In celebration of Pride Month, Dr. Heloisa Rutigliano virtually sat down with Dr. Victor Navarro, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
What is your current position, and what does it entail?
I am an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I lead an NIH-funded lab where we study different neuroendocrine processes in order to understand how the brain controls basic functions like reproduction or metabolism and the behavioral responses that allow the animal to adapt to changing environmental conditions, e.g. stress, and to interact with other individuals, e.g. mating behavior. I’m also an Associate Director of Basic Research and a faculty in the Neuroscience Program. Overall, it’s a fun job that entails a lot of discussions about the interpretation of the results that we get and the design of new experiments that will get us closer to answering unresolved questions in our field. There is also teaching students in laboratory and classroom settings, which is always very rewarding. The less fun part comes from navigating the tough funding environment of academic science in general, although the act of putting your thoughts together for a grant application can be very positive and rewarding as well.
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 Spain, born in Madrid and raised in Córdoba, in the southernmost region of the country called Andalusia. I have had a strong interest in science since I can remember. As a kid, I was always fascinated by animals, plants, and rocks and had a large collection of all of them at home (against my mom’s will sometimes!) I wanted to be a zoologist growing up, but when I started college (at the University of Córdoba) with a major in Biology, I became interested in cellular and molecular biology. Once you have the drive and curiosity for science, the next critical thing is to find good mentors. I was very fortunate to first find Dr. Justo Castaño’s lab, where I got involved in a study on somatostatin in pituitary cells as an undergrad. After this, I joined Dr. Manuel Tena-Sempere’s lab as a graduate student, where I first worked on the action of endocrine disruptors in the hypothalamic centers that control reproduction and then switched full time to the study of kisspeptin in the brain when its connection with puberty was described. Thanks to the good mentorship—and to the many hours in the lab! I got a competitive CV that allowed me to get a Fulbright fellowship to come to the US as a postdoctoral fellow in 2007. This is how I arrived in Seattle as a postdoc with Dr. Robert Steiner. Upon finishing this period, Dr. Ursula Kaiser opened the door for me to come to Boston in 2012 through an NIH K99/R00 Award that I got in my last year in Seattle—and the rest is history!
What are you most excited to do this year?
What I am most excited about is seeing what we accomplish scientifically with the newest members of the lab using the novel neuroscience techniques that we are setting up, which will allow us to get a more precise picture of how neurons function to regulate hormone secretion and behavior. I am also very excited about seeing what the future brings to the senior members of the lab that are getting ready for their next career step.
What words of inspiration and caution would you like to share with the future generation of LGBTQ+ scientists?
You. Are. Worth. It.
Thankfully, the LGBTQIA+ population has come a long way in terms of rights and acceptance. However, those that are older often experienced low tolerance, limited or no understanding, and, in some cases, even aggression, which prevented them from expressing their true identity during critical developmental years. Unfortunately, this is still true today for those living in smaller, more conservative areas. Individuals who grow up in these difficult environments often go on to develop a diminished view of their own value, a low self-worth crisis that many LGBTQIA+ people carry for the rest of their lives. The main consequence of this in a professional setting is a larger incidence of impostor syndrome than in the rest of the population—or at least that is my perception of what I see in the community. I would say to all those younger LGBTQIA+ scientists: you can do anything that you set your mind to as well as anybody else! Don’t let any previous experience or anybody tell you otherwise, and use your surplus of creativity to bloom in whatever field you choose!
What obstacles do LGBTQ+ members commonly encounter in their career trajectory?
Fortunately, science, in general, is full of very educated and tolerant people, although there are exceptions, of course. This, and the DEI policies that have been developed in recent years in most institutions, have normalized (and increased the visibility of) having LGBTQIA+ members in positions of leadership. I feel that currently, the main obstacle in science comes from within the LGBTQIA+ community, as I said above, due to often-difficult upbringings. Of course, this is not true in other career fields, where significant barriers still exist and prevent equality at many levels. This is why celebrating Pride in every field—including science, is important, so people feel seen, welcomed, and appreciated. We must do our best to ensure that the younger cohorts of LGBTQIA+ scientists have the resources they need to reach as far as they want to in their careers.
How can professional scientific societies create a more inclusive environment to better support LGBTQ+ scientists?
In an ideal situation, private aspects of an individual such as sexual orientation, race, or gender would not be discussed, and people would shine for their own scientific merits. However, until we get there, one way to support LGBTQIA+ members is to celebrate and increase the visibility of those members with scientific achievements that might serve as an inspiration to newer generations. If there are LGBTQIA+ members in leadership roles, laureate awards, etc., we can contribute to breaking a glass ceiling that has prevented the progress of minorities for a long time.
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?
Yes, every institution that I have been in contact with has a specific policy against discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity that is reflected in every open call for any position. I believe awareness of this issue has increased significantly, so now we must make sure that these values are upheld and exercised beyond the written lines of any official document.