine years ago, back when I was studying biology without really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I explored wetlands, wildfire burns, lakes, estuaries, and freshwater streams all over the country. The waders would change, but that feeling of protection never left. While I was visiting study sites, collecting data, and connecting with nature, everything else fell away: the expectations of my perceived gender, my queerness, my ethnicity, all of it. I was allowed to simply be.
That feeling of belonging and rightness wasn’t one I was familiar with. And there was the added pleasure of connecting to nature in a meaningful way for the first time in my life.
Ruiz in the field by Elizabeth RuizCalifornia Academy of Sciences
I didn’t grow up doing outdoorsy things, like fishing or camping. But now, when I’m in the water and I can feel the gentle pressure of it flowing against my waders, I know I’m an important part of this wonderful, scary, beautiful world.
Chief Technology Officer (she/her)
As it turns out, being open about my identities helped cultivate a culture of inclusion. We’ve learned to leverage our experiences throughout our product development life cycles, because we understand that now, more than ever, the voices of many have to be heard.
Sometime between feeling invisible while working as a release engineer in Silicon Valley, and being tired of suppressing the impact of repeated assaults against my black, female, and queer identities, I decided to exist on my own terms. And that meant that I understood the responsibility I had as a Black, female lesbian to carry each and every piece of me through to my work.
Product inclusion, done through the process of understanding more deeply the people we're impacting with our decisions, is less about technique and more about inclusive consistency. And that can lead to breakthroughs.
Physics Education Researcher (they/he/she)
When I started doing physics education research, I was also coming to terms with the fact that I'm bisexual. I sought truth in my research; in queer, feminist poetry; in critical race theory. I learned new words, a new language—something that felt true and real.
I graduated college identifying as a bisexual, Black, and CHamoru woman. I didn’t feel like a woman, but I didn’t feel like a man either. Yet I was supposed to be a Black woman, according to everyone else. It took time, but I learned that the rules that I grew up with were absolutely fake, and that if I didn’t want to be a woman, I didn’t have to be. It was a moment of gender liberation.
With the language I’ve learned from intersectional scholars, from Black women and queer folks, I can happily say: Hello! I’m Xandria R. Quichocho, my pronouns are they/he/she, and I am a Black and CHamoru, bisexual, non-binary physics education researcher currently pursuing my physics PhD at Michigan State University. And that’s the most true and real I can be.
Soil Scientist (they/them)
I was taught to compartmentalize my identities, to hate myself, and to ruminate on trauma. But I strive to relate to myself, communities, ecologies, and spirits in ways centered on joy. And the Earth, specifically soil, has taught me the most about centering joy.
Complex relationships to the environment guide my career in STEM. I am not separate from nature; I am an extension of the environments that raised me—of the grandparents and air in New York City, the yards and allergies in Jersey, the vegetables and isolation in Vermont, the data and dust in Arizona. I am often misunderstood by the dominant paradigms, which do not connect to my sad, brown, queer, earthy, trans self, but I’ve always found solace in the soil.
I now analyze soil, rainwater, kale, and cactus for metals as part of Project Harvest—a co-created, community-based research project that integrates sense of place, environmental monitoring, and health literacy to address injustice. I finally feel like my relationship to soil and queerness are valued and important to my work.
Categorizing samples by Kunal PalawatCalifornia Academy of Sciences
By studying the ground, I am actually studying myself. By studying the ground in a justice-based way, I honor the Earth and myself.
Dr. Lauren Esposito
Even today, it’s undeniably lonely being queer in STEM. The visibility of LGBTQ+ people that I lacked as a student and early career scientist is critical for mental health, for standing up to injustices, and for mentoring current colleagues and future scientists.
In 2018, I launched a visibility campaign to shine a light on the incredible LGBTQ+ individuals working in STEM and STEM-supporting jobs. This initiative, 500 Queer Scientists, began with 50 brave and proud scientists willing to tell their story, and in the past 3 years has grown to include more than 1,500 stories from across the globe.
Searching for scorpions by Nate DappenCalifornia Academy of Sciences
For those of you who may be out there questioning whether science is the place for you, the 500 Queer Scientists community is here to help you remember that support is out there—you are not alone. You're part of a big, vibrant, smart-as-hell community.
The processes and questions that exist only serve people who fit a certain mold. To change that, there need to be voices like mine pointing out the disparities and asking questions—about the science, the methods we use to advance it, and where people like me fit in.
I grew up on a small island in the middle of the Caribbean. Watching the snakes and lizards, looking up all the birds and insects I could, I had always known that I wanted to work with animals in some capacity. I left the unique biodiversity of my island for the U.S. to try to figure out what that was, but that meant learning more about myself as well. I had been scared of that for a long time.
I found my way to the field of lizards, specifically that of anoles. It’s a field where there are no voices like mine (and it was a literal field; I was doing research back home on my island). Did I fit in? Could I? I was the only Black, queer scientist, and the only one actually from Dominica. While it was difficult, it brought me home, both physically, and to my identity. I could not only exist as myself and do the science I loved—I could improve it.
Anolis oculatus by Chelsea ConnorCalifornia Academy of Sciences
My journey started long ago, but continues with the determination to not have to hide myself, and for others to not feel they have to either.
Dr. Monica Granados
Open Science & Data Policy (she/her)
As a queer, Mexican, immigrant woman, I have gone through so many selective processes in my journey to become a scientist—processes that were designed to let only a trickle of people through.
I almost didn’t go to college when my visa in the United States expired. When I applied to graduate school in Canada, I was forced to take an extra semester by the admission committee despite having all the same entrance requirements of my successfully admitted and less marginalized peers. In graduate school, unsupported by grants, I had to work extra jobs to make ends meet. I was almost left out of science, and science would have missed out on the contributions of this proud, queer, Latina.
Inspired by my journey, I now work on open science to make science accessible and more inclusive, from scientific papers to the scientists who write them. With open science, we have the potential to make contributions to science as diverse as the communities they describe.
Dr. Julie Sosa
Surgeon Scientist (she/her)
Belonging—not just fitting—is essential for success. I’m committed to accelerating the processes of change in order to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to UCSF Surgery, and more broadly to American surgery. I will not pause or rest until that is done.
I self-identify in a number of ways. I am a surgeon. I am a woman, and was just the seventh woman to finish the Halsted residency program in general surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine. I am Latina; my father and his family are from Guatemala. I am an immigrant, born in Montreal prior to moving to upstate New York when I was a child. I am LGBT.
I have embraced my intersectionality and view it as an extraordinary privilege, as it allows me to understand more dimensions of life, which inform my strategic vision for the scientific community. Most important, I have come to be unafraid, vested to lift others who still feel disempowered in a field like academic surgery and academic medicine, which are hierarchical, white, and heteronormative.
Molecular Biologist (she/her)
I grew up in a queer-phobic country where those who deviate from the gender norms are viewed as impure and diseased. As I slowly peel away the mask that I once donned and delve further into science, I become more and more the self that I saw as a child.
Dr. Ale Garin-Fernandez
My PhD thesis was focused on marine phages (viruses that target bacteria), one of the most diverse—and underrated—members in the ecosystem. Now, I explore how to highlight their diversity in different visual formats, validating the value of diversity as strength.
Spaceflight Engineer & Sci-Communicator (she/her)
I’ve lived my whole life outside of the status quo on almost every level. I am a queer, disabled, woman of color, half Asian and half Latina. I look at each day as a chance to break down barriers and stereotypes that people hold about us.
Marine Ecologist (he/him)
Working with sharks, I realized how deeply misunderstood they are. I wanted to give them a voice and work to strengthen policies that protect them. In hindsight, I think I identified with them—trans people are also frequently maligned—and this connection was powerful to me.
Researchers are often expected to do fieldwork in a way that's not designed inclusively, in places without access to trans healthcare, and in regions where it's not safe to be openly queer. These facts have made me doubt at times whether I wanted to continue in marine science, in a field where there's so little diversity and I feel unwelcome. Despite this, I firmly believe that things can change.
Epaulette shark by Leo GaskinsCalifornia Academy of Sciences
I've found a fantastic community of queer people and allies, and together, we support each other in dismantling obstacles and barriers.
Dr. Mary Jo Ondrechen
Professor of Chemical Biology (she/her)
To all the students of science: I look forward to the day when the world makes it safe for all of us to bring our whole selves to the table. You have important roles to play as scientists and leaders in a world facing ever more complex technical and human challenges.
Se:kon! My name is Mary Jo Ondrechen. I am a Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University in Boston. I am also a proud Two-Spirit member of Mohawk Nation, a researcher, a teacher, and an activist.
In a time when many girls were told that their future roles were limited, my parents told me that I could do and be anything if I tried hard enough. They told me so many times that I believed them. I loved observing the world around me from the time I was a small child, from the stars in the sky to the creatures that roamed the land and the ocean. Being a scientist and a professor was my dream, even though nobody around me did those things.
Promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM is now one of my passions, including encouraging diverse students to become college and university professors. Another passion of mine is advocacy for the environment, for protecting our Mother Earth and the land that is called Turtle Island in Haudenausaunee tradition.
Dr. Stephanie Miller
Systems Neuroscientist (she/they)
My words of wisdom to anyone interested in pursuing this career are the same ones Wonder Woman’s mentor told her: “You're stronger than you believe. You have greater powers than you know."
Just as Wonder Woman emerged from the mythical Island of the Amazons to create a more inclusive world, a genderqueer, mixed-race, Mexican-American dyke now known as Mx. Stephanie Miller, PhD, emerged from the queer utopia of Northampton, Massachusetts (a town with the highest number of lesbians in America per capita). I was able to express myself; I was affirmed.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, when a colleague consistently avoided acknowledging my presence, that I felt my queerness as a difference. I realized there were likely lost opportunities I'd never know I was passed over for because of other people’s discomfort with my identity. I realized that in the minds of some people in my new environment, there was dissonance in seeing me as a scientific colleague.
Miller at work by Stephanie MillerCalifornia Academy of Sciences
I had to scour to find mentors who recognized and valued me for my whole self. I want other young scientists to have an easier path to achieving their scientific dreams.
This project was made possible in part by an IF/THEN® Gender Equity Grant Moonshot Award (funded by Lyda Hill Philanthropies) to increase the visual representation of women and gender minorities in STEM across museum content.