We spoke to Lauren Esposito, arachnologist and creator of 500 Queer Scientists – a visibility campaign for LGBTQ+ people and their allies working in STEM – about the highlights and challenges of her STEM journey!
Hi Lauren! How did you get into STEM?
L: I grew up spending a lot of time in nature. Both of my parents are actually biologists. They both loved being in nature so we went camping all the time and had all kinds of animals living in our house. Eventually I grew up and went to college. I actually went to university pretty young – I started when I was 16. Mostly because I came out in high school and a lot of my peers ostracised me as a result. So I left high school and went to college.
I majored in biology because I didn’t really know what else to be. It wasn’t really until my junior year of college when I started seeking more advanced classes that I fell in love with evolution and ecology. In particular, I took a class called Field Biology – mostly because in the course description it said over the spring break all the students would go to Mexico, which sounded like a school vacation!
We had to come up with a research project to do while we were there. I came up with this idea to find out if fiddler crabs were predominantly left-handed or right-handed. There was no published information about that. So I did the experiment and found it was about 50/50. It was exciting for me to learn that there was still lots of stuff out there to be discovered.
After that I did some internships. One was with a guy who, at the time, was one of the few world scorpion experts. I got hooked on scorpions, started researching them and decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
What’s something awesome about being an arachnologist?
L: One of the best things about my job is that I get to travel all over the world. I specialise in arachnids that live on tropical islands for the most part, so I’ve been to tropical islands in every major ocean. Often I’m the first person there looking for arachnids.
And what have been some of the challenges throughout your STEM journey?
L: The biggest challenge has been getting passed my own sense of belonging. My queer identity and my intersectional identity make me question whether this is the right place for me and whether I belong here. This was one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest motivators behind starting 500 Queer Scientists.
Did you have any LGBTQ+ role models along the way?
L: Never. I knew of a couple of scientists as I went through college and graduate school. I had never worked in a lab with another queer person or had another queer colleague that was in my field of study that I knew of. Turned out I did have some, but it was just one of those things you didn’t talk about.
Was there a big moment that sparked the launch of 500 Queer Scientists?
L: In 2018, I was helping to organise an event for women in STEM. It was with a group called 500 Women Scientists. I was really impressed with what they had done for women in STEM, but it didn’t feel like my community.
At the same time, I reflected on the fact that I was the first openly queer curator in a very queer friendly city in an institution that was over 167 years old at the time. It was a shock. I realised that I really wanted to do something for myself to feel less alone. So I decided to launch 500 Queer Scientists as a visibility campaign to show people that we’re out here and to help people feel connected in the world.
How long did it take to get 500 scientists on your website?
L: It took just under three weeks.
Did you expect it to happen so quickly?
L: I did not. I had reached out to other LGBTQ+ in STEM organisations, and talked to the director of one of them about what I was planning to do. Her response to me was that I would never be able to get 500 people to share their stories openly. So I really wasn’t expecting to get to 500 as quickly as I did, if at all.
How many scientists are on the site now?
L: Right now we are over 1,500. I would say on average we get one a day.
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What are you most proud of when it comes to 500 Queer Scientists?
L: How it’s brought the community together. Very often I see social media posts that are exchanges between people who are talking about how they had never had the courage to come out in professional spaces until they had seen others doing it on 500 Queer Scientists. That, for me, is everything.
Why is diversity so important in the science workplace?
L: We know diversity is important using science. Studies have been done to look at the rate of innovation dependent on the diversity of the group that’s doing the work, research or innovating. More diverse groups are more likely to achieve major milestones in innovation. And so because people bring their own personal identity into the science workplace, those differences of opinion, or just different ways of looking at the world, are all unique in a way that moves science forward in a way that couldn’t be done if everybody came with exactly the same perspective and sense of identity.
What’s your advice for LGBTQ+ students who want to pursue a career in STEM?
L: You are not alone. There is a huge community of people who have been driving innovation forward in STEM for hundreds of years. In the past it wasn’t always great to be out in STEM, but things have changed quite a bit and we’re here, we’re queer, we’re out and we’re driving innovation.