“This Is What A Great Lakes Scientist Looks Like” is a new article series from Michigan Sea Grant  celebrating the many intersecting and unique identities embodied by Great Lakes researchers and knowledge-creators. If you’re interested in contributing your perspective to the series, contact Geneva Langeland at genlang@umich.edu.

El Lower NOAAAbout El Lower
El Lower (they/them) is a Michigan Sea Grant research associate with the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS), a NOAA-led interagency database that serves as a “one-stop shop” for information about Great Lakes aquatic invaders. El received their BA in Humanities, Science & Environment from Virginia Tech in 2014 and their MS in Natural Resources and Environmental Science from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2017.

How would you describe your current work with the Great Lakes?
I work with GLANSIS, a regional database that hosts identification, mapping, and environmental impact information about non-native species in the Great Lakes. I spend my time reviewing literature for species profiles, writing manuscripts and communication pieces, and promoting invasive species-related work on social media. With nearly 200 aquatic nonindigenous species already present in the Great Lakes basin (and the constant risk of even more being introduced in the future), there’s never a dull moment for the GLANSIS team!

What got you interested in science, and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?
I’ve always been an amateur naturalist, and was very much the type of kid who’d spend all day catching frogs in the creek, sketching local wildlife, and tracking mud into the house. Studying environmental science was a natural fit, which I paired with a background in technical writing in my undergraduate coursework. I actually came to Great Lakes science through Sea Grant — I had two communication and environmental social science internships in college with Virginia and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, respectively. The latter led me to the Midwest and evolved into a master’s thesis on waterway restoration work in Great Lakes communities. I fell in love with the Great Lakes while traveling to different coastal cities for my research, and that makes my current role — communicating about invasive species in the Great Lakes — especially exciting.

El doing research at a swampWhat’s your favorite thing about studying the Great Lakes?
The Great Lakes are some of the most ecologically interesting and beautiful bodies of water in the world! Studying invasive species means I also get to learn a lot about our unique native species, and how to protect them and the ecosystems in which they live. Invasion biology can be challenging and occasionally tragic, but it also fosters a lot of collaboration and creative problem-solving. To me, that’s deeply rewarding work.

Has your queer identity intersected with your journey as a scientist?
Absolutely. As a nonbinary lesbian who grew up in more conservative parts of the South and Midwest, I worried a lot about the safety of being out at work — as well as about being taken seriously as a gender-nonconforming person in a public-facing communications role. I’m happy to say that my current workplace is a supportive environment, and that I’ve been able to participate in a number of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, including as a member of the NOAA Pride Employee Resource Group. I’ve also connected with a number of other queer scientists around the world through social media and in-person affinity groups, which has been a delight — there are a lot more of us out here than you might think!

What’s a way that your coworkers or mentors have stepped up to support you? Or what’s a way that you wish they had?
I have been exceedingly lucky to have had several LGBTQ+ mentors throughout my academic career — their support, along with their own success in their respective fields, helped reassure me that there was in fact a place for people like me in STEM. For researchers looking for ways to support your LGBTQ+ colleagues, whether they’re peers or students, my advice is simply to be a good listener! Use your colleagues’ chosen names and pronouns, gently correct yourself if you make a mistake, and try not to make assumptions.

El in a prairieWhat advice might you give students interested in a career in science?
Seek community in science! The natural world is endlessly fascinating, but the process of doing science, from collecting data to analyzing experimental results to editing a manuscript, involves a great deal of time and hard work. However, sharing that work with others, whether it’s collaborating with your colleagues across departments, connecting with other scientists online, or telling your friends about your exciting new research, is a great way to keep your interest and passion for your work fired up, and can lead to even cooler opportunities in the future.

To connect with other queer-identifying scientists, check out 500 Queer Scientistsa collection of bios from more than 1,500 people working or studying in STEM fields.