Mutter Museum’s Out4STEM Program Aims to Attract LGBTQ Youth to Science

From left to right: Bella Santos, Karim Sariammed, Jorge Colon, Jacqui Bowman, Jeanene Johnson, and Marcy Engleman.

From left to right: Bella Santos, Karim Sariammed, Jorge Colon, Jacqui Bowman, Jeanene Johnson, and Marcy Engleman.

The first time 17-year old Jorge walked through the Mutter Museum, filled with preserved jars of fetuses, hearts, and lungs, he literally lost his appetite.

“I couldn’t eat for days,” he says. “My mom would cook all this food and I just couldn’t eat it!”

That’s changed quite a bit: now, the El Centro High School student is a regular intern at the Mutter, a division of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, where he recently cleaned the bottles, jars, and containers of human body parts as part of one of his assignments. But that’s not all: He’s created a Spanish version of a Mutter Museum brochure that narrates the collection’s gardens and was able to tour a botany collection at the Barnes that contained specimens from as far as South Asia.

“They have helped me a lot,” he says. “I’m learning new things. They are helping me with math; I used to hate math, but I’m working on it. I’m also getting a sense of what to do for college.”

Jorge is part of the College’s recently conceived Out4STEM program, which aims to train, educate, and provide peer-support networks for Philadelphia LGBTQ youth with a science and technology twist. Students are able to get academic support, career advice, and mentoring in a safe, inclusive, and, let’s just face it, cool environment: the Mutter Museum.

The idea started after the College received funding to run a Hip to Know program several years ago to normalize the process for STI testing, which was an extremely important project according to Dr. Jacqui Bowman, director of the Center for Education and Public Initiatives at the College, because of the alarmingly high rates of STI infections in Philadelphia teenagers.

“It became extremely obvious that the LGBT youth population as a subset were the most vulnerable,” she says. “There was such a need. There were kids in school who were bullied and missing classroom time, and we wanted to provide mentoring, tutoring, and inspiration to these students.”

Nina Bilynsky, an advisor at El Centro High School, has been a huge advocate and supporter of the program. She suggests that the type of work the Out4STEM students do is authentic and has real impact.

“The organization has taken our school’s required internship program to the next level,” she says. “It provides a whole other piece that enhances the experience for our students.”

The idea of a LGBTQ youth science program may have seemed a little odd at the start; even Karim Sariammed, the Youth Programs coordinator at the College, remembers the first time he mentioned the idea to a group of students.

“A lot of our kids laughed,” he recalls. But soon, the concept caught on, and some of the students who were currently involved with the College’s other youth-based programming switched gears to join the Out4STEM program, including one young woman who has become the resident phlebotomist in the group.

Best of all? She now has distinct marketable training that can land her a job.

“The program has helped multiple kids create allies,” Bowman says. “There are 1,200 fellows at this College; we can easily match them together with these students.” She references another Out4STEM student who has interests in cardiology and how the program teamed him up with a resident cardiologist.

But it isn’t just one-on-one mentoring that the program provides; the College is offering a host of public events in Philadelphia that aim to attract a wide spectrum of LGBTQ youth to discuss important social and professional topics. On November 20, Out4STEM is teaming with the University of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Center for a discussion titled “Out on the App: Coming Out Again and Again” about just how much information a potential job applicant should include on their resumes. For this particular project, LGBTPM+, an organization of Penn gay medical students, have joined forces with the College, along with local human resources professionals.

“It’s going to be a discussion on what you should say and what you shouldn’t say,” says Sariammed. “Although some sense of queer expression is natural, when applying for positions, it can become a difficult question of what you should expose. It proves to be a stressful dynamic in an already stressful situation.”

Later in December, the group presents “The Future is Queer,” featuring queer South Asian spoken-word artist Janai Balsubramanian, who also holds a degree in engineering. The event on December 18th hopes to build a bridge between words, sci-fi, science, and queer identity.

It is this intersection of identities that seems to interest Bella, another El Centro High School student who is interning at the Mutter. Bella, who is interested in healthcare and running a shelter home for trans youth, is lucky for the program that combines two things she loves most: the LGBTQ community and science.

“You don’t hear about a lot of mathematicians or doctors who are part of the queer community,” she says. At first, she thought the Mutter Museum was a bit intimidating, but after spending time there, she’s changed her mind.

“It’s got a cool vibe and environment,” she says.

In the end, the program is making connections that many of these students simply would never have if it wasn’t for the College and the minds behind Out4STEM, and that’s entirely the point.

“It is another set of adults who care and who can connect the students with the sources they need,” says Bowman. “It’s more than the actual events, or learning about chemistry: It’s the one-on-one discussions, or the Facebook messages. I just got one that said, ‘I just thought of you guys the other day.’ It’s these types of mentor relationships that are important. But don’t worry: we’ll infiltrate that chemistry class one day soon.”

You can follow the program via Twitter @Out4STEM and join their Facebook group by visiting here.