Award-Winning RSO Offers Encouragement to LGBTQ Students in STEM

Benjamin Runkle, an assistant professor of biology and agricultural engineering and one of two faculty advisors for the oStem RSO, holds two awards Jan. 13 that oStem received in recognition of its success during the first 20 months of existence.

As they aim for career fields where underrepresentation of LGBTQ people can affect the quality of scientific advancement, UA students in one RSO are preparing themselves to make the difference and succeed in STEM.

Fewer than two years after its founding, the Out in STEM at the UofA RSO has 90 registered members of various identities and majors, according to Hogsync. The chapter is one of 100 in the country, according to the national organization.

The RSO was founded in April 2018 after Benjamin Runkle, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, and Bryan Hill, associate dean for student success in the College of Engineering, agreed there was a need for an LGBTQ group focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.

Runkle, who is gay, thinks a supportive, affirming organization for LGBTQ students in STEM is important because retention rates for gay and bisexual students in STEM are lower than those for straight students, he said. Runkle decided to found oSTEM after reading a 2018 study by Bryce Hughes, an assistant professor at Montana State University.

Less than 64% percent of STEM students who identify as a sexual minority remain in a STEM major after four years, compared to 71.1% of straight STEM students, according to the study.

In a 2015 analysis of the federal government’s workforce, Erin A. Cech of Rice University found that LGBTQ employees were most under-represented in STEM-related agencies, making up only 2.7% of employees compared to 3.1% in other agencies 3.4% of the U.S. population.

It is estimated that LGBTQ people in America are 17–21% less represented in STEM fields than expected, and 69% of sexual-minority STEM faculty members nationwide report feeling uncomfortable in their department, according to a 2018 journal article by Jon Freeman of NYU.

In 2018, about 20 students attended an interest meeting and elected the oSTEM’s first round of officers, and it has been growing ever since, Avellaneda said.

The RSO has monthly meetings and events like networking and educational gatherings, an annual Halloween party and Dungeons and Dragqueens game nights. The organization differs from other on-campus Pride organizations in its emphasis on professional development in addition to friendship-building and social events, Runkle said.

About once a semester, oSTEM members can attend “Queernote” speeches in which LGBTQ professors from around campus, like Runkle and former psychology professor Alex Dopp, speak about their professional and life experiences.

“I have sensed that students are all a little desperate to learn, ‘How do I succeed after college?’” Runkle said. “And the more that we can provide examples of people who’ve done that, I think the better for them.”

Since its founding, oSTEM has grown rapidly and accomplished more than Avellaneda expected, included winning the awards for outstanding new RSO at the UofA in 2019 and rookie oSTEM chapter of the year in 2018, she said. The UA chapter’s delegation received the latter award at the oSTEM national conference in Houston in November 2018.

“It was kind of shocking,” Avellaneda said. “I knew that we had done a lot, and I was really proud of us. But it’s really nice to get recognized, especially by nationals.”

Jack West, a junior and former president of oSTEM, is proud that the organization contributed to the advancement of three oSTEM nominees to homecoming court in the past two years. In 2018, Anthony Azzun, then a senior, represented oSTEM on the field at homecoming.

In 2019, West and Samia Ismail, a senior, did the same.

Avellaneda thinks oSTEM’s mission of empowering LGBTQ students to succeed in STEM is critical for one simple reason: the quality of science and technological advancement suffers when all people’s voices aren’t included, she said.

“I think it’s just missing out on the people who aren’t comfortable enough or don’t feel safe enough to be a part of that community,” Avellaneda said. “They could have the potential to invent things and do groundbreaking research, but because you told them that they aren’t welcome, they aren’t going to.”

Sarah Komar is a staff reporter for The Arkansas Traveler.

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