In celebration of Pride Month, Dr. Heloisa Rutigliano virtually sat down with Dr. Troy Roepke, Professor of Animal Sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) at Rutgers.
What is your current position, and what does it entail?
I am an Associate Professor of Animal Sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. I am also the Director of the Graduate Program in Endocrinology and Animal Biosciences and the current Equity Advisor for SEBS (this role will be developing into a new position this summer). Not only do I manage a graduate program and advise the Executive Dean in matters pertaining to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I teach an undergraduate course in Animal Reproduction every year and a biennial graduate/undergraduate course in Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology. I also run an NIMH- and NIEHS-funded laboratory, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. I have mentored three postdoctoral researchers, five doctoral students, and three master's students along with over 60 undergraduate students since starting at Rutgers in 2011. And I am recruiting more graduate students, especially any with electrophysiology expertise!
I am also active in the Society of Behavioral Neuroendocrinology serving on the Awards and Program Committees and in the Society of Toxicology serving as Vice-President of the Out Toxicologist and Allies (OTA) Special Interest Group and member of the Society for Neuroscience, the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences, the American Physiological Society, and the Endocrine Society. I am also active in several Rutgers-based institutes focusing on neuroscience, toxicology, and nutrition.
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 was born in Iowa and grew up mostly in rural East Texas and rural Northeast Nebraska. I spent a significant part of my childhood on my maternal grandparent’s cattle ranch developing a love for nature and curiosity about animals. I even had a pet steer named Blue. You could say I was a country kid who moved to the “big city” to make it big in science! Due to watching nature and Jacque Cousteau programs on PBS, my initial scientific interest was in marine life. Thus, I have a bachelor's (Long Island University-Southampton, 1992) and master's (San Francisco State University, 2002) in marine biology, while my doctoral degree was in physiology with an emphasis in reproductive biology (2005). I studied reproduction and development in marine organisms (echinoderms) at UC-Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab. During my doctoral research, I uncovered potential evidence of non-classical estrogen signaling in sea urchin embryos and became interested in that as a target for estrogenic endocrine disruptors. Due to the lack of universal legal protections for same-sex relationships in the US in 2005, I limited my search for a postdoctoral position to the few states on the West Coast and New England that had some level of protection and/or marriage equality. But by doing so, I could not find a position in that field. As my research was coming to a close in the spring of 2005, I had not secured a position. A colleague of my doctoral advisor suggested that if I am truly interested in non-classical, or what we now call membrane-initiated estrogen signaling, I should contact Dr. Martin J. Kelly at Oregon Health & Science University as he was one of the first scientists to describe such signaling in the mammalian brain. I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of not being a marine biologist, but I wanted to learn as much as could about the field and he also studied the neurons that control reproduction which I was also interested in learning about in-depth. Fortunately, Martin took a risk on a marine biologist and I dove into the field finding success both in terms of publications and fellowships/awards leading to a K99/R00 Pathways to Independence Award from the NIDDK in 2009 to study the role of estrogen-response element signaling and effects of endocrine disruptors in metabolism in mice. I was already on the job market at that time and the Rutgers Animal Sciences Department had already offered me a position before the award started. Now my lab combines my training from both doctoral and postdoctoral studies focusing on estrogen signaling in the brain and the influence of endocrine disruptors on metabolism, reproduction, stress, and mood.
What are you most excited to do this year?
Professionally, I am excited about my developing role in DEI on my campus and hopefully positive changes that will happen in the future at SEBS. I am also excited about attending scientific conferences where I am chairing sessions, speaking, and presenting our data including SSR (my first time attending). Personally, I am excited about any chance I about upcoming vacations and safely spending time with friends and family.
What words of inspiration and caution would you like to share with the future generation of LGBTQ+ scientists?
One of the best aspects of my job is that I am now the fabulously queer professor/scientist offering inspiration and safe spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ students, something I never had. Yet,
I always stress to younger people in the community is to not feel pressured to come out until they really want to and when it’s safe to do so, socially, financially, etc. But also find your chosen family, however, one defines that, for support and community. Over the ~30 years, I have been out, I have witnessed a growing acceptance of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM which should be acknowledged and celebrated. But there is still much work to be done especially for trans/non-binary scientists and for members of the community who are also Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, etc., as much of the acceptance has been to the benefit of white, cis-gendered gay and lesbian scientists. I am essentially saying, “do whatever you need to survive and thrive and to keep fighting for everyone in our community!”
What obstacles do LGBTQ+ members commonly encounter in their career trajectory?
As I described above in my story, one challenge for 2SLGBTQIA+ scientists, whether trainee or faculty, is location, location, location. While marriage equality is law, at least for now, in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, there are many other legal and interpersonal concerns. As certain states in the USA become more hostile to the community, especially to trans and non-binary people, with regulating access to gender-affirming healthcare, bathrooms, sports, and regulating speech in the classroom about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, students, postdocs, and faculty candidates who are a part of the community may not feel safe, included, or protected at universities, colleges, and other academic institutions in those states. Institutions of higher learning and of scientific research must be at the forefront in fighting against the policies and laws and must make significant changes to ensure that their students and faculty of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are safe and protected and change their policies and procedures accordingly. For example, ensuring that the healthcare coverage offered covers ALL procedures involved in gender-affirming healthcare. Furthermore, these political developments compound our allostatic or stress load which negatively influences our performance, our motivation, and our happiness. Of course, these stresses are magnified when also dealing with racism, colonialism, misogyny, disability status, etc. Thus, undergraduate and graduate program directors, faculty, chairs, deans, provosts, etc., need to be aware of these stresses and/or receive training to ensure sensitivity to the ongoing struggle for 2SLGBTQIA+ equality.
How can professional scientific societies create a more inclusive environment to better support LGBTQ+ scientists?
I have recently been involved in several societies with creating inclusive practices for trans and non-binary members from using pronouns, demographic data collection, and changing by-laws and documents to remove gendered language. These things are actually quite simple and easy to do and are a decent place to start building an inclusive society for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Societies can do more by creating special interest groups like SOT’s OTA that can be a resource for society at large and a support system for trainees in the field. Societies can hold professional development workshops, panels, or webinars that focus on mentoring trainees and supporting scientists from the community. I am co-chairing such a panel at this year’s Society for Neuroscience conference. There’s also the need for certain societies that have a history or a role in the pathologizing of trans and non-binary people and need to do some reflection, apologizing, and change to their socio-political activities in order to refute and rebut the cis-centric and transphobic policies and laws currently being deployed. These societies, along with research advisors and graduate programs, can make clear statements and policies against harassment and discrimination; ensure that cities, states, and countries hosting scientific conferences are not hostile to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and have laws to protect us; and celebrate and highlight dates and events that celebrate and honor the community.