Transgender Day of Visibility in STEM

March 31, 2017

written By: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

The Transgender Day of Visibility was started by the group Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), which is the only organization in the US entirely led by trans youth. It is a day to show support for the trans community.  It aims to bring attention to the accomplishments of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people all around the globe, while fighting cissexism and transphobia by spreading knowledge of the trans community. It is a day of empowerment and giving recognition that the trans community deserves, and takes place on March 31st of every year.

The statistics on the number of transgender people in the STEM fields is almost nonexistent, however, one can look to trans experiences as examples of gender bias in the workplace: many trans people stay in the same careers, and sometimes the same jobs, during and after their transitions. People who transitioned from female to male during their careers, such as Ben Barres (see his profile below), realized that there was an almost immediate difference in his everyday experience, as reported by Jessica Nordell for New Republic: "People who don't know I am transgendered [sic] treat me with much more respect." He stopped being interrupted in meetings, and another scientist actually said at a conference, "Ben gave a great seminar today - but then his work is so much better than his sister's." This person did not realize that Ben and Barbara were the same person. Says Ben Barres of this experience: "This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate. [...] I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously." Another trans person who transitioned from female to male noted, "When I was a woman, no matter how many facts I had, people were like, 'Are you sure about that?' It's so strange not to have to defend your positions." These trans men were also able to suggest colleagues who were women for promotions because their advice was taken more seriously.

Shayle Matsuda, a Ph.D. student (see his bio below), writing for Wired, points out that science prides itself on objective analysis of the world, but identity drives what questions we ask, how we answer those questions, and how we interpret data. As a student at the California Academy of Sciences, Matsuda experienced being part of a team where the majority of lead researchers were white cis-gender people. Matsuda provides anecdotes of other trans students who experienced hardships. One worried about repercussions if her department found out she was trans, and another student postponed applying for a graduate program until he was able to start hormones and change his legal documents - "He wanted to avoid coming out on campus for fear of retribution and stigmatization." Matsuda also experienced practical challenges during his transition: the staff gender neutral bathroom was five floors up from his office, and living on a TA salary while spending money on hormones, medical procedures, reaquired therapy sessions, legal fees, and clothing was very difficult. And Matsuda found that campuses don't always provide gender confirming health benefits, gender neutral bathrooms, training on LGBT competency, or "active condemnation of transphobia." 

More research must be undertaken to understand more about the experience of transgender people in the workplace, especially in the STEM fields. The Pew Research Center in Washington DC has undertaken research worldwide about homosexuality, but not about transgender people. Studies have tackled diversity in science, asking about women vs. men, but not about transgender individuals. The most common data about transgender people in the workplace and in STEM fields is anecdotal, such as the New Republic article above. Any future research must take into account that there is "no single story about being transgender that sums it all up, much like there's no one story about being Hispanic or blonde or short or straight that sums that experience up" (Katy Steinmetz, Time Magazine).

It is clear, however, that people who fall under the transgender umbrella can be found in all fields, including STEM. In the spirit of celebrating trans achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, here are a few trans scientists who are making waves in their fields.

Dr. Ben Barres, Ph.D.
Professor of Neurobiology and Developmental Biology
Stanford University

Dr. Barres' lab is interested in the development and function of glial cells in the mammalian central nervous system. He has pioneered the development of novel methods for the purification and culture of neurons and glial cells. Dr. Barres graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, obtained an MD degree at Dartmouth Medical School and completed his neurology residency at Cornell. He then obtained a PhD from Harvard Medical School and did his postdoctoral training at University College London, prior to joining Stanford in 1993. He has won many research awards including a Life Sciences Research Fellowship, the Klingenstein Fellowship Award, a McKnight Investigator Award, and a Searle Scholar Award, as well as teaching awards including the Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Kaiser Award for Innovative and Outstanding Contributions to Medical Education. He presently serves on several advisory committees for the Society for Neuroscience, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders. See Dr. Barres' writing of his own experience as transgender and transitioning at the Gender Bias Learning Project. To read more about Ben, please see his bio at Bio-X.

Dr. Lynn Conway, Ph.D.
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Emerita
University of Michigan

Lynn Conway is a pioneer of microelectronics chip design and a recipient of many honors, including election as a Member of the National Academy of Engineering - the highest professional recognition an engineer can receive. She is currently Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Emerita, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A revealing quotation for Lynn's strong-willed personality, which sustained her through difficult years, is one stuck in a picture frame in her Ann Arbor office: "Play for more than you can afford to lose, and you will learn the game." Lynn received her MS in electrical engineering from Columbia in 1963, and joined IBM Research at Yorktown Heights, NY, in 1964. At IBM she did pioneering research, inventing a powerful method for issuing multiple out-of-order instructions per machine cycle in supercomputers that made possible the creation of the first true super-scalar computer. This pioneering research remained anonymous for many years, due to the secret nature of the IBM project, which was disbanded in 1968. Lynn joined Memorex in 1971, and then moved to the brand-new Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973. She joined the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1985. Lynn's story is that of a woman who made amazing contributions to society, in spite of intense ostracism and stigmatization. "It's like building bridges," she says. "People can say the design stinks, your ideas aren´t any good. But if the bridge stands, it stands. People can look at me and say what they want. . . but take a look at my life and tell me if the bridge stands." Click here to read her incredible full story and find her on Twitter here.

Dr. Carys Massarella, MD, FRCPC
St. Joseph's Healthcare, Hamilton, ON

Known today as a “trans-warrior physician,” Dr. Massarella joined the St. Joseph’s team in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1997 and has held various positions throughout the years including Chief of Emergency Medicine, and President of the Medical Staff Association. Dr. Massarella currently practices as a medical physician at St. Joseph’s and is the lead physician at the Quest Community Health Centre, a transgender care clinic in St. Catherine’s. She graduated from Western University as Callum Ralph Massarella in 1990 and completed her residency in emergency medicine at McMaster University in 1997. She is quoted as saying, "I have committed my life to demystifying transgenderism." About her position at Quest Community Health Care, she says, "The biggest obstacle for most transgender individuals is access to medical care. In our clinic, we no longer refer patients to psychiatrists. Being transgender is not a pathology. Gender dysphoria is not a psychiatric illness.” Named by the Huffington Post as one of the world’s Top 50 Transgender Icons, Dr. Masseralla is a leading expert and advocate for the transgender community who wants to lead the way for public education and acceptance. She has been featured in the CBC documentary Transforming Gender and the CBC series Keeping Canada Alive, and has given talks at TEDxMcMasterU and TEDxHamilton. See her full bio at Western University.

Shayle Matsuda
Ph.D. student, University of Hawaii Manoa

Shayle is a Ph.D. student with research interests in understanding how the obligate coral-algal symbiosis responds to climate change factors, and how the different types of algae a host associates with affect holobiont resilience. His interest in biology began with his battle with cancer as a three-year-old, never suspecting it to be science that would someday provide him the confidence and support to come out as transgender. The mixed-race son of an art historian and an industrial designer, Shayle developed a creative mind, while acquiring a deep appreciation for the transformative power of art and the possibility that one person can change the way people see the world. After graduating with honors in environmental studies and women’s studies (2003), Shayle worked with disadvantaged and minority youth and hosted a week-long LGBTQ art, music and film festival to raise funds to start an LGBTQ youth group. While working on his master’s degree in biology at San Francisco State University (CSU Trustees’ Award 2014), Shayle came out as transgender. Shayle studies climate change and reef coral resilience as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hawai’i Manoa and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology (2020). Actively involved in science communication, he frequently speaks about his research and experience being a transgender scientist. Shayle hosts the interactive science event series “Science, Neat” that brings science and LGBTQ communities together. He uses art and digital media to make science more accessible to wider audiences, and he facilitates unique research experiences for high school students underrepresented in STEM fields. Check out Shayle's Twitter here and a full bio at Point Foundation.

Dr. Joan Roughgarden, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, Stanford University
Adjunct Professor, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii

Joan Roughgarden received a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1971. She has taught at Stanford University since 1972 as Professor of Biology and Geophysics. In 2011 she retired from Stanford and moved to Hawai`i where she remains a Stanford professor (Emerita). In 2012 she resumed active duty as Adjunct Professor, Hawai`i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), University of Hawai`i, Kane`ohe Bay in O`ahu. She was elected a Guggenheim fellow in 1986 and a fellow of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences in 1993. Joan’s current research focuses on the evolution of social behavior and mutualistic interactions emphasizing the role of cooperation using cooperative game theory together with the economic theory of the firm. She has written about this subject in her recent books, “The Genial Gene” (2009) and “Evolution’s Rainbow” (2004), which won a Stonewall Prize for nonfiction from the American Library Association. Joan has published more than 180 papers and 8 books including “Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology” (1979), “Anolis Lizards of the Caribbean” (1995), “Primer of Ecological Theory” (1998) and “Evolution and Christian Faith” (2006). Her CV is found at and online videos of some of her recent lectures can be found on Joan’s YouTube channel. See her Twitter feed here. A full bio can be seen at University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Julia Salevan
Ph.D. Student, Yale University

Julia Salevan is a third-year graduate student in mechanical engineering at Yale University. Their research is in experimental fluid dynamics and granular matter. Salevan identifies as genderqueer or nonbinary, and says they are "lucky to know other queer grad students, and other queer physicists of my age." Julia graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a Bachelor of Science with High Honors in Physics in 2012. At Yale, they are working with Prof. Nicholas T. Ouellette and Prof. Corey S. O’Hern on the erosion of granular matter due to shearing fluid flows. Julia is also passionate about making space for queer people and gender minorities in science. They assisted in the formation of the APS Ad-Hoc Committee on LGBT Issues in Physics, which recently published an LGBT Climate in Physics Report. They also still have strong connections with trans-inclusive groups for women in physics, and they are a board member of Women in Science at Yale, which brings together hundreds of scientists across campus with monthly events and boasts an over-200-member, three-level mentoring program. Outside of the lab, they love the performing arts, including singing, acting, and dance, and they particularly enjoy connections between artistic work and science. Check out their Twitter here.

Amanda Simpson
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy
Former Executive Director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives

Amanda Simpson obtained a degree in physics from Harvey Mudd College in California in 1983, a master’s degree in engineering from California State University in 1988, and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Arizona in 2001. Amanda is also a skilled pilot. She earned her first pilot’s license in 1981, and became a certified flight instructor in 1988. Amanda worked for the Raytheon Missile Systems Company for 27 years, starting as a test pilot and working her way up to Deputy Director of the Advanced Technology Development. During this time, she campaigned for trans rights, and in 2005 she was successful in convincing Raytheon to include gender identity and expression in its non-discrimination policy. Amanda served as a commissioner on the City of Tucson Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Commission from 2001 until 2008, when she was elected as an Arizona Delegate for Hillary Clinton to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Amanda became the Senior Technical Adviser to the Bureau of Industry and Security in 2009. In 2014, she became the Executive Director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI), where she led the U.S. Army’s efforts to implement large-scale renewable energy projects. She works in the United States Department of Defense. Wikipedia includes a long list of her recognitions and you can follow her on Twitter here.

For more information about the Transgender Day of Visibility, check out TSER's website here. You can also see the Trans and Gender Diverse Guide at SFU here, created and distributed by SFU's Out on Campus. Both of these resources are a wealth of information about trans issues and include valuable resources. SFU's Out on Campus also provides information about LGBTQ+ events at SFU and
how to navigate the SFU campus as a trans or gender diverse person.