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Paving The Way: Finding Mentors And Role Models

by Linda Wang
May 23, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 21

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students often lack good mentors and role models.

Barbara L. Belmont, who works for a small analytical company in Southern California and is a part-time lecturer at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says she used to use gender-nonspecific pronouns to avoid revealing her sexual orientation to her students. "But I made a decision to not do that anymore because I think that being visible is really important," she says. "For students, it helps them if they know somebody who is also gay, because in science there is a sense of isolation because you don't see anybody else like you."

Benny Chan, assistant professor of chemistry at the College of New Jersey, agrees: "It's very important for faculty to be out so that the students have role models and know that they're not isolated."

Credit: Courtesy of James Nowick
Credit: Courtesy of James Nowick

The lack of LGBT mentors in academia inspired James S. Nowick, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, to offer a freshman seminar course in 2007 titled "Queer Scientists, Queer Science." The course, which was taken by 10 students, explored factors influencing the scientific interests and the career paths of gay and lesbian scientists.

"Although there is positive media coverage of LGBT scientists, young chemists and other scientists continue to face issues with being out," Nowick says. "For this reason, visible LGBT role models continue to be needed, particularly in academia where students are often going through coming-out experiences."

Students can also find mentors by joining professional organizations such as the National Organization of Gay & Lesbian Scientists & Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), which offers an e-mentoring program through MentorNet, or the American Chemical Society's new Subdivision for Gay & Transgender Chemists & Allies, which sponsors a reception during the fall ACS national meetings.

Students can also find mentors by participating in career conferences. NOGLSTP's Out to Innovate career summit, which was held at the University of Southern California last fall, brought together nearly 200 students and professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields for a day of sharing, mentoring, and career presentations. The next summit will take place in Columbus, Ohio, in fall 2012.

"Coming out is easier when there are role models, and people paving the way for you," says Belmont. And for those who aren't able to come out, "we're hoping to be their advocates."



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