December 3, 2020

Promoting Visibility for LGBTI Students in STEM

By Crystal Mendoza

On November 18, 2020, a group of students in the Mayo College of Medicine and Science organized the second annual Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex (LGBTI+) in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) conference. The conference included talks, networking events, a 3-Minute Thesis, and a keynote address by Dr. Amit Sood. November 18th is International LGBTQIA+ in STEM day and is used to highlight the work of LGBTQIA+ individuals as well as barriers they may have faced and overcome, especially in the sciences. This date is historically significant as it was the symbolic anniversary of Frank Kameny’s US Supreme Court fight against workplace discrimination. Kameny was a U.S. astronomer and gay rights activist, who was fired from the U.S. Army’s Map Service on the basis of his sexuality. Frank Kameny’s fight in 1960 is still one that people all over the world are still fighting today worldwide.  In order to understand the events leading up to this recent Mayo LGBTI+ in STEM conference, I spoke to three representatives of the LGBTI Student Resource Group (SRG) about their organizations’ history, planning their event, and what the future of the Mayo Clinic LGBTQIA+ community looks like. 

Sam Buchl, Stephanie Song, and Karol Budzik are all officers of the LGBTI SRG and were pivotal in organizing and planning this year’s LGBTI+ in STEM conference. Sam (Co-chair, he/him/his) is a Graduate Research Education Program (GREP) student in the laboratory of Dr. Jessica Meyers in the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Stephanie (Co-chair, she/her/hers) is a GREP student as well in the lab of Dr. Nicholas Chia in the Center for Individualized Medicine. Karol (graduate school representative, he/him/his) is a 5th year graduate student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in the Virology and Gene Therapy track working in the laboratory of Dr. Stephen Russell. Also instrumental to conference planning were other SRG leaders, including Sarah Zornes (Educational specialist, she/her/hers), a Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program student studying neuroscience and industrial-organizational psychology in the laboratories of Dr. Susan Hallbeck and Dr. Victor Montori, and Firat Kara (Social coordinator, he/him/his), a neuroimaging Research Associate in the laboratory of Dr. Kejal Kantarci in the Department of Radiology. The SRG welcomes learners of all types from across all of the Mayo Clinic schools, as well as allies to the LGBTI+ community, and the LGBTI+ in STEM Conference planning committee reflected a range of this diversity.

The LGBTI SRG originally began as a subcommittee as part of the LGBTI Mayo Employee Resource (MERG) group spearheaded by TL Jordan (they/them), a previous contributor to the Diversity in Education blog (their work can be found here). With help from the LGBTI MERG and the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, and Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science (MCCOMS), students formed the LGBTI SRG, which aims to 1) foster an inclusive and respectful learning environment for MCCOM, 2) help increase literacy and allyship of others in the MCCOMS, and 3) provide the College of Medicine and Science awareness of the issues or challenges being experienced by learners in the LGBTI community. Establishing an independent group with the support from the LGBTI MERG has given the SRG a sense of independence as well as an opportunity for learners to take on bigger leadership roles. 

The success of this year’s LGBTI+ in STEM conference was in part due to expansive advertising of the event and the opportunity for attendees to receive credit for attending the keynote talk by Dr. Sood on “Stress, Resilience, and Compassion”. Partnerships with the School of Continuous Professional Development, the Office for Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Center for Humanities, and individual healthcare practitioners made the accreditation possible, and the accreditation allowed for nurses, clinicians, administrators, and physician assistants to attend alongside students in MCCOM. This year’s conference had over 100 attendees which is a marked increase from last year’s 30 attendees. Conference organizers responded directly to feedback given by attendees at the 2019 LGBTI+ in STEM conference to help amplify engagement, and thus far, all of the feedback from this year’s conference has been positive. The organizers credit the LGBTI MERG for their help in organizing the event and mentorship from Jimmy Luckey, who was a speaker at the event, and Meredith VandeHaar, chair of the LGBTI MERG. Further, they found that administration staff were all helpful in navigating the process for setting up the accreditation for Dr. Sood’s keynote, especially Nichelle (Nicki) Smith, Cheryl Dornink, and Barbara Jordan. Finally, the organizers credit the individual staff & faculty from across the Mayo Clinic enterprise for their support and promotion of the conference, which made possible the high levels of participation. 

A photo from my Zoom interview with Karol Budzik, Sam Buchl, and Stephanie Song.

Overall, this conference will help those in the LGBTQIA+ community to gain visibility, which is an issue I was repeatedly told throughout my conversation with Karol, Sam, and Stephanie. Although Mayo Clinic strives to be a welcoming and inclusive environment, Rochester has low LGBTQIA+ visibility and limited spaces for those in the community to gather in a safe space. The LGBTI SRG hopes to help change that next by organizing safe spaces for students in the LGBTI community to connect around Mayo Clinic while following social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 prevention protocols. Aside from planning their annual conference, the group has also collaborated with Kellogg Middle School’s Gay Straight Alliance to mentor students about medicine and STEM pathways. Events like these are encouraging to help foster students that may have less barriers in their future careers in STEM and medicine. Impacts of this organization with their outreach activities will be massive given the staggering statistics regarding retention of LGBTQIA+ students in STEM. Statistics range depending on the discipline of study within STEM, and which groups within the LGBTQIA+ community are included in the studies to understand the breadth of retention of LGBTQIA+ students in STEM. Broadly, it is estimated that sexual minority individuals (lesbian, gay, bisexual) are 7% less likely than their heterosexual counterparts to continue in STEM after 4 years of undergraduate studies. This is compounded by the fact that there may be little visibility among faculty, staff, or administrators depending on societal factors and inclusivity of the institution. At Mayo Clinic, resources such as the OUTList can be helpful in connecting members of the LGBTI community.

For now, the LGBTI SRG will focus on formalizing documentation for the administrative hurdles that came with this year’s conference, and recruitment for the next round of officers that will be in charge of the group. If you’re interested in joining the LGBTI SRG, please email: For more information about the LGBTI Mayo Employee Resource Group or the LGBTI SRG, please visit those sites on the Mayo Clinic intranet. 

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