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'We're not invisible people': Meet these 6 LGBTQ scientists who are changing the world

·14 min read

In 1977, a physics student at Stanford University in California saw an ad in the school newspaper inviting women to apply to the astronaut program. She applied for the job and ended up becoming one of the six women hired. Six years later, Sally Ride found her name in the news as the first American woman to fly in space. Today, she is also the first-recognized LGBT+ astronaut and first-recognized LGBTQIA+ person in space.

While Ride and others had begun laying the groundwork for LGBT+ folks in STEM, many have voiced that inclusivity is still a work in progress for the field. Here are a few scientists who have continued forging a path for those who follow.

Dr. Tanya Harrison works as Director of Science Strategy for the commercial Earth observing company Planet. (Tanya Harrison)

Dr. Tanya Harrison, 35, began studying geology not just to study the rocky surface of Earth but also to gain a better understanding of the Martian surface.

She had been interested in space since she was young, Harrison told AccuWeather, but it was the Pathfinder mission in 1997 that drew her interest to Mars.

"When I saw the videos that NASA released of the tiny little Sojourner rover driving on the surface of Mars, I knew I wanted to work on Mars rovers like that from there on out," Harrison said.

And she did. Harrison has worked on multiple NASA missions, including the Perseverance, Curiosity and Opportunity rovers and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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She attributes her biggest contribution to the field of Mars sciences to her mapping out the gullies etched across the surface of Mars, long-dried veins that once held flowing water, earning herself the nickname "Gully Girl."

While her career has now taken her elsewhere, steering her toward becoming the Director of Science Strategy for the commercial Earth-observing company Planet Labs, she has established herself as an expert on the Red Planet.

"When I saw the videos that NASA released of the tiny little Sojourner rover driving on the surface of Mars, I knew I wanted to work on Mars rovers like that from there on out," Dr. Tanya Harrison told AccuWeather. (Tanya Harrison)

Harrison said that in terms of diversity in space sciences, there's a generational split in representation. Even with the younger generations, however, there is room to improve.

"There's still not great representation of people with disabilities, and that's something that I try to advocate for a lot because, as a person with a physical disability, it has been very isolating being not only in STEM, but specifically in the geosciences," Harrison said. "That's generally a field that people that love to go hiking and mountain climbing and stuff like to do, so it's not very friendly to people with physical disabilities."

A step in addressing this, Harrison said, is understanding that people work differently and asking for an accommodation or alteration to a process shouldn't be seen as a burden or weakness, but as a different way of accomplishing a task.

She added that she and others of her generation are working to make the field a better place for the new students coming into the field, hopeful to make the pathway and transition easier.

Dr. Itzel Márquez is a chemical engineer and an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. (Itzel Márquez)

As the western portion of North America faces a drought that has noticeably strained reservoirs from the southwestern United States into central Mexico, Dr. Itzel Márquez, 36, hopes to provide a reliable source of drinking water to drought-stricken areas.

After falling in love with chemical engineering and finding a passion for teaching at the college level alongside research, most of her projects have centered around water treatment and wastewater treatment with her research focused on environmental engineering.

"I just became very passionate about it. It just felt important, and it felt like I had a purpose in doing my research and doing the work I was doing," Márquez told AccuWeather. Now she researches how to best use recycled water outside of industrial use.

"When we talk about water scarcity in drought and all of the water pollution and all of these issues that urban environments are struggling with, I believe one of the best solutions is wastewater reuse for potable drinking," Márquez said. She added that while the idea shocks a lot of people, it isn't something new. In fact, it's something that's already being done in some areas of the U.S.

Orange County, California, is one such location. In 2008, the county introduced a system that purified wastewater from the local sewage system and turned it into clean drinking water. Insider reported in 2019 that more than 4 million Americans, including residents of Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta, get at least some of their drinking water from treated sewage.

"I think to take our municipal wastewater and treat it to the level where we can drink it again will solve a lot of the problems in terms of water scarcity and drought," Márquez said.

"I think to take our municipal wastewater and treat it to the level where we can drink it again will solve a lot of the problems in terms of water scarcity and drought," Dr. Itzel Márquez told AccuWeather.

Having lived in both Mexico and the U.S., Márquez told AccuWeather she has seen both cultures and how discrimination differs in one country versus the other. She noted when she came to the U.S., she started seeing fewer female professors, at least in the departments in which she worked -- a big contrast from what she had seen in Mexico, she said.

Márquez stressed that diversifying a workforce is more than just hiring diverse people, but also about making them feel welcome and included rather than as "a poster child" of diversity in the staff. In addition, having a diverse workforce means a diverse group of role models for younger generations to look up to and identify with.

Márquez also encouraged female students not to let people discourage them from their path in the sciences, but moving forward wouldn't be easy.

"You have to be aware that if you are a part of one of the disadvantaged groups. You will have to work harder for it than the people that are not disadvantaged in some ways. And just acknowledging and knowing that until we can change the system that we're currently in, that is a fact," Márquez said. She encouraged women to find a support group or a network to help in the journey.

"It can get very hard, but that doesn't mean that you cannot do it," Márquez said.

After having established herself in her field, Dr. Joséphine Altzman is using her experience not only to improve her field, but to help others climb the ladder behind her. (Joséphine Altzman)

Dr. Joséphine Altzman carries a heavy weight on her shoulders.

A vice president at Goldman Sachs in the investment bank's Site Reliability Engineering department, Altzman is also an adjunct professor of computer science at Fordham University, a Rabbinical student, cofounder of what she hopes will be her county's first county-wide LGBT+ resource center and a mother of four.

A love of physics drove her to major in the subject during college alongside mathematics, and in graduate school, she jumped around from statistical mechanics to high energy physics to atomic physics, focusing on laser-atom interactions. Now, after having established herself in her field, Altzman is using her experience not only to improve her field but also to help others climb the ladder behind her.

"Professionally, I'm trying to improve engineering disciplines and systems and trying to make it easier for women to grow in STEM," Altzman told AccuWeather in an interview.

Outside of her job, Altzman is also helping to create the Bergen County LGBTQ Alliance, a community service organization with the goal of providing county-wide services and resources for LGBT folks. Bergen County, New Jersey, is the most populated county in the state.

"It's hard to be the first. It's not much easier being the second. Hopefully being the 10th or the hundredth you'll have shoulders to stand upon," Dr. Joséphine Altzman told AccuWeather. (Joséphine Altzman)

A part-time Rabbinical student, she is also working with other religious leaders within the LGBT community to provide resources for people of faith seeking resources or advocacy. And with little representation in the Jewish community of out, gay, female rabbi, she's hoping to inspire other women as one of the first out, gay, transwomen rabbi and provide a support base for others who follow.

"It's hard to be the first. It's not much easier being the second. Hopefully, being the 10th or the 100th, you'll have shoulders to stand upon," Altzman said.

She stresses that while those who are the first aren't perfect and will likely make mistakes, they're trying their best to be who they are.

"Hopefully, we will provide the shoulders upon which you can stand."

Dr. Jessica Ware, an evolutionary biologist and entomologist, was a featured speaker at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., in 2017. (Jessica Ware)

Bugs weren't included in the original career path of Dr. Jessica Ware, 44. Going into marine biology had been her goal, but after learning about invertebrate zoology and taking up a work-study position in entomology at the University of British Columbia, she was hooked. Now, Ware is the associate curator in invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, the Diversity Director for The Society For the Study of Systematic Biology, and she is preparing to take up the mantle as the president of the Entomological Society of America.

Much of Ware's work involves research around the Odonata species, which includes dragonflies and damselflies. A new grant from the National Science Foundation will allow her and her team to comprehensively sample genomic, ecological, morphological and geographical data for nearly all of the species to hopefully answer some long unanswered questions on their evolutionary history.

"I have felt proud of the revisionary work we have done in termites and dragonflies. We are getting close to knowing the true tree of Blattodea and Odonata," Ware told AccuWeather via email. "But it's hard to feel proud of one's work, I think, as each answer sparks new questions so nothing seems ‘done' but rather just ongoing fun!"

"There are still systemic barriers to participation that need to be dismantled, but I am inspired by the folks doing work [to] advance equity and inclusion in entomology," Dr. Jessica Ware told AccuWeather via email. (Jessica Ware)

Ware added that she is also proud of the work she and her colleagues have done in terms of diversifying the field of entomology through the collective Entomologists of Color. She expressed pride to be working in this field, having seen "dramatic changes" to it since she started as a graduate student.

"There are still systemic barriers to participation that need to be dismantled, but I am inspired by the folks doing work [to] advance equity and inclusion in entomology," Ware said. "With Dr. Lauren Esposito, we have collaborated with 500QueerScientists and held standing room only events at the national entomology meetings, which I think wouldn't have happened back in 2000!"

The 500 Queer Scientists Visibility Campaign and Queer Engineers are two of a handful of groups aiming to create community and visibility among LGBT+ members of the field. Similarly, The Out Astronaut Project aims to address the under-representation of LGBT+ people in science and space, and Pink Media, an LGBT+ advertising and marketing agency, promotes visibility of the community for entrepreneurs, small business owners and others in marketing.

Ware added that students of color interested in free membership to an entomological society can apply here.

While he's proud of the work he's done in the field, Dr. André Isaacs, a chemistry professor at the College of the Holy Cross, told AccuWeather he's mostly proud of the students he's trained and sent on to graduate and medical school. (André Isaacs)

On day one of all of his classes, Dr. André Isaacs, 39, begins by telling his students that each of them will bring a unique perspective and understanding of topics in the course due to their different life experiences and backgrounds. The chemistry professor at the College of the Holy Cross emphasizes the importance of collaboration in organic chemistry and looking at the material from different viewpoints.

While the field has come far over the past decades, Isaacs told AccuWeather via email that one way it needs to grow is as it relates to diversity.

"The percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in STEM do not reflect the national average," he wrote. "Many of our LGBTQ students also drop out at higher rates because of toxic laboratory and classroom environments."

He added that in addition to better preparation at the secondary level, the field has "to create an environment that leads to greater retention of minorities in college and graduate school," including modernizing teaching methods.

"Watching my uncle has taught me that a teacher's job is to inspire," Isaacs said. "We have to do more inspiring."

"We have to do more inspiring," Dr. André Isaacs, a chemistry teacher at the College of the Holy Cross told AccuWeather via email. (André Isaacs)

Isaacs, born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, grew up in a family of teachers. His uncle inspired his love for the sciences, including chemistry. Now, he is a part of a research group that focuses on microbial resistance, or a person's resistance to a bacteria through the creation of a synthesized sub-class of beta-lactam antibiotics.

While he's proud of the work he's done in the field, Isaacs told AccuWeather he's most proud of the students he's trained and sent on to graduate and medical school.

"They are changing the world in their capacity as doctors, researchers and teachers, and I'm grateful to have imparted my enthusiasm and my way of thinking about science onto them," Isaacs said.

Some of Isaacs's students have gone on to work at Regeneron, Pfizer and BioNTech, all companies that have developed or are working on treatments for COVID-19.

Dr. Emily Rickman, an astrophysicist, works as a research fellow for the European Space Agency. (Emily Rickman)

Dr. Emily Rickman, 27, works as a research fellow searching the stars for celestial bodies that lurk far beyond the scope of our own solar system.

The pull to research and search for extrasolar planets took her from the University of Sheffield in England to the Australian National University in Canberra Australia to the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and now to Baltimore, Maryland, where she works at the Space Telescope Science Institute as an European Space Agency research fellow.

Most of the celestial bodies Rickman has found have been categorized as brown dwarfs, or astronomical objects that are somewhere between a planet and a star. The smallest of the brown dwarfs have a mass about 13 times the amount of Jupiter and the largest at roughly 17 times of the gas giant.

The challenge of finding these exoplanets makes the moment all the more exhilarating for Rickman when she and her teams do come across one, however.

"It's that moment of kind of almost bliss where you're like, 'I'm the only person who knows about this, and until I share this information with my collaborators or my colleagues, then no one else knows about it,'" Rickman told AccuWeather. "And for me, every time that happens, that's a really, really exciting feeling."

"I'm a woman in STEM and I'm part of the LGBTQ+ community in STEM, and I think it's really important to show myself and visualize myself to others that we do exist and that we know we're not invisible people," Dr. Emily Rickman told AccuWeather.

Currently, Rickman is working on the commissioning of the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST, an orbiting infrared observatory meant to aid the reach of the Hubble Space Telescope, was built by NASA but will be launched by the ESA tentatively around November of this year.

Rickman has also served on several diversity committees and participated in a wide array of events with the goal of encouraging women in STEM.

"I'm a woman in STEM, and I'm part of the LGBTQ+ community in STEM, and I think it's really important to show myself and visualize myself to others that we do exist and that we know we're not invisible people," Rickman said. "...We need diversity. We need people from all walks of life, from all different identities to help solve problems. Diversity is great for doing that, and we can't all come together from the same viewpoint, so it's really important that we try to encourage diversity within STEM."

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