Kyle McCulloch: Harmony

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journals have re-launched ‘Rainbow Research’ – a blog series which aims to promote the visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community by connecting each post to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag.

In this new post, Kyle McCulloch, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Minnesota, USA, discusses the importance of Harmony as inspiration, ethos, and mantra!

Learning cross country skiing during my first winter in Minnesota

Happy pride month! My name is Kyle McCulloch and I am a research assistant professor and evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota, USA. This pride, I am feeling in Harmony. After moving back and forth for years between U.S. coasts, I’ve finally landed in the harmonious middle—Minnesota—with my husband. Living together after nearly 5 years apart has been a huge relief. We now get to enjoy running races together, cross country skiing (which I just learned this year), going to the theatre, and enjoying the excellent food scene in the Twin Cities. In this moment, Harmony captures how I approach my work, my worldview, and my identity. Going from a child that didn’t know I could be a scientist because I was gay, to where I am now, I feel positive and optimistic. Harmony is a celebratory word that I hope to share with you this pride season.

Finding Harmony in the Stress of Academia

Through managing the two-body problem, I’d like to make visible to young scientists the struggle and relief of finding balance and Harmony in academics. Early on I established clear boundaries when it comes to where “I” end and “my work” begins. I keep email, meetings, and experiments within normal business hours as much as possible. I quickly learned being direct and up front with my boundaries was key for managing demanding bosses. I did not feel guilty taking plenty of needed time off to be with my husband. The boundaries I set were vital for my personal well-being over time.

My husband (right) and I (left) at a snow sculpture festival in Minnesota this winter

I also learned to not let my identity and self-worth get wrapped up in my research. A bad review or a grant rejection is part of work, and I did not let these lead to feelings of personal failure, but instead learned from setbacks and carried on. I’ve learned that not only are criticism and failure important in science, but they are also important in life, and I do not take them personally. These feelings are exacerbated by imposter syndrome, common among the LGBTQ+ community who have often not seen any mentors like ourselves. This path does not have to be forged alone—finding community and having LGBTQ+ mentors (even from afar) who went through it can help. I’ve fought for Harmony in my work/life balance, and it has made me a happier person and a better scientist.

A few Heliconius butterflies feeding on honey water in my grad lab.

My Research and Harmony in the Diversity of Forms

Late stage squid (Doryteuthis pealeii) embryos with red-pigmented eyes from my postdoc lab

My research is driven by an appreciation for Harmony in Nature. This interest stems from a love of animals at a young age. Growing up by the ocean, I was always collecting (and releasing) marine invertebrates. Instead of sports, I’d wander off by myself and watch the pollinators in the clovers of the playing fields. Now, grown up and a scientist, when I think about the spectacular diversity of life, I am still filled with child-like awe. My wonder of biodiversity led to an interest in evolution—how did things get this way? After college and a job at an eye hospital in Boston, I combined my love of evolution with a fascination for animal eyes. This led to a PhD studying the colour vision of Heliconius butterflies, and a postdoc in the evolutionary development of the squid eye.

Currently, my lab focuses on the eyeless starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis). This recent work looks at the diversity of cell types rather than species. The evolution of specialized cell types is the basis of the differences among multicellular life, and thus an important driver in evolution. In our human eye, we have four typical photoreceptor cell types, three cones and a rod, each of which has a specific protein called an opsin. The 4 distinct opsins in these cells absorb a different type of light, sufficient for our entire range of vision. The sea anemone, considered a far simpler organism, has no eye but has 30+ opsins! What are they doing there? How are they related to cell type? How do these cells affect animal behaviour? How are these cell types related to the cells in eyes of other animals? These are some of the questions my lab is seeking to answer right now, through a combination of genetic, genomic, electrophysiological, and behavioural experiments.

A young adult starlet sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis—my current animal model

What draws me to the biodiversity of life is the idea that there are so many different ways to be an organism. Biodiversity itself increases ecological robustness and generates a harmonious balance via a multitude of forms interacting in constant dynamic processes. You can see this Harmony at all biological levels, from continental community scale to distinct cell types working together within an individual. My work has consistently taught me lessons that can be applied to Harmony in human communities. Studying butterfly UV vision shows us that just because we cannot experience what the butterfly sees does not mean it’s not there. Studying the “simple” sea anemone with far more opsins than us forces us to question our self-centred idea of humans as the pinnacle of complexity. The humble, brainless sea anemone teaches us to drop our hubris and think about things from another perspective.

Biodiversity and Identity: Harmony through a Rainbow of Forms

This leads me to think about how my identity, like Nature and the greater LGBTQ+ community, is multitudinous and ever-changing. Harmony is not about homogeneity or stasis. Like the loss of biodiversity, this creates a stifled brittle community destined for collapse. The celebration of pride is importantly a celebration of our differences. It enables us to form a robust community thriving in Harmony precisely because of all the different ways we can be human. Harmony also means being open to a dynamic process. In my own journey, I have been gay for as long as I can remember, but more recently have come to terms with being non-binary as well. I celebrate the emergence of the full spectrum of gender expression that has allowed me to be more me. Though I present as mostly cis-male, like in research, the power of Harmony means not assuming anything at face value. The diversity of our community, as in life on Earth, is filled with nuance and levels of intersectionality. Like the sea anemone, there is more to any of us than first meets the eye. Like the butterfly, we should understand and accept others with experiences we cannot see. In work and life, nature and society, personal identity and community, this pride I hope you join me in joy and celebration of Harmony.

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