LGBTQ+ in STEM from UT Austin

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I’m Amaya Sinha, and I’m an undergraduate at the University of Texas where I research galactic archeology as well as nuclear physics and archeometry. I’m also active in our department’s outreach and inclusivity efforts, and because I’m a bisexual trans woman, it allows me to bring an important viewpoint to the table.

A common question I see asked is “why do we need to promote LGBTQ inclusivity in science?” and thanks to my own experiences as a brown trans woman I feel like I am well equipped to answer it. The short answer is this: there is still homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and racism deeply ingrained in our academic systems and while things are slowly changing, it is still difficult.

Firstly, for a large part of my career, I had to be very wary about who I talked to about my identity or how I presented myself to stay safe. But secondly, when people think of scientists, they usually think of men in lab coats with pipettes and goggles, and as a queer scientist, it was often difficult early on trying to find proof that I was also a valid scientist. Representation matters, and it’s why now I’m as open about being trans as I can be. As queer identities slowly become less and less stigmatized, there will be more queer scientists and they’ll need to know that people like them can also do science.

That’s why inclusion matters, and it’s why I’m an active part of our outreach programs such as giving presentations and demos at the K-12 level. Not only does that get more people to get excited about a career in science, but it also shows them from a young age that anyone can do science.

However, I was exceptionally fortunate.  In my sophomore and junior years I got into the position where not only was I surrounded by other LGBTQ peers, but my research mentors and professors were all incredibly supportive. Thanks to that I’ve been able to do some amazing research, not just in astronomy, but also in other fields such as archeometry. In UT’s Galactic Archeology group I’ve been working with Dr. Keith Hawkins to develop phylogenetic trees, basically evolutionary dendrograms, for stars in the Milky Way. I’ve also been working for Dr. Sheldon Landsberger, with whom I completed a project clustering 2000-year old archeological samples based on their elemental compositions, and with whom I'm currently trying to determine safe handling doses for samples during neutron activation analysis. And lastly, with Dr. Mick Montgomery I’ve been working with the Astronomy Freshman Research Initiative to directly mentor and teach incoming freshmen about the basics of astronomy research.

A heat map showing how closely related each archeological sample was to one another.
A plot showing the distribution of Magnesium in stars in the Milky Way with respect to Iron. This information is useful when trying to build phylogeny trees.

I’m currently applying to graduate school where I intend to get my doctorate in computational astrophysics; however, promoting queer inclusivity and visibility will still be a focus of mine. It’s important not just for the next generation of LGBTQ scientists but for people in STEM fields even today. The more of us there are living our lives openly, the more it makes all of STEM a slightly better, more colorful, place.

Amaya Sinha

Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy Major, University of Texas