Earlham scientists’ paper on LGBTQ+ inclusion in field research published by international journal

People from marginalized gender and sexual identities can have safer experiences participating in field research when leaders incorporate better field safety protocols and advocate for systemic changes, according to a new paper authored by scientists from Earlham College and other institutions.

The paper, published today by the Journal of Applied Ecology, offers best practices for LGBTQ+ inclusion based on strategies currently in use by the authors that are supported in scientific literature. The paper also underscores the role of systematic inclusion in attracting and retaining a qualified, richly diverse workforce.

“Institutions of higher education and mentors want to make progress on LGBTQ+ inclusion but they often don’t know where to start,” said Jaime Coon, assistant professor of biology and environmental sustainability at Earlham and a lead author on the paper. Emmett Smith, assistant professor of biology, and recent graduates Maxine Scherz, Madeleine Spellman and Thea Clarkberg, are also contributing authors from Earlham. 

“A lot of existing recommendations in scientific literature have focused on interpersonal things like using correct pronouns in the field,” said Coon, who brings experience as a co-leader on an ecological field study in Iowa based on declining grassland bird populations. “While this is really important, our paper goes further by encouraging institutions and mentors to think about survival and physical safety in the field.”

Combating the assumption that everyone is straight or identifies with their gender assigned at birth is a focus of the group’s paper. Understanding these and other barriers faced by LGBTQ+ people conducting fieldwork is critical to making progress on inclusion. 

“The trap that we all fall into is that we assume that people have had similar life experiences,” said Smith, who travels annually to Iceland with students to study climate change. “This paper is a good reminder that everyone is going to have different needs in the field. We can’t make assumptions about what those needs are.

“This is about elevating the group as a whole and making the experience better for everyone,” Smith notes.

“The trap that we all fall into is that we assume that people have had similar life experiences. This paper is a good reminder that everyone is going to have different needs in the field. We can’t make assumptions about what those needs are. This is about elevating the group as a whole and making the experience better for everyone.”

Emmett Smith, assistant professor of biology

Field teams should have well developed safety plans and avoid the use of gender-segregated housing and bathrooms when they travel, purchase size-inclusive field gear and have discussions about the cultural norms of the locations where they work.

In addition to community building advice for mentors—for example, planning a Pride Month celebration— the paper includes individual resilience strategies for LGBTQ+ field ecologists. Recommendations include being aware of safety risks and finding ways to stay connected to LGBTQ+ communities, such as bringing a personal, subtle symbol of LGBTQ+ identity like a special book or photo. Remaining connected to community is critical because fieldwork often takes place in isolated locations that may lack LGBTQ+-friendly resources.   

“I think for me, the most impactful part of this paper has been getting to work with coauthors that have gone through some of the same things as me,” said Spellman, who graduated from Earlham in May with a degree in environmental sustainability and has had several field-based jobs both before and after graduating from Earlham in spring 2022. 

“I followed some of our paper’s suggestions this field season, especially the one to keep a little symbol near me—a purple beanie with a blue, pink and white butterfly. It helped me remember that I’m not alone in the struggles I face,” she said. 

Additional collaborators on the paper come from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Humboldt State University and Oklahoma State University. In addition to field scientists, the authors have backgrounds in psychology and organizational leadership at an LGBTQ+ resource center.

From left to right: Madeleine Spellman, Jaime Coon and Thea Clarkberg. Jaime Coon is holding a photo of Emmett Smith.

“This is a very specific paper that addresses large-scale, systemic issues with science,” said Nathan Alexander, a Ph.D. candidate and field ecologist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “When I entered this field, it was clear to me that there was queer life and there was science with little overlap. 

“This paper starts to address how we can merge the two to increase accessibility to this kind of work,” Alexander said.

While the paper was written primarily with ecological fieldwork in mind, the recommendations are broadly applicable to anyone interested in LGBTQ+ inclusion work. Institutions like Earlham that offer transgender, or gender-affirming healthcare, are more likely to attract and support qualified employees from marginalized backgrounds, the authors say.

“This isn’t just about making institutions of higher education a better place. This is about making everywhere a better place,” Coon said. “LGBTQ folks are more likely to experience homelessness. They are more likely to experience harassment and victimization in their day-to-day lives. We wanted to bring these societal conversations to the forefront as a part of LGBTQ inclusion within field ecology.”

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