Meet Amy Flowers

Written by Lei Lei (SSR Diversity Committee) in celebration of Pride Month.

In honor of LGBT Pride Month, we sat down with SSR member Amy Flowers to listen to her story of becoming a scientist and her thoughts on how the scientific community could provide better support to LGBTQ+ scientists.

Please write a short paragraph describing your research program. 

I am a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. Margareta Pisarska at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. We work primarily in placental and uterine physiology. I have been working on genetic differences in the placenta based on fetal sex, and have thus far completed 2 first author publications on miRNA and mRNA on this topic. We recently have also started work in single cell RNA sequencing, and are particularly interested in differences in the immune cell components in the placenta and maternal blood, as developmental origins of autoimmune disease likely begin here.

What is your current position, and what does it entail?

As a postdoctoral researcher, I currently manage research projects and write papers associated with them. I also spend time learning essential duties for a future professor, including grant writing, mentorship, and lab management.

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

I am originally from northern Illinois. I’ve always loved science. Learning has never felt like homework, which is how I knew this is where I belong. I completed my B.S. in Biology, Chemistry, and Biochemistry at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, then my M.S. in Biotechnology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and finally my Ph.D. in Reproductive Physiology at the University of California – Davis in Davis, CA. I then found the advertisement for Dr. Pisarska’s open position and moved to Los Angeles, CA for my postdoc.

What is your favorite moment of making scientific discovery? Who is your favorite scientist? What do you do outside of the lab?

I don’t have any particular favorites at the moment – I love every day in the lab and everything I do. I’m quite proud of my dissertation as completing my Ph.D. was a major life goal, and I have enjoyed my postdoctoral work quite a lot. I have several favorite scientists, but for this interview I will highlight Dr. Ben Barres, a trans neuroscientist. Dr. Barres wrote an excellent autobiography about his experience called “The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist”, which I highly recommend for anyone seeking insight into the experiences of this community. Outside of the lab I enjoy a somewhat introverted lifestyle, including spending time with my wife and 2 cats, playing Dungeons & Dragons, writing, and crafting (primarily cross-stitch and crochet).

What obstacles do LGBTQ+ members commonly encounter in their career trajectory? And how can mentors better help them?

The main issue that LGBTQ+ people face, particularly trans people, is prejudice. Those of us who can often hide who we are until we are sure our mentors and fellow lab members are safe to be out with. I have personally known multiple people who have quit labs or programs due to the harassment and prejudice they faced. Mentors can do two main things to help. The first is to make your lab is a safe space. Do not wait for a lab member to come out to you. Subtle ways you can establish a safe space for potential LGBTQ+ members include posting/hanging pride materials or posting anti-harassment guidelines that explicitly include LGBTQ+ people. The second thing mentors should do is call out bad behavior when they see it, even if it isn’t directly affecting anyone in your lab. If you see a lab member or colleague making an inappropriate comment or harassing someone, do not just stand by. If a colleague’s student comes to you reporting harassment from their PI, please help that student. While some departments have greater issues than others, and reproductive sciences tend to have a relatively low level of this issue, be a good ally where you can, particularly if you collaborate with departments with known harassment issues.

How can professional scientific societies create a more inclusive environment to better support LGBTQ+ scientists?

SSR already has a very robust and inclusive anti-harassment policy, and I’m proud to be a member of this society. These policies alone are not enough, however. They must be actively enforced. Just as with my advice for mentors, it is up to everyone to help. Don’t stand by and do nothing if you see bad behavior – call out your colleagues and be a good ally.

What words of inspiration and caution would you like to share with the future generation of LGBTQ+ scientists?

Don’t give up! It’s ok to have multiple mentors. If your PI is not someone you feel ok being out with, but there is another professor you do feel comfortable with, don’t be afraid to go speak with that person. Your university may have an “out list” of LGBTQ+ professors and other research professionals, and we’d love to be your support person. Facing additional obstacles during your Ph.D./training is also not unique to the LGBTQ+ community – disabled students and racial minorities face many of the same issues, and you may find support groups for minority students to be helpful.

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