Victoria Orphan's office is a feast for the eyes. Photos, sketches, and crowded bookshelves line the walls; rocks, fossils, and students' crafts adorn every other surface. Her latest addition to the collection is a plaque naming her the 2023 LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year.
Orphan, Caltech's James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology and director of the Center for Environmental Microbial Interactions, received the honor in June for her outstanding contributions to science and her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The award was granted by Out to Innovate, a global organization of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) students and professionals in STEM, which also honors an LGBTQ+ educator and engineer each year.
Orphan and other awardees are set to be honored on September 9, 2023, in a virtual ceremony with a keynote address by Nobel Laureate Carolyn Bertozzi.
Orphan has pioneered cutting-edge techniques to study microbial communities at the bottom of the ocean and in other extreme environments. Her interdisciplinary research provides insight into how bacteria, archaea, and viruses impact global carbon, methane, and nitrogen cycles by consuming and sequestering elements.
She has been recognized for her research with several awards, including a MacArthur fellowship and a NOMIS Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Microbiology.
"I became passionate about the ocean at a very young age," Orphan says. "Understanding the impact and wonders of the deep ocean has been the light that has guided almost everything in my career."
Orphan received Caltech's Dr. Fred Shair Award for Programming Diversity in 2014. She says her approach to mentorship involves conveying her sense of enthusiasm for the subject matter and fostering it in her students and trainees. "If you can infuse a little bit of passion and wonder in students about microbial life and the natural world, they will hopefully carry this with them long after they leave Caltech."
At the same time, her commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) is evident in her leadership. As a former member of the Caltech President's Diversity Council and the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences' DEI Committee, Orphan helped expand programs like the Future Ignited conference and Caltech Shines. Within her own research group, her lab's collective diversity and inclusion statement showcases the values at the core of their work.
"What I want is for people who come from historically marginalized communities and all backgrounds to know that this is a safe and welcoming space," Orphan says.
Her students say they appreciate the positive group dynamics those values enable.
"Dr. Orphan takes great care to make sure her research group feels more like a family than just a team of academics," says graduate student Sergio Parra. "Each and every one of us is there for a reason, and we all are made to feel like each of us brings a really unique perspective that we can share freely."
While Orphan says engaging in IDEA work is fulfilling on a personal level, she also notes that she feels it is a responsibility for those in positions of privilege.
"Being at a great institution like Caltech and having the accolades I've been given, it gives you a platform and a visibility that you can use in a way to help elevate others," she says. "I'm aware of my privilege, and I feel like it is the responsible thing to do to try and uplift other people as much as possible."
Orphan and her wife, Shana Goffredi, a biology professor at Occidental College, both study deep-sea ecosystems and share a love for the natural world. "I have an amazing partner who's also a very accomplished scientist," she adds. "Being visible as a successful scientific couple matters a lot for people in ways that I didn't fully appreciate before." Together, they have embarked on scientific expeditions and recently co-authored a paper about a symbiotic relationship between methane-harvesting worms and bacteria.
Orphan says she is humbled to receive the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year Award and wants to highlight members of the community who she feels are equally qualified for the honor.
"I really believe in Out to Innovate and people like Shelley Diamond, who has been one of the biggest champions on campus and has made critical contributions and positive changes for our LGBTQ+ community," Orphan says.
Rochelle "Shelley" Diamond, lab manager for Ellen Rothenberg [Edward B. Lewis Professor of Biology] and former director of Caltech's Flow Cytometry and Cell Sorting Facility, was a founding member of Out to Innovate and has been involved in activism with her wife, chemist Barbara Belmont, since the 1980s.
"Shelley and her partner Barbara are my heroes," Orphan says. "I do a fraction of the kind of efforts that they have been tirelessly doing for decades. But I'm very grateful for the award, and I will try to carry this honor in a way that inspires others and builds a greater awareness that you can be your true self on your path to success in science."