Kyle Lakatos sells sweets at the “Periodic Table of Cookies” event at Kresge Pride. Photo by Pierce Crosby.

Max Aung and Kyle Lakatos are distinctly different: one suave and with a quick tongue, and the other reserved and methodological. But both have experienced similar challenges in finding a sense of belonging at a school that tends to separate identity from profession.

Lakatos was raised in the Bay Area for most of his life, whereas Aung emigrated with his family from Burma at the age of five. They are both first-generation college students who have excelled in professional degrees within the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) departments, but with very different focuses: Aung is a fourth-year in molecular cell and developmental biology and Lakatos is a fourth-year in biochemistry.

Interest in the sciences has brought them and many fellow peers together for healthy discussion, but they have found they are often more commonly united by a different identity: Lakatos and Aung are queer students.

“With STEM … when you come to the front door, you leave other things at the front door, and then you come inside with that identity,” Aung said. “When I go to resources for STEM, I kind of have to put my being gay behind, so its nice to have such an open, safe place to identify with both — that’s what The Element Lounge offers.”

The association of the dual identities may seem insignificant to some, but for those who have them in common, the particular combination can be rather challenging. Because of this divide between the sciences and their queer identity, Aung and Lakatos, along with Chris Britton and Mark Corre, collaborated to engineer The Element Lounge (TEL).

“There isn’t really an inclusion of all disciplinary discussions,” Aung said. “[In the sciences] its not that being LGBT is less accepted, it’s just that sciences have a certain stoic-ness to it, where you don’t really bring in those outside ideas — and you enjoy the beauty of that stoic-ness, but it’s lacking in that you don’t really bring culture to science that often. That’s why we need diversity programs … to have these conversations.”

Herbert Lee, mathematics department faculty member, vice provost of student affairs and TEL’s faculty sponsor, said TEL offers a valuable support system.

“There is a need for an organization like TEL, which helps form this community for students who might otherwise have difficulty in connecting with each other,” Lee said. “Communities like this generally increase the success rate of students in them.”

The group was founded in late spring, quickly attracting members from diverse areas of STEM.

“There was never open communication about it,” Lakatos said. “There was never really a bridge between grouping the queer identity with the scientific identity, it was always two separate things, so we really wanted to bring those together.”

The Element Lounge (TEL) has become part of a “trifecta” of three identity-oriented groups associated with making the bridge between science and community. Together with the Academic Excellence Program’s Pre-Health Community (PHC) and Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), TEL generates awareness of student diversity within the science community.

While it’s not the only organization that provides support and awareness for queer students — or for science students — TEL is the only organization that provides this community simultaneously.

More than providing academic support, TEL aims to create a community of trust.

“I think the most hard-hitting thing that has happened, for me, is the idea that there are other people who are going through the same or similar struggle,” Lakatos said. “That is what was most rewarding about this group.”