Turning point: Empathetic outreach

Transgender neuroscientist tackles under-represented minorities’ access to health care and academic posts.

Credit: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Kale Edmiston, a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, uses neuroimaging to study mood and anxiety disorders. He describes how living as an openly transgender researcher has inspired his outreach endeavours.

Has your experience as a transgender scientist informed your outreach?

Yes. I was the only out transgender PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. As word got out, I started getting contacted by members of the transgender community asking for health-care assistance. Few health-care professionals are trained in transgender issues, which contributes to this group’s lack of access to health care. And 41% of this population in the United States reports at least one suicide attempt, according to the 2014 National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

What did you do with this information?

I co-founded the Trans Buddy Program, which operates through Vanderbilt and aims to improve health-care outcomes for transgender people. We wanted to create a network of people who can provide support and assistance. Since 2015, we’ve trained dozens of people and helped at least 450 clients. I also think that institutional investment in transgender leadership for these sorts of programmes, and creating more opportunities for transgender people to lead transgender health advocacy and health-research projects, is important.

How do your insights guide your research?

Being embedded in a community with high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide has given me a sense of urgency and commitment to doing clinically informed mood- and anxiety-disorders research. But I chose to pursue psychiatric neuroscience as a research assistant when I analysed data on individuals who had experienced childhood mistreatment, and found a correlation between the severity of mistreatment and the volume of the fusiform gyrus — the brain region that processes facial recognition. I decided to explore how people who are at risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders process visual information. The visual cortex is overlooked in psychiatric neuroscience. I thought it was a missed opportunity to think about how our perception of the world informs how we engage in and react to environments.

Does academia adequately support diversity?

Certainly not. Many female under-represented scientists have articulated the issues — such as access to mentorship and struggles adjusting to academic culture — that can affect all underrepresented individuals in science. Still, things are getting better. I was able to find excellent mentors, peer support and programmes.

What programmes helped to build your career?

First, I received a career-development fellowship — the Summer Program in Neuroscience, Excellence and Success (SPINES) — for under-represented scientists, at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. Meeting both peers and mentors from all over the country was game-changing for me. I also received funding from the Point Foundation in Los Angeles, California, which offers scholarships for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) students.

Do transgender graduate students face unique academic challenges?

I don’t think people realize that transgender prospective graduate students might not get a fair evaluation. Transitioning and coming out typically occurs during crucial young-adult periods when a student is building their grade-point average and undergraduate transcript. Many trans folks take a pause from school during that time. What does that mean in terms of being evaluated in a pool of people who haven’t had those challenges? I was an anomaly, as I started my transition during my first semester as a PhD student, which I would not recommend, because it was a lot of stress at once.

How can we level the playing field?

We need to rethink our evaluation systems. Once people are able to access graduate school, we must provide support and mentorship to make sure they are retained.

Nature 551, 665 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07530-z

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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