Building an LGBT community for STEM majors

Paul Zarate (Preston Davis photo)Paul Zarate (Photo by Preston Davis.)For Paul Zarate, the best part of Berkeley Engineering is the extracurriculars. Despite the demands of schoolwork, the mechanical engineering senior has not only joined different student groups every year of his college career, but two years ago he started his own. In 2011, Zarate founded the Berkeley chapter of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM), a national organization dedicated to the professional development of LGBT students in STEM majors.

Coming to Berkeley from Oxnard, California, Zarate says, “It was very important for me to choose a university that strove for diversity and appreciated the different cultures of the student body.” The appreciation for diversity, coupled with Zarate’s passion for energizing student life in the college, led him to start oSTEM.

“I knew I wanted to start a club, but I wasn’t sure what exactly,” says Zarate. “But after hearing from Dale Masterson in ESS [Engineering Student Services] about oSTEM, I knew that was it.”

“I felt the need to start oSTEM because there was no other group like it,” says Zarate. “I wanted the group to focus on the intersection of academic and personal hobbies, such as the interest in technology with queer identity.” Along with fostering a professional network for LGBT students within STEM majors, the club also serves as a safe and social community for the members.

The Berkeley chapter of oSTEM, founded in 2011, is one of 25 chapters nationwide. (Courtesy Berkeley oSTEM chapter)The Berkeley chapter of oSTEM, founded in 2011, is one of 25 chapters nationwide. (Photo by Berkeley oSTEM chapter)A national organization founded in Washington, D.C. in 2005, oSTEM now has 25 chapters nationwide. It started when an IBM focus group convened students from across the country at the federal Office of Human Rights to discuss topics relevant to LGBT communities at schools. The students came up with the idea for oSTEM.

Not only has Zarate helped create a community for others through oSTEM, but the club has also helped Zarate grow personally. “Being the president of oSTEM has pushed me to be a lot more social, and I can now speak much more easily in front of crowds—something I struggled with before.”

In the past four years, Zarate has also worked with the CalSol team and Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM). He also held the position of communications officer for the Engineering Student Council. Now serving his second term as oSTEM president, Zarate is working to ensure a smooth transition to a new chapter president after his graduation in May.

Inside the classroom, Zarate has been no less ambitious. In his microprocessors class, he created a toy missile launcher out of a robotic arm and a webcam designed to differentiate and shoot at specific colored objects. His interests lie in simulating dynamics problems and designing products.

After graduation, Zarate hopes to find a position in controls engineering, which he was exposed to during a coveted internship last summer at NASA in Maryland. There, he served as a controls engineer on a global precipitation measurement satellite. Zarate also aims to continue his involvement with oSTEM, possibly working at the national level, educating people and creating a safer community for LGBT people hoping to enter STEM fields.