By Nicole Capozziello
Published August 25, 2021
On a fall evening in 2015, Anna C. Smith, a chemical engineering undergrad at the time, called to order the first meeting of the campus chapter of oSTEM (out in STEM).
Smith, who at 27 was already a nontraditional student, is also queer – and was looking to build community.
“It just felt right,” Smith says of that first meeting, which she organized with classmate Joe DeGolia. “We had a great turnout, and the community aspect was definitely something that I think was missing for a lot of people.”
Among the students who showed up that day was Abeda Alam (they/them), a then-undergraduate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who would go on to become a member and eventually a leader of the group.
Fast forward six years. At UB, oSTEM is still an essential and thriving student organization. And Smith and Alam, UB alums, have carried their passion for promoting diverse identities with them into their careers.
Earlier this year, Smith and Alam were recognized for their dedicated work and impact by Business Equality (BEQ) Pride Magazine, which named them to their 2021 list of 40 LGBTQ Leaders Under 40.
“It's an honor to be recognized on this list as a trans/non-binary, Desi (South Asian) engineer within an amazing group of individuals. By being part of oSTEM leadership, I have grown to become a mentor and represent an intersection of identities as an engineer that probably did not exist 10-15 years ago. I hope that my efforts will make it easier for people to be their authentic selves in and out of their workplace," says Alam, a mechanical engineering alum (BS -18) who currently works as a process quality engineer at GE Power in Greenville, S.C
Smith, a chemical engineering alum (BS '17) who is now a senior specialist, data scientist at Merck, a global pharmaceutical company reflects, “My passion has always been around professional development and helping people bridge the gap between being a student and being a professional. I’m hopeful that this recognition will grow efforts to make my company and field more open and inclusive.”
The BEQ list, now in its fourth year, recognizes young LGBTQ individuals from across North America who are demonstrating exceptional leadership and major contributions in an array of areas, including government, corporate, academia, non-profit and small business. Alam and Smith were chosen from a group of 70 finalists.
According to BEQ, the individuals on this year’s list’s “amazing talent, innovation, passion and courage are beacons during one of the darkest periods in history. When we look at this cohort, we see reasons to be hopeful about the future with so many brave and capable people taking the lead.”
Alam has been a dedicated part of oSTEM Inc. for four years – two years in undergrad and, after graduation, two years as programming chair for the national organization, which is “dedicated to educating and fostering leadership for LGBTQA communities in the STEM fields.”
As programming chair, they worked on a national level to organize and put on the over 50 programs presented at the annual oSTEM conference, which hosts over 900 students and professionals during a three-day weekend. Post oSTEM, they were given the unexpected opportunity to volunteer as a Crisis Responder for Thrive Lifeline.
“Learning to be a crisis responder has helped me understand the importance of LGBTQ+ safety in and outside of STEM spaces. Keeping someone safe does not only look like suicide prevention; sometimes it looks like offering resources for food and housing insecurities or connecting someone to grants that they may not know exist, such as the Black Trans Covid-19 Community Response Grant. For me it’s important to know where someone is coming from, so I can best offer professional or social resources.” says Alam.
Alam has also served as the first non-binary South Asian member on the Board of Charleston Pride and is an active member of GE Power’s LGBTA employee resource group. During their time at UB, Alam was the recipient of the 2018 Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Humanitarian Award, the SEAS Leadership Scholarship, and the winner of the 2018 UB Stadium Hack. “I’m humbled by this recent distinction from BEQ and want to recognize my mentors at UB: Christian Miller and Chelsea Montrois, who through the years have kickstarted, recognized and supported my hard work and dedication to LGBTQ+ inclusion in STEM spaces.”
Since graduating from UB in 2017, Smith has been involved in the international organization Lesbians Who Tech and has continued to be involved in oSTEM. “In recent years, it’s been rewarding to continue taking part in oSTEM conferences, but from an industry standpoint,” says Smith.
When Smith came to Merck in 2018, she joined the company’s Rainbow Alliance in, where she’s now the Outreach Recruitment Lead. “In just two years, we’ve gone from no formal strategy to actually hiring people from this community. It’s huge to think about – and exciting that I’ve been able to influence that at a large company,” says Smith, who helped launch the Out for Undergrad (O4U) – Engineering effort at Merck.
For Smith, there is also another layer of relevance. “Among our many products, Merck makes drugs that treat HIV,” she says. “Our community wants to weigh in on ways of thinking about these therapies, and we also want to help influence different business processes to make them more inclusive, not just for the LGBTQ community, but across all different intersections of diversity.”
Both Alam and Smith are dedicated to staying engaged in this work, using their perspective and voices to effect change at their companies, mentor and engage members of their community and make the engineering field more inclusive and supportive.
Alam says, “Identities like mine have been and still are marginalized. However, I’m grateful to be a part of a community that not only validates these identities but is working to overcome them by advocating, offering resources, and creating larger social collectives and platforms to help people become more visible leaders, engineers, and entrepreneurs.”
“I hope that by being on this list, I will inspire and encourage others to be their whole selves at home, in the classroom, and at work.”