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Cameron Kim, Ph.D. : Featured Queer Engineer

Dr. Kim is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Biomedical Engineering at Duke University. He is also the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies within the BME department. Read on to learn more about Dr. Kim's exceptional work as a teaching-track faculty member and beyond.

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QE: What is your current job?

I am an assistant professor of the practice in biomedical engineering at Duke University. I am also the associate director of undergraduate studies in the BME department. As a teaching-track faculty member, my work focuses on developing BME curricula in biotechnology, molecular engineering, and modeling biomedical systems.

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

I completed my B.S.E in Biomedical Engineering at Duke, and also received a math double major and an interdisciplinary certificate in Genome Sciences & Policy. I did my M.S. and Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Stanford University, where I studied how to harness alternative splicing as a synthetic biology device in mammalian cells.

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

As an engineering teaching-track professor, I am excited to work with undergraduate and graduate students on a daily basis to grow in their practice of engineering biomolecules and cells to perform a user-defined function. The courses that I develop focus on often complex topics in genome editing, protein and nucleic acid engineering, and other emergent biotechnologies, and I work with students, staff, and other faculty to design lessons using inclusive best practices in education and pedagogy. I also serve as the faculty mentor for the Duke International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team, where undergraduates explore primary research with a hands-on synthetic biology project of their design. I enjoy mentoring students in the lab to grow their research skills and provide access to this knowledge that too often is reserved for upper-level courses.

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

STEM fields are too often viewed as impersonal, devoid of the personal identities that are so critical in the formation of citizens in our society. Because of this, I struggled with outing myself in my professional engineering career, thinking that my LGBTQIA+ identity wasn’t important in my work. However, the internal challenges of having to cover my queer identity early in my career and knowing that my younger peers and students would also struggle with this, led me to find a queer engineering community that validated all of my being. I hope that being out as a queer engineer and presenting all of my identities helps to break down barriers so future generations wouldn’t have to struggle with the same decisions I had to when I started.

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?

In engineering design, we must consider the numerous stakeholders that may engage with our technology such that it is accessible, inclusive, and will impact positive change. Especially with biomedical interventions and biotechnology advances, it is important to consider the marginalized voices that have been excluded from designing effective therapies, or even worse exploited by society. When I teach design, I emphasize that the cultural, societal, economic, and sexual/gender identities we bring to the table will change our perspectives when assessing whether a technology meets its desired goals. As a queer individual, I consider how certain “gendered” therapies will not be accessible to the trans/gender non-conforming community because of physicians who put folks in a binary box. When in the classroom, I ensure to design lectures and assignments in an inclusive fashion that highlights queer scientists and scientists of color to show that every one of my students belongs in the classroom, and their voices, identities, and perspectives are essential to engineering for the world around them. As multiracial, I am acutely aware that I don’t “check the boxes” on standard forms that may exclude me from medical therapies or from a conversation that doesn’t include multiple ethnicities. As a first-generation college student, I know I didn’t have the same access to an academic career as I had to navigate many parts of grad school and faculty on my own, or had to seek mentors who looked like me, which is especially difficult as queer engineering faculty are a minority. However, I don’t want for other first-generation, queer, and multiracial or other historically underrepresented minorities in engineering to struggle with the exclusion I dealt with, and I make sure as a mentor, lecturer, and colleague to push these conversations and active practices to the forefront.

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QE: What does effective mentorship mean to you?

As a mentor and teacher, I work with my students to bridge the gap between the known and unknown and work to meet them where needed. I value my students identities that have shaped their perspective of STEM careers and identify the niche for them that allows them to succeed. I find that mentoring students early in their engineering career requires a significant amount of listening and exposure to paths, old and new, to be a biomedical engineer given how diverse the career paths can be.

QE: How can we foster LGBTQIA+ affirming professional spaces and settings in STEM?

I think that we need all levels of leadership and governance in STEM fields, departments, and companies to promote anti-discrimination practices and hold individuals accountable for violating these principles, especially with education and mentorship. This should establish the importance of identity in the classroom and workplace that allows all individuals to bring their authentic selves to the engineering profession.