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Brian Murphy, Ph.D.(c) : Featured Queer Engineer

Brian Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate in Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. Murphy was selected as an Astronaut Scholar by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and was also chosen to be the 2021 Out Astronaut by the Out Astronaut Project. Read on to learn more about Murphy's exceptional work as an astronomy researcher, astronaut-in-training, and more.

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QE: What is your current job?

I am an Astronomy Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburg’s Institute for Astronomy. As a Ph.D. student, I am also a teaching assistant in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Within the Institute, I research the coma of comets and perform the requisite astrophysical observations.

QE: Where did you complete your education, and in what disciplines?

I completed my undergraduate education at the Florida Institute of Technology in May of 2022, earning my B.S. in Planetary Science with the distinctions of Magna Cum Laude, Apollo Scholar, and Astronaut Scholar. I am also currently enrolled at the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences as a student-trainee in their Scientist-Astronaut Candidacy program.

QE: In your own words - what kind of engineering do you do? What does a typical day in your life usually look like?

At first glance, one might not associate engineering with the fields of Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Planetary Sciences, however I would ask you to think again! While these fields are not pure engineering, I employ various engineering techniques and knowledge on a daily basis; whether evaluating the limits of a telescope based on its engineered constraints or constructing a new bit of code to interface between hardware. One can find the core tenants of engineering in my office every day.

QE: What has your experience been like as an out LGBTQIA+ engineer?

As an out and proud gay, non-binary individual, my personal and professional experiences have been varied over the years. In the first year of my undergraduate career, I was outed by my best friend and left utterly alone in my university as an LGBTQIA+ scientist and engineer. No matter my efforts, I couldn’t identify any open LGBTQIA+ role models within STEM fields and almost changed majors Junior year because of this. I then found a program that gave me the two things I had been seeking: a welcoming community and real opportunity to create change. This program was the Out Astronaut Project, which aimed to select, fund, train, and fly one talented LGBTQIA+ STEM professional into space – I knew I had to apply. Subsequently, I was selected the summer before my Senior year after a National competition with dozens of competitors and rigorous interview phase. The Out Astronaut Project gives me hope for the future of inclusivity in STEM fields and for our next generation of LGBTQIA+ explorers and engineers.

QE: Why is it important to you to bring your whole self to work? In other words - how do your intersectional identities impact your work?

The pursuit of sciences is the pursuit of truth, and what greater truth is there than truth to yourself and to others? This is why it is so crucial to accept yourself and bring your whole self into professional and personal circles. Without the freedom and self-assurance of knowing and accepting your truths, there are marked reductions in productivity, creativity, and personal wellbeing. Peer-reviewed research shows that closeted professionals in STEM are more likely to experience significant mental and physical health issues over the course of their career than their out or heterosexual counterparts. Increasing the diversity of our workspaces also allows for greater opportunity for innovation, diversity of thought, and new breakthroughs. Through being yourself, you are directly improving your own wellbeing and the greater wellbeing of the field.

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QE: What does effective mentorship mean to you?

Until college, I attended Catholic schools for 14 years. Being who I am wasn't easy throughout middle and high school as a result of this. Like many LGTBQ+ kids who grew up in rural areas, I had to find out who I was and where I belonged all on my own. This was very difficult because my local community in rural Maryland had zero LGBTQ+ and zero STEM representation. It felt like I had to build the wheel, engine, and car – all while driving it uphill at the same time.

 

Effective mentorship is defined by accessible role models – people who can help guide youth through difficulties in life. Mentorship is a powerful tool because it can help protect individuals from harmful experiences, much like my own. Often times, I look back and think how I would have changed my actions if only I had the foresight to have acted differently. While I cannot change my past, I can help guide someone’s present. That is why I love being an effective and accessible mentor.

QE: How can we break down barriers and inspire the next generation of explorers and engineers?

Barriers have existed in STEM fields since its conception, excluding women, racial minorities, and sexual/gender minorities. It is crucial, as we progress into the future, to reflect upon the field’s past. We must acknowledge these barriers and build a more accessible STEM field. In my time as an STEM LGBTQIA+ advocate, I have found three techniques that can help break down barriers for our next generation. First and foremost, being out in professional circles is one of the most profound ways to change the field from the inside out – ensuring that biases are checked on a daily basis. Grassroots efforts are equally vital to removing these barriers, albeit on a longer timescale. If we can show the next generation that it is possible to succeed as an LGBTQIA+ scientist, engineer, or explorer, then the field will change with them. Lastly, congressional and national activism is crucial to wider equity and accessibility efforts. With the support of institutional leaders, we can ensure greater and long-lasting change from the top down.

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QE: You were a 2021 Out Astronaut as well as an Astronaut Scholar. What do these distinctions mean to you? Do you have any words to share about your experiences with these programs?

Being named the 2021 Out Astronaut and a 2021 Astronaut Scholar is the highest honor of my life, and an extremely humbling experience. Oftentimes, I think back to 4 years ago, when I was freshly outed and alone in my field. I could have never imagined coming this far from such a low, yet now I look forward to reaching even higher. It is through the support and opportunities of the Out Astronaut Project and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation that have forged me into scientist, advocate, and individual I am proud to be today. Both organizations are working to increase access in engineering and STEM fields, and I am truly blessed to have been selected to join and represent them.

QE: What does the future look like for you and your career? Do you have any goals that you are looking to achieve that you would like to discuss?

My long-term career goals culminate in being selected as a NASA Astronaut, exploring the Solar System, and pushing the boundaries of the human condition for all. However, life is not about the destination, rather, it’s about the journey. Before that goal comes to fruition, I hope to have held teaching positions where I can share my passion for sciences and be that accessible role model for future students. In these positions, I would work every day to ensure the safety, happiness, and successful future of my students. 

 

As a lifelong explorer, I also hope to have worked extensively in the international sector – meeting people and cultivating connections across the globe. For me, true happiness comes from looking beyond the horizon and deciphering what that new world holds. As I grow into my professional career, I hope to fulfill this aspect of me wherever I may end up.

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