Inclusivity is key to scientific advancements: Why I helped start “Out Toxicologists and Allies”
In the modern world of science, things move fast. There is always a new innovation or discovery just around the corner, ready to change the field. And it’s all the result of people working together: a combination of great dedication, rigorous research, and steadfast support from colleagues.
However, diversity of thought is the silent understructure supporting all the elements that lead to great scientific advancements. In fact, it is one of the reasons I am so passionate about improving the experiences of LGBTQ+ members within the scientific community.
While society has made considerable strides in advancing LGBTQ+ rights over the past two decades, members of the LGBTQ+ community still encounter disproportionate limitations and biases in the professional and social world. A recent research publication found that LGBTQ+ STEM professionals were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment, and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ+ peers .
I am fortunate to be a part of the Cambridge-Boston biotech scene, where acceptance and support of LGBTQ+ STEM professionals are more commonplace. However, I’m also aware that I work in a bit of a bubble and that such an encouraging environment does not exist everywhere nor for all LGBTQ+ STEM professionals; this is especially true for the most marginalized within the community, such as Black transgender women, and all those that exist at the intersections of racism, sexism, and homo/bi/transphobia. As science is a very collaborative and interconnected industry, I recognize that what happens in one area of my field can impact the entire field. That’s why it is important to ensure conversations about supporting LGBTQ+ STEM professionals happen on a large scale. I especially wanted to see these conversations happen in my own scientific specialty, toxicology.
So, a little over two years ago, I got together with a group of toxicologists to form Out Toxicologists and Allies (OTA), a special interest group within the Society of Toxicology (SOT). The SOT is the largest professional organization of toxicologists and is a great platform for impactful discussions. Though centered in the United States, it connects toxicologists from all around the globe; the annual meeting boasts about 7,000 to 9,000 attendees each year. The SOT has an established commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all its activities, and encourages the formation of special interest groups among its members to bring together scientists who share a common interest in issues germane to specific communities. OTA is one such group dedicated to advancing and supporting the inclusion, promotion, retention and professional development of LGBTQ+ toxicologists within SOT.
Like any work of science, forming OTA was a team effort. The idea of a group for LGBTQ+ members had been discussed for years among longstanding and new members alike, but it was never able to gain enough momentum to come to fruition. Additionally, creating new special interest groups within SOT was not an everyday occurrence – prior to OTA’s inception, a new special interest group hadn’t been approved for close to a decade. However, once we recognized how many members were dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ toxicologists, we were able to quickly come together, put pen to paper, and collect more than 70 signatures for our proposal to formally start this group. With approval secured, we dove into building out the mission, values, bylaws and board of OTA.
In its short existence, OTA has already made an impact on the Society at large: in 2020, OTA crafted a proposal that was accepted by SOT leadership to incorporate broader definitions of gender identities and associated pronouns in membership and Society materials. In addition to hosting their inaugural (virtual) reception this past Annual Meeting – complete with science-themed drag names and toxicology trivia – OTA sponsored its first webinar focused on mentoring LGBTQ+ professionals that was attended by members and allies from academia, industry and government.
Through OTA, we work to bring up the things that members outside of the LGBTQ+ community might not realize impact their LGBTQ+ peers. And while fostering a community of LGBTQ+ toxicologists is part of OTA’s goals, we made a deliberate decision to include both toxicologists who self-identify as LGBTQ+ as well as allies in the name of our group. We believe that “ally” is more than a noun – it’s also a verb, and we welcome all that support the advancement of LGBTQ+ professionals through joining in the work of increasing visibility and support of the group’s specific needs.
I am honored to be a member of OTA, working previously as Vice President and now as President for the organization. I strongly believe that all scientists should care deeply about cultivating a supportive and inclusive community across the board, and that the future of medicine and science might very well depend on it. In my field, our understanding of all the unique and similar ways in which substances in our world impact us will only flourish with the collaboration of many brilliant scientists. And for these scientists to do their best work, they need to feel like they can bring their whole self to their job. When people aren’t concerned with how they are perceived or the support they will (or won’t) receive by simply being themselves, I believe they can accomplish their very best work.
 Cech, E.A., and T. J. Waidzunas. 2021. “Systemic Inequalities for LGBTQ Professionals in STEM.” Science Advances 7, no. 3 (January): eabe0933. https://www.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abe0933.
Abbreviations: LGBTQ+ = Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer; OTA = Out Toxicologists and Allies; SOT = Society of Toxicology; STEM = Science, technology, engineering, and math