Mentoring LGBTQ+ students in STEM

This is the second in a series of blog posts to be released this quarter by the ASCB LGBTQ+ committee under the theme of “Building a Welcoming Community for LGBTQ+ Scientists.” In this post, graduate student Melissa Drown shares some thoughts on mentoring LGBTQ+ students.

LGBTQ+ STEM students are underrepresented by up to 21%, which has been attributed to a lack of representation in higher levels of academia. To address this disparity, departmental and university-wide policies need to address the disconnection between experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals and their cisgender and heterosexual colleagues. At the same time, individual lab groups need to intentionally address barriers to student success. Here, I discuss three ways research groups can improve inclusion.  ~ Claire Thomas

Be visibly supportive

Imagine that you’re an 18-year-old gay or transgender undergraduate student. You’ve been on campus for three weeks, and you haven’t spoken directly to any faculty members yet, but you plucked up the courage to set a meeting with someone to talk about their research (which you also know basically nothing about). At this moment, does it make a difference whether you are walking up to a blank door or a door with a small rainbow flag sticker next to the name? Or, in a virtual setting, does it make a difference to have a diversity and inclusion statement or resources for students from traditionally excluded backgrounds on your lab website? It does matter.

Your support of the LGBTQ+ community gives these individuals an “ally” (a term used to describe someone who is actively supportive of LGBTQ+ people). As an ally, you also help that undergraduate at your door by helping to generate a more welcoming institutional environment. Visibility remains a key issue for LGBTQ+ individuals because gender and sexual diversity are not obvious just by looking at someone. Greater visibility of LGBTQ+ colleagues also improves the sense of community and security, but in some STEM fields, up to 20% of faculty report being uncomfortable around their peers and 30% felt pressured to stay closeted. Having visible allies helps more LGBTQ+ folks in academia to “come-out,” and in turn helps that student.

If you want to be an effective ally there are a few simple things you can do. Most campus LGBTQ+ centers offer short information sessions about the LGBTQ+ community. Take this training in addition to displaying supportive signage; have on hand a list of resources that you can provide to LGBTQ+ individuals (e.g., mental health counseling, LGBTQ+ student center location). Encourage others in your department to help compile these resources with you and to also be trained. As a start, check out free diversity in science posters designed by University of Minnesota student Sammy Kata or the ASCB sponsored version of the 100% Sign (available from Make a commitment to support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts and download a custom poster to display outside your lab or office. Add a diversity and inclusion statement to your lab website as well as links to resources for students from traditionally excluded backgrounds. If you have a lab manual for new students, this is also a great place to include a statement of support and resources and will not only go a long way in assuring prospective students that they can be their authentic selves but will demonstrate your expectations to all your lab members. 

Use appropriate pronouns and names

Make a habit of asking, sharing, and remembering pronouns. Even if you have never been misgendered, sharing your pronouns normalizes the practice for LGBTQ+ individuals, and signifies your awareness of this issue. Individuals who are frequently called by the wrong pronouns may have increased body dysmorphia, which contributes to higher rates of suicidal thoughts and actions among members of the LGBTQ+ community compared with their peers. It is easy adding your pronouns at the end of your zoom name and in your email signature. In person, you can add pronouns when introducing yourself at the first lab meeting of the year and requesting that others do the same. This allows a new lab member an opportunity to designate their pronouns early on and can save them from needing to reintroduce themselves or remind others later on. Especially for undergraduate students, who may feel undue stress in confronting authority figures in the lab, preventing a difficult conversation by establishing correct pronouns early in their research experience can make all the difference. Keep in mind that, like gender, pronouns are fluid and may change with time as personal identities evolve. In addition to identifying and using appropriate pronouns, take some time to improve your vocabulary and understand LGBTQ+ specific terms and how to avoid microaggressions.  

The use of chosen names for transgender individuals has also been demonstrated to improve mental health and self-esteem. This is a critical point because some university or government systems have extraordinary barriers for legal name changes, which may prevent students from correcting their name on their student records. Providing an opportunity for students to give a chosen name upon introduction will ensure that they can be their authentic selves. For example, simply ask: “You used X in your email, is that what you would like to be called?” Or send an email to all course participants with a survey to provide a chosen name and pronouns in advance. 

Share existing resources and build more

In response to the continuing inequality in STEM fields, many professional societies and non-profit groups have delegated resources to promote the inclusion of traditionally excluded groups. While LGBTQ+ students should absolutely apply for the usual nationally competitive awards and funding opportunities, being aware of resources that have been delegated just for them shows that you care about their well-being and success. It will also help connect them with other LGBTQ+ students and organizations that are designed to be a network of support. For example, the Point Foundation holds an annual national LGBTQ+ scholarship program, which provides scholars with monetary support and additionally connects them with a mentor in their field of study for the duration of the program. The Kurt Lab at the Stevens Institute for Technology has compiled a list of funding sources and organizations for LGBTQ+ students that can be shared.  Rather than just sharing this list, faculty and graduate students who are involved in professional societies and departmental DEI committees should also reflect on the language of underrepresented student funding opportunities to ensure that LGBTQ+ identity qualifies students to apply. If your department or professional society doesn’t have such a program, consider adding one specific for undergraduate students who have been traditionally excluded. This can be as small as money to subsidize conference registration or free membership to the society and can be expanded to provide travel and presentation awards as well as DEI-focused social events at in-person conferences to connect students with potential mentors who identify like them.

About the Author:

Melissa Drown, she/her/hers, PhD Candidate in Marine Genomics at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Connect with Melissa on Twitter @melissakd6; on her Website - or via email