Celebrating Pride Month with Dr. Phoebe Lostroh

June 24, 2020

We all find interests, passions, hobbies and careers that ignite us regardless of our identities. To celebrate Pride Month, we interviewed Dr. Denise Lostroh, an Associate Professor of Biology at Colorado College and a member of ASM’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce. She shares with us how her passion for science started, advice for those who want a teaching career and her interests in supporting the LGBTQ+ community.    

Can you tell us about your career path and your current research projects?

I fell in love with biology because of good K-12 biology teachers. I became the first in my family to go to college, using Pell Grants and Stafford loans. I went to a small liberal arts college and found an advisor who was and remains a close mentor. I worked in his lab all through undergrad on a project related to mouse mammary tumor virus. He told me that he wouldn’t write me any letters of recommendation unless I applied to Harvard for graduate school, so I did. After I finished my Ph.D. in Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, I did my postdoctoral work in a great lab at the University of Iowa, College of Medicine, and after that I started my tenure-track faculty position at a small liberal arts college. My current research projects include bacterial evolution and natural transformation, as well as writing projects related to my textbook, The Molecular & Cellular Biology of Viruses. This book came out in July 2019, and I hope it can support every microbiologist in teaching a one-semester course in virology for undergraduates. I expect there to be a lot of interest in virology this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What advice do you have for trainees looking to apply for an academic position where the job functions include majority teaching and research with undergraduate students? 

My advice is to get experience in teaching. In order to earn a Ph.D. or do well in a postdoc position, by definition you will get great research experience. Sometimes you have to go out of your way to also get teaching experience. Successful tenure-track applicants in my department usually have both postdoctoral and full-time teaching experience, such as serving as a one-year visiting instructor at a small college.

How did you leverage ASM or other professional societies to grow your career?

ASM is a wonderful way to meet new mentors and friends. For example, I have met several collaborators through the ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators. Through the regional branch meetings, I connected with other virologists who advised me on my textbook and had the opportunity to learn new skills, such as organizing a scientific meeting. I wish that I had become an ASM member much earlier in my career, and I encourage all of my undergrads to become members sooner rather than later.

Can you share how your interest and passion in LGBTQ+ initiatives started? 

I come from rural Nebraska and didn’t even know there was a word to describe myself; I just knew I “wasn’t right.” So, for me the process of coming out was pretty intense, as I had to do things like leave institutions that had been very important to me, such as my church. I had always been a feminist (also not that comfortable in rural Nebraska), but coming out really radicalized me. I was only 10 or 11 when AIDS was first recognized, but I didn’t find out about it until I was in college. AIDS was also radicalizing because it was literally about life or death. I couldn’t help but notice that homophobia and hatred of gay people were connected to all kinds of other oppression and that for any of us to be free, we all have to be free. I remember an especially awful bumper sticker, “AIDS:  It’s killing all the right people.” Even the people who used such a bumper sticker recognized that their racism, sexism and homophobia were all connected! That was not an uncommon sentiment in some places in the U.S., and it’s still not that uncommon in many places. I guess my passion for activism started with passion for myself -to survive, to thrive- and as I have gotten older, that has expanded into a passion for everyone to have the opportunity to be their best selves in every possible way. I will fight for everyone’s right to flourish as long as I live. Justice demands it, and there’s no peace without justice. I try to always be an “out” lesbian in science and hope to find others who are “out” lesbians in microbiology.   

You helped ASM plan its first-ever LGBTQ+ reception at ASM Microbe; why was this important to do?  

The fact is that there is still a lot of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people. Even when overt discrimination is lacking, there can be a lack of ambient belonging or a lack of sensitivity at best. I’ll give one example. As a lesbian, I am not comfortable in large groups of strangers, most of whom are straight. With the addition of drinking, lots of us who are in the queer community have had negative experiences in these situations. For these reasons, I don’t like plain old “beer hours,” and I never have, and I don’t want to be pushed to attend a beer hour because it’s what everybody does. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have a feminine perspective on what can be so uncomfortable. One point is that anything “plain” or “regular” in our society is coded straight (and white and male). Beer hour is not a place where I can relax; it’s a place to be especially on guard in case somebody tells an off-color joke, or looks at me funny when I talk about my wife, or a million other things. So, anyway, a reception specifically for LGBTQ+ people is a place where we can relax without always keeping an eye out for our emotional well-being or even physical safety. We can let down our guard a little and just be ourselves.  

For people who identify as LGBTQ+, having a community is important; how do you suggest people find a community? 

This question about how to find community is tricky; LGBTQ+ people are not all painted purple so that it’s obvious who is and who isn’t. I find community by being very out, so that the people who want to be my friends know from the start, “Phoebe’s purple.” I find community among all kinds of people. At this point in my life, it is much more important for me to build community with people who are on board with working towards justice for all than it is for me to find people who share my sexuality. At the same time, I sure would like to finally meet a lesbian microbiologist who is not just me looking back in the mirror!
An essential part of ASM's mission is to elevate diversity in the microbial sciences and build a scientific community that embraces diversity. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Taskforce of ASM would like to hear from the entire community to better understand members’ perception about diversity, equity and inclusion within ASM and how to ensure growth and sustainability. ASM launched a survey on June 22-July 3 to assess your perception of ASM's efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion. Please complete the survey, sent via email from our DEI partners – the Kaleidoscope Group LLC (@kgdiversity.com).

Author: Phoebe Lostroh, Ph.D.

Phoebe Lostroh, Ph.D.
Dr. Phoebe Lostroh is an Associate Professor of Biology at Colorado College and a member of ASM’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce.