Joey Nelson, environmental scientist

What's it like to be queer in STEM? This researcher is part of a nationwide project surveying the experiences of LGBTQ+ scientists to find out. Interview by Jennifer Leman.

April 02, 2018

Joey Nelson. Photo: Stanford University

Confetti swirled around me as I thumbed the edges of the bright pink button. “We come out every day,” it read. Round and glossy, it was the San Francisco Chronicle’s cheeky nod to the city's annual LGBTQ+ Pride parade.

As a science journalist, I tell stories and unravel mysteries about our planet and its processes. I reveal truths. But some truths—personal ones—are more difficult to grapple with.

I had just moved to San Francisco after graduating college, and I wanted to attend a Pride event for the first time. I didn't know anyone else in the city who openly identified as queer, and was not yet out to my coworkers. So I went alone. I've often felt isolated in my bisexuality—tucked in the space between two communities—not quite gay and not quite straight. I've struggled with these feelings since I began college in 2010.

In this sense, I know I’m not alone. I am incredibly fortunate to have always lived, worked and studied in communities that were safe and supportive. But so many of my peers in STEM’s LGBTQ+ community are not as lucky.

Several recent studies have highlighted the struggles of sexual and gender minorities in STEM. The findings are discouraging: LGBTQ+ students and professionals are dropping out of the sciences. More than 40 percent of LGBTQ+-identified people working in STEM fields are not out to their colleagues. Many of those who are have reported feeling unsafe or unwelcome in the workplace.

To learn more about this, I spoke with Joey Nelson, an environmental scientist and Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University, about his work with the Queer in STEM project. First pioneered by Jeremy Yoder and Allison Matthies (of California State University Northridge and California State University Los Angeles, respectively), the Queer in STEM Project has conducted two nationwide surveys in order to document the experiences of LGBTQ+-identified people in STEM. Findings from the first survey were published in 2016; Nelson and Daniel Cruz-Ramirez de Arellano, of the University of South Florida, are currently analyzing results from the second.

During our conversation in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Austin, Texas, I was struck by something Nelson said: “We find our community when our community is visible.” I often wonder if having an early mentor who was also bisexual would have helped me learn to embrace my identity sooner. I admire Nelson because he’s aiming to become the mentor he never had.

For the full interview with Joey Nelson, please see Jennifer Leman's story published in Scientific American.

Jennifer Leman showcases her published work at