Sara Brownell, an associate professor of undergraduate biology in Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been named the 2020 LGBTQ+ Educator of the Year by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.
Brownell’s research, leadership and personal commitment to improving science education, especially for underrepresented minorities, led to the organization’s recognition.
“I struggled accepting my own identity for such a long time that it is surreal to go from making every effort to hide it to being formally recognized for it,” Brownell said. “It is such a privilege to be able to be a role model and mentor for the next generation of LGBTQ+ students to hopefully make their own journeys easier.”
Brownell’s original academic focus was on neuroscience research; however; her postdoctoral research mentor inspired her to pursue a path in undergraduate biology education. Through that experience, Brownell quickly realized the need for diversification in science education and has since committed her work to those efforts.
One of her studies looks at how active learning classrooms present challenges for LGBTQ+ students. Unlike a traditional lecture classroom, students have to interact with one another — a notion that often makes LGBTQ+ students feel like they have to “come out” to their peers while working in small groups, according to the study. Alternatively, though, Brownell’s research found that active learning classrooms may benefit LGBTQ+ students by giving them more opportunities to work with like-minded individuals.
Brownell said, “It is amazing that I can choose to work on issues related to the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in biology and systematically identity ways to make biology classrooms more inclusive for LGBTQ+ students.”
Brownell is not only setting examples through her research, she’s doing it in her classroom — every semester — by coming out to her students on the first day of class. In a second study, Brownell looks at the impacts and reasons why LGBTQ+ biology instructors decide to reveal their identities to their students. For Brownell, it’s a privilege to share her identity with the next generation of LGBTQ+ students. She hopes her actions will help LGBTQ+ students feel more comfortable and accepted in the classroom.
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