10 LGBT Leaders Reinventing Science and Technology

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Mentors and role models are vital to helping the sometimes homogeneous worlds of science, math, engineering, and technology feel more welcoming to young researchers and inventors. And LGBT role models can be especially hard to find, since news stories about the latest scientific breakthrough rarely go into detail about the personal lives of the research team. But there are plenty of amazing, LGBT- and queer-identifying innovators in STEM fields who are changing the world with their work. Here are just ten of them:


While working for a computing giant in the 1960s, pioneering scientist Lynn Conway invented a dynamic instruction scheduling, a revolutionary way of improving computer chip processing power. However, she was fired when she began her gender transition in 1967, and her achievements went unrecognized for decades. She started a new life from scratch, working her way up the professional ranks again. She ended up authoring a seminal introductory textbook on very-large-scale-integration (VLSI) technology—teaching MIT’s first course on the subject—and was recruited by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, among other things, but no one knew about her past accomplishments. She slowly began coming out as trans in the late 1990s and was finally recognized for the full body of her life’s work.


Chemical biologist Carolyn Bertozzi, a Stanford University professor, studies how cells communicate with each other through sugars. She has invented the world’s first bioorthogonal chemical reactions, or reactions that occur inside living systems without interfering with natural biochemical processes (she also coined the term). These reactions can be used for labeling specific molecules in cells for imaging or to monitor molecular changes in disease progression. She became a MacArthur Fellow in 1999, and was the first woman to win the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize in 2010.


Audrey Tang is regarded as one of Taiwan’s leading programmers. She’s widely known for starting the Pugs project, a compiler for the programming language Perl 6, which she learned when she was 12. She dropped out of high school when she was 15, and has since created more than a hundred Perl projects as well as other tools. She’s a free software advocate, and was recently appointed to lead the Chinese government’s open data initiatives.


Working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Washington in 2016, MIT professor Nergis Mavalvala was part of the team that observed gravitational waves for the first time, a century after the ripples in spacetime were proposed by Albert Einstein. But the Pakistani immigrant was recognized for her genius long before that, becoming a MacArthur Fellow in 2010. In 2014, she won the LGBTQ Scientist of the Year Award from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.


Oncologist Edith Perez is a pioneering breast cancer researcher who serves as a Mayo Clinic professor and has held positions with organizations like the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, the American Association for Cancer Research, and more. Over her quarter-century in breast cancer research, she has led numerous clinical trials for new breast cancer therapies like monoclonal antibody therapy, which spurs the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells.


The executive director of Linux International, Jon “Maddog” Hall, has been leading the crusade for open-source software for decades. In 2012, in honor of Alan Turing’s 100th birthday, he came out to the wider world as gay in a blog post. After more than four decades in the IT business, he’s an icon for free software geeks and a hero to many programmers. Shortly after his announcement, he was featured on Out magazine’s OUT100 list of compelling LGBT individuals to watch.


Victoria Orphan, a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, was just awarded a 2016 MacArthur fellowship for her work studying microorganisms that consume methane on the ocean floor. She’s also an adjunct scientist for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and in 2011, she won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Her work is helping illuminate the fundamental biochemistry of the Earth’s climate cycle, and how microbes can play a role in sequestering greenhouse gases.


Jack Andraka is still a teenager, but he’s already rocked the cancer research world. When he was still in high school, he invented a cheap detection test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers. The test works like a diabetes strip and can flag an early marker of pancreatic cancer in a tiny drop of blood. It hasn’t gone through clinical trials yet, but he’s now 19 and a student at Stanford University, where he’s researching nanorobots that could work within the bloodstream to do things like genetically alter cells.


In his position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Martin Lo designs spacecraft trajectories. He came up with the “Interplanetary Superhighway,” calculating low-energy flight paths through the solar system where spacecraft can orbit with very little fuel, by flying through areas called Lagrange points where one celestial body’s gravitational pull balances the other. His software, called LTool, was used to design the solar-wind-focused Genesis mission, the first NASA mission to return a sample robotically, and the first to bring back material from beyond the moon. LTool allowed NASA scientists to design the Genesis flight path in less than a day, compared to the eight weeks it would have taken with previous methods of computation.


For eight years, Ann Mei Chang was a senior engineering director at Google, where she led the engineering team for mobile apps worldwide, including staples like GMail, YouTube, and Google Maps. Before that, she was the engineering manager at Apple responsible for the initial release of Final Cut Pro. But Chang’s greatest achievements have been outside Silicon Valley. Working as an advisor in the State Department, Chang launched Alliance for Affordable Internet, a public-private partnership devoted to expanding Internet access worldwide. She’s now the executive director of USAID’s Global Development Lab, finding ways to end global poverty through science and tech.