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Engineering a safe space for LGBTQ+ STEM students

After hearing a motivational speech, Evan Crabtree decided to create a space in which LGBTQ+ students like themCrabtree's pronouns are he/they. could feel welcomed and know they’re not alone.

“I found that being a queer STEM student was incredibly isolating,” Crabtree says. “I did not feel like I belonged in either the queer space or the STEM space.”

Crabtree, a graduate student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, discovered that ASU had a dormant chapter of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or oSTEM. The organization connects LGBTQ+ professionals and students in STEM fields, offering career networking opportunities and a supportive social environment.

Crabtree then made it their mission to bring the chapter back to life, resulting in the revival of oSTEM at ASU. In 2022, the chapter at ASU was back up and running with Crabtree as the student organization’s new president, a role they held through the fall 2023 semester.

They say rebuilding the club took a lot of effort to bring together many components, including working with ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services office and the national oSTEM organization to officially reincorporate.

“Essentially, it was starting from scratch,” Crabtree says. “We had to contact old officers to try and get access to social media accounts and other important things to run the organization.”

After regaining a membership body, the club went on to become a Fulton Student Organization — a student organization officially recognized by the Fulton Schools, which provides access to funding, training and professional development opportunities.

Crabtree says becoming a Fulton Student Organization opened up a variety of possibilities for oSTEM through the Fulton Schools’ industry connections and networking with other student organization leaders.

“I think it also solidifies us as holding space for all LGBTQ+ students and faculty to simply exist and be recognized, allowing us to have discussions with important university leadership,” they say.

Out in STEM at ASU club members pose with drag performers at a 2023 event for OUT @ ASU Week. Photo courtesy Evan Crabtree

Balancing work and play in a space to belong

oSTEM members hold meetings every two weeks. Activities alternate between fun events such as trivia competitions, social mixers and board games, and career development opportunities like resume reviews, learning about industry STEM opportunities from professionals, and conducting informational panels about graduate school and research paths.

In addition to regular meetings, the club occasionally hosts special events at the end of the semester and ASU’s Rainbow Coalition heritage weeks, which celebrate a variety of LGBTQ+ community themes. 

Stephen Pratt, a professor of animal behavior in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and oSTEM’s faculty advisor since its original formation in 2014, says the club’s priorities of balancing career opportunities and social events are the latest of many goals since its founding.

Pratt says each membership body and leadership team has determined what they’d like to get from their experience. Past goals have included a greater emphasis on socialization, career opportunities or political action.

Pratt was inspired to become the club’s faculty advisor when its founder, student Alejandro Ramirez, sent out a call for an advisor to form an ASU student chapter of oSTEM. Pratt says he was thrilled to take on the role, having found his previous experience in an LGBTQ+ student group in college beneficial.

“When I was a student, there was little to no visible faculty involvement in the student LGBTQ+ group I belonged to,” he says. “There were barely any 'out' faculty. My experience as a gay college student would have been a lot better had there been more faculty support, so I wanted to offer what help I could to current students.”

Pratt says the organization’s emphasis on students in STEM majors sets it apart from other LGBTQ+ student clubs at ASU.

“I thought that could be very helpful because the culture in many STEM fields has not always been as welcoming as it could be to LGBTQ+ people,” he says.

With Crabtree stepping down as president after the fall 2023 semester to prepare for their graduation in May 2024, co-presidents Parth Bhanderi and Kendall Christiansen are determined to continue oSTEM’s accepting atmosphere for its members.

Out in STEM at ASU members learn about the working world from professionals from companies such as SRP and Intel at a panel event. Photo courtesy Evan Crabtree

Leading oSTEM at ASU into the future

Bhanderi is an undergraduate student majoring in biochemistry and philosophy, while Christiansen is a second-year undergraduate student majoring in biological sciences with an emphasis on genetics and cellular development.

After a friend in a biology class invited her to an oSTEM meeting, Christiansen says she loved the experience and remained involved, taking on the club’s marketing duties before becoming its president. She finds being in oSTEM to be a beneficial networking experience.

“Connecting to professionals who are also part of the LGBTQ+ community is a big aspect of being in oSTEM,” Christiansen says. “Every week, you meet someone new who comes in and they’re discovering the club for the first time. You ask, ‘What’s your major?’, they talk you through it, and through that, I found a lot of connections that have benefited me professionally and personally.”

She and Bhanderi aim to continue the balance of professional and social activities the club has focused on since its reincarnation. They also plan to emphasize the club’s benefits as an environment in which anyone is permitted to be as open about their identity as is comfortable for them.

“There’s no pressure to be 'out' in oSTEM,” Christiansen says. “You have that space to be open in any capacity you want that you haven’t had before. We hope it’s a space in which you can find a family.”