oSTEM, out in STEM, is an on-campus organization dedicated to supporting and providing resources for members of the LBGTQIA+ community who are also members of the STEM academic and occupational community. In order to learn more about this organization, The Hilltop Monitor interviewed Elizabeth Payton, president of oSTEM and first-year biochemistry and mathematics major.
oSTEM was previously an active on-campus organization, but as the years passed and membership changed, the chapter faded out. In order to restore its position as an active organization at William Jewell College, Payton had to regenerate interest in oSTEM and secure a faculty sponsor.
Payton said that she was inspired to revitalize oSTEM after experiencing some difficulties electing a STEM-oriented extracurricular to attend at the beginning of the year. She was told by some friends about oSTEM and the ways in which the club helps members of the LGBTQIA+ community in scientific academia.
“I was very intrigued by this space where I could navigate my own identity with people of similar occupational interests,” said Payton.
Payton said that the revitalization of oSTEM was rather spontaneous. In between one moment and the next, Payton’s friends created an oSTEM Instagram account and shared the information with Payton, and the group began to advertise the club on social media. Thereafter, Student Life contacted Payton, and the club began the official process of reinstatement – selecting a club sponsor and drafting a constitution.
The club sponsor for oSTEM is Dr. Rose Reynolds, associate professor of biology. Reynolds also sponsored the previous chapter of oSTEM. Currently, oSTEM elected a temporary cabinet to serve for the remainder of this semester. oSTEM has plans to elect a more permanent, official cabinet for the 2021-22 academic year after the organization becomes established and stable. The current, temporary cabinet would help facilitate the upcoming elections of the permanent cabinet.
“We want the process to be as [smooth as] possible so we felt that asking oSTEM members to vote for a permanent cabinet would be unfair, especially as we are still trying to recruit members,” said Payton.
Given that the organization is still in its recruiting stages, the temporary cabinet is not operating under rigidly defined roles. Instead, it is working together to meet the immediate needs of the organization. Once the permanent cabinet is elected, the stipulated cabinet roles as set aside in oSTEM’s constitution will become the guiding practice for the cabinet members.
These roles include President, Director of Finances, Director of Membership and Liaisons. There was discussion amidst the temporary cabinet to the tune of adding such roles as a Director of Marketing or Public Relations.
However, Payton said that part of figuring out exactly the way the cabinet is going to be organized depends on the way the leadership will be implemented in practice. Payton wants the cabinet to be responsive to the needs of oSTEM and to organize itself based on the experience of the membership.
“It is a fluid process with a lot of learning involved, so I think it would be wrong to fixate on these roles indefinitely,” said Payton.
The emphasis on fluidity and reflection is especially important given the difficult conditions of re-starting a club during a pandemic. The kinds of events that oSTEM can host in order to recruit members are limited because of Operation Safe Campus. Specifically, food-related events are off the table. Payton said that the club has taken a risk assessment approach to meeting and weighs the pros and cons of in-person versus Zoom meetings.
“With such a serious topic as gender and sexual identity in an occupational field… it can be difficult for people to express themselves in front of others. On top of that, expressing themselves in a Zoom call is even harder for some people,” said Payton. “Face-to-face meetings seem to be the more comfortable option to engage in such dialogue, but we also want to ensure that students are physically safe during the pandemic.”
As a result, the cabinet is likely to adopt a hybrid model for upcoming meetings.
When asked why Payton would encourage STEM majors to join oSTEM, she answered that it is important to see the ways in which science and science-related fields have been used to push a narrative of superiority against a minority group. There is a lack of diversity in STEM-related occupations that can lead to the creation of an unequal power dynamic within STEM that negatively affects, in particular, the LGBTQIA+ community.
oSTEM can be an excellent medium for difficult conversations to take place, and therefore, for progress to challenge existing power structures in such a way as to change the nature of scientific inquiry and science itself to become more inclusive. Payton takes advice from Dr. Rodney Smith, vice president of access and engagement, in spelling out one of oSTEM’s goals for helping pave the way to a more inclusive STEM academic and occupational community.
Payton recognizes the importance of role models in providing inspiration for students in terms of activism. oSTEM will also look into ways of reducing barriers for students looking to attend graduate school or otherwise work in STEM-related fields. This would involve, for example, skill-related workshops, resume-building workshops, and workshops on developing social confidence and public speaking skills.
oSTEM provides an avenue for students to learn about ways to deal with the unfortunate reality of workplace stigma. Payton said that she hopes to bring outside experts to discussions on these difficult issues.
“The overarching theme here is really just education and support,” said Payton. “We want students to know that they are valid in their own identities and [that] they belong in the STEM community and we want to provide some pathways [to help students] reach such acceptance of themselves.”
Of course, while oSTEM is primarily an organization focused on the LGBTQIA+ STEM community, the club welcomes non-STEM majors as well. While non-STEM majors cannot be considered official members of oSTEM, they are nonetheless welcomed at oSTEM meetings to support a friend who is a STEM major or because they are interested in these STEM-related issues.
For anyone interested in the club, you can follow the club on Instagram (@jewell_ostem). More information about oSTEM chapters in general can be found on the oSTEM official site. Jewell’s is just one affiliate chapter in a national network of oSTEM chapters.