In celebration of Pride Month, Dr. Heloisa Rutigliano virtually sat down with Dr. Victor Ruthig, Postdoctoral Associate at the Department of Urology at Weill Cornell Medicine.
What is your current position, and what does it entail?
I am currently a postdoc in Dr. Dolores Lamb’s lab at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) in New York City. The Lamb Lab is predominantly focused on andrology research, including male fertility and contraception, and gene variation-induced genitourinary birth defects. I suppose I do all the normal things that a postdoc does: daily bench experiments (mostly human cell line and mouse-based), writing papers and grants, mentoring junior members of the lab and interns, and attending weekly seminars and meetings. I am also devoted to service and advocacy. At my institution, I am on multiple committees such as Urology’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and the WCM LGBTQ+ Steering Committee, and I am the postdoc representative to the Faculty Council. Externally I am a member of SSR’s Virtual Education Committee, a standing reviewer for one journal, and the chair of the upcoming Gordon Research Seminar on Germinal Stem Cell Biology.
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 am from a small rural town in southern New Jersey. Growing up I was just one of just a few Asian-American kids at my school. Similarly, there was a very fragmented and mostly closeted queer community in my town. I was outed by a classmate during my freshman year of high school. Although it was a very stressful experience, being forced out did set into motion my ultimate passion for queer advocacy work. I loved German and Physics in high school and was very intent on becoming an astrophysicist. But I also adored biology, especially genetics and development. Even in freshman biology, I remember thinking that there were secrets in genetics and development that, once discovered, could help me understand my own queerness. By the time I was finishing my bachelor's at Rutgers University I was very set on graduate studies in developmental and reproductive biology. My senior year at Rutgers was also when Tyler Clementi took his life after being very publicly outed by his roommate. This tragedy my senior year sent me off to graduate school with a fervent dedication to queer advocacy. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa with Dr. Monika Ward on Y chromosome genetics in male infertility. I then moved to North Carolina for a postdoc with Dr. Blanche Capel at Duke University working on testis and pro-spermatogonia development. The pandemic is how I ended up at Weill Cornell Medicine with Dr. Dorrie Lamb. I needed a new position and was desperate to stay in the field I love, developmental and reproductive biology. A collaborator at Duke put me in touch with Dr. Lamb who had the perfect rescue plan position that would expose me to the realm of genitourinary development and birth defects.
What are you most excited to do this year?
Lab-wise my first HCR, it's just such a beautiful method. Life-wise either tent or winter-cabin camping.
What words of inspiration and caution would you like to share with the future generation of LGBTQ+ scientists?
Just because life is relatively safe and inclusion is pretty good for queer folk in major cities such as New York and San Francisco, things can still be pretty dire for the queer community elsewhere in the US, especially for students. A lot of times queer kids from these stressful places move to the big cities to escape, but we bring a lot of their past trauma with us and can need support.
What obstacles do LGBTQ+ members commonly encounter in their career trajectory?
I think there is a lot of regionality to this, but speaking from my own lived experience, tokenism is still a hurdle. We want real seats at the table, where we will be listened to. I have also observed that there are still pockets of hurtful resistance to pronouns, these sentiments can indicate larger opposition to queer rights.
How can professional scientific societies create a more inclusive environment to better support LGBTQ+ scientists?
Collect data the right way, for instance, on a survey, and have inclusive options for sex, gender, and sexual orientation so you can really capture who is responding to that survey. If you ask for testimony from queer members, ask with compassion and really listen to their needs. Then really promote that queer member in a way that honor and respects the time they put into producing that testimony.
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 was pleased to hear that the NSF will finally be collecting SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) data. Previously the adage was “we don’t have any data that you are underrepresented, because we don’t collect data on you”. My hope is that this SOGI data collection will ultimately make grants for underrepresented and underprivileged scientists open to queer folk. Although our community’s official designation at NIH is “Sexual and Gender Minority (SGM)” we are typically excluded from funding opportunities aimed at minorities. There are also currently a lot of divisive structures that disproportionately marginalize trans and non-binary folk in science.