Your Identity Is an Asset: Spotlight on Dr. Jeffrey Maloy 

June 16, 2022

Dr. Jeffrey Maloy
Dr. Jeffrey Maloy.

For Dr. Jeffrey Maloy, science and data collection go beyond research in a lab. "I wouldn't be fully satisfied just focusing on microbes under a microscope," Maloy explained. "The biology is fascinating, but for me, it's important to also think about having some kind of a societal impact—the people around the science are really important to me." Maloy, an assistant professor of teaching at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), investigates how educators can foster inclusive environments for LGBTQIA+ students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), at times making observations in his own classroom teaching molecular and cell biology and genetics. He hopes his findings will not only demonstrate how to retain LGBTQIA+ students in STEM programs, but also help educators empower students to see themselves as future leaders in the field.

Growing up, Maloy was steadfast in not pursuing science as a career. This was, in part, rebelling against his father's chosen profession: teaching microbiology. "When I started college, I was determined to do anything except science," Maloy said. "I felt like [science] was maybe too prescribed a path for me." Still, Maloy says the passion that his father, Dr. Stanley Maloy (ASM president, 2005-2006), exuded for science was one of the reasons he decided to eventually pursue an education in molecular biology at University of California, San Diego.

One undergraduate class in particular, "AIDS: Science and Society," helped rekindle Maloy's interest in the sciences. About half of the class materials focused on the biology of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and the other half examined social and political factors that shaped the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) epidemic in the 1980s and beyond. "[That class] helped me think about the inevitable intersection between the science that we do and societal factors," Maloy said. "As scientists, we tend to imagine that we are this sacred silo that is separate from all these other societal factors. And that class really helped me break down that silo and think about how the 2 are invariably intertwined."

In 2011, Maloy earned his bachelor's degree in molecular biology, and pursued graduate school at UCLA shortly after, with the hopes of studying infectious diseases. While earning his Ph.D., Maloy worked in a lab studying the pathogenesis of Burkholderia pseudomallei, the bacterial pathogen that causes melioidosis. In 2017, Maloy published his dissertation, "Characterization of an Intracellular Flagellar System in Pathogenic Burkholderia Species."

Alongside his research, Maloy had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant (TA) for a microbial pathogenesis class. That is when he fell in love with teaching. "You not only teach people about fascinating biological concepts, but you also have an ability to impact the ways in which people think about science and how they consider the connections between science and society."

Shortly after completing his Ph.D., Maloy worked as a TA coordinator, managing TAs in the microbiology department at UCLA. "In that position, I really started to learn that teaching, just like science, can be thought about in an evidence-based way," he said.

In 2017, Maloy took a position as a discipline-based education research postdoctoral fellow in UCLA's Center for Education Innovation and Learning in the Sciences, where his research focused on increasing equity in STEM education. After becoming an assistant professor at UCLA, Maloy continued this research focus, collecting data from his own classes, in addition to national surveys. "I analyze those data to think about how what we're doing in and out of the classroom impacts different students from different groups, and how we can change the teaching that we do, and the systems that we form at the university level, to increase the success and participation of different groups of people in science," Maloy explained.

Specifically, Maloy's research centers around several theoretical frameworks, including Ecological Systems Theory, devised by developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner. "When we look at students and think about the student experience in a classroom, we often ignore everything else that we know about ecological systems. We think about that student in a vacuum," he explained. "We might ask, ‘Why isn't the student succeeding?' And the instructor may think, ‘Well, it's because they didn't do the homework. It's because they just aren't trying enough.' To understand someone's behavior and development, we need to not only think about what's happening in that classroom, but we also need to think about other associated environments."

For example, Maloy said that a student's environment can be impacted by whether they have friends in the classroom or if they have mentors that look and identify similarly to themselves. As a former student in STEM who identifies as gay, Maloy noted the importance of having mentors with shared identities. "As an undergraduate student, despite holding a lot of positions of privilege and power in the academy, and having people who stood up in front of classrooms who looked like me in a lot of ways, I distinctly remember not really knowing any other gay people who were in positions of power in the academy," he said. "I didn't have any professors who talked about being gay or that aspect of their identity. I was able to navigate that—I have a lot of other identities that I did see in my mentors. But the importance of seeing like-mentors has really shaped how I think about mentors at different stages, and how I think about recommending mentors for students."

Maloy draws from the Ecological Systems Theory when considering how to make educational environments more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ students. In 2020, Maloy co-authored the paper, "Fourteen Recommendations to Create a More Inclusive Environment for LGBTQ+ Individuals in Academic Biology," which provides actionable steps for STEM educators to promote inclusivity in the classroom. When thinking about transgender and gender non-conforming students, Maloy said existing qualitative data indicate that these students experience "really hostile" environments in STEM classrooms. While an instructor may offer to have all students share their pronouns with the class or affirm that their classroom is welcoming to all identities, Maloy emphasized that this is not always enough to address issues of inclusivity.

When analyzing national survey data, Maloy found that even if students who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming engage with and enjoy scientific literature and study with their peers, they are still more likely to depart from their STEM program compared to cisgender students. "That microenvironment isn't necessarily telling us everything we need to know," he said. "We need to think about larger contexts, and we need to think about what kinds of cultural values, systems and policies are causing transgender and gender non-conforming students to do all the ‘right things' as STEM majors and still leave STEM majors for humanities majors." Maloy said this is the beginning of a "long line" of work, involving qualitative data collection that focuses on the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming students in STEM.

Another key framework Maloy utilizes in his research is the Social Cognitive Career Theory, which describes a student's academic development as an "interplay" between the student's interests, self-efficacy and outcome expectations. "Can you do this thing? Can you get an A in this class? And will that harmonize with your interests? And do you expect that to lead to good places for you? All of those things are influenced by both environmental supports and barriers," he said.

When educators think about students in a classroom setting, Maloy explained that they may focus on the question, "How can I get students to better understand this concept?" But when considering equity in STEM education, Maloy said desired outcomes won't be achieved by solely ensuring students understand a concept. "That's a laudable goal, and we want to increase students' understanding of scientific concepts, but that alone is not going to increase equity in STEM education," he said. "In order to increase equity, we also need to provide support to enhance student interests."

At UCLA, Maloy engages first-year biology students through online interventions—including watching videos of student testimonials and writing reflections—that teach students about growth mindsets (e.g., helping students believe they can grow in a particular area) and internal loci of control (e.g., helping students believe they have control over some of the outcomes they'll experience). Maloy added that the interventions also aim to teach students about the neuroscience and psychology behind the importance of believing. For example, believing that even if they don't have a proclivity for math now, they can develop a passion and ability for the subject matter with sustained effort and interest.

For LGBTQIA+ students in STEM, Maloy offers this piece of advice: "Think of your identity as an asset, rather than an obstacle to overcome." He said historically—and currently—researchers in leadership positions have been predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual men, a group that does not represent the global population. "If you have a lot of white, cisgender, heterosexual men asking questions on surveys, they're not going to think to ask about gender identity because they've never had to grapple with those questions of gender identity," he said. "The questions that you ask based on your lived experiences, those are things that you can bring to the table. And those are new perspectives that have been excluded from conversations in science previously, that can lead to new, exciting, interesting and important questions that can help further the scientific endeavor."

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.