QT STEM: A Safe Space for LGBTQ+ Students in STEM at UCI

June 13, 2023

Last year, in honor of Pride Month, the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) shared a variety of resources in “Supporting LGBTQ+ in Tech.” This year, we’re spotlighting one of those resources: a student organization called QT STEM, which serves as a safe space for queer and/or trans people who are studying a STEM field at UCI.

The logo for the club Queer and Trans in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (QT-STEM). The Q is stylized like a university seal with the club name around the outside, and a unicorn overlaid on a simplified diagram of an atom in the center”

Queer in STEM
QT STEM, founded in 2018, meets regularly to discuss topics relevant to queerness and science, and it holds socials to build a sense of community. Recent meetings have included presentations on LGBTQ+ scientists, discussions about intersectionality and the queer experience, and a weekend brunch. Part of the club’s mission is to create a more visible LGBTQ+ community in what can be an underrepresented area of academia.

“There’s a different culture in STEM versus humanities classes,” explains Joann-Jonathan Means, a materials science and engineering major heading into their fifth year at UCI. Means joined the club their freshman year and is an active board member. “In my humanities classes, the first thing we start out with is everybody going around and introducing themselves, saying their names and pronouns. In my STEM classes, even the small labs, you don’t get that.”

Keeley Wandrocke, a mechanical engineering major, agrees. “A lot of STEM courses tend to focus very little on interacting with classmates. As a result, I had few friends in STEM and even fewer who I knew were LGBTQ+,” says Wandrocke, who first learned of QT STEM from Means and is also now on the board. “Coming to QT STEM every week reminded me that I’m not alone in the classroom and I’ll never be alone in the industry. Queer people are quite literally everywhere, and it’s deeply comforting for me to remember that.”

Last year, Means organized a panel discussion with queer people in STEM careers. “I hope that that gave people an ability to see themselves doing a STEM job as a queer person,” they say. “In that panel, we asked about how [people] navigate their identity at work.”

While QT STEM provides a safe space at UCI, such spaces don’t always exist in workplace settings. “I’m looking for internships right now, and one of the questions that I ask the employers is, ‘what are you doing for queer people and how are you making sure that they’re accepted?’” says Means. “I think that that is one of the key things that QT STEM can do — provide career resources to help make sure that people not only learn STEM but are able to stay in STEM professions.”

This is an important undertaking. An article published in Science Advances in June 2021, “Systemic Inequalities for LGBTQ Professionals in STEM,” notes that “LGBTQ STEM professionals thought about leaving their job more frequently and were more likely to have considered leaving their STEM field entirely, compared to their non-LGBTQ peers.”

Building a Sense of Community
“The goal of QT STEM is to build communities, build friendships and build connections between people who are queer in STEM, because we are one of the groups who really needs to feel like there are other people like us doing the same thing,” says Means. Recognizing the effects of intersectionality is also a central focus. “Having those conversations as well is very important to the club.”

You can find QT STEM listed on the UCI LGBT Resource Center’s website under the LGBTQ+ Student Organizations tab, and most club communication happens via their Discord server. The club is also starting a Slack workspace to help them connect with graduate students and professors. Interested students and faculty can reach out for more information by emailing qtstemuci@gmail.com.

With three of the five board members graduating in 2024, the club is looking for new members. “We want to increase our membership and find people interested in maintaining the space we’ve built,” says Means. Also, because this is a multidisciplinary club for students across all STEM-focused schools at UCI, there’s no one faculty advisor. However, the club is always looking for faculty involvement and support.

Professor Roderic Crooks of the Department of Informatics, who spoke at a club meeting last year, stresses QT STEM’s value as a campus organization. “This is important for so many reasons: the visibility of these kinds of groups demands a more accommodating and inclusive environment in ICS. It also demonstrates the kind of teamwork and community engagement that is required for successful intellectual work,” says Crooks, who has applied queer of color critique in his research into intersections of race, technology and public life. “We have a lot of smart, talented students in ICS, and [QT STEM] should be commended for sending the message that every kind of student can succeed and that every person deserves to go about the world authentically.”

Shani Murray