When I visited the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in early 2013 for an open house for prospective students, in many senses I was feeling under the weather.
I stepped off my flight from California into a “wintry mix” and my inappropriate Bay Area shoes soaked up a puddle of water and then stayed vaguely damp for the duration of my trip. I wasn’t wearing a proper winter coat, because I didn’t own a proper winter coat. From the San Francisco Airport all the way to the Cape, I was lost in thought. It took three stops on the train before I realized it was St. Patrick’s Day and everyone around me was clad in green. My mind was muddled: since starting the graduate school application process months before, I had been both marveling at the fact that I had gotten to where I was and questioning whether science was the path I wanted to pursue.
In my earliest memories I’m running around my backyard collecting everything that looks like it could fit under the objective of my dad’s secondhand microscope. The idea of the small but mighty has always fascinated me: the fact that there’s this whole world of things we can’t see that play a huge role in keeping everything ticking. I’d wanted to be a scientist and study this invisible world for a long time, but when I started college at the University of Washington, I had second thoughts.
For longer than I’ve wanted to be a scientist, I’ve known that I’m gay. When faced with diving into science as an undergraduate, I worried about academic science’s reputation as an old boys’ club. I worried I’d always be marginalized for my sexual orientation, or that with no allies I’d have to keep it a secret. As I sat in my first freshman chemistry lecture, surrounded by 400 classmates, I worried about a future being lonely in the lab.
Long story short, I found my way to an amazing lab in a diverse and welcoming group that set my undergraduate fears to rest while also enabling me to study the microscopic critters in the ocean that keep our planet habitable. However, as I started to think about the transition to the next stage of my science career, my fears cropped up again. I had spent four years ensconced in the freethinking Pacific Northwest, but what if the graduate schools I had applied to were not as accepting?
These were the thoughts that preoccupied my cross-country journey. I sat alone on the bus out to Cape Cod, and I was quiet on the open house’s slushy treks across the Woods Hole campus. One of the first stops on the tour was the Redfield Building. Upon entering, I immediately noticed tiny stickers dotting the halls: the iconic WHOI ship, sailing in front of a rainbow sky over the words, “You are welcome here.”
I can’t describe how powerful it was to see those welcome messages on the office doors of scientists’ whose work had inspired me to pursue biological oceanography – in a building commemorating an oceanographer, Alfred C. Redfield, who discovered a conserved atomic ratio between carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus that I think about in my research every day. The ship stickers are small, maybe even easy to miss if you’re not attuned, but they packed a punch strong enough to rid me of my worries. I left the Redfield Building with renewed vigor, confident about what I was pursuing, only worried about feet that were literally wet, but not figuratively. Seeing so many welcome messages at one institution was enough to convince me there are probably supportive folks everywhere, but that without some sort of sign, like a Batman logo, but for LGBTQ allies, they’d go unnoticed.
I ended up pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I’m thankful for the experiences that have enabled me to chase after microbes across the high seas, to be based in a dynamic city, in a diverse department where we study everything from songbird ecology to Earth’s climate millions of years before songbirds even existed. I love it here, and I’ve always felt welcome, but I didn’t think I ever would. I’m thankful for the message on those stickers that altered my perception. When it comes down to it, it’s the tiniest signs of support that make the mightiest difference.
The original You Are Welcome Here campaign was launched at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and its stickers can be see all over campus. The goal is to confront homophobia and to show that the institution celebrates diversity in all its forms. The stickers also feature a URL for a website that provides links to university and community LGBTQ resources. The campaign is an institution-specific take on the SafeZone program, which is common at universities across the nation.
Alec Bogdanoff, a graduate student in the Joint Program between the MIT and WHOI, borrowed the idea with permission and brought the campaign to Woods Hole. The reception was incredibly positive with almost a hundred stickers requested on the first day they were available. Now, having reached out to Alec, I’ve decided to try and launch a You Are Welcome Here campaign in my own department at Lamont-Doherty.
I want to ensure that current and future colleagues that pass through my department can see the same signs of support that were so meaningful to me. Because conversations about LGBTQ issues can be hard to initiate, the You Are Welcome Here stickers are a way to catalyze a conversation without the need to start from scratch or make assumptions.
Diversity fuels conversation and creativity. More than I believe in results from quadruplicated experiments, perfect r-squared values or crisp bands in a gel, I believe that in order to propel great science, we need the type of creativity that’s not possible without labs full of scientists from all backgrounds. If something as simple as a sticker can help retain even one potential scientist, then we should all plaster them to our office doors and other places where people will see them.
Ultimately, there’s strength in numbers, so here’s my call to arms: if you have a couple minutes between experiments, send an inquiring email or put out feelers for other supporters. Lay the groundwork for starting a welcome campaign in your department. Without question, it’s a process to start something like this; it requires approvals, conversations, and time away from the bench, but nevertheless I’m excited and I think it’s worth it.