R. Shawn Abrahams is a research assistant at Florida International University who will shortly start a Ph.D. program in plant genetics at the University of Missouri. He's also the vice president of membership for oSTEM, a nonprofit connecting LGBT students and academics in science, technology, engineering, and math. He was interviewed by Angus Chen for Out.
Out: What has it been like getting into the sciences as a queer person of color?
R. Shawn Abrahams: There aren't a lot of people of color in science to begin with. Then you realize, Oh, so I also have to worry about my queer identity. I was wondering whether I'd go into botany, horticulture, or agriculture, but I found that it was much more conservative in the more agriculturally or horticulturally based fields. They were the kind of people who I'd see with the Confederate flag, you know? Picking botany was strategic; I felt there were enough liberal people for me to be who I was. Some fields offer great support, and other fields offer none whatsoever.
Do you see a strong community of queer people you can talk to in botany?
I don't. There are people who are queer and have good careers, but nobody wants to be the first person to step out into the open because you risk getting shot real quick. When we're losing tenured positions and entering a very competitive environment, nobody wants to lose their job because some old white guys sitting on committees somewhere don't like queer people. But it's also changing. There are great biologists who are queer and standing up to take those first bullets for the community.
When you were getting into science and then later looking at jobs and Ph.D. programs, did you think about LGBT role models?
I searched long and hard. There are definitely great LGBT scientists, and you see them on a pamphlet, or whatever. But in botany, specifically ones I could identify with--queer people of color? No.
How about finding queer mentors in the sciences?
I feel like women in science understand the kind of biases and discrimination that can happen in these fields based on identity and not based on your work. But I don't go to every female mentor and say, "Hey! I'm queer! How are you?" I'll just sort of mention it. You don't want to get really excited about a job and just not know if they're OK with it. Especially when you're going into a Ph.D. program, your adviser has so much control over the next five years of your life. I've heard horror stories of people who've gotten an adviser who ended up being very rude to them or nixing their project.
You've vetted your adviser already, then?
Yes, I am going to work with Chris Pires, a plant biologist. After having interest in his work, it just took me going through at least 100 of his tweets and seeing some pro-LGBTQ ones to go, Oh, thank God. OK, check.