Ask a Scientist: Rochelle Diamond, Chair of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists…

Ask a Scientist: Rochelle Diamond, Chair of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals

by Allie Rubin

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Expressing individuality as a scientist can seem like a form of treason, which is why it’s so rare to see. It’s why the Internet collectively went berserk when a NASA employee sported a mohawk during the Mars Rover landing, or why most of my colleagues will follow up a description of their weekend activities with a dejected, “but…I really should have been working instead.” It’s why there are so few movies about well-adjusted scientists who do non-scientific things in their spare time. In the weird, insular worlds of science and academia, sometimes it feels like the greatest sin one can commit is having a personal life.

This kind of thinking keeps so many queer/LGBTQIA scientists from being, if not out, then out and proud. Along with the fact that academia is traditionally a realm that has been, and continues to be, occupied by older straight white men, trying to express a queer identity at work can feel more awkward or distracting than empowering. It’s also worth noting that this ambivalence is a best-case scenario that excludes factors like homophobia, which can quickly turn an ambiguously queer-friendly workplace into a dangerous one.

Much of this is specific to my own experience as a queer female scientist, but what is more broadly applicable is that, despite a few recent attempts to characterize the state of queer workers in STEM, there’s so much that remains unclear. How many queer scientists are there? Where are they working? What are the problems that they’re facing, and what can be done to fix them? To put it more bluntly: it’s clear that there’s a lot of patriarchy-smashing that needs to happen. What’s less clear is who is going to do it and how.

Rochelle “Shelley” Diamond is a research biologist at Caltech who understands these issues better than nearly anyone else. Along with her wife, who is also a scientist, she founded and currently runs the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). Shelley and I recently chatted for close to an hour about her work, the state of queer acceptance in STEM, and what still needs to be done about diversity in science.

Can you tell me what your job title is and what you currently do at Caltech?
Currently, my job title is Member of the Professional Staff and I run two laboratories. I run a developmental immunology group for Dr. Ellen Rothenberg; we work on the stem cells of the immune system and are making a gene regulatory network from stem cells all the way through the immune process, looking at how all of your immune cells get to be who they are when they grow up. And I’ve been with her for 32 years. I manage the lab on a daily basis and she’s the big picture. That’s 25% of my time. 75% of my time I’m the managing director of the Caltech Flow Cytometry/Cell Sorting Facility, which services many laboratories. I oversee our facility, which has two cell sorters and a couple of analyzers, so I train people and do all the consulting for it. That’s my day job, and the rest of my time I’m on the board of directors of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals. So I get spread pretty thin.

Just to focus on the science first: how did you know you were interested in science and how did you end up in your field?
Well, early on in my life, my brother, who was much older than me, was going to school in Berkeley and in summertime he’d bring home his microscope. He was a zoology major — he eventually became a dentist — and we would hop the golf course fence and go over to the lagoons and get pond water and all kinds of crazy things and look at them through the microscope, so early on I was enthusiastic about nature and how the microcosm works.

I got sick at the age of 16 with viral encephalitis and [it] completely changed my life. I was paralyzed for a little bit and I didn’t get to go to Berkeley like I wanted to, like my brothers did. My parents sent me off to a small women’s college in Colorado which really didn’t have much science and I got kind of frustrated with that. I went for a summer to Hawaii and took an embryology course and the rest is history. I got out of that and worked my way into UC Santa Barbara and got a degree in biochemistry/molecular biology, a bachelor’s degree, and then got a job directly out of that and here I am.

What would be your favorite part of what you do?
Mentoring. Absolutely. Not only Ellen’s group, but mentoring people who want to use flow cytometry and cell sorting and molding them into doing the right kind of experiment, and not just a down-and-dirty experiment but the right scientific way of going about doing an experiment. That’s my joy, to be able to open their eyes to controls and setting up instrumentation correctly and getting it right the first time through.

Is there a lot of diversity in the people you get to mentor? I’m interested in how you find people to mentor and what the relationships are like, working with them.
Caltech is fairly international…of course, they still have a lot more men than women, but we’re trying to mentor women. There are international students, but in terms of racial minorities, it’s still very skewed toward white or Asian.

How did you get involved with NOGLSTP?
Oh, ha, this is a long and convoluted story. I was married for 10 years. I came from a…I actually had a real coming out. I was a debutante. My family was high up in social circles in Phoenix. I was the only girl of my generation and expected to be a girl, and I felt like I was different. And it was hard, it was really hard. So I ended up marrying my [male] best friend because I figured that was the only thing I could do. We were married for ten years until I had an affair with one of my coworkers, which then got out and then I kind of got outed at work and bad things happened. I ended up separating and trying to figure out what I was going to do, because I was born in 1951. Back in those days that’s what you did, you know? I came out at the age of 27. I stayed married for a little bit and then I couldn’t do it anymore. There was a program on NPR; a woman was on being interviewed talking about Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists. A friend challenged me to go to the next meeting and I said “OK, I will.” It was like, “Wow, what a breath of fresh air,” and they became my friends. I became involved in the organization and eventually that’s how I met my wife. We’ve been together for 32 years.

[laughs] Yeah. And we were truly married, we were one of the 18,000 couples that were married in the state of California before Prop 8 took effect…[And] we both work hard on NOGLSTP. NOGLSTP got started with Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists and a couple of other city groups, and a few of us met at an American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting and talked about the fact that we needed to form a group and talk about our issues to AAAS and other professional societies about issues we were having. We formed a group called NOGLS…and that group kind of disbanded a little bit because it was falling apart. [My wife] Barbara and I decided we needed to step in because the Chair of the group was stepping down. I took over Chair, she took over the treasury, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We made a nonprofit incorporated group out of it in the state of California, applied for affiliation with AAAS, and then we’ve just been growing ever since as a legitimate professional society for LGBTQIA scientists. And so that’s the story of how I got involved, basically because I didn’t want the group to die, because it meant a lot to me personally, because they’re the people who kind of pulled me out of my depression and got me thinking right-headed about my sexual orientation and how it shouldn’t matter what my sexual orientation was when it comes to my job.

Has it been difficult for you to reconcile the scientific and activist parts of your work? As an out scientist myself, it can be tricky sometimes. You’re expected to work all the time and focus on getting results and competing for funding and there’s not a lot of emphasis on expressing your personal life or anything that isn’t scientific. Have you had any issues with that?
Well, in a way I’ve kind of been lucky because every time there’s been a downturn there’s been a door opened to me. So when I was at UCLA, yes I was out, and at that point I was just starting to really push forward on the national front. The first guy that identified AIDS in gay men worked across the hall, and there were three or four of us who discussed AIDS at the time, and I actually joined the AIDS Project L.A. on the medical advisory board because of that. We started having our first symposia at AAAS to address those issues — homophobia and AIDS research were our first [points] — and just kind of pushing out from there in terms of trying to get funding and stuff for research.

So then we lost the grant and I came to an interview at Caltech with Ellen Rothenberg, and it was a 2 p.m. interview and at 7 p.m. we were still talking about her science! She offered me the job of her lab manager. And I said, “OK, wait, let’s stop, hold on. You need to know something about me: I am a lesbian, I am an activist, an advocate, and I run this organization and if that is a problem for you then we just need to stop talking now,” and she turned to me and she said, “My last lab manager was gay…and he was fabulous.”

[laughs] It’s amazing that you have that support system.
Yeah, I’m extremely lucky. I recognize that it’s very difficult for somebody to come in and actually just become the chair of this organization, because you have to be out front, you have to be answering the calls from the reporters, you have to be [dealing with] other organizations asking for help, [with] being a thought leader. I’m now a thought leader for Discover Engineering for their global marathon [an online support event for women in tech]. I didn’t ask for this; they came and asked me to do it because they felt the diversity was important. So we’re actually going to do a chat room for lesbians and bisexuals and transgender women in their global marathon. That’s never been done before. Now I’m having to organize this chat room [laughs] and it’s been very difficult to get an international woman to co-facilitate. They want it to be global,so I’ve been focused on the U.S., but now I’m starting to look at, wow, if you think that you have to be kind of stealth here you can imagine what you are in the 77 countries that condemn you to either go to prison or die.

So how are you getting an out scientist from a country like that?
It’s been difficult. We’re trying to convince somebody in India, but she’s on the fence because this is like, coming out, and this might jeopardize her job, so it’s difficult and it’s really opened my eyes to these issues in the last month. Yes, I’m a national organization, but does that stop at the ocean? No. But I don’t have the resources to be an international organization.

[laughs] I was going to ask what you do in your spare time, but I don’t know if — do you have any spare time?
I play poker. [laughs] I play tournament poker. That’s my hobby.

How have the work and goals of NOGLSTP changed, given that we’re entering a time when public support and approval of LGBT issues is unprecedentedly high?
Well, yes, it’s unprecedented for marriage issues but — we still can’t get [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] through Congress. We still have employment issues; that, what is it, 37 states still have laws on the books that you can be fired from your job.

Furthermore, if you live in a place that is unprotected, you’re going to be a lot more stealth. We know that Wall Street Journal article that came out says even if you’re working at an [Human Rights Campaign] 100 [top-ranked for LGBT corporate equality] company, most of the employees are not out who are LGBT. Even though they might be part of an affinity group, they’re not out. And that’s probably because they live in places like that. So there’s a hell of a lot of work that still needs to be done and there needs to be an awareness on the part of the company. Companies are going out and going, “Oh, look at us, we’re wonderful,” but they haven’t really done anything about where they exist.

So there are an awful lot of issues that still need to be addressed, especially because science and engineering are behind about twenty years sociologically: we can’t even get a handle on how many LGBTQ people are in the STEM workforce. There’s a couple of grants going in now to [the National Science Foundation] to try and measure that. We’ve been funding one about experiences of STEM students and employees but it’s all piecemeal. And it’s all based on self-identification. And we don’t have a good handle on the demographics, in terms of ethnicity and other things, where they live and all that. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, because when you go out and talk to people they go, “Well, what’s the demographics?” [laughs] That’s the first thing they ask me! “Well, how many people are there, in STEM, who are LGBT?” I can’t tell them. I don’t know.

So the first big step needs to be a comprehensive demographic survey of how many queer people are actually in science?
Yeah, because it makes a big difference to allies who you’re trying to make a business case for. They always want to have data. [laughs] Which we don’t have. And as a scientist group I’d like to have some data! It makes it real hard not to have that in hand when you go out and speak.

So when you’re going to companies, is that to help them with their policies, or what — what are you doing with them?
Well, it’s kind of twofold: help them understand the issues that are going on because they’re not following it like I do, and second of all, every two years we put on this summit called Out to Innovate [a conference for LGBT professionals in STEM], and we need sponsorship for that. I want companies to step up and help us mentor people and be part of this inclusive programming to get people to come together and learn best practices and how to manage their lives so that they can feel not only productive, but safe. And to have a network of people that are LGBT that can help them. Form our own old boys’ network, so to speak. I want them to pony up a little bit and help the process. And they want to look like they’re a great HRC 100 [company], well, OK, help us help everybody so we don’t have to do this anymore.

Are there any realms of science, in terms of companies like Lockheed versus academia or government fields, where it seems like they are more progressive than others, or is this something that we need the demographic information to better understand?
Well, you know, it’s kind of hard to say. I mean people come to us to sponsor but…it’s a matter of getting people to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. And I can give you an example here at Caltech. We have a safe zone [ally training] program that we advertise for anybody who wants to come, but it’s really hard to get a faculty member to go. So then, you know, we try to talk about getting faculty educated but we can’t seem to get programs instituted in the divisions to just run a one-day safe zone training. Nobody wants to take the time. And so we talk about being diverse and we talk about being open and safe and we make an “It Gets Better” video but we couldn’t get the President to be part of it, we couldn’t get the Provost to be part of it. That’s not how it should be. It should be the higher end of the administration saying, “It gets better and you should come here because we take care of our people.” That’s not what happened. And if you look at the Caltech “It Gets Better” video you can see that.

That’s kind of crazy that they didn’t want to participate in that.
Well, they just don’t get it. And they don’t want to take the time. But it makes a big difference and it’s a recruiting tool to get diverse students here, and they just totally blew it off, you know?

Are there ways for allies — scientists who are not LGBT or LGBT people who are not scientists — to help?
Absolutely. Allies are our best weapon, actually. Because allies can speak truth to power because they don’t have to worry about being outed. Oh, I love allies. One of my best NOGLSTP members is an ally. He told me the other day I owed him a toaster oven.

[both laugh] Well, thank you so much for both your time and for everything that you’re doing. I know it seems so daunting, there’s so much to do. It’s interesting to see not only where you’re coming from, but what needs to be done next.
Yeah. We’re growing to the point where we need a full-time person to coordinate everything. We’re 501(c)3 — we’re not a political organization, we are an educational organization, and we [use] a non-combative, professional way, peer-to-peer, to make change. And that’s the fastest way to make change. Because when people meet somebody who is LGBT STEM, they get a different view of us, so that’s why we have to make being out a safe place to be. That’s where change will come. But you’ve got to have a support network to do it. That’s the thing about Out to Innovate: I meet all these people that absolutely just blow me away and reinvigorate me to keep going, just keep going! Just do it, you know, every day’s a gift, make it count and do it.

Allie Rubin is working on a Ph.D. in geochemistry and volcanology in order to one day become the Beyoncé of the scientific community, or at least the next Marie Curie. She likes scientifically inaccurate movies, glitter, and bad puns.