Cel Welch is the Founder & CEO of Queer Engineer International and a current Engineering PhD student. In addition to striving to make engineering welcoming to all, Cel is highly committed to using diagnostic device engineering to help real people.
How did Queer Engineer begin?
I started Queer Engineer in September 2020, so we are still a very young organization (less than a year)!
I have always felt a bit stigmatized and downplayed, [seen] as someone who would eventually give up and leave engineering, as most people in the field have limited exposure to the LGBTQ+ community. Many people are just starting to respect women as engineers, for example, but, in my experience, the discrimination I’ve faced for being perceived as a woman is often eclipsed by that which I’ve endured for being LGBTQ+ / gender divergent.
Feeling othered is an uncomfortable experience that is especially prevalent in fields that are historically conditioned to hyper-traditional masculinity. People of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, disabled people, gender minorities, and other groups face a lot of difficulty in engineering, because the field has been slower to welcome these groups into the workforce than other fields have been.
I created QE at the peak of the pandemic because two things sort of clicked for me. I wasn’t satisfied by the representation and resources that were available for LGBTQIA+ people in engineering, and I realized that much of this was caused by our numbers being much smaller than those of LGBTQIA+ people in other STEM fields. There aren't that many of us, we're distributed around the world, and some of us go our whole careers without seeing another LGBTQIA+ engineer face-to-face. Then I thought, what if I did something to bring this international community of people together? Zoom could enable me to talk with research collaborators in different countries, so why couldn’t I virtually connect the international community for LGBTQIA+ engineers? And so, I did!
What makes Queer Engineer special to you?
You mean apart from it being my organization/baby? Haha! I would say that I have been highly involved in other LGBTQIA+ STEM groups, and it was challenging to actually meet another engineer in them. And I think the culture of engineering is very different from the culture of other fields. Now, I think we are filling that niche.
Queer Engineer will always be special to me because of the community that I've felt with people through the group. I will be talking to someone where everything about us differs from our country to age, but just being queer engineers gives us so much in common. There's so much shared experience there, so much infectious, uplifting happiness. Starting Queer Engineer has singlehandedly restored my faith that we can make it in this field.
What has Queer Engineer been involved with doing so far?
So far as a group we've had a few main campaigns, punctuated by some other smaller gatherings like meetings. The first major campaign that we did was in the month of February with The STEM Village, where we did an engineering research-based speaker series with a personal touch. We had 2-3 talks each Monday of the month. We encouraged speakers to supplement the traditional format of a research talk with a background on themselves and how their identity has intersected their work. And it was really touching to hear these stories of resilience from these successful engineers.
Our second big campaign that we did was a visibility campaign with your organization for Pride Month! The title of the campaign was “This is What An LGBTQIA+ Engineer+ Looks Like," and it was an opportunity for folks to be visible and share their stories. We pooled resources with 500QS and ultimately had over 100 submissions! We decided to highlight the stories of several individuals, and use this as an opportunity to amplify their work.
We've also been engaged in an ongoing collaboration with Letters to a Pre-Scientist. For this, we matched LGBTQIA+ engineering writers (mentors) with middle-school-aged kids (mentees) as pen pal pairs. In the upcoming school year, our engineers will write to these kids about their work and serve as role models for them. We're also involved in resource development, where we're creating guidelines for the other mentors and teachers on how to respect LGBTQIA+ identities.
We're involved in a sort of collaboration with THRIVE Lifeline as well. THRIVE is an excellent group that provides support for marginalized and underrepresented individuals. If you’re having a crisis, you can talk to them, just text “THRIVE” to begin your conversation with them anywhere. You can even use our key, “QEng.”
Last but not least, we're passionate about creating a financial support system for LGBTQIA+ engineers at all levels of their career, but particularly for those who are less established and may be in need. We recently announced our first scholarship opportunity, “The Queer Engineer Scholarship for Trans+ Students in Engineering, Technology & Applied Sciences." We hope to motivate trans and gender diverse individuals to stay on track despite the discrimination, and help distribute some much-needed acknowledgment and affirmation in addition to financial support!
What do you want LGBTQ+ scientists to know about Queer Engineer?
Just mostly to know that we exist, since we're such a new and small group! Another thing is that you don’t necessarily have to be an “engineer” to be a part of our group—we welcome anyone from applied science and technology as well.
What's next for Queer Engineer?
We're planning on beginning the "Featured Queer Engineer Initiative," in which we will give a more long-form platform for discussion to an individual engineer who has contributed significantly to the field or in some other way (as opposed to the ~2-sentence bio seen in our visibility campaign). We're looking to have longer-form interviews with a few key individuals to continue to “pull back the curtain” so to speak, and inspire the community. We hope to devise other ways to motivate others and give people a platform to share their stories.
Another event on the intersection of society and engineering is in the works, where we'll discuss how these topics intersect, how social factors influence engineering and vice versa, and what our obligation to society is as engineers.
We're also planning on putting together a website with several features eventually, so stay tuned for future updates about that! If you're interested in getting involved in any capacity, you can fill out our interest form. If you’re interested in seeing some type of event involving LGBTQIA+ engineering intersections, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can help make your dream a reality!
Has there been anything challenging or surprising that you’ve learned or experienced while doing this work?
Ninety percent of QE is run by me, with an occasional volunteer helping out from time to time. It’s very logistically challenging to do this all while doing a PhD and having very high expectations of myself in both contexts! But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I wasn’t sure I was doing everything I could to help solve this problem. Engineering is the coolest thing in the world to me, and I want more people to feel like they can carve out a niche for themselves in this field.
Another thing is that some people get very mad when they see LGBTQIA+ combined with engineering. We'll get hate comments. And if anything, that just reassures me that the work we are doing is important, but it’s still sad to see other engineers being so hateful.