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Ashley Juavinett Shares Her Story as a Queer Person in Academia

September 24, 2021

By Gabriela Goldberg

Line graph showing Ashley's journey coming out. First time was in college, second coming out was in grad school, and as a faculty she knocked down the coming out barrier completely.

A line graph with "% out" on the y-axis and academic stages such as grad school, postdoc and faculty on the x-axis in front of a rainbow gradient background was the perfect way to represent her professional coming-out story to a virtual room full of STEM graduate students. Ashley Juavinett, assistant teaching professor at UC San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences, presented her journey through academia as a queer person in the August installment of the SQUAD series.

The Scientific Queers United in Academic Discourse (SQUAD) series is a monthly online seminar where queer scientists in different stages of their academic career share their research and journey through academia. SQUAD is hosted by Grad oSTEM @ UCSD—a graduate student-led subdivision of the oSTEM chapter at UC San Diego dedicated to developing the next generation of queer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists.

Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM) is the largest chapter-based professional organization focused on LGBTQ+ people in STEM with over 100 student chapters in cities across the United States and abroad. The UC San Diego chapter was awarded chapter of the year in 2019.

Finding the right mentors

Juavinett started her talk with a still image of the 1961 movie rendition of West Side Story and a red arrow pointing at the character played by Susan Oakes called Anybodys. In a high school play, Juavinett played this character and began identifying with them. "They're the character who wants to be in the gang, wants to be a part of things, but is a little bit different than everybody else," she said.

Growing up in South Jersey to a working class, non-scientist family, Juavinett became interested in neuroscience through family members such as her grandmother. Her grandmother's deep struggle with anxiety and depression contrasting with her artistic talents gave Juavinett the curiosity to start asking questions about the complexities of the brain.

Juavinett obtained her bachelor of science in neurosciences at Lafayette College—a small private liberal arts college in Easton, Penn. There, she learned several important lessons including the emotional impact of being in the closet. Although she had her first girlfriend during this time, her relationship was a secret. She didn't come out to her parents until her junior year, and she continued dating in secret until she came out to more people her senior year of college. "That time that I spent in the closet shaped me in a lot of ways, and underscored the power of now being out of the closet and what that means for me personally," she said.

Blond woman (Ashley Juavinett) smiling at the camera

Assistant Teaching Professor Ashley Juavinett

After completing her undergraduate degree, Juavinett moved to California to continue studying neuroscience and completed a PhD in the Neurosciences Graduate Program at UC San Diego. Under the mentorship of Edward Callaway at the Salk Institute, Juavinett studied how different neurons in the brain communicate with one another to produce the images perceived by our eyes. It was the first time Juavinett was out in her professional life and she learned the importance of choosing mentors who will look out for you.

"My fondest memory of Ed was the first time he met my girlfriend. I was very nervous. I introduced them at the Society for Neuroscience meeting at a bar where we were all hanging out. And Ed says, 'Aww she's a lucky woman.' It was such a sincere and relaxed response—the kind of response that illustrates someone will accept you as your whole self and support you. That's not negotiable at this point in my career."

Using the confidence she gained during her early academic career, Juavinett met her postdoctoral advisor, Anne Churchland, at the Summer Workshop on the Dynamic Brain and landed a position in her lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. There, she developed a new method using Neuropixels probes—a brain recording device that can measure electrical activity of hundreds of neurons simultaneously with high sensitivity—to measure responses to stimuli in a freely moving animal.

Checking the boxes

During her postdoc, Juavinett learned about the importance of putting personal choices first. After professional choices forced her and her partner to continue their relationship with more than 3,000 miles and two time zones between them, Juavinett realized there were things she was not willing to negotiate in terms of the next stage of her professional and personal life.

During this time, Juavinett also noticed she was more drawn to non-research tasks such as teaching and science communication, and was torn when thinking about the next step in her career. Then, she discovered an opening for her current position which checked all her professional and personal boxes.

As a teaching professor, Juavinett appreciates the balance between teaching classes and service to the university. A position she first learned about when she was preparing her application, Juavinett describes her position like being the gay uncle of the division.

"Many people who are queer are supporting and advancing the species in ways other than having children of their own. Like (gay uncles) taking care of their nephews, I'm teaching the lab classes, doing the service and organizing the programs—things that research professors usually can't afford to spend their time on," she says.

In her position, Juavinett has spearheaded several initiatives including teaching neurobiology students how to code, writing a book about how to be a neuroscientist and co-directing STARTneuro—a program for transfer students interested in pursuing a PhD to gain research experience.

Professional and visible

The line graph representing Juavinett's journey of coming out as a queer professional plateaus at 100% after she added her name to the UC San Diego Faculty, Academics and Staff Out List. Although not an easy decision, Juavinett says her choice to be visibly queer gives her the opportunity to meet and support other queer scientists and students and share her experiences with them.

"I think one of the most meaningful things I can do as a faculty member is just be visible as a queer person," she said.

Gabriela Goldberg is a PhD candidate studying brain development using stem cell-derived mini brains in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at UC San Diego. Outside of the lab, she likes to go backpacking in the mountains around Southern California, find new dog-friendly places to take her rescue pit bull and buy more plants to replace the ones she overwatered.