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LGBTQIA+ Pride Month: NOAA Scientist and NIST Chief Diversity Officer Lead with Pride

LGBTQIA+ individuals contribute their efforts to advance the nation in all areas, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. During this month recognizing the incredible strength, perseverance, and progress of the LGBTQI+ community, we celebrate outstanding Commerce employees who are serving as leaders in their fields and their communities.

Find out more about a marine ecologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a chief diversity officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who are making an impact at the Department of Commerce and on behalf of all American communities.

Dr. Ryan Freedman (NOAA)

Dr. Freedman grew up in Chicago, far from the ocean, but he quickly developed an interest in marine biology at a young age. “Growing up, there weren't many examples of LGBTQI+ people living visibly around me,” he says, “and being out in science was relatively rare as I was in school.”  He later went on to graduate from the University of Miami with a double major in Marine Science and Biology before moving to California to pursue graduate degrees at California State University - Long Beach and the University of California - Santa Barbara. He now works for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries as a Research Ecologist. He has a diverse research portfolio that includes climate impacts on temperate water ecosystems, developing bioplastics, mapping the seafloor, testing new technologies to monitor ecosystems, tracking sharks and fish movements, and helping designate new sanctuaries.

Dr. Freedman came out in the middle of his Master’s degree thanks to a wonderful support network of peers and mentors. While cultural acceptance of LGBTQI+ people has come a long way, many people in the community are facing realities that are not accepting and laws that single them out and make care tough to access. These realities cross over into STEM fields where LGBTQI+ students and young professionals can experience targeted harassment and professional devaluation. These issues are compounded by problems that other communities and groups face that make it harder to break into STEM careers.

To Dr. Freedman, “having Pride'' means shining a light on LGBTQI+ accomplishments and being visible to young aspiring scientists, so they can see there is a space for them in STEM fields. It also means recognizing where we need to do better, making space for LGBTQI+ individuals to safely be who they are both inside and outside of STEM and blazing a new path in STEM fields that is accommodating to all.

Dr. Freedman encourages queer STEM professionals to lift each other up, noting that success is a mix of skill and opportunity. He wants to remind people opportunities and support are not equally distributed to all, and that we all can do more to give chances to LGBTQI+ and other underrepresented groups in STEM. He advises young LGBTQI+ professionals to be persistent and resilient when things don’t go their way.

“Science has a lot of failure ingrained into the field and that failure can create ‘imposter syndrome’ feelings,” he says, “and these feelings can be compounded by external issues queer people face while trying to do their jobs.” Dr. Freedman encourages young LBGTQI+ students and career scientists to find mentors who are respectful of the unique needs of queer people. He also encourages them to stand proud of who they are in the face of adversity that, sadly, is all too common.

“I am proud of myself and the accomplishments of my LGBTQI+ family in Federal Service and all they do for the American Public,” Ryan says. “Together, we are making this country a better place to be every day.”

Dr. Sesha Joi Moon (NIST)

Dr. Sesha Joi Moon grew up in Richmond, Virginia, which was simultaneously the former capital of the confederacy and a city with a rich Black American cultural heritage.

“To be Black, queer and a woman in that space was interesting to navigate,” she says, “and it led me to where I am today.”

Her father was a civil rights activist and her mother was a public servant, and like her, holds a Ph.D. in public administration. Sesha developed interests in history and social justice as a young person. She went on to attain a bachelor’s in Black studies and master’s degrees with a concentration in human resources management from Virginia Commonwealth University. In her Ph.D. dissertation at Old Dominion University, she explored the challenges that Black women in the federal government face in career mobility to the senior executive corps.

Sesha didn’t realize it at the time, but her dissertation foretold the kind of work she does today.

Shortly after earning her Ph.D., Sesha joined the Commerce Department. “I’ve pretty much grown up in the department,” she says.

At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) from 2014-2021, Sesha served as a senior talent management strategist, co-led the USPTO Service Equity Working Group and served on the USPTO Equity and Community Leadership Development Committee.

In May 2021, Sesha became NIST’s first chief diversity officer and director of the agency’s newly created Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity (DEI) Office. She points out that the three values in the office’s name are different in practice yet complementary in philosophy. She likes to explain them in the following way:

“Diversity is delegating differences. Inclusion is celebrating differences. But equity is elevating differences.”

“Each term is a lever to create spaces of belonging,” she says. "These values have recently been advanced by a necessary fourth lever, accessibility, which now constitutes the DEIA acronym."

Sesha doesn’t want others to think of the office as a separate unit within NIST. Instead, she hopes every individual at the agency will embody the values that her office supports, as she suggests that while DEIA may be the office’s role, it’s everyone's responsibility. In the end, she says, it’s all about “thinking about others, and making sure we treat others well personally and professionally.”

While doing her work, Sesha finds inspiration when thinking about Black and Indigenous ancestors from Richmond, who made up many of the first Americans. “They not only survived but thrived,” she says. Today, she believes we all should be “ancestors in the making,” by setting a good example for others and being mindful of our legacy.

As to the queer part of her identity, “if you ask me about my coming out story, I didn’t have one,” Sesha says. “My parents taught me to live in my truth and walk with authenticity. The second I realized I was queer, I owned it.”

But at the same time, Sesha realizes that each individual in the LGBTQI+ community has a different story, and that everyone’s journey is not always accompanied by acceptance from others around them. She wants others in those shoes to know that the DEI office is there for them.

Shortly before this blog post went live, Sesha announced some exciting but bittersweet news to her colleagues at Commerce: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has tapped her to be the U.S. House of Representatives Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. We are thrilled that Sesha will be bringing her talents and skills to the very heart of the Nation’s capital—and proud that she will be building upon the important work she began at Commerce.

If you are a student looking to follow in Ryan and Sesha’s footsteps, NOAA and NIST offer excellent opportunities to pursue STEM education and research.

NOAA’s Office of Education provides climate and environmental education resources and development opportunities for students ranging from pre-K through post-graduate levels. Graduate students are encouraged to apply for several immersive fellowships, such as the Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, that put them at the center of marine science and policy decision-making in Washington DC. NOAA is also dedicated to sharing the latest climate, ocean, weather, and space science with teachers.

NIST has programs for high-school students, undergraduates, and recent graduates. More information, including eligibility and deadlines, on NIST’s Student Employment page. The NIST NRC Postdoctoral Research Associateships Program for recent Ph.D. graduates is another great opportunity to explore science and technology careers!