Daniel Virga is a PhD student at Columbia University in Franck Polleux's lab studying circuit dysfunction in an Alzheimer's disease model in the hippocampus. He did his undergraduate in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in rural St. Louis, Missouri. He identifies as a queer, white, cis male.
Ed note: Our conversation with Daniel has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What is the origin story of Queer in Neuro?
I'm the founder of Queer In Neuro, and it originally started with me looking for any resources I could find to identify queer neuroscientists. This was for personal inspiration and potential mentorship opportunities for myself, but more specifically, it was in order to invite them to speak to Columbia's neuroscience community. As an openly queer neuroscientist at Columbia, I really wanted and felt an obligation to promote other queer neuroscientists, specifically professors for seminars and journal clubs and those types of things.
I very quickly found that there was no real resource for that information. I did utilize existing directories to start the process, so Black In Neuro has been a huge inspiration for this entire endeavor, and their working directory has been phenomenal because you can single out neuroscientists who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer or anywhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. So I started there, and I started with the 500 Queer Scientists database, actually. I was a little disheartened at how few neuroscientists there were, especially when I knew that there were more. So the impetus to start this organization was first driven by a desire to form this resource, where other neuroscientists could very easily find and contact other queer neuroscientists at all levels in their career. I started the Twitter account just to garner interest and see, ‘Am I the only one who's interested in this type of resource? Because if so, then I will just start this resource for myself.' But I had a feeling that others were probably interested in a similar resource and a similar organization eventually. And upon receiving a lot of great feedback and interest from people, it's clear to me that this resource is something that is sought after by a lot of others in the community.
It seems like Queer in Neuro has evolved into a lot more than just that directory. Can you tell me a bit about how that's happened, and what you've learned along the way?
We're still very much in our early phases. We had a really nice soft launch with Neuromatch where we hosted a social and a panel with some amazing neuroscientists, and it really gave me the confidence to pursue much more than just this kind of simple directory of queer neuroscientists. It's definitely broadened to be a couple of things, one of which is just very simply building an online and in-person community of LGBTQIA+ scientists in neuro-related fields, because I think that having this community is going to be essential both for the success of an organization like Queer in Neuro, and also for the success of queer neuroscientists.
Once we get this great community started and this database established, I would really like to see the organization grow to include things like regular celebrations and amplifications of queer neuroscientists and their work, whether that's in a conference format or ensuring that existing conferences have some fraction of their keynote speakers openly identifying as LGBTQIA+. It can look like a lot of things. I also hope to expand it to include facilitating professional and personal opportunities—so, to build networks and expand opportunities between young researchers and more established researchers. I hope that the community will become a sort of forum to discuss our experiences and share what it's like to be queer in science, and specifically in neuroscience.
Also, [I would like Queer in Neuro] to actively support other STEM organizations that target LGBTQIA+ and/or historically excluded or disadvantaged individuals. So, to coalition-build with existing organizations to uphold those organizations that are doing very similar work. And lastly—and I think, really importantly—I really hope we can get the opportunity to consider, recommend, and implement solutions to unique issues that are facing LGBTQIA+ neuroscientists; to work with other organizations with similar missions to form and reshape policies, and offer policy recommendations so that queer neuroscientists and queer scientists in neuro-related fields in STEM more broadly have better opportunities.
How has the feedback been in general, has there been anything that surprised you along the way?
The feedback in general has first and foremost been surprising. I didn't expect that this would take off at all. I don't know if that's the result of me having very limited personal experience with encountering other queer neuroscientists, but I genuinely thought it would be kind of a pet project for myself, that maybe a handful of others would be interested in. But I certainly didn't imagine that it would take off the way that it did and as quickly as it did. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and the vast majority of people have expressed how much they have sought this type of organization and are glad that it exists and these conversations are happening. That's an indicator to me that this was a deep need in the community and a deep desire in the community, and I'm really glad I went forth with it, and I really hope that the community itself can help inform me about what they want this organization to look like moving forward.
You talked about starting this mostly because you were looking for postdocs and faculty who were queer. Has this expanded at all to other levels like undergrads?
Yeah, definitely. The directory is not live yet, and the reason it's not live is because we have to be incredibly careful when it comes to a directory like this, to respect people's privacy and identity, especially if they're not out, or they're in places where being out is potentially unsafe for them. But the directory has expanded now to include anyone in any research position in neuroscience, so that includes undergraduate and graduate students. It includes technicians and educators, for example, and people in the medical field. It's definitely expanded, and I hope that as we garner more interest from folks in more traditional trainee positions, we can build up and down relationships through that mentorship opportunity, [for example] pairing undergraduates with graduate students, or pairing graduate students with PIs to facilitate more of a mentorship process. So having undergraduates and even high schoolers or graduate students is going to be very important moving forward for us.
Is there anything in particular you'd like 500QS contributors to know about your group?
We would love all the support that's possible. We really want this directory to be a tremendous resource, and so the more people who are actively expressing interest, the better at all stages of their training. Because the more interest we gauge, the better we can prioritize specific strategies as an organization.
I also want people to know that this is meant to be an organization for the community, by the community, so input into this organization is always going to be respected and appreciated at all levels. For example, a job board is something that people have requested, and so when we can we will host a listserv where people can submit job openings where they're specifically targeting LGBTQIA+ candidates or from professors who have identified themselves as queer allies or queer themselves. So we're very open to everyone's input, and we would love more people to join our ranks and contribute. We'd also love people to highlight, so the more people who express interest in being highlighted as a member of the community, the better.