In an era marked by divisive political rhetoric about prejudice of many kinds, thank goodness for the UMass Amherst chapter of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM). Founded by award-winning chemical engineering major Phoebe Bisnoff ’19, the oSTEM mission is to provide a targeted, inclusive space for the LGBTQ+ community engaged in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to connect and network.
Earlier this year, Bisnoff received an LGBTQ+ Student Leadership Award from the UMass Amherst Stonewall Center as the founder and president of the new oSTEM chapter on campus. In a recent interview, Bisnoff discussed the mission and activities of her oSTEM chapter in general, as well as her own hopes and ambitions.
According to the oSTEM website, it is “dedicated to building community and supporting LGBTQIA+ science, tech, engineering, and mathematics students and faculty of the Five-College area. oSTEM is an inclusive network for LGTBQ+ and allied graduate and undergraduate students in the [STEM] fields.”
Bisnoff explained that the, in the UMass oSTEM chapter, engineering, life sciences, public health, geosciences, and polymer sciences are especially well-represented. “There are many members from diverse fields in the sciences, allowing for very interesting and robust conversations,” Bisnoff said about the oSTEM meetings. “We utilize the breadth of diversity (field/age/background) of membership for community-building and innovation.”
As Bisnoff explained, the oSTEM chapter addresses an organic “loneliness” among individuals in the LGBTQ+ community that arises from underrepresentation due to scientific gatekeeping, inaccessibility, and explicit homophobia and transphobia. It provides a healing and inspirational connection for all its peer members.
As Bisnoff says, “We are interested in evolving the cultural landscape of STEM fields.”
The UMass oSTEM chapter practices a wide range of outreach and communication. For example, Bisnoff and other chapter members have established a large Twitter presence and are working on Instagram. Currently open to all 5-college students, the UMass oSTEM chapter is also working with Mount Holyoke and Smith students to build their own campus oSTEM chapters. In addition, it networks with and supports other university chapters, such as New York University, Tufts, Rice, Stanford, USC, the University of Birmingham in England, and more. Bisnoff will be speaking at the UK oSTEM conference in Birmingham as a guest of the Birmingham oSTEM chapter this coming February.
One common theme of many discussions in the UMass oSTEM chapter revolves around the heady subject of how LGBTQ+ candidates and employees represent themselves to job recruiters and, later, to colleagues and supervisors in the workplace. As Bisnoff expressed the central point of this critical discussion, “Bringing your full and most authentic self to work allows you to be your best most innovative self.” But the key to finding a home for your “most authentic self” is discovering a company, agency, institution, university, or department that genuinely respects and values LGBTQ+ employees.
“The LGBTQ+ community helps innovation by opening new markets – we think about and approach challenges differently due to our lived experiences,” said Bisnoff. “Many large companies know this and recruit at the oSTEM career fair. I know many LGBTQIA+ peers who have gone on to work for Raytheon, ExxonMobil, NASA, and Genentech through the connections at oSTEM.”
For LGBTQIA+ candidates looking for a welcoming employer, then, a job search is much more complex than that for straight and/or cisgender people in that position. They must carefully research such factors as the exact work culture of the institution where they are applying. How does it accept and support LGBTQIA+ employees? Can they be fired or harassed in that state or country for being openly LGBTQ+? What is the standard of attire? How about international travel to countries where it is actually illegal to be transgender or gay? And what are the health insurance policies for LGBTQ+ employees, and specifically, are gender confirmation surgeries covered by their plan?
All these and many more questions are considerations that students from the UMass oSTEM chapter ponder, talk about, and research throughout their search for an appropriate and supportive employment opportunity.
As for Bisnoff’s own ambitions, she is a Californian, so she’s applying to graduate schools in her home state. “I came to UMass Amherst and the East Coast to gain perspective and experience,” she says, “but I have always known I would return to California.”
As a Chemical Engineering major, Bisnoff has pursued the renewable energy track in the Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) honors program and is also pursuing a materials science certificate and chemistry minor. In addition, she is an undergraduate researcher working with Professor Todd Emrick in Polymer Science & Engineering. Her individual thesis is on conjugated polymer zwitterions for nanocrystals to be used in LEDs. Ultimately, her interest is in the field of energy storage and its intersection with nanoscale renewable energy and technology. Her overarching career goal is to oversee the mass production of accessible sustainable energy materials.
Beyond her own education at UMass, as Bisnoff says, “It had been my pride and joy to build the UMass oSTEM chapter, and in many ways it has built me in return. I look forward to where it will go when I am gone, and I am excited to continue my work with oSTEM in graduate school and beyond.” (November 2018)