This post by Daniel K. Hoffman, a PhD student at Wright State University, was written as a part of a short series in celebration of Pride Month.

Filtering for DNA and ambient nutrients in the field (Lake Erie)
Filtering for DNA and ambient nutrients in the field (Lake Erie)

Hi, I’m Daniel! I’m a cisgender gay aquatic biogeochemist and microbial ecologist, and I’m defending my Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences this summer. My research focuses on nitrogen cycling in aquatic systems, and for the past five years that effort has been centered on the water column of Lake Erie, where external nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) loading from surrounding watersheds promotes harmful cyanobacteria blooms in the western basin each summer. My interest in this research area is driven by a need to understand complex ecosystems and help balance human needs with environmental health, particularly in valuable and vulnerable aquatic environments.

Lake Erie cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom surface scums, photo by DHLake Erie cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom surface scums, photo by DH
Lake Erie cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom surface scums, photo by DH

I came to ecology at a later stage than some of my peers, having started undergraduate education as a non-traditional student at age 27. My age set me apart from many in my cohort, and when I established an academic friendship and support group I met several wonderful LGBTQ+ folks, though it took some time before I connected with any that were also studying natural sciences.

NH4+ cycling incubation experiments, photo by DH
NH4+ cycling incubation experiments, photo by DH

When I recognized an interest and passion for ecology, I was fortunate to connect with a wonderful mentor who provided incredible guidance and support. He encouraged me to present our research at several conferences, and though I wasn’t surprised, I was also disappointed that there weren’t any (to my knowledge) out LGBTQ+ scientists to look up to. Despite having amazing professors to learn from and with, the same was true in my home department at my university.

I try to avoid using gender-vague terms to refer to my spouse, and so there’s not-infrequently a moment in which I am asked, “What does your wife do?” and I respond with, “Oh, my husband…”

Since beginning graduate school, my experiences as an out gay cis man in ecology have largely been positive, but as with any LGBTQ+ person in any career, there’s a continual coming out process every time a new person enters your professional orbit. Whether when a new student joins the lab, a seminar speaker comes to visit our department, or meeting other scientists at conferences, there’s a question of when or if my sexuality will enter the conversation. I try to avoid using gender-vague terms to refer to my spouse, and so there’s not-infrequently a moment in which I am asked, “What does your wife do?” and I respond with, “Oh, my husband…”, which sometimes leads to awkward and unnecessary apologies before the conversation continues. Heteronormative assumptions don’t offend me, but that it’s almost always the default demonstrates how much more visible diversity we need in our field.

My Ph.D. program, which covers several departments within our college, is made up of a diverse group of students, several of whom identify as LGBTQ+, I’ve had the opportunity to train and mentor LGBTQ+ students in the lab, which has been rewarding. But as with my undergraduate years, I don’t see a lot of visibility among faculty. Whether this reflects a lack of LGBTQ+ diversity among them, or whether I simply haven’t gotten to know some faculty very well, is unclear.

Additionally, conversations such as those leave me feeling like a representative gay, and while I’m happy to share my experience I don’t want to be the voice for the incredibly varied experiences of others, especially those who may not have had the same acceptance and support as I have.

In my home department, particularly in occasional one-on-one conversations with older or more established faculty members, the fact that I’m gay has sometimes come as a surprise and leads to lots of questions. I feel fortunate that these queries have all come from a place of genuine curiosity and concern for my well-being (e.g., “how is it living here being gay?”), but it’s another situation that makes me concerned about the level of visibility in our fields of study. Additionally, conversations such as those leave me feeling like a representative gay, and while I’m happy to share my experience I don’t want to be the voice for the incredibly varied experiences of others, especially those who may not have had the same acceptance and support as I have.

Setting up a 96-well plate for qPCR analysis of N cycling gene abundance, photo by Ian Crumrine
Setting up a 96-well plate for qPCR analysis of N cycling gene abundance, photo by Ian Crumrine

These concerns about visibility have driven me to ask what I can do to be more prominently out in a way that increases representation in our field. I’m a fairly reserved individual with folks I don’t know well, so this doesn’t come easily to me. I’ve served as the instructor of record for an environmental science course several times over the last few years, and although it has nothing to do with my ability as a teacher, and shouldn’t be a focal point, I often wonder: is there a student in my classroom who would feel safer or more comfortable knowing that their instructor is gay?  Accordingly, when I consider my experience with few easily identifiable role models in the classroom and elsewhere, particularly when I was first developing an interest in science as an undergrad, I find this issue to be an important one.

At a larger scale, I’ve been heartened in recent years by professional conferences that have included LGBTQ+ mixers as part of their official conference programs and/or have offered nametags with preferred pronouns during meetings. Scicomm and social media have also been wonderful platforms for visibility, particularly on Twitter, where organizations like 500 Queer Scientists and #UniqueScientists have done an incredible job providing LGBTQ+ scientists with a venue to share about themselves and their research. I hope that these efforts are helping to educate people, both within and outside of our field, about the breadth of identities in ecology.

Filtering for DNA and ambient nutrients in the field (Lake Erie)
Filtering for DNA and ambient nutrients in the field (Lake Erie)

My husband is an academic in the social sciences, and as my time in the PhD program comes to a close we’ve had many discussions about our next steps. In ecology, a few years of postdoctoral research is often a pre-requisite for long-term academic job applications, which is not true in his field. It’s here that we face the two-body problem. Opportunities in academia often seem to require jumping at far-flung job opportunities, packing and moving your personal world every few years until you perhaps eventually settle into a permanent position. We spent four of the last five years long-distance while I completed the bulk of my graduate work (which would not have been possible without the incredible support of my advisors, who bent over backward to make sure I could travel monthly to visit my now-husband), and we’re unwilling to live apart again for the sake of a single job, especially something as temporary as a one-year postdoc. As such, we’re facing the same geographical concerns that many folks in our position are long familiar with. That issue is not exclusive to an LGBTQ+ identity, but as we consider where we might both apply we run into some concerns.

In an already difficult job market, this narrows our options further as we won’t move to a community where anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are well established.

I’ve lived in the Southeast for most of my life and spent several years in semi-rural Midwest for graduate school, and while I’ve found safety within friends and professional groups in many of these locations I have often worried about holding my husband’s hand in public spaces. In an already difficult job market, this narrows our options further as we won’t move to a community where anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are well established. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but I hope to continue to work on important environmental issues, in a position and location where I/we can be safely out. As I progress in my career, I hope to use whatever status I earn to help others, including LGBTQ+ and members of other minority groups, find their home in ecology.

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