If you walk into Physics Professor Tim Atherton’s office at the right time of day, you might be lucky enough to see a cascade of rainbows emanating from a small glass award sitting on his windowsill. They represent a particularly apt award for the openly gay physics professor, a subtle nod to the physics of light and an embrace of the LGBTQ community’s rainbow flag. Professor Atherton’s award – the National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) 2014 Educator of the Year Award – is recognition of his success as faculty advisor to Tufts’ oSTEM student group.
oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a national organization that aims to create a space for queer students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. With this purpose underlying all their events, the Tufts oSTEM organization holds biweekly meetings that have the potential to benefit not only queer STEM students on campus, but also their professors and peers of all sexual orientations.
Julia Fowler, the president and founder of Tufts’ oSTEM chapter and Astrophysics major, said one of the most important aspects of oSTEM for her is that it focuses on both science and identity. “Usually,” she said, “queer groups focus on queer issues, … and in STEM people only care about your research and identity … isn’t talked about at all.” oSTEM works to address these issues, which Professor Atherton experienced while a student. “I think back to my own experience … and I’m not very uncommon in having this, I’d never met another gay physicist really until actually when I was a postdoc.”
By being active in STEM and in advocacy, both Atherton and Fowler hope oSTEM will provide students on the spectrum with a place to be themselves by giving them a space to discuss both parts of their lives and connect with each other and professors. Atherton explained, “I’ve been gay and I’ve been a physicist for years and I thought there were no others … it feels very isolating.” oSTEM works to reduce that isolation by connecting LGBTQ students to each other and to the entirety of Tufts campus.
“We’re trying to do more outreach to the greater Tufts community.”
Part of oSTEM’s campus efforts, Fowler explained, is to provide a space for faculty, outside speakers, and LGBTQ advocates to present to the broader campus population. She has been instrumental in the effort to bring Tam O’Shaughnessy, children’s science writer and long-term partner of American astronaut Sally Ride, to campus to talk about her experiences. The event is scheduled for April of next year.
Another exciting program, aiming to be presented later this semester, will offer training in best practices associated with creating safe spaces in the sciences to administrators and professors in all the STEM subjects. oSTEM wants to help students understand when and where fellow scientists will be interested in and accepting of members’ identities, and when it is unlikely to be a safe space. One of the biggest overall contributions of the gay rights movement, Atherton explained, is intersectionality.
“Identities intersect in powerful ways.”
By allowing students to identify both as scientists and as LGBTQ, he argues, we address the bigger picture. “Making the space better for one group makes [the space] better for the whole community.” By accepting these students as who they are, we can all benefit from the happier, healthier space.
Notably, oSTEM isn’t just about creating spaces for queer scientists. Just as significantly, it helps students with fellowship applications, networking, and presentation skills. Just last weekend, the group sent seven students to the national oSTEM conference in Pittsburgh, where students had opportunities to present their scientific research. oSTEM can serve as an example to other student groups regarding connecting students to resources and helping students learn important professional skills. Moving forward, with participants from computer science, physics, math, biology, engineering, and chemistry, oSTEM will remain a vital part of the Tufts LGBTQ and scientific communities.