Meet Geraldine Delbes

Written by Laura Schultz in celebration of Pride Month

The primary focus of my lab is to better understand how early exposures to environmental contaminants or drugs can affect male reproduction. Using in vivo and in vitro models in rodents and humans, we investigate the molecular toxicity of known and emerging endocrine disruptors as well as drugs used to treat pediatric cancers. We are particularly interested in understanding how the chemicals can affect testosterone production and the androgen/estrogen balance, leading to abnormal development and programming of the male germline. We study cytotoxicity and genotoxicity as well as impacts on gene expression and epigenetic reprogramming. This research brings new knowledge in the fundamental understanding of gonad and germline development, yet helps risk assessment by elucidating the mechanisms and levels of toxicity of emerging contaminants and therapies or mixtures of endocrine disruptors.


What is your current position and what does it entail?

I am an Associate Professor at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. My main responsibilities are to run my laboratory, find funding for my research, coordinate my diverse collaborations with other researchers, and supervise undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate trainees in the lab. Over the past 9 years, I have had the pleasure to work with 1 technician, 2 postdocs, 6 Ph.D. and 3 Master’s level trainees and 5 undergraduate students. In the Fall, I coordinate and teach a course on environmental toxicology which is part of our Experimental Science Master’s program. Occasionally, I teach reproductive toxicology in other universities’ Master’s and Ph.D. programs.

I am a member of the Executive Committee and the Scientific Advisory Board of the Centre de recherche en reproduction, développement et santé intergénérationnelle and the Intersectoral Centre for Endocrine Disruptor Analysis, respectively, and Chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee of the Quebec Network in Reproduction.

I was Vice President of the Society of Toxicology of Canada (STC) from 2018-2020. My current responsibilities as President (2020-2022) include supervising the running of the society in collaboration with the Board of Directors, maintaining communication with our members and social media, organizing scientific webinars and networking events, and overseeing the planning of our Annual Symposium which attracts on average 100-200 participants.

Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I was born and raised in Paris, France. My mom was a gynecologist and I remember one Saturday, I met her at her private clinic and saw sperm under the microscope for the first time. It was the end of the 1980’s and I was not even 10 years old! Many have suggested that this is what sparked my passion for research in male reproduction but initially, I considered becoming a shepherd, a sports medicine physician or a biologist who strives to protect endangered species. It was while exploring these different potential paths that I discovered animal physiology and two outstanding professors in reproductive physiology at the University of Paris: René Habert and Virginie Rouiller-Fabre. I had the privilege to pursue a PhD degree in reproductive physiology in René Habert’s laboratory. After finishing my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Bernard Robaire from McGill University at the European Testis workshop 2004 in Scotland. In 2005, I started a postdoctoral fellowship in his lab in Montreal, Canada. I had a 2-year work contract when I arrived and I am now a Canadian citizen with a permanent job in Montreal! After 5 years as a postdoc at McGill University and 2 years as a Research Associate in the Urology division, I was hired into a tenure-track position at INRS in 2012. I am lucky I could develop a research lab combining my interests emerging from my Ph.D. and postdoc experiences and my endless interest in cellular programming and healthy environments.

Last week, to begin Pride Month, we showed survey results suggesting LGBTQ+ members feel somewhat less included in the SSR. Can you share your thoughts on challenges for the LGBTQ+ community in STEM and ways that our members can create a more inclusive environment?

I came out to myself very late, probably because of a lack of representation around me and because it was a taboo subject in my family. It took me a while to accept that I was gay. It raised many questions about my profession and where to live (Europe or North America). At that time, I didn’t share my personal life in my academic environment because I was afraid that others would judge me as harshly as I did for myself, and also because I didn’t know anyone in my academic circle who was out and proud! Fortunately, a fellow student came out and I realized that our scientific community was inclusive after all. This, and a strong relationship, helped me to accept myself and to be out in my professional environment when I became an Assistant professor. I am fortunate that my experience as a lesbian and homoparent has been mostly positive in my personal and professional lives. Still, I keep worrying about what people may think if I were to come out in the context of a scientific meeting and I occasionally avoid the topic, or even pretend that my girlfriend is my friend or my sister in certain circumstances. Motivated to protect my kids against discrimination, I have been advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, particularly in STEM, for a year now. I started by educating myself, inviting speakers on the subject within the Quebec Reproductive Network, and involving myself in the actions of my institution and groups of scientists. I believe that as reproductive biologists, we could play a special role in advocating for LBGTQ+ rights and inclusivity in STEM. I was excited to hear of the LGBTQ+ sub-committee in the SSR Diversity committee of which I have been a member for many years!

I live in Quebec, which is probably one of the places on earth where legislation and rights for LGBTQ+ communities are the most advanced. In North America, Quebec was the first jurisdiction to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (1977) and adopt omnibus legislation (1999) recognizing same-sex spouses with the same rights as heterosexual partners living in common-law relationships. Since 2002, in the case of conception by assisted reproduction, parents of same-sex couples have been able to register both their names on the birth certificate (Bill 84) and since 2004, federal legislation on assisted reproduction stipulates that clinics cannot refuse services to a person because of their sexual orientation or marital status. Despite this, there are still many societal recognition struggles to be fought for the LGBTQ+ communities and equal rights. And above all, we must not forget that this is a privileged context and that even today there are countries or states that do not recognize gay marriage, do not give access to assisted reproduction or worse, still consider homosexuality to be a disease or a crime. Pride month exists not just to celebrate but because the fight for recognition is still very necessary.

Despite social changes in recent years in the level of acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities, STEM environments today still tend to be patriarchal and heteronormative, and maintain a culture of silence. Being openly non-heterosexual is implicitly seen as unprofessional and the main consequence of this culture is the invisible presence of LGBTQ+ community members in the STEM community. This is not only a barrier to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, but also contributes to a lack of role models, inertia in mindsets, and a stigma of coming out as not an isolated event, but rather a repeated exercise. This invisibility not only hinders the motivation of LGBTQ+ youth to pursue STEM careers but prevents the advancement of knowledge, since diversity contributes to the quality of research by bringing new perspectives. The change in STEM culture may in part come with the new generation that is already more inclusive, but change has to start today within our scientific community and can be achieved at different levels that can be applied to academic institutions or scientific societies. Some courses of action that can be organized individually or collectively include as follows:

1. Establish policies against Harassment, Discrimination, and Incivility.
2. Educate and Facilitate access to – specialized resources on LGBTQS2+ issues for all STEM actors – the RAVEN method, to recognize and confront homophobic, lesbophobic, biphobic, and transphobic violence.
3. Remind your team and colleagues that homophobic, lesbophobic, biphobic, and transphobic comments or any other act of discrimination have no place in STEM.
4. Ensure that the countries, cities, and facilities where you host in-person meetings are inclusive of sexual and gender diversity.
5. Use inclusive language in all official and unofficial communication; do not assume the sexual orientation and gender identity of others, avoid heteronormative and cisnormative stereotypes, respect and use one’s first name and pronouns with peers, and normalizing sharing pronouns.
6. Display support and indicate safe space for people of sexual and gender diversity in your lab/work environment and your lab web pages.
7. Highlight events such as the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia and Pride Month.

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