“From us, for us”: The first Queer Science conference makes connections

Forty-three high school students and 13 members of the UConn community came together to celebrate science – and themselves – at the first Queer Science conference on Saturday, June 11, in Storrs.

The one-day volunteer event connected students with UConn faculty, staff, and students working in STEM disciplines to support Connecticut youth while offering cutting-edge laboratory experience and opportunities for hands-on science demonstrations.

“I wanted to show LGBTQIA + teenagers that there are people who are like them in all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, because we don’t get much representation in those fields,” said Anna Marie La Chans ’17. GCCI ’22 Ph.D., which organized the inaugural event with the support of the Vergnano Institute of Inclusion at the School of Engineering; the non-profit organization Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or oSTEM; and the UConn Rainbow Center.

LaChance modeled UConn’s Queer Science conference at the University of Minnesota, which she learned about at the 2019 oSTEM conference.

“I met Leslie Nope from this project, Dr. Julie Johnston, and she told me all about Queer Science, and I said to myself, UConn needs it – UConn absolutely needs it,” she said. “As soon as I came back from this conference, I started planning in my head, talking to Julie, literally DM on Twitter, and started working with the School of Engineering to achieve Queer Science at UConn.”

Group photo of those who attended the Queer Science conference. (Photo courtesy of Anna Marie LaChance)

LaChance began recruiting fellow volunteers from a variety of disciplines, but plans for the personal event were thwarted since the global pandemic began in March 2020. In 2021, after completing his doctorate in chemical engineering and then working with the Vergnano Institute, LaChance managed to return to the planning of the conference with a renewed focus on the development of an event that emphasizes both professionalism and networking.

“My number one priority was to make a version of Queer Science at UConn,” she said. “I wanted to highlight the people at STEM who themselves have an LGBTQ identity. I wanted it to be “from us to us” in some way, so that when students show up at the event, they are surrounded by people who are like them in terms of gender and sexuality. It was really important to me from the beginning, just weird people working on this event. “

Just in time for the month of pride, the event was completely free for participants who were high school students aged 14 to 18.

“We tried to structure it to do a few tours of different labs and other UConn resources in the morning,” explains LaShans, “and then, in the afternoon, sit down, do some science and get some hands-on experience.” with real science and tools used by real students and real teachers. “

During the day, students toured the UConn Rainbow Center; learn about plants and insects in the UConn Greenhouse of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and visited the world-class Laboratory for Microbial Analysis, Resources and Services (MARS).

Group training for different oceanographic instruments
(Photo courtesy of Anna Marie LaChance)

They made mistakes with Abigail Hayes, a post-doctoral EEB researcher and entomologist. They learned about water density from PhD student and ecosystem toxicologist Anika Agraval (s) from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, using temperature and salinity to separate a water sample into the colors of the bisexual pride flag. They drew the history of LGBTQIA + on the core of a tree with master’s student Gillian Dyer (they) and learned how to analyze the gas composition of soil samples with research technician Nicolette Nelson (she).

“We have people from the biomedical engineering department, people from natural resources and the environment, and people from the psychological sciences,” says LaShans. “It all led to really great presentations. All the presenters, the volunteers themselves, talked not only about science, but also about their journey to the strange, their LGBT identity and how this folds into their STEM identity and affects the way they move in STEM fields.

The conference made a day full of connection, as well as emotion, both for the volunteers and for the participants, who praised the science and the inclusive environment created by the organizers.

“People came to me all day and said, ‘I’m crying because I got my first folder,'” LaShans said of a visit to the Rainbow Center, where students could pick up donated items from the closet sex approval center. “One student told me, ‘I’ve never been so open about my gender or sexuality in my life.’ And that was beautiful.”

With the help of the Vergnano Institute for Inclusion, LaChance has already secured funding for next year’s conference, which officially turns this year’s event into the first annual UConn Queer Science conference.

“It was a day of joy, of connection, of networking,” she says. “And everyone came out of the event with more friends, more community and more knowledge of STEM topics, including knowledge of why they should come to UConn.”

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