Transgender researchers want to make an impact

Trans and non-binary people are becoming more visible in science and engineering


The symbol for transgender individuals, center, is flanked by ones for females (pink at left) and males (blue at right). Some transgender researchers say that in recent years they have been feeling more included in the research community.

itakdalee/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When Miles Ott was in high school, he had a love-hate relationship with math. Sometimes, he enjoyed his classes. At other times, he felt confused. “I did not understand what the point was,” he says. “I just thought I wasn’t good at it.”

But that changed in college when he took a calculus class. The teacher explained the concepts very clearly. “‘Oh, this makes sense now,’” Ott recalls thinking at the time. “It was a great feeling to finally understand this thing that was so profoundly confusing to me. And I just never wanted to stop.”

He didn’t. Later, he went to graduate school and studied biostatistics. That field combines math and statistics to understand how to improve the health of large groups of people. Ott now works at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. He has done research on topics such as HIV in South Africa and alcohol use among college students.

He also has explored mental health issues in transgender people. This area has special meaning to Ott because he is a transgender man.

a photo of Miles Ott
Miles Ott is a biostatistician. He uses math and statistics to study how we can improve people’s health.Smith College

What does being transgender mean? Imagine that when a baby is born, the doctor looks at their body parts and proclaims, “It’s a girl!” But at some point, that person comes to realize that they don’t feel like a girl at all. In fact, they know they’re supposed to be a boy. Put another way, their “gender identity” is male, making that person a transgender boy or man.

This can go the other way around, too. Doctors could say that a child is a boy at birth. But that person grows up knowing they are female. This is a transgender girl or woman.

Many transgender people then go through a process called a “transition.” Often, they start wearing clothes that match their gender identity. They may change their name. A transgender man named Andrea at birth, for instance, might start going by Alexander. And they can change their pronouns. Pronouns are words such as “he,” “she”, “him” and “her.” A transgender woman would ask people to refer to her as “she” and “her.”

Some people take medications or have surgery to change their bodies. A transgender man could undergo these treatments to develop male features. A transgender woman could go through other treatments to develop female features.

For Ott, being a transgender scientist has come with challenges. He was going through his transition when he applied to graduate school. He wasn’t sure which name to use on his applications. He decided to list his old name, even though it didn’t feel right.

In grad school, some people asked him overly personal questions. He slowly learned how to deal with these situations. “It took me a while to figure out that I don’t have to answer anybody’s questions,” he says. “I get to decide what I’m comfortable with.”

Becoming a scientist takes years of hard work and dedication. Transgender scientists and engineers, though, face extra hurdles. Sometimes they feel alone because they don’t know other transgender researchers. When they transition, colleagues may treat them rudely and disrespectfully. And transgender researchers can be in greater physical danger when they travel to other countries for fieldwork.

But these scientists and engineers are gaining support. Universities and organizations are working to make them feel included in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. More researchers are talking openly about being transgender (often abbreviated as “trans”). And they are finding other trans people through meetings and social media.

“It is slowly — maybe slowly, but surely — changing for the better,” says Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano. “I genuinely feel like that is the case.” He is a chemist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano also has studied transgender scientists’ experiences.

Researchers offer advice for LBGBT+ students who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering and math.

Simple steps

There are about 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States. That’s according to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), an organization in Washington, D.C.

Transgender people are part of a group called the LGBTQ+ community. That stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning. The “+” sign includes people with sexual or gender identities who don’t fit in those categories.

Some people in the LGBTQ+ community are non-binary. That means they don’t feel like they are only male or only female. They might be both, neither or somewhere in between. Non-binary people often use the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.” Some non-binary people consider themselves part of the transgender group. Others see themselves as a separate category.

a mural showing the symbol for Mercury
The symbol at the top of this alcove was originally created to represent the god Mercury. Some non-binary people have adopted it as their symbol as well. “Non-binary” means that they don’t identify as only male or only female. They might be both, neither, or somewhere in between.K. Young

In 2015, NCTE surveyed about 27,000 transgender Americans. The organization found many reasons to be concerned.

Transgender kids often had bad experiences in school. Among the students who were openly trans or thought to be trans, 77 percent said they were mistreated. For example, other students bullied or attacked them. More than one in every six left their school as a result.

Many of these kids don’t get support from their families. Almost one in every 12 said their parents had kicked them out of the house.

Some kids don’t tell their mom or dad that they’re transgender. They’re “afraid of how their parents would react,” says Gillian Branstetter. She is the media-relations manager at NCTE. “Family rejection is very real.”

Life is tough for trans adults, too. It’s often harder for them to find jobs because people discriminate against them. That means a transgender person might not be hired just because they’re transgender.

And in some places, trans people aren’t allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. In such a situation, a trans woman, for instance, can’t use the women’s restroom. But if she goes into the men’s bathroom, she could be harassed or beaten.

Bathroom use may not seem like a big deal, but it is. “If you can’t use the bathroom at school, you cannot go to school,” Branstetter says. “If you cannot use the bathroom at work, you cannot go to work.”

People are trying to change the laws. In the United States, it’s illegal to discriminate against people based on their sex in many areas, such as the workplace. Some courts have ruled that discriminating against someone because they are transgender falls into the category of sex discrimination — and therefore also is illegal. But right now, only 21 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., make that protection clear in their laws affecting the workplace and housing. NCTE and other groups hope to expand specific non-discrimination laws for trans people across the country.

Schools can set a good example. Teachers and students can start by addressing transgender kids by their correct name and pronouns. “These are really simple steps that everybody can take to make a trans person feel included,” Branstetter says.

Find your people

Having a community of people like you often can be helpful. Such a group can answer questions, share resources and provide support. That’s true for anyone, including transgender researchers, such as Izzy Jayasinghe.

a photo of the piston Izzy Jayasinghe made in high school
When Izzy Jayasinghe was in high school, she built this instrument in a physics class. It includes a piston that moves through a cylinder of fluid, and it allowed her to measure shock absorption. The project “gave me a real taste of what it was like to be a scientist,” she says.I. Jayasinghe

She is a biophysicist. Her work involves studying how molecules called proteins help send messages between or inside cells of the body. Those messages can take the form of electrical pulses or mechanical forces. She works at the University of Leeds in England. And she is a transgender woman.

Jayasinghe grew up in Sri Lanka, a country near southern India. At her birth, the doctors declared her a boy. During her childhood, her family disapproved when she tried to express her female identity.

“I used to get my auntie to do my nails,” Jayasinghe says. Her parents told her “that was not right.” She sometimes wore her mom’s dresses around the house. They didn’t like that either.

A turning point came when Jayasinghe was about 16 and built a computer out of spare parts. Now she could get on the internet for the first time. There, she found websites about transgender people. “That was the first place I learned that there were people like me,” she says. “And there were words to describe who we are.”

Jayasinghe’s family later moved to New Zealand, where she studied biomedical sciences at college. Then she worked at research labs in Australia and the United Kingdom. She used microscopes to look at cells of the heart.

But Jayasinghe hid her gender identity from most people. She used the male name her parents had given her. At work, she dressed in men’s clothing. “The default, I thought, was the safest,” she says. “But that was a painful thing to do.”

a photo of Jayasinghe
Jayasinghe hid her gender identity from most people for a long time. After she met a community that included other transgender people, she decided to come out.I. Jayasinghe

A few years ago, she got a job at the University of Leeds. She built a microscope to observe structures called calcium channels in heart cells. Her team explored how those channels affected the heartbeat. Jayasinghe loved seeing the images from these microscopes. “You have this picture on the screen that you know that only you have seen, and no one else has,” she says. “This is a pretty cool thing.”

While at Leeds, Jayasinghe finally found a transgender community with which to connect. She had been watching YouTube videos made by a transgender biologist and filmmaker named Amanda Prosser. Jayasinghe emailed Prosser, who lived nearby, and asked if she wanted to chat. Prosser introduced Jayasinghe to her friends. Among those friends were other transgender people. Jayasinghe realized that she didn’t need to separate her gender identity from her public life.

She decided to transition. Jayasinghe sent a letter to her parents and emailed her friends and colleagues. She gave them her new name, Izzy, and the pronouns to use. She told people at her university that starting on a certain date, “I will be coming back to work as myself.” She also said that she was open to answering questions about being transgender.

A few people acted awkward around her. But most of them, she says, told her, “We want to support you.”

Transgender researchers can find community in many ways. Kids can join support groups for LGBTQ+ youth. Many colleges have an LGBTQ+ student association. Students can find role models on the website 500 Queer Scientists. Or they can search for the hashtags #lgbtstem and #transinstem on Twitter. Organizations such as LGBT STEM and oSTEM also help connect trans researchers.

“Finding your people can make all the difference,” Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano says. “Then you’re not alone.”

Some LBGBT+ researchers have faced discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Several who work in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — share why they came out and how it has helped them move forward in their careers.

Safety precautions

Being a transgender scientist in a lab can be hard. But those who do field work can face even more risks.

Some researchers travel to other countries to conduct studies for weeks or months. Some of those nations may be very dangerous for transgender scientists. The residents may be hostile toward trans people.

International legal protection is spotty. In a 2017 study, researchers examined the constitutions of 193 countries. A constitution is a set of basic laws that determines people’s rights. Only five nations’ constitutions had at least some explicit protections against discrimination based on gender identity. Those countries were Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Malta and the United Kingdom.

a photo of Wehrle holding a lizard out in the field
Wehrle had to consider safety risks when travelling to a foreign country. Here, he is holding a green lizard (Lacerta viridis) in Croatia.Marija Krajonvić

Beck Wehrle has thought about safety issues. He works at the University of California, Irvine. There, he studies how animals’ bodies work and how they interact with their habitat.

Ever since he was a kid, Wehrle knew he wanted to study reptiles. In graduate school, he decided to investigate how certain lizards evolved to eat plants. To do that, he needed to collect wild lizards in Croatia, a country close to Italy.

Wehrle is a transgender man. Croatia is one of the safer countries for trans people. Still, Wehrle wondered what would happen if someone found out he was trans. He worried that he could be kicked out of his lodgings, or his work would somehow be hindered. In the worst-case scenario, he could be attacked and hurt.

Field research often can be more dangerous than working in the lab. So Wehrle knew he could get injured while doing research in the wild. And some doctors won’t treat transgender people well. They may assume that any health problem is a result of being transgender and not look for the real cause. “If I am the only trans person this medical professional has ever met, there’s no way that I can trust them to treat me appropriately,” Wehrle says.

To protect himself, Wehrle brought an assistant or his partner on fieldwork trips. If he got hurt, that person could make sure he got good medical treatment. But he had to borrow money from the bank to pay for those people to travel with him.

Wehrle has now completed his graduate school fieldwork. He’s glad to see that his university has since taken steps to improve researchers’ safety. In 2014, scientists reported that women are often harassed or assaulted during fieldwork trips. Afterward, Wehrle’s department agreed that researchers could get funding to pay for an extra person to travel with them in the field. This policy could help protect women, LGBTQ+ people or anyone else who might be vulnerable.

Wehrle believes that support for transgender researchers has improved over the last five years. “I feel like I’ve been listened to and valued more as a trans and queer scientist,” he says.

Knowing where to turn

Getting this kind of help from universities is important. Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano has seen what a big difference it can make.

In 2013, his team interviewed 54 LGBTQ scientists. The group included several trans researchers. This study was part of a project called Queer in STEM.

a photo of Kat Young adjusting a microphone
Kat Young studies electronic engineering in England. Young is non-binary and uses the pronoun “they.” Here, they plug a cable into a microphone to record sounds in a park.University of York/Alex Holland

Two transgender scientists who participated in the study were attending graduate school in the same state. One school was very friendly toward trans researchers. Professors had been asked to use trans people’s correct names and pronouns. The university supported medical needs for transitions. The trans scientist at that school was enjoying their experience.

But the other school didn’t have such processes in place. The trans researcher there “was having the toughest time,” Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano says. They felt demeaned by colleagues. The situation was so bad that the scientist wanted to quit.

Support for transgender researchers can vary, a 2015 study of LGBT physicists found. For that study, the American Physical Society (APS) surveyed 324 people in this community. APS is a group based in College Park, Md. At some universities, participants reported, trans physicists didn’t report any major problems. At other places, they said it wasn’t clear what they should do if harassed.

“People don’t know where to turn,” says Savannah Garmon. A transgender woman, she was part of the APS team. Garmon is a physicist at Osaka Prefecture University in Japan.

Garmon has a suggestion to ensure that all students — including those who are transgender — have enough support. Give each student two mentors, she says. The student would work in the first mentor’s lab. If a lab member harassed them, and the student didn’t feel comfortable talking to the head of the lab, they could go to the second mentor.

Being open

Many scientists are now open about being transgender. One such researcher is Kat Young, who identifies as non-binary and trans. Young uses the pronoun “they.” They are a PhD student in electronic engineering at the University of York in England.

Young studies audio technology and perception. They are investigating how the shape of their ears affect how people process sound. This work could help researchers create realistic audio experiences. For example, engineers can use sound to make virtual reality feel more life-like.

a photo of Young playing a guitar
Young also enjoys playing guitar. When they were a teenager, they played drums with friends in a band called Star Shaped City.John Robinson

Since they were a kid, Young has always liked knowing how things work. One time, Young disassembled radios in the driveway. Their dad “wasn’t very pleased because he then had to drive over lots of small sharp pointy bits,” Young recalls.

Young didn’t realize they were non-binary until after watching the YouTube web series “Carmilla.” One character is a non-binary science student. “I hadn’t come across the concept that there was an option that wasn’t male or female,” Young says. “Ah, that’s me,” Young realized. “This makes sense now.”

Young feels it’s important to be open about their gender identity. They include their pronouns on their business cards and conference name tags. They also have posted pictures of flags representing transgender and gay pride on their office door.

“If someone feels that they can’t be open about themselves at work, they can’t produce their best work,” Young wrote on their website. Hiding one’s identity would be distracting. “There’s a part of your brain that’s always thinking about that rather than all of your brain thinking about the work you’re doing,” they say.

STEM fields benefit when people of all backgrounds are involved. They bring a diversity of skills and viewpoints. This includes men and women, people with disabilities, white scientists and scientists of color, and gay and lesbian researchers. Transgender and non-binary people are no exception. “They have value in our community,” Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano says. “They matter.”

This is part of a Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.