Published March 26, 2019
Rishabh Bhandawat, a PhD student in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, can imagine a world in which engineers are leaders in creating more efficient healthcare systems, where more engineers work to improve living conditions in developing countries, in which more politicians draw on the strengths of their engineering backgrounds.
He can also imagine his field setting an example for inclusion and diversity, where people can express their gender identity however they choose and be met with acceptance.
For a few days in November, Bhandawat was immersed in how that world could look at the 8th annual oSTEM (out in STEM) National Conference. The conference brings together LGBTQ students and professionals from across the country for three days of workshops, talks, networking, and, most importantly, community.
“It was amazing to see 700 professionals and students come together – to be STEM and be queer,” says Bhandawat, president of UB's chapter of oSTEM and a member of the planning committee for the national conference.
Bhandawat and seven other members of UB's oSTEM chapter traveled to Houston for the conference, supported by funding from the Engineering Partnership Program.
“oSTEM offers a lot of opportunities for students to network directly and intimately with individuals from major companies like Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and NASA, something normally unobtainable at a large university career fair,” says Priya Persaud, a junior in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and treasurer of oSTEM. “We are extremely thankful for the Engineering Partnership’s contribution and it means the world to us that they are supporting our members to attend this conference yearly.”
At this year’s conference, oSTEM members reaped the benefits of these close industry connections. oSTEM’s vice president Anton Buynovskiy received an interview at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory while project lead Lia Knoer received an internship offer from NAVAIR (Naval Air Systems Command).
“I was interviewed and offered a summer internship from Lockheed Martin on the spot, something I could not imagine happening at any other place than this conference,” says Persaud.
Of the lasting impacts of the conference, Bhandawat says, “It’s key, particularly for younger members, to see what’s out there –how people are able express themselves with confidence, and then use that same confidence on campus.”
Since its founding in 2015, UB's oSTEM chapter has been providing support and community for undergraduate and graduate students.
“It is vitally important that all our students feel that they have a home in SEAS,” says Christine Human, associate dean for accreditation and student affairs. “oSTEM brings an organized and visible platform for peer support and leadership development to LGBTQ students in engineering, science, and math. And we can see the effects: students who experience belonging and representation on campus benefit from greater academic, social, and co-curricular engagement and heightened professional opportunities.”
Founded in 2005, oSTEM is the first national organization dedicated specifically to supporting LGBTQ people in STEM disciplines.
The fact that members of the queer community can be an unseen minority, unlike women or people of color, poses unique challenges for both recognizing and combating discrimination, in academia and industry. STEM fields are not only traditionally male-dominated but also heteronormative, creating an environment in which people may not feel comfortable sharing their sexual or gender identity.
Conversely, according to Bhandawat, an environment that is intentionally inclusive benefits every level of an organization, cultivating happier employees, better relationships, higher retention, and greater output.
“It’s important for companies to understand that having diverse workplaces where people can be supported actually grows their business,” says Bhandawat. “Employees who feel accepted are more content, and can put their energy into doing high-quality work efficiently.”
Here, Human says that representatives from oSTEM have been instrumental in guiding conversations related to diversity and inclusion within SEAS, and the greater UB community. “We are fortunate to have such a bright and ambitious group of students who are committed to ensuring that students come to UB and find a supportive peer environment.”
As part of the larger goal of continuing to improve visibility and resources for UB’s queer community, oSTEM strives to expand mental health resources and support for transgender individuals. Working with the Office of Inclusive Excellence, Bhandawat ultimately hopes to help establish a Pride Center on campus.
“I want people in STEM to be able to be who they want to be and make change and impact in the community,” says Bhandawat. “The sciences are usually thought of as more traditional and less accepting. But do they have to be?” The answer is a resounding no.