How my gender journey impacted my career path

I’ve been asked at work to be on a small, diverse team of people from my department who will be welcoming a group of high school students for a field trip to learn about career opportunities in research and science. And as I’ve been thinking about what stories I’m going to tell, it made me realize just how much my gender and transition journey has shaped where my career pathway has led.

First off, how did I get into a career in science? I’ve always been interested in science from a young age. My favorite shows as a kid were Bill Nye the Science Guy and Kratts’ Creatures. I loved learning about animals in particular and my earliest career aspiration was to become a zookeeper; a dream I held on to for many many years.

When I was 7 we moved to a house on what was at that time the border between the suburbs and rural farming country. It was one of the oldest plots of land in the development so it came with 3 acres of 70 year old forest that used to be logging territory. That experience was absolutely magical for me. I spent most of my time as a kid running around and learning intimately how a healthy PNW forest ecosystem looked and felt. So when it came time for college, I decided that instead of studying zoology, I would go into ecology so that I can learn about the whole system instead of just the animals.

My time in college, other than my early marriage and the homophobic institution I was studying at, was incredibly enriching. I loved school (well except the theoretical math part) and I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing team of professors who were deeply passionate about their jobs and field. I got to do lots of cool lab classes and I spent about 7 weeks studying at a field station in the San Juan Islands and a study abroad trip to the Galapagos Islands.

I volunteered at the Zoo during college but by the time I graduated, I had come to realize that I didn’t have the patience to deal with a job that was becoming increasingly competitive, controversial, and underpaid. I wanted to go on to a research position in ecology but this was right after the 2008 recession and jobs were scarce. The only things I could find were “room and board” type positions in remote areas.

With my marriage being the mess that it was, I didn’t feel like I could leave to pursue the career I wanted. And I didn’t have the energy to go on to more schooling because I had so many unresolved relationship issues and identity crisis dilemmas. So I decided to turn to my other skills.

Through college, I had been supporting myself by working as an office assistant at a couple of the school departments and a local nonprofit. So after work study ended, I decided to get a receptionist job. I don’t think it was a mistake that the first job I ended up in in a highly femininized field at a vet clinic where I was the only “man”.

My 20s were a mess. While most of my classmates were off getting Masters, PhDs, and MDs, I felt stuck trying to figure out my life. I spent from age 20 to 26 in a relationship that was slowly and traumatically imploding, trying desperately to make it work. At 26 I finally realized that I was trans, but my partner wouldn’t let me come out to my friends and family so I had to stay in the closet for another few months while I worked up the courage and resources to get out.

Finally at 27, I was free and could start figuring out who I truly was without the baggage of being forced to be someone I wasn’t in so many ways. I started writing this blog when I was 28 and that proved to be really helpful to my transition and I started hormones a month before my 30th birthday. That’s when I feel like my adulthood truly started.

Back to my career though. I had a few different administrative jobs through my 20s that were mostly really good experiences where I was allowed to grow and get promoted internally. Which was great. But I still wasn’t working in science.

In 2015, shortly after I first came out as genderqueer, I joined a research study for an experimental HIV vaccine. I heard about it through an old classmate at Trans Pride Seattle and thought I might as well contribute to science and make a few much needed bucks for participating. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of inclusivity but I found myself really impressed by the study team and paperwork. It was really the first time I felt seen and respected in a clinical setting as a trans person. I had such a good experience on the study that when I finished, I decided to see if I could get a job at the company that ran the trials.

I landed a job at Fred Hutch shortly before I started this blog and it was my first professional coming out experience. It went well and even though I wasn’t working on HIV vaccines at first, I loved getting my toes wet in the administrative side of science. Eventually I applied internally and got a job with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network where I still work today.

Today I’m really thankful to be able to contribute in meaningful ways to scientific research, even though I don’t have an advanced degree or specialized technical training. My eventual dream is to find a way to work on more targeted research on the health disparities impacting the transgender and nonbinary community. Now that I’m a project manager, I hope to partner with a research investigator to be a subject matter expert on identifying the many gaps that still exist in the science around trans healthcare.

I know that was a long story but I just want to say that no matter how long it takes you to come out, you can still find success and fulfillment in your career. Sometimes life gets in the way of advanced degrees, but there are lots of ways to contribute to specialized fields like science and many paths to get there.