Using every mind to make a better world: Being out in STEM

What makes our world work? STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) delivers everything from better medicines to keeping us safe. Yet to find solutions to the thousands of challenges facing our generation and the next, we need every expert to be able to use their full ingenuity.

That’s why Avery Cunningham, Nuclear Science and Materials student, has spent two years building up the Birmingham chapter of Out in STEM (oSTEM), so that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans students know that they don’t have to hide who they are to succeed in STEM.

Avery says: ‘Many students at Birmingham want support, especially if they come from families or communities where they have not been fully accepted for who they are. Yet if all you have in common is your gender/sexual identity, that sometimes isn’t enough – I wanted to talk about science!

'I was lucky at school to have incredibly supportive teachers. In Year 11, they even took us to visit CERN, just months before the Higgs Boson discovery was announced. So I wanted to build a similar level of support for students at Birmingham; offering both security and inspiration.

'We’ve grown from a handful of students in the Maths building to a group of more than 40 – even History and Business students with an interest in science have joined us for the social and professional support we offer. As Chair, one of my proudest moments was when the founder of the LGBT group at CERN came to talk to us about the huge innovations LGBT people are making in STEM jobs, and how much we need more brilliant minds like those.

'In the last year, I’ve been striving to create international links, so that members feel part of a community, not just in Birmingham, but across the globe. This network will support each other wherever we choose to work after graduation. I’ll be proud to represent Birmingham, now the oldest and most successful chapter outside the US, when I take on a newly created international position with oSTEM once I graduate.’

Studying to keep others safe

Avery’s STEM focus is on people’s safety. In his upcoming Masters at Birmingham, he will be addressing nuclear decommissioning and safe disposal of waste.

‘The UK currently has 17 sites at various stages of decommissioning and in the next decade will decommission more, hopefully with more planned to be built. The key challenge is that sites such as Sellafield have remains from early nuclear research and prototypes that need to be managed, with each one being built differently, trying out new ideas. That constant innovation has led to the better and safer plants we will replace them with, but it means there is no guidebook for how to handle them safely. I’ll need to know so much and be ready for surprises. I’m in the right place - Birmingham was one of the first universities to offer a course on nuclear reactors.

'And while I learn everything I can about nuclear reactors, I’m getting work experience each summer with security company QinetiQ. Recently, I helped them model lasers to defend against a variety of targets. I’m so grateful for the skills they have helped me develop in analytics, situation modelling and coding, and their support with the costs of studying.’

Find out more about Out in STEM at www.ostem.org, email oSTEM Birmingham to get involved or explore how you could offer advice and experience to students by contacting the alumni volunteering team.