New Pioneers

Arachnologist Lauren Esposito Is On A Mission To Empower Queer Scientists

The Islands and Seas co-founder on embracing your identity, connecting scientists with local communities, and what the human race can learn from scorpions.

Lauren Esposito. Portrait by Nate Dappen.
By Zoë Beery

In Lauren Esposito’s opinion, everyone is born a scientist. "From a very early age, you observe the world around you and interpret it," she says, "and that’s pretty much what scientists do."

Esposito was a curious kid, poking the dirt around her house in El Paso, Texas and examining the bugs she found in the desert climate. But where most people give up this kind of exploration as they get older, Esposito stuck with it. The 38-year-old is now an arachnologist at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco, where she studies scorpions and communicates with the public about the importance of scientific research.

Her experiences as a queer scientist of color have led her to spend much of her time figuring out how to make her field more inclusive, since people with marginalized identities are more likely to give up on the field — or not pursue it at all. This year, she joined a new initiative called EntoPOC, that's raising funds to provide student entomologists of color with memberships for professional societies and access to scientific conferences. So far, the initiative has raised $14,000 and provided support for over 400 students.

But that’s just the latest project for Dr. Esposito, who had already created two major initiatives on her quest to make science a more accessible, welcoming, and sustainable field. Bustle recently caught up with Esposito to learn more about what she’s working on.

Why do you study scorpions?

I’m really interested in big questions about how life evolved on earth and what it means for us. Scorpions are an amazing way to study that because they have been around for 450 million years. They’ve been incredibly successful at adapting to conditions on earth and keeping up with the pace of evolution.

Lauren Esposito holding a whip spider. Portrait by Phil Torres.

I don’t think most people would think of scorpions as important to the future of human life on earth, but they absolutely are, because they are part of the carefully balanced ecosystem that we live in.

What do you like about working at CalAcademy, as opposed to another scientific environment like a research lab or a university?

It gives me opportunities to communicate with the public that are not available in other settings. I was hired to be an arachnologist, but my job is also outreach and conservation, so unlike a traditional academic institution, CalAcademy values my outside projects and sees them as part of my work. It’s also one of the oldest science museums in the northern hemisphere, and amazingly, their original charter explicitly recognized women as important and valuable in the scientific community. That was unheard of in the 1800s. It’s a history of democratization, and an embracing of people’s identities, that you really don’t see in the colonial, male-dominated field of natural history.

You’re the co-founder of Islands and Seas, a nonprofit that’s creating a network of small field research stations that also provide local science education. How did that start, and what do you hope to achieve?

It started with my best friend in grad school, Eric Stiner, and I feeling really disillusioned with the ivory tower of science and wanting to make a more direct impact on the world. The academic system evaluates people on how often they publish and get grants, but we believed that scientists should also be valued for things like mentorship, outreach and conservation outcomes. We wanted to do something that directly made the world better. Our vision was to create a network of stations in areas with high biodiversity that don’t have scientific facilities or science education for locals. After five years we’re done with the first one, in Baja California Sur near the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, which is in the largest continuous protected area in Latin America. We brought together research scientists and the local community, who are the stewards of the land, so that they could better understand each other and the biosphere. The second project will be in Tobago.

You also founded 500 Queer Scientists, a project for queer visibility within your field. What motivated you to create it?

I felt very alone as a queer scientist. For example, I’m the first and only queer curator at CalAcademy, which is located in one of the most queer-friendly cities in the world. I figured that if I felt that way in San Francisco, others might be feeling that way in much more hostile places. In 2018, the year the campaign was started, I had helped organize an event for 500 Women Scientists, and although that group is really empowering for women, I don’t identify primarily as a woman, and I have more in common with my queer community than my cisgender, heterosexual women colleagues. I thought it would be amazing if something like that existed for queer scientists.

I was told by many people, including the president of the only scientific society for LGBT people, that I would not be able to find 500 people who could safely, publicly share their stories, so I launched the project with 50 stories from queer people in the field. Within two weeks we'd had 500, and there are now over 1300 stories and a community of 25,000 on Instagram and Twitter.

What is the most important message for you to communicate outside the scientific field?

In my work, we discover dozens of new species every year, document them, and give them scientific names before they go extinct, which is a race we’re not winning in terms of either time or money, and is something that I feel needs to be done. We’re in a biodiversity crisis, the largest extinction event ever documented. Whether we preserve what we have determines our ability as humans to live on earth, and to preserve it, and so we need to document it. Preventing it from disappearing is how we can prevent ourselves from disappearing.