A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
Elena Long
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

A strong force for inclusion

06/08/21

Elena Long’s search for community as a trans scientist put her at the forefront of LGBT+ advocacy in physics.

At a 2009 meeting of the American Physical Society, during a Q&A session focusing on women in physics, a grad student named Elena Long raised her hand.

Long asked whether APS offered any resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scientists. When she did, she says, “the whole room just went silent for about 30 seconds before somebody said, ‘Huh, we never thought of that.’”

Long didn’t set out to become a trailblazer for LGBT+ representation in physics. She just wanted to do the science she loved without facing discrimination for being trans. When she found that nobody else was talking about the specific issues that queer physicists face, she spoke up—and has kept speaking up since.

She founded lgbt+physicists, an organization devoted to providing networking, resources and advocacy for gender and sexual minorities in physics. She was a central member of the APS’s Ad Hoc Committee on LGBT+ issues, and she currently chairs an APS Forum on Diversity and Inclusion—all while continuing to study atomic nuclei as an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. 

“I just really wanted to make sure that nobody else had to go through the same things that I went through,” she says.

Illustration of Long reaching out to other scientists including Ramon Barthelemy, creating connections
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

The Long road to physics

Long’s current research focuses on quantum chromodynamics—how the strong nuclear force brings quarks together to form protons and neutrons, and brings protons and neutrons together to form the nuclei of atoms. She’s been awarded a Promising Young Scientist Award and a Post-Doctoral Research Prize from the Jefferson Science Associates, which manages and operates the US Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. Nature listed her among “10 people who mattered in 2016.”

Her path into nuclear physics began with, as she puts it, “a series of accidents.” 

In her undergraduate studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, she started as a double major in physics and digital media. It was the turn of the 21st century; computer-generated animation was starting to take off in a big way. Her goal was to work for a movie studio like Pixar, using physics to make more realistic graphics and special effects.

But as she got further into her physics education and learned more about relativity and quantum mechanics, she says, she decided to drop the digital media studies. “The strangeness of the real world seemed more interesting than any fiction I could put up on a screen.” 

She decided to continue her studies with a PhD at Kent State University, making her the first person in her family to go to graduate school. After her qualifying exams, she chose to do her thesis work on an experiment at Jefferson Lab in Virginia, looking at spin-polarized helium nuclei. 

Her time at Jefferson Lab sparked her interest in nuclear spin physics—and also galvanized her “unpaid career” in LGBT+ advocacy.  

Is anybody out there?

Moving from Ohio to Virginia in 2008 to work on the research portion of her thesis took Long away from the community she’d relied upon as a trans grad student and plunged her alone into a new environment that was in many ways unwelcoming. 

She found that the non-discrimination policy at the lab didn’t cover sexual orientation or gender expression. Her health insurance did not cover gender-related care, and on more than one occasion, medical providers denied her any care at all, simply for being trans. 

Although she was living on a low grad student salary, she still was better off than many trans people outside of academia, so she shared what she had. On multiple occasions, she took in people in need of temporary housing. (A friend of hers in Virginia has since started a nonprofit to provide safe temporary housing to transgender adults in the state.) 

The culture gap between her and her mostly straight, male colleagues felt a mile wide. “The science part, I was loving. I loved the work,” she says, “but it felt like there was no place for me.” 

It became increasingly clear that to keep doing the research she loved, she needed to find support—but she didn’t know where to turn.

Searching Google for other LGBT+ physicists turned up a distressing number of students in anonymous forums asking similar questions—is anyone else out there?—and getting the same answers: “Being gay has nothing to do with physics. Don’t bring that up, you’ll hurt your career.”

Out of options, Long was nearly ready to quit by the time she spoke out at the APS meeting. But then, people who had heard her question started recommending she talk to other people, who then recommended other people. The support network she needed began to materialize.

Filling the void

When Long connected with other LGBT+ physicists, she found that many of them identified with her experience of isolation. “That was when it really clicked,” she says. “Each one of us felt like we were alone and isolated and didn’t realize how many other people were going through the same things.”

That’s why she made the lgbt+physicists website in 2010—so that anyone doing the same Google search she had would actually find something helpful. “I didn’t want anyone else to find the same void that I had.” 

Queer physicists could now, finally, find each other and share their experiences. The impact on the physics community has been profound.

“Before Ells Long, there really was no conversation about LGBT physicists,” says Ramón Barthelemy, a physics education researcher at the University of Utah whose work focuses on equity and inclusion. 

Without Long, he says, he wouldn’t have his current research, or the professional network that has gotten him to where he is today. “I can say with little exaggeration that a lot of my career comes from the groundwork that she did.” 

Barthelemy and Long met at a 2011 conference of oSTEM, a professional organization for LGBT+ people in science, technology and math. He says “she immediately set aside time to talk with me to strategize about how we can make change and push for equality.”

Over time, lgbt+physicists grew from a resource list and networking source for queer physicists to a working group with projects such as a best-practices guide for institutions looking to improve LGBT+ inclusivity in physics and astronomy, currently in its second edition.

Long says one of the most important things to come out of the site is the OutList, which contains contact information for over 300 LGBT+ physicists and 400 allies. It’s particularly useful for students who are trying to evaluate whether the institutions they’re interested in working at will have a welcoming culture.

“It's very, very important to be able to find a place that connects with you and you feel like you can bring your whole self to,” Long says. 

She says it fills her with joy to talk to young queer physicists and tell them that they’re not alone. “it's just an amazing moment to see their realization that, ‘Hey, this thing that I'm interested in, I have a place in.’ That's what keeps me going.”

Climate change

Based on their lived experiences, Long and her network of queer physicists knew what problems they were facing—discrimination, lack of protections against harassment, pressures to stay closeted at work. But to enact change on an institutional level, they first had to convince institutions that there was something to fix. 

The position of many institutions seemed to be that if there was no proof, there was no problem. Meanwhile, the questions that would have provided that proof were often left off of demographic surveys. “Not having any previous data meant that it was harder to do anything because nobody believed it,” Long says.

In 2014, Long, by then a postdoc at the University of New Hampshire, and seven other physicists, including Barthelemy, came together on the APS Ad Hoc Committee on LGBT+ Issues. The committee conducted a climate survey in 2015 and released their findings and recommendations in a report the following year. Barthelemy is currently working on a grant to do a second survey to assess the progress made since 2016. 

Both he and Long say they have seen a lot of positive change in the past few years. Some of the committee’s recommendations are now a reality. APS created a new Forum on Diversity and Inclusion. More and more scholarly publications are instituting name-change policies that won’t force trans scientists to choose between outing themselves or leaving past accomplishments off their CVs.

The glue that holds everything together

Long joined the UNH faculty in 2017. The experiments her lab is currently working on, which are funded by the US Department of Energy, involve shooting an electron beam at deuterium nuclei (each made up of one proton and one neutron) with a certain distribution of “spin states.” Looking at what happens to the spin states will tell Long and her team about how the particles and forces inside the nucleus interact with each other.

“We think of the strong nuclear force as the glue that holds everything together,” says Long. “But if you get protons and neutrons too close together, there’s a repulsive core of that same force that pushes them back apart.” 

Long aims to describe that repulsive interaction—the same repulsion that lies at the core of neutron stars. 

Long says the highlights of her scientific work are the moments when she and her team get something to work for the first time; for example, seeing the first magnetic resonance signal from the deuterium target they’re building. “Seeing years of effort come to fruition with this tiny little blip appearing on the screen was just a huge, huge moment of celebration for all of us.”

The next big hurdle for Long will be going up for tenure in a couple of years. She’s made it much farther than she ever expected, given how close she came to quitting grad school, and as such doesn’t take anything in academia for granted. 

Historically, anything an academic does that isn’t explicitly connected to their research has been viewed as detracting from their scholarship. By that logic, Long’s “unpaid career” could hurt her chances at continuing in her paid one. But taking that view, Long says, isn’t realistic for people from marginalized groups who must take on advocacy roles to fight for their own places in the field. 

“I've come to realize that the work that I’m doing on diversity issues is, in and of itself, an integral part of science. I would not be in physics still, if I hadn't done it,” she says. 

Creating a place for everyone

Long’s advice to those from marginalized groups seeking to make STEM more welcoming and inclusive is simple, if not easy: persevere. “If you're at a place where you feel like there's no place for you, there is a place for you, and you can create it.”

Of course, she says, this isn’t work anyone can do alone. “If one person is going at it, they'll burn out super, super quick. We need each other to kind of just survive and get through it all.”

Having allies can help people weather the unavoidable backlash that comes with challenging the status quo, so it doesn’t fall on just a few people’s shoulders. One person can be dismissed as a troublemaker, but a lot of people speaking about an issue are much harder to ignore.

Finally, Long says, if the goal is to make physics truly inclusive, it’s crucial to listen to and consider others’ perspectives and needs. “Your struggles are not the only struggles. The more we can help with people who are struggling across the board, the better off we can make this field for everybody.” 

She says she hopes that her work on LGBT+ issues will make it easier for other groups to find support and recognition for their causes. 

That focus on intersectionality and making things better for everyone, Barthelemy says, is one of Long’s greatest strengths as a leader; she cares about helping people. “The amount of work that she’s done for the community, it's really just immeasurable.”