Dean’s blog: You are welcome here
Throughout the month of June, we acknowledge and celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month. This blog post is a conversation with the chair of Mason’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Earth Sciences, Mark D. Uhen who shares his journey and the importance of advocacy.
A passion for paleontology
Growing up in Wisconsin, Uhen’s love for science began at an early age, after witnessing his mother use antibodies to crossmatch blood samples to solve complicated cases as a medical technologist. He, and his sister who later became a dental hygienist, grew to love all types of sciences. Mark devoured all the science books in the school library, dreaming of being whatever type of scientist each reading described.
Uhen knew he wanted to pursue a degree in science, but had a hard time choosing between biology and geology. Ultimately, he decided to attend the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh thanks to their excellent geology program. It was at Oshkosh where he took his first paleontology class and knew that was the path for him.
He received his graduate degree in paleontology at the University of Michigan under his advisor, P. D. Gingerich. It would be at Michigan where Uhen would achieve one of his first big accomplishments, publishing the book, “Form, Function, and Anatomy of Dorudon atrox (Mammalia, Cetacea): An Archaeocete from the Middle to Late Eocene of Egypt.”
After completing his PhD, Uhen learned the local natural history museum, Cranbrook Institute of Science, was planning a major renovation including the addition of an evolution exhibit. Uhen thought to himself, “you can't have a museum with fossils and not have a curator of paleontology.” So, Uhen persistently advocated for himself and earned the position of Curator of Paleontology and Zoology. Eventually, he would become the museum’s Head of Research and Collections until 2006.
Uhen’s professional journey continued; he served as a Senior postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Paleobiology in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. After a year in that role, Uhen also briefly served as Curator of Paleontology at the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Uhen then made his way to Mason in 2009.
Advocating for himself and for the community
At the time, Uhen knew the AOES department had a need for another geology faculty. He met with the department, and at the time, Dean Vikas Chandhoke, again advocating for himself. He was later offered the position of term assistant professor.
Shortly after coming to Mason, Uhen joined the LGBTQ+ Faculty/Staff alliance, where he led advocacy efforts to secure benefits for same-sex couples. Prior to June 2015, same-sex partners could not take advantage of the benefits offered to their heterosexual counterparts.
Uhen found it unfair that LGBTQ+ partners could not utilize these benefits, just because they could not legally get married. He met with the Provost and the head of Human Resources to encourage change, but the decision could only be made by the Virginia state legislature.
June 26, 2015
“It was one of the most moving experiences I ever had,” Uhen shared while reflecting on that monumental day he witnessed in front of the Supreme Court. “There was no megaphone announcement …it was just like the word filtered to the crowd and everyone just started cheering and hugging each other.” As the celebrations continued, Uhen couldn’t help but think of one thing.
“It made the single biggest point in my advocacy at Mason a non-issue, in an instant,” Uhen explains, “that was the biggest demand we were requesting and all of a sudden, we had it. It was really, really wonderful.”
After the Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage, Uhen took a step back from the LGBTQ+ Faculty/Staff Alliance to allow others the space to advocate for the issues they were and are passionate about. “Different generations and different people have different issues, so now it’s their time to bring their issues to the forefront.”
Uhen continues to support the alliance and advocates for the community in his daily life, sporting a pride flag in his office and renewing his Safe Zone+ training every few years.
A safe space for science
“I’m grateful because my identity hasn’t caused me too many issues, but I know that’s not the case for everyone,” Uhen states as he acknowledges his privileges. Since those around him have always created a safe space for him, it pushes him to do the same for those in his department. Whether that be welcoming a former business student who switched their major after taking a geology class, or reminding his colleagues that you can have a competitive edge while also being kind to one another.
Uhen learned that from one of his role models, Jim Meade, an expert paleontologist and, “one of the nicest people I know." Uhen adopted this outlook throughout his career, driving him towards multiple achievements, including publishing his book, Cetacean Paleobiology.
Another one of his role models, New Zealand paleontologist, Ewan Fordyce, continues to inspire Uhen’s research and writing style. In fact, to this day, Uhen has his students model their fossil descriptions using Fordyce's example.
Words of advice
To conclude this conversation with Uhen, he offers some words of advice:
“Figure out who your people are and hang out with them. Everyone is weird, you just have to find the people you like to hang out with. Weird is wonderful. Life is too short to hang out with people who are mean or a drag. Find people of similar identities. Find groups- if there isn’t one, start one. Make people know they are welcome.”
Thank you, Mark, for sharing your story and the importance of advocacy. Mason has been a consistent leader in creating an LGBTQ+-friendly campus. Recently, we were named the top-ranked university in Virginia, and No. 7 nationally, for LGBTQ+ students, according to Best Colleges. It is essential for us to continue to support and advocate for all members of our Mason Science community, especially during these times of political turmoil. In fact, I encourage all faculty and staff to join me and complete the Safe Zone+ training this fall.