Looking back on his career, research scientist TJ Ronningen considers himself lucky – and perhaps a bit naive. After Ronningen graduated high school, he barely knew any openly gay men – let alone openly gay engineers – when he left his hometown of rural Oregon.
“I don’t think I knew what an engineer was or that there was even such a thing as engineering,” he says. In retrospect, Ronningen might have chosen that career path to nurture his interest in practical application of mathematics. Instead, he went to Wabash College to pursue chemistry.
As a queer man coming of age in the 1990s, he avoided any serious discrimination, sheltered from the societal attitudes and stigmas accelerated by the AIDS epidemic and homophobic legislation. This fortuitous lack of hostility, however, shouldn’t be confused with a sense of belonging.
“I was out of the closet, but I felt alone in that respect,” says Ronningen, who serves as chair of Out to Innovate, a professional society and global community of LGBTQ+ students and professionals in STEMM careers.
Formerly known as the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, the group was founded in 1983 to elevate the accomplishments of an underrepresented community via scholarships, funding and networking. The group’s mission aligns with similar efforts to engage minorities in STEM, often tackling the sense of isolation that comes from being different.
It’s a feeling Ronningen knows well. In 2005, he finished his Ph.D. in chemical physics at The Ohio State University, where he now works. His peers sought jobs in far-flung places, but he wasn’t eager to move away from the university town. When classmates asked about his hesitancy to leave the area, Ronningen was scared to reveal the true reason behind his decisions.
“I was not open to my colleagues in graduate school,” Ronningen says. “I had a partner. A man I had started dating, who is now my husband, led me to be committed to Columbus, but I couldn’t tell them that. It was just a big unknown.”
Shortly after graduating, Ronningen started a job at Battelle, a local government research and development contractor. Determined to be open about his sexuality, he got involved with a newly formed resource group for LGBTQ+ employees.
“There wasn’t a year that went by that someone didn’t come out at work for the first time by joining that group,” says Ronningen, who learned about Out to Innovate during his time at Battelle.
In 2010, he helped persuade Battelle to sponsor the organization’s first national symposium, which he attended at the University of Southern California.
“So much of science and engineering, especially at a corporate level, is working in teams,” Ronningen says. “Some people feel like they can’t be out and open for fear of being discriminated against or not supported by management.”
Sometimes it’s the seemingly little things. Imagine not feeling safe putting a photo of your family or spouse on your desk. Other times, LGBTQ+ people pass up real opportunities for career advancement and networking, Ronningen says. Some professional associations, for example, might hold conferences in areas of the world with strict laws against certain lifestyles. A few U.S. states still enforce “bathroom bills” restricting access to public restrooms based on gender identity.
“The issue of location is a very live issue unfortunately,” says Ronningen, adding that Out to Innovate publishes material to help companies foster inclusive environments and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues. The organization also provides mentoring opportunities.
Today, he’s grateful to work in Ohio State’s electrical and computer engineering program, where he’s been a researcher since 2017 specializing in long wavelength infrared light, which is leveraged in optical communications, LiDAR, and applications of spectroscopy.
LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, uses pulsed lasers to create 3D spatial mappings of an environment. Spectrometers analyze the presence of different bands of infrared light to classify gasses and chemicals in the atmosphere. Ronningen works on a team led by Sanjay Krishna that’s trying to create new semiconductor materials to detect infrared light.
A semiconductor, such as the element silicon, is a basic building block in modern electronics. Arrays consisting of thousands of semiconductors form the sensors used in digital imaging, including those found in cell phone cameras. Currently, the most sensitive infrared detectors use semiconductors that must be cooled to cryogenic temperatures, posing a challenge to widespread commercial adoption.
Ronningen believes his team’s research could make infrared imaging available much more easily and cheaply. First responders, for example, could benefit from having widely available infrared imaging to detect hazardous gasses or dangerous chemicals from a safe distance.
“I really love those applications,” Ronningen says. “It’s a big part of what motivates me … going out into the world and actually working and having some impact.”