Things weren’t always easy for Rob Ulrich, nor were they straightforward. Ulrich (they/them) grew up in Manassas, Virginia (pop. 42,772 in the 2020 Census). By comparison, the city of Los Angeles clocked in at 3,898,747 people that same year, nearly 90 times larger.
While Manassas wasn’t a tiny town by any means, the town’s size made it difficult for a queer, nonbinary, biracial boy born to a dad who is Pennsylvania Dutch and a mom who is Vietnamese, to spread their wings and find a place in the universe.
“I always felt that I was different, and it has taken me my whole life to come into realizing what those differences are — being queer, being nonbinary, being biracial,” Ulrich says. “Even now, I’m still figuring out what those differences are as I come to know myself better and better.”
Ulrich is a doctoral student in Geochemistry at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and an active participant in the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science (CDLS).
As Ulrich gets to know things better, it’s opening up a world where they can be themselves just that much more. Because after all, Ulrich is “a curious person who wants to understand how the world works and how to bring people together.”
Ulrich is sharing more about their story and path to self-awareness and acceptance.
What brought you to UCLA, specifically the Center for Diverse Leadership in Science?
Pure chance. I feel incredibly lucky.
By the time I was graduating from undergrad in southwest Virginia, I felt trapped in my situation. I was lucky to be able to share how I was feeling with my undergraduate advisor. She told me that, if I went into research as a career, “[I] could go anywhere and do anything.” We talked about different schools where she thought cool work was being done and where I should apply to. She didn’t have any specific names of people when she wrote UCLA, but she said that there were a lot of good people. I ended up getting accepted into half the schools I applied to It felt great to finally feel like I had a choice in deciding what my future could look like.
Since I didn’t have any names of faculty to apply to at UCLA — and professors’ websites are famously always out-of-date — I went to UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences website and listed two professors whose work I thought was really interesting. They were geo- and cosmochemists. Luckily, Aradhna (Tripati) came across my application and was interested in me because I had some expertise studying a new model of crystal growth. So, we talked over Zoom. During that conversation, she told me about the center that she was starting, and everything came together. I told her that I was interested in developing Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) programs for the LGBTQ+ community because it would have been something that would have been great for me during undergrad.
Tell us a little bit about the work you are involved in and how it relates to Center for Diverse Leadership in Science?
I have done a number of things with CDLS while I have been at UCLA, but I think my biggest contribution was co-founding and leading Queer & Trans in STEM in 2018. In the first year, we grew to a membership of more than 300 students, staff, and faculty. We had events that ranged from social gatherings and game nights to full-on research symposia at UCLA and collaborating with the LA LGBT Center to give career talks to the people living there. CDLS helped us with financial and organizational support for events of all sizes. CDLS was also vital in supporting enough to be able to do that organizing work and create that space for others.
Now, I am the associate director of the nonprofit, ReclaimingSTEM Institute. CDLS supported some of our workshops while we were a grassroots organization, and now CDLS still helps to support me while we are a registered public non-profit organization. Our mission is to change who leads the scientific enterprise and how they lead by building community, capacity, and power, for and with scientists from across diverse and historically marginalized communities. Our mission directly compliments that of CDLS.
What would you want others to know about your experience as a member of the LQBTQI+ community at UCLA?
When I first came to UCLA, I was surprised when I struggled to find community. I learned that even though I was in one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the world, universities and the departments in them are silos. Their demographics, especially as you look higher in the bureaucratic hierarchy, are direct reflections of the cultures and environments that they create and uphold. I did feel like an outsider at first. I toned down all aspects of my queer identity. I figured that I would simply bear it during the work week and find community elsewhere.
However, I quickly realized that doing so was difficult given how much time we spend on campus working. It emphasized the importance of creating our on-campus community. I am happy to report that, at least in my department, this has changed. I am now one of a number of LGBTQ+ people in the department. I have also grown and become more confident in my own skin. The UCLA LGBTQ+ Campus Resource Center — one of the best in the country — was also integral in helping give me tools and support.
What are some highlights of your experience here?
The highlights of my experience are the incredible people I’ve had the opportunity to meet, befriend and work with during my time here. The support of CDLS has allowed me the resources to be flexible and explore in all aspects of my life, personally and professionally. Community, community, community.
How can people at CDLS create a culture of empathy and support for those who are in a minority group?
It is hard to say anything on this. Starting at UCLA in 2017, CDLS and I were growing at the same time. We have both changed a lot, and I think we both will continue to change a lot. It’s also hard to provide an answer here because CDLS is so responsive and attentive to its community, and the needs of the community — and thus, CDLS — will change as people come and go. However, if I have to say something, it would be to stay kind. Being kind and being nice are not the same. Kindness comes from love and wanting the best for yourself and others. Niceness comes from wanting to spare peoples’ feelings and avoid conflict. There are times and places for that, but conflict and tension are required for growth, and we must learn to embrace that discomfort.
Tell us about the role models or mentors who have helped you navigate the ups and downs of being a LGBTQI person at UCLA.
I have been lucky enough to work with a number of incredible mentors through CDLS. These people have shown up as people in all different kinds of career stages. One of the largest is Aradhna Tripati, because she is not just the founder and director of CDLS, but she is also my primary advisor for my Ph.D. work. It has been incredible getting to watch her work and live firsthand as an award-winning scientist while she also makes change in the scientific community. I’ve also been mentored by post-docs, including Dr. Jesse Bloom Bateman, who demonstrated how to maintain humanity while still doing the things you love: balancing work with family, friends, and hobbies. Then lastly, I’ve met a number of fellow graduate students, and we all get to mentor and learn from each other. It is easy to overlook our peers, but we all come from different backgrounds and sets of experiences. There is much we can learn from one another.
What are your hopes for a more inclusive world?
My hope for an inclusive world is a hope for a kind world. I envision a world where people respect their environments and everything in them, including other people. However, this kindness and respect includes calling out and mitigating injustices and reducing harm, in efforts to create a better and more equitable world.
It is difficult to envision a path to this that does not absolutely eliminate the capitalist culture that pervades society. If we bar this, we can simply embody the changes that we want to see and create programs that support our communities, on smaller scales.