Kale Edmiston (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is a gay trans man, a dad, and a dog lover. To his knowledge, he is the first out transgender person to earn a PhD in neuroscience and be promoted to faculty in his field. (He would love to be wrong about that.)
Links: Kale on Twitter.
How did you first get interested in science?
I first became interested in science as a child growing up in the rural Midwest/Appalachia. I read voraciously because there were not many other opportunities for an intellectually curious gay trans kid in rural Ohio. Carl Sagan and Oliver Sacks in particular were favorites of mine from my childhood. I also spent a lot of time observing human behavior as a closeted kid trying to understand my gender and my place in the world, and behavioral neuroscience became a natural fit for me because of that.
What experiences led you to your current career path?
My experiences of being pathologized as a gay trans teen/young adult led me to focus on psychiatric neuroscience. I loved the idea of understanding the neurobiology of human behavior better than those who would use psychiatry to pathologize LGBTQ people. I think these experiences taught me to first love science as an oppositional practice. Later, as a transgender adult, I would lose several close friends to suicide. Because of this, my work focuses primarily on mood and anxiety disorders. These experiences of loss as a community member have taught me to also think of science as a practice of humility, service, and consensus.
What is your current research on?
I use neuromodulatory, psychophysiological, and neuroimaging methods to characterize visual perceptual networks in people at risk for mood and anxiety disorders. I am broadly interested in threat perception and how stress and arousal systems interact with visual cortical networks to bias perception. I’m interested in questions like, “Why do some people perceive threat when there is none?” “How do arousal systems modulate cortical networks?” and “Do people with high anxiety perceive stimuli differently early in visual processing?” I really love my work because it allows me to be creative, to help people, and to better understand others. I also just generally love being wrong (luckily, I often am), and scientific research is one of the few practices where being wrong usually leads to something interesting.
You’ve posted on Twitter about some of the barriers to trying to publish on trans-related topics in academic journals. Could you describe some problems with the current system and give a few examples of what you’d like to see change?
The primary barrier to the publication of quality transgender-related research is ciscentrism. Cisgender people are best-situated to fix this problem. I would ask that cisgender people who wish to build a career studying transgender people first ask themselves why. Transgender people are often treated as objects of fascination and curiosity by scientists; research must be done with humility, and in service of our communities. I ask cisgender scientists to familiarize themselves with transgender culture and transgender history, especially as it relates to our community’s treatment by science and medicine. This will help to avoid replicating past harms.
Finally, I think transgender-related research must be done in collaboration with transgender people as peers. There are still so many studies that are published with no input from transgender people at any point in the scientific process. From hypothesis generation, data collection, and interpretation to manuscript drafting and submission and peer review—ideally, there should be transgender people involved in every step of that process to ensure that the work is just, rigorous, ethical, and unbiased. I realize that this will be challenging until there are more transgender scientists in the world. I have benefited enormously from so many incredible cisgender mentors. Mentor transgender trainees and support them.
Why was it important to you to contribute your story to the 500 Queer Scientists project?
I wanted to include my story in the 500 Queer Scientists project because I want aspiring transgender scientists to know that it is possible to be out, happy, and successful in academic science.