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Conversations between friends: Celebrating Pride in the Life Sciences

Dr. Peter Walentek and Dr. Jeffrey Farrell on the intersection of LGBTQ+ identity and scientific leadership

It's June, it's LGBTQ+ Pride Month! Dr. Peter Walentek took the opportunity to catch up with one of his science friends, Dr. Jeffrey Farrell, who is heading a research group at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda Maryland, USA, in the Unit on Cell Specification and Differentiation. In their interview they discuss their scientific collaboration, LGBTQ+ identities, and experiences as research group leaders.

Headshots of Dr. Peter Walentek and Dr. Jeffrey Farrell

Left to right: Dr. Peter Walentek (picture: Jürgen Gocke/CIBSS, Universität Freiburg) and Dr. Jeffrey Farrell (picture: Jeffrey Farrell/NICHD, https://irp.nih.gov/pi/jeffrey-farrell)

Peter Walentek: Hello Jeff! We met years ago at a conference, where we both presented in the same session. Starting out from discussing your fantastic work on whole zebrafish single-cell RNA-sequencing, which, back then, you were doing in Alex Schier’s lab at Harvard, I remember that we quickly realised that both of us were not only members of the Society for Developmental Biology, but also of the LGBTQ+ community in science. Ever since, we occasionally chat about our experiences finding our way as research group leaders. This time, I would like to share our conversation in celebration of Pride Month.

Let us start with a brief summary: What is your research about and how long have you been leading your own lab?

Jeffrey Farrell: Our lab started in January 2020, so we’re 4.5 years old now. Time really flies! We’re interested in understanding the genetic programs that regulate cell identity and cell function during development. We study these questions in zebrafish because of its optical clarity (great live imaging!), genetic tractability, rapid development, external fertilization, and high degree of genetic conservation with other vertebrate animals, such as us humans, and incredible community of researchers. My group uses single-cell genomics to look broadly at development, and then we use classical developmental biology and embryology techniques to more deeply investigate our findings. In the last couple of years, we’ve published a broad single-cell RNAseq atlas of zebrafish development, looking at 62 timepoints during the first five days of development, including building the website Daniocell  to make those data broadly accessible. Additionally, in collaboration with Michal Rabani’s lab, we hunted for cell-type-specific differences in the stability of maternally provided mRNAs. A number of current projects stem from our observations in single-cell RNAseq data, including trying to work out how cells in the axial mesoderm are affected long-term if they express genes from multiple distinct cell types, how recently discovered best4+ intestinal epithelial cells develop, and how distinct cell types are specified within intestinal smooth muscle.

Did you always want to become a scientist leading a lab, and did you ever think that being LGBTQ+ was affecting your choice or the path you have taken?

I have always enjoyed doing science, but I was not always committed to being a lab head. At the end of my PhD, I was unsure whether I wanted the responsibility of running a research program, and I spent a serious amount of time reading a book by Toby Freedman, “Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development”, as a means of surveying what other opportunities might be available to me. It strengthened my resolve to do a post-doc, because I had very much enjoyed my PhD and none of the other career routes seemed as attractive to me as ‘doing more of the same’. My desire to become a lab head really crystallized in the second half of my post-doc. I started to become more confident in the ideas and approaches that I had been developing and had so many directions emerging from the single-cell RNAseq profiling we were doing that I wanted to pursue. There was no way I could do it all myself, which made the idea of building a team to do science with me very attractive.

I don’t think that my sexuality has directly informed my choice to be a scientist — I think that science satisfies parts of my personality that are distinct from my sexuality — love of logic, discovery, aesthetics, and secret knowledge about an invisible world, for instance. That said, several career decisions have been influenced by it, since it has informed my choices of where to live. It probably most strongly influenced my decision to go to Columbia (located in Manhattan) for my undergraduate education, since I was desperate to leave Louisiana (where I grew up) to reduce the daily roadblocks introduced into my life because of my sexuality. And many aspects of my scientific interests were informed by courses that I took there, including an absolutely incredible course in Cell and Molecular Biology taught by Deborah Mowshowitz and a formative Developmental Biology course taught by Alice Heicklen. My sexuality also influenced my choice of where to open my lab — while it was only one of many criteria under consideration, living in DC was deeply attractive to both myself and my husband given its strong queer community.

As part of an event and panel discussion a while back, we at CIBSS conducted an anonymous survey asking people how they thought being LGBTQ+ affects careers in academia. It was interesting to see that while most people feel academia doesn’t care about sexual orientation, most people were hesitant to be out and thought it might be a disadvantage for scientific careers to be too open. What is your experience and why do you think people are worried?

I had concerns early in my post-doc about whether I would later be able to be successful in a faculty search. My experience as a queer person navigating the world has been that it is generally easy to find allies in most spaces, but that there are also often a few people who are disapproving. I had the worry that, since faculty decisions were extremely competitive, essentially require unanimous approval, and were made behind closed doors, that just a few disapproving people might hold me back. I wonder whether a similar set of feelings are behind some of those core fears for many members of CIBSS.

However, I’m pleased to say that I do not think that it has hindered my career at all. I have been open about it since I started graduate school, and if it has cost me opportunities, at least I don’t know about them. I conducted my faculty search completely out (meaning not hiding my sexual orientation from anyone in my professional surroundings), and I was intentional about bringing up my husband in conversation during my interviews as a gentle test of how accepting of a community I might be entering. For me this has been always the right decision — being out from the very beginning has helped me select for environments that have fully accepted me. If it has cost me opportunities, they were not opportunities that were right for me anyway.

Of course, it is not always easy. I think sometimes it requires more effort to be taken seriously as a leader because I don’t represent myself the same way as the examples of ‘leaders’ that people are used to. But, honestly, I don’t intend to remake myself. I tried that as a teenager, and the amount of effort required to pass all of your thoughts through a filter to curate them is so exhausting and destructive — it is impossible to do your best work while doing that. I’m pleased, though, that scientific culture seems to require less ‘machismo’ these days than it once did, meaning that I don’t have to summon a fake version of my personality nearly as often as I once did.

When I started mentoring people in the lab as a PhD student and even more so when I started my group, it was important to me to create inclusive spaces for diverse researchers, where people can just be how they are. Do you think this matters for the researchers and the science they are doing? And are you building and mentoring your group differently in any way?

I do think this is important, and I hope that the group that I’ve created makes that space for my lab members. I think many of us who are LGBTQ+ went through a process when we were younger when we curated an ‘acceptable’ version of ourselves to present to the world. But to do that is just so much work, and I would rather have all of that energy going towards my lab members’ science. I don’t think that I mentor my group differently to achieve this — but that might be because I’ve had incredible mentors throughout my career, and I mostly strive to recreate as many of their best aspects as I can. I hope that by virtue of being myself with my own group, they feel at ease being themselves also.

People from the LGBTQ+ community and their allies are more openly (and some would say more aggressively) visible by displaying pride flags, their preferred pronouns, or organising LGBTQ+ in science events these days. What is your opinion, is this visibility necessary and useful, or does it emphasise something that is irrelevant for science and research and might perhaps create a push-back from the scientific community?

I think this is important in science right now, and I’ve helped to organize some such events. I understand why someone might think “this is not related to science, so why is it happening at my conference?” But, as I mentioned in response to some of your previous questions, I think that doing one’s best science, having the best conversations at conferences, being the best mentor or mentee — they all involve being fully present and engaged. And it’s very difficult to be fully present and engaged if you’re constantly policing your self-expression because it drags your focus away from your science. Visibility through pride flags, pronouns, and other self-identifiers is important for other LGBTQ+ scientists because it makes it apparent how many of us there really are — and that we all have role models to look up to. And those LGBTQ+ science events help connect queer scientists and establish networks — all with the goal of making sure that we feel accepted, helping us build networks to make sure we feel supported, and to encourage us to participate as ourselves, just as we are. While it might seem like having those events as part of a conference detract from its scientific nature, I would argue that actually, better science happens when everyone is fully engaged, and so the net effect is adding to the scientific discourse at those events.

Is there anything additional you want to share?

Happy Pride, everyone. Let’s all show them what queer excellence looks like. Thanks for inviting me to participate, Peter.

Peter Walentek is member of the CIBSS  Equal Opportunity and Diversity Committee  and ally for all facets of diversity, especially LGBTQ+.

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