In celebration of Pride Month, Dr. Heloisa Rutigliano virtually sat down with Dr. Tegan Horan, Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University.
What is your current position, and what does it entail?
I am a postdoc in Paula Cohen’s lab at Cornell. My project focuses specifically on the regulation of crossover formation and the potential roles of members of the Fanconi Anemia pathway in facilitating meiotic recombination. Besides the typical postdoc activities (e.g., experiments, writing papers/grants, mentoring, etc.), I serve as a member of the trainee executive committee for the Cornell Reproductive Sciences Center and was a trainee representative on a search committee for new faculty in reproductive biology. Outside of Cornell, I have been a reviewer for PLOS Genetics and Reproduction and will co-chair the 2024 Gordon Research Seminar on Meiosis. I also have frequently given guest lectures, most notably on the biological and cultural factors that shape sex and gender.
Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?
I’m from the desert town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Both my parents were professors of electrical engineering at New Mexico State University, but my mom was a little extra: She initiated and ran an extracurricular science program for 4th and 5th graders at my school, Tombaugh Elementary (named for the discoverer of Pluto). I’m not sure it would be possible to have that pedigree and not be into science.
My interests in reproductive biology began, in part, as “me-search.” During my senior year of high school, I came out to my parents; every article I could find about the nuances of sex determination became a lifeline to get my parents to understand my gender as something with empirical clout. Although I never should have had to feel it necessary to scientifically justify my identity, doing so was instrumental in shaping my research interests. My academic path has never been straightforward. I had the honor to work with Dr. Pat Hunt as an undergrad, a tech, and finally as a Ph.D. student. In her lab, I researched the transgenerational effects of environmental exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, most notably bisphenols (e.g., BPA). However, between working as a tech and a Ph.D. student in Pat’s lab, I studied abroad and temporarily switched my academic focus. First, I spent two years in Australia studying platypus meiosis with Dr. Frank Grützner. Next, I briefly left biology to get a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, studying dress as material culture. At some point, my research interests crystallized into a multidisciplinary approach to understanding sex and gender – and how those categories and lived experiences are shaped by biological and cultural factors. My ultimate arrival in the Cohen lab was one part serendipity and one part my desire to get back into meiosis – and Paula was the first person to come to mind when I started looking for a lab.
What are you most excited to do this year?
Frankly, depression has sapped me of excitement for anything. I have been struggling with what I recently learned to be undiagnosed borderline personality and ADHD for a long time. One way or another, I had always managed up until fairly recently. I don’t know what caused it to snap: Moving to a new town and job literally weeks before COVID lockdown; having two therapists drop me in rapid succession, or the relentless erosion of trans rights in the US. Either way, words like “excitement” feel pretty hollow when you’re just trying to make it through.
What words of inspiration and caution would you like to share with the future generation of LGBTQ+ scientists?
So much of the science about trans and gay populations has historically been pretty terrible. At best, it’s a well-meaning but misguided attempt to help LGBT communities. More often, however, it is tainted by a eugenicist aim to formulate etiologies for naturally-occurring diversity. I think reproductive biologists (more than most) appreciate that sex does not exist as a discrete dichotomous category. However, the way a lot of our science is framed nonetheless holds tight to a cisgender, Western hegemonic view of sex that ultimately weakens our research. LGBTQ+ folks in reproductive sciences have an opportunity to really take leadership in shaping the questions we ask. We know better than cis straight folks what issues actually impact our lives; it’s well past time we directed how that research is done.
What obstacles do LGBTQ+ members commonly encounter in their career trajectory?
I was going to respond with my go-to answers about pronouns, name changes, unequal access to healthcare, and the institutional systems that disproportionately impact trans and nonbinary folks. However, I think it’s important to highlight how the current political climate has adversely affected every facet of trans life. The last few years have been brutal for trans people in the US. Hundreds of anti-LGBT bills have been proposed in nearly three-quarters of the states. Many of these target trans kids – their access to healthcare, their rights to use public bathrooms or play on sports teams – in short, their ability to exist in public spaces. For instance, Texas began investigating families for child abuse because they let their trans kids live as themselves. In response to this increasingly hostile environment, families have started leaving the state to protect their children. Meanwhile, trans adults are depicted as “groomers” and pedophiles in some right-wing media. As a result, it is dangerous for trans people or their families to live in large swaths of the US, including many places that house outstanding centers for scientific research. Those currently living in states like Texas now have to weigh their safety and that of their families against their current careers. Those about to go on the job market or graduate may feel they cannot apply to positions in certain states. Personally, when I was applying for postdocs, my partner told me she would not move with me if I got a position in the Research Triangle because she would not be safe in North Carolina. I have also spoken to trans people who, like me, are starting to narrow their career searches to strategically omit specific states out of safety concerns. If anything, the recent SCOTUS decision overturning Roe has exacerbated this. LGBTQ+ people already face significant barriers to health services; cis women, trans men, intersex, and nonbinary folks all need reproductive health options – including abortion access. The loss of Roe will either put new barriers to getting the care they need or else make an already hostile system worse. Access to reproductive rights is tightly connected with LGBT rights: At issue is bodily autonomy, and this ruling has opened the door to further restricting trans people’s rights to transition. Further, SCOTUS justices have already signaled their willingness to use this same reasoning to overturn same-sex marriage. It is also important to note that the current erosion of trans and reproductive rights is not a novel phenomenon. None of this is new to people of color. As bad as things currently are for white LGBTQ+ folks, it has been and will be worse for LGBTQ+ people of color. In a world where fundamental human rights increasingly are subject to the whims of the states, the ability of LGBTQ+ people – and of anyone capable of becoming pregnant – to build careers and lives is precarious.
How can professional scientific societies create a more inclusive environment to better support LGBTQ+ scientists?
There are the easy steps: respect people’s gender (e.g., use their pronouns), remove a needlessly gendered language, intentionally and actively bring more LGBTQ+ people into positions of leadership, broaden the collection of demographic data, stop holding conferences in states/countries hostile to the LGBTQ+ community, and pressure scientific institutions to provide better – and trans-inclusive – healthcare. I’d really like to see mentorship programs for members of the community. There are still so few examples of visible LGBTQ+ scientists, and while a lot of professional meetings have “power hour” discussion groups, it is still difficult for community members to really connect, network, and mentor each other. I would love to see more space for those types of connections.
Have you noticed changes over the last years regarding inclusivity for sexual and gender diversity in academia / scientific institutions? If yes, can you specify some examples?
I mean, professional societies and journals occasionally run pieces and interviews like this? I’ve seen a lot more LGBTQ+ folks in the field within the last five years. As far as broad inclusivity is concerned, however, it feels more like a patchwork than an actual systematic shift. Community is currently something we have to seek out and build for ourselves – among the rare peers we can meet in our departments and the community we actively build online. I suspect this varies by location. I spent the vast majority of my life in small towns, so it has always been difficult to find in-person community within my field. From an institutional point of view, I think there is a real risk of missing out on some phenomenal talent – both in a decreased retention and a failure to recruit.