Tufts oSTEM: Addressing the Intersection of Queer and Scientist Identities

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As queer students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at Tufts University attempt to navigate the intersection of their many identities, the Tufts chapter of Out in STEM (oSTEM) provides a community of support during this process.

Junior Julia Fowler brought oSTEM to Tufts during the spring 2014 semester after hearing about it from Professor Tim Atherton. They recognized a need for this organization, since Fowler notes that “a lot of people feel like, even if they can feel really comfortable being in STEM, or they can feel really comfortable being in a queer community, there’s not a ton of crossover.” Tufts senior and Vice President of oSTEM Daniel Heller agrees. “There is this identity ‘the scientist,’” he says, “the person who works late nights at the lab or in Halligan coding … but a lot of times we neglect to remember that we’re talking about people with many,  many overlapping identities.”

oSTEM provides resources to members of the Tufts community who identify as minorities in the gender or sexuality spectrums, wherever that falls for them. This includes undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral students, and professors. During their weekly meetings and events, oSTEM addresses issues pertinent to the lives of young queer academics.

“When you are moving forward in a professional and academic setting, you need a lot of guidance as to how to do so,” Fowler says, “especially when [wondering] what is professional, what is allowed as far as integrating your queer life into your professional and academic life.” By gathering interesting speakers and panels of mentors from Tufts and the Greater Boston community, oSTEM seeks to provide such guidance.

A lot of times we neglect to remember that we’re talking about people with many, many overlapping identities … we don’t consider that STEM is made up of people and those people have different gender identities [and] sexual orientations. – senior Daniel Heller, Vice President of oSTEM

This past semester, oSTEM has hosted various mentors, like Tufts Assistant Professor of Math Moon Duchin and John Hopkins Professor of Materials Science Michael Falk. They even brought Eric Patridge, the national president of oSTEM and a research scientist at Yale, to Tufts. Various speaker panels, with the most recent entitled “Forming the Scientist Identity,” reflect on how queer speakers have navigated the academic environment. By providing these resources, oSTEM has shown that it is possible for professionals to thrive at the intersection of their multifaceted identities: scientist, queer person, and so much more.

Heller notes that, in addition to information and access to mentorship, oSTEM also provides its members a vital sense of community. “Because we’re a small school, queer people in STEM a lot of times feel alienated,” he says. “They don’t know a lot of other LGBT people in their field. It’s not something that’s talked about.” This community has the potential to be both an intellectual and socio-emotional resource, Heller says, as oSTEM “provide[s] a really safe and welcoming space for people to come and meet people, whether that means meet people in the same year as you who are also undergraduates, or even graduates and post-docs. Those types of connections could turn out to be really useful for someone who is struggling with an issue or just needs a safe space.” Fowler agrees: “[the members of oSTEM] are close. We have this connection that extends past every other Monday at lunch that creates this support network.”

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Courtesy of Tufts oSTEM


When asked about the campus response to oSTEM’s efforts, Heller has just one word: “amazing.” Indeed, the group, although fairly new, is now recognized by the Tufts Community Union and received a grant through the Diversity Fund. oSTEM works with the Center for STEM Diversity on campus as well, and has collaborated with Tufts Film Series to screen the film Milk.

Even after making a name for itself on campus, oSTEM has some important goals as they look to the future. They hope to potentially implement a formal mentoring program. As they grow in number, oSTEM hopes to reach the graduate and postdoctoral student population of Tufts, since, as Fowler notes, “there is so much support for students in the undergraduate part of Tufts, but it just drops off when you get to grad students and especially postdocs and professors … we really want to be a resource for anyone who is excited about it, especially for students and people involved in the school who don’t have those resources.” They also hope to tap into the Greater Boston STEM community even more than they have already.

Tufts University as a whole “benefit[s] from this type of group.” Heller says. “I think that it was really, really important to have something like [oSTEM] at Tufts, where there was a huge unmet need for a community like this.” As oSTEM continues to advocate for the needs of queer academics in the STEM fields, vital conversations begin to surface about balancing the multitude of identities which contribute so greatly to the Tufts community itself.

Sarah Kalinowski
Lead Editor.
Sarah Kalinowski is a senior majoring in biopsychology and minoring in cognitive and brain sciences. She can be reached at sarah.kalinowski@tufts.edu.

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