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Pride Month Q&A with JAX Employees

Pride Month celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, encompassing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and other identities.

Pride month is celebrated in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprisings in Manhattan, when members of New York City’s LGBTQ+ community fought back against police raids on gay bars, “sparking an uprising that would launch a new era of resistance and revolution.” According to a Proclamation from the White House, “Pride is a time to recall the trials the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer+ community has endured and to rejoice in the triumphs of trailblazing individuals who have bravely fought – and continue to fight – for full equality.”

To honor JAX’s community, we put out a call to action for submissions from our LGBTQ+ employees. Meet these ten JAX folks from across our various campuses, learn about their job roles, and why they are proud:

Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson is marketing operations manager in JAX’s Strategic Communications department. “It’s a culmination of 19 years of experience at JAX and an understanding of what technologies are needed to run a web and social media presence for such a complex organization,” he says. His first role at JAX was as a web designer, and he’s been closely involved in all aspects of technology and digital needs since then.

Tony Jackson (right) accompanied by husband Mike.

What is a project that you’re excited about?

“Excited? Well, that’s one word for it, I guess! We are working towards yet another reimagining of the JAX web presence, something I’ve been through 3 times in my time working here. While it is a somewhat stressful and chaotic undertaking for such a unique organization, seeing the final product, all its interactions, and its outreach to our audiences is always exciting. All we have to do now is get there… and that is the challenging part.”

How do you identify (regarding pride and any other relevant identities)?

“Well, that’s an odd question to me. I identify as myself. I guess since I’m married to a man, I’d say that would identify me as “gay”, but… tagging isn’t good for people as it is good for data and content, and often lessens what that person is in terms of totality. Being gay is just part of what I am... it does not define me. As with most interests and characteristics that describe me, it’s just a thing… I’m a bit odd in artistic tastes (film, music, etc.), but I’m very “normal” in a love for gardening, fishing, and the great outdoors.

We each identify in our own ways and carrying tags to describe us doesn’t ever convey what or who we are as people… it’s just a way to categorize things, and we each are far more complex than to ever be properly tagged. Be true to yourself… let your freak flag fly and enjoy all the things that make us each unique in a world beset by a need to be “normal”.”

What makes you proud of your identity?

“What I’ve accomplished. I’ve built a successful career, a wonderful home, done well enough to care for my family and friends, all in the face of the not-so-friendly culture into which I was born in Georgia. Against all odds, I’ve stood tall, made my own way, and achieved a life many just dream of. In all of it, there’s one success that stands out above all others.

I met my husband Mike, during our first year in college in northern Georgia. I was smitten. Mike, however, was happy to have found a like-minded soul, but… wasn’t really returning my affinity for him. After 4 long years of chasing him in a figurative sense (well, sometimes physical as well), we went from friends, to roommates, to a bonafide couple… Now, some 28 years on, married since 2015, this alone stands as the accomplishment in my life that I’m most proud of. Mike completes me, finishes my sentences, usually far more eloquent than I could have done, is loved by all, and is my shining star. I won… I beat the odds, and, as they say, to the victor go the spoils!”

Anything else you would like to add?

“As stated earlier, just live life as yourself. Don’t let tags or labels identify you. Set goals, do those things that make those goals attainable, and stick with it. Don’t let your perceived notion of what others think about you dictate how you live, or what you do. Stand strong, face adversity as a challenge to be defeated, and stay true to those closest to you. Those are the people that will hold you up, help you persevere, and build a life worth having. None of us are an island. We all need the support and love of those closest to us. Do well by them, help when you can, don’t be afraid to ask for help when it’s needed, and you’ll do fine. Trust me… I know.”

Jessica Matwiczak
Jessica Matwiczak

Jessica Matwiczak is an operations senior technologist based in Sacramento, CA. She has many job responsibilities, including sorting and verifying shipments, collecting genotype samples, and pulling and organizing supplies for operations. 

How do you identify (regarding Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify as lesbian and she/her.”

What makes you proud of your identity?

“I am proud of who I am as a person and being a lesbian is just a small part of that. I am also very proud of how far the LGBTQ+ community has come during my lifetime.”

Anything else you would like to add?

“I just want to say thank you to everyone at JAX for treating one another with respect regardless of identity/race/preference.” 

Yehya Barakat

Yehya Bakarat is a pre-doctoral graduate student in the Tufts University cooperative Ph.D. program. They recently joined the Kumar lab: “Currently I am involved with two projects. One is using a classification program that can be trained to detect and quantify mouse behaviors in an automated manner, and another project that has me excited is investigating a mouse model that can shed light on cortical cell death and its relation to hyperactivity disorders.” 

Yehya Barakat

What makes you proud of your identity?

“When I came to the United States in June 2017, I remember my uncle took me from the airport and we took a detour to downtown Boston to look at the pride parade and I knew coming here was the right choice. I pride myself on being gay and nonbinary. These identities helped me understand how lonely it can be for others when they feel excluded, and I try my best to be as welcoming and inclusive in my work with others. It has helped me in teaching others in the past as a TA and a mentor for students new to the field. I am hoping to do more mentoring work as I progress through grad school since it is something I truly enjoy.”

Anything else you would like to add?

“Pride month has always been a time where I can celebrate who I am and my identities that helped me become the person I am today. I hope you take time this month to celebrate who you are and what makes you shine.”

Gabriel McMillen
Gabriel McMillen

Gabriel McMillen is part of JAX’s 2021 Summer Student Program (SSP). SSP is designed for students who want to immerse themselves in genetics and genomics research for the summer. Gabriel is in the Dumont lab, and his work focuses on the genetic diversity of mouse models. “I am excited to continue this research as the summer continues and hopefully learn more about the ways genetic diversity in mouse models can better benefit the greater science community,” he says.

 How do you identify (regarding Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify as gay, queer, and I use He/Him pronouns.”

What makes you proud of your identity?

“It's taken me a long time to come to terms with my sexual orientation as well as my gender identity, and it's something that I will continue to challenge, struggle, and grow within. If I met my younger self today, I believe that they would be impressed by my boldness and confidence with my identity and how I express myself.”

 Anything else you would like to add?

“Just a reminder that if you see a queer person using the restroom don't question their presence. Going to the bathroom and having to choose which one to use is one of the most scary and unsettling things we do every day. Making us feel awkward in there only makes it harder.”

Stephanie Watson-Todd
Stephanie Watson-Todd

Stephanie Watson-Todd is an associate director of project management for JAX Mice & Services. She leads a team that manages custom bred mouse colonies and studies for researchers, both at JAX and globally.

 What is a project that you’re excited about?

“I’m taking a graduate level course on Project Management to help myself stay relevant in the field. It’s been really interesting, there is a lot of work and it’s really challenging. I’ve learned a lot of news ways to balance priorities in all aspects of life.”

How do you identify (regarding Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“This may sound odd, but I identify first as a human being. What I mean is at the core of my being I believe being human should innately mean you should treat others with dignity and respect and expect the same in return. The only time our difference should matter is when we want to learn and grow or celebrate the unique attributes each of us possess.

I don’t typically like labels, but I do understand how they can break down barriers in communication. I identify as a lesbian or a gay woman.”

What makes you proud of your identity?

“One of the things that makes by proud is the way the LGBTQ community is so supportive of one another. Social media has also made it easier to support one another. Many folks lose their birth families when they come out as gay or trans. This is devastating. By use of social media I serve as a “stand in parent” for others who are struggling. I’ve been able to give all sorts of “motherly” advice to young people. Some of the advice is simply around how to buy a car or insurance to how to find a good therapist. I’m really glad I’m able to be there for others like me when they need another human.” 

Natasha Washko

Natasha Washko

Natasha Washko is an animal care technologist, who has been with JAX for almost eight years now.

 How do you identify (in regards to Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify as she/her and my sexual identity as gay or queer.”

 What makes you proud of your identity?

“It took me 26 years to come out and accept myself. For a long time, I was very confused and unhappy. Even though it was a difficult journey and coming out was scary for me, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I am proud to finally be who I am and to have the love and acceptance that unfortunately not everyone gets to experience.”

 Anything else you would like to add?

“I am so grateful to work for a company that accepts me and to work alongside amazing coworkers that have had no judgement towards me.”

Bruno Lemos

Bruno Lemos is a clinical genomic scientist in JAX’s CLIA lab. He works in the virology and oncology department.

Bruno Lemos

What is a project that you’re excited about?

“Currently, I’m working on COVID-19 analysis. It is very rewarding to be helping with the pandemic and striving to overcome this global issue by working with a wonderful team to provide quick test results for hospitals, clinics and other partners. Another exciting project is helping implement a new panel for precision oncology and being part of the advances in technology, analysis, and interpretation of molecular cancer diagnosis. “

How do you identify (regarding Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify myself as male and gay.”

What makes you proud of your identity?

“I am proud of my identify for being accepted by my family members and loved ones, as well as for being an inspiration to other LGBTQ+ adolescents and young adults.”

Anything else you would like to add?

“Being myself and able to work in such an environment where I can be proud and feel safe in regard to the institution as well as my co-workers is very welcoming, rewarding and makes me happy to be part of the JAX family.”

Sean Austin

Sean Austin is an animal care technologist.

Sean Austin

What is a project that you’re excited about?

“I’ve recently begun a new genetics course to further expand my genetic knowledge.”

How do you identify (in regard to Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify as a queer cis man.”

What makes you proud of your identity?

“I’m proud of it because it is a part of who I am and accepting my identity allowed me to be more open socially, gain new friends, and love myself. It changed my life.”

Anything else you would like to add?

“There is never any shame in loving who you love and being uniquely you!”

Andrea Ben Chamka

Andrea Ben Chamka just took a promotion to animal care technologist II/lead in production! She works on many different projects daily, including gathering samples for genotyping and mouse model age identification.

Andrea Ben Chamka

How do you identify (in regard to Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify as openly gay and am married to my beautiful, amazing wife Sara!”

 What makes you proud of your identity?

“I am proud to be openly gay and show my son that you don't have to fit into the mold that society makes you think and believe is right. Being true to yourself is the mold YOU belong in. Be true to who you are, love who you love and don’t be afraid to be loud and proud about it!”

 Anything else you would like to add?

“I am overjoyed to work for a company that believes in equality and accepts each and every one of us for exactly who we are!”

Leeza Kopaeva

Leeza Kopaeva is also a part of JAX’s Summer Student Program! Her work focuses on Charcot-Marie Tooth Disease (CMT) Type 1A in the Burgess lab, utilizing mouse models of the disease to identify potential therapeutic targets for treatment.

Leeza Kopaeva

What is a project that you’re excited about?

“This summer, my project will focus on comparing CMT1A mouse models to human cell lines. I've never gotten to see the connection between rodents and humans so directly, so I am really excited to see what I learn!”

How do you identify (in regard to Pride, and any other relevant identities)?

“I identify as a queer woman."

What makes you proud of your identity?

“I am proud to be a part of the LGBTQIA community because it is one full of love, support, generosity, and care. So many people before us went through immense trauma, whether it be losing their jobs, families, and/or friends, to make our community more visible. Because of them, I can be who I am wherever I go, including JAX, and I could not be more grateful.”