Name: Teddy Kurkoski
Hometown: Barrington, RI
Major: Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Master of Science in Materials Science and Engineering
Activities: Founder of Penn chapter of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM), Out for Undergrad (O4U), Carriage Senior Society, Materials Science and Engineering Society (MSE Society), Theta Tau, Rachleff Scholars research fellow, previous baritone sax and bass clarinet player for Penn Band wind ensemble
34th Street: Why did you decide to come to Penn?
Teddy Kurkoski: I'm from a really tiny town in Rhode Island. My house is about a 14–minute walk from the beach. It’s the type of place, you know, where everyone says hello to each other. I didn't realize how goofy it was until I left, but I love it and it's a beautiful place. In high school I was super into chemistry, and my brother was an engineering student at Delaware, and I visited him one weekend, and they had this free bookshelf in the mechanical engineering student lounge. So, I snagged two, one was physical metallurgy and the other one was experiments in polymer science, and I was like, "This is actually super weird but super, super cool stuff. Sam, if I wanted to study this, what would I study?" He was like, "Oh probably materials." And not a lot of schools have their own materials department, but Penn does. I'm really lucky to have ended up not only at Penn, but in the department. Materials is the smallest engineering department. We usually have about 20 undergrad students per year. When I came to visit for Quaker Days, they had a little lunch for each of the engineering departments. Materials only had one table, and I met (a) a bunch of students who are here now and in the department, and (b) this one woman, Vicky Lee, who’s our undergraduate coordinator. Vicky had organized this whole thing for all the students so that we could see the Laboratory of Research on the Structure of Matter, which is the materials building, and, right next to it, the Singh Center. Everyone was so sweet, and they care for the students a lot. People call Vicky mom—they take care of you.
Street: Why did you decide to get involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy?
TK: Coming from a small town and being one of very few openly queer students, I definitely wanted to be more immersed in a community of that type in college, but I think my first year especially there was a lot of learning. At the very far east side of our campus is engineering, and at the far west side is the LGBT Center. Going into my sophomore year, a few friends and I were like, "We should try and make some kind of space for this. We should try to do something." So we revived oSTEM chapter here: oSTEM is a national organization that's professionally focused and all about helping [LGBTQ+] students, but it can also be [for] graduate students. Different schools will have oSTEM chapters, essentially. We would do events with employers that were in town. We had this really interesting talk actually with this psychiatrist from Penn Med to talk about mental health expectations and lifestyles of queer youth, which was really eye–opening for me. What he talked about was when non–queer people think about their peak of life, they think, 'Oh I have a family, I have a house and a yard and a stable income at a job I enjoy and am in some sort of management for.' And when that same question is asked of young queer youth, it's like, "I have an apartment, I have enough autonomy to be on my own, I can support myself with food and rent." If you picture in your head what both of those people are, one is a 40–to–50–year–old and the other is a 20–to– early—30–year–old. The discrepancy there is really interesting, and was weird for me because it was so true. That really informed a lot of my thought processes of my needs, because, you know, oSTEM is like a selfish venture for me also. I was kind of bummed out and lonely, and though maybe other people feel that way and maybe we can do something. And through the people I met in oSTEM actually, I got to go to an O4U conference which was really great. Out for Undergrad has a set of four conferences that are sort of focused on teaching queer undergraduates how to find out which spaces are queer–friendly in the industry, and how you can be out at work and your authentic self at work. I’m in Out for Undergrad’s Engineering team. I've been to two conferences. The first one was especially eye–opening because there were so many new ideas at the time. The idea that I can talk about people that I may be seeing and going out on dates with at work is so important, not only as a possibility—it’s actually really important to a workspace. So much of office culture is built off of that, and if you feel like you can't talk about yourself, you're going to be miserable.
Street: We heard that you performed at the QPenn x QSA drag show. Can you talk about your experience?
TK: I did drag for the first time ever at my high school's Relay For Life. They had a Miss Relay event which was this big drag show. I think my name was Alabama Chartreuse. We had a talent portion and a speech portion. For the talent I did this really goofy line dance called “The Train,” which I don't know if it exists outside of my high school and our gym class. I ended up winning and I was like, "Who did that?" So then I went to a drag show my sophomore year where one of my friends was performing. So then my junior year I was really interested in doing it. My friend Brittany, who's my big in Theta Tau, practiced doing my makeup and everything. Last year, my persona was Rosalind Skanklin, which is a joke on Rosalind Franklin who was essentially this biological crystallographer who uncovered a lot of the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick ended up stealing a lot of her data, and she died of X–ray–related complications. It's really a tragic example of women in science being completely taken advantage of and not credited at all. So last year I came out in a tight curly brown wig and a lab coat. I had originally planned on having dolls of Watson and Crick on stage and I was going to murder [them and] enter seductively dancing around. But I was like, '(a) maybe a little violent and (b) I could not find dolls'–like everything else, it was very last minute. But it was so much fun. Halfway through, I dropped the lab coat to reveal a bodysuit and the energy was so good. So then this year I was super excited. I made this outfit out of tickets, which was so weird but so much fun. It was all just admissions tickets and tape. I bought a funky wig and lipstick and I made high pants and a little jacket for it. And literally an hour before I was going to go for makeup that night, I was like, "Oh shit I haven't even thought of the song and dance I'm going to do." And then my housemate came up with the name "Dick it to Ride," like "Ticket to Ride." I could not stop howling when he said that. The coolest thing about this year is that they brought in local Philly drag queens. It was Ebony Fierce, Pilar Salt, and Manny T Levitt. What they had was a lot of character. You know, I'm very basic level and not good at drag, it's just something that's fun. But they have such a moxie to them, and it really livens things up. Everyone was backstage, and I had the idea to write "Admit One” on my back with an arrow to my ass and cross out the one as sort of a joke for a reveal. Something they did this year was that people brought ones to tip. I got like $10 and got Wawa on my way home.
Street: Where are you planning on doing post graduation?
TK: After my junior year, so this summer, I actually worked for a hair care company. I worked for Aveda, which is an Estée Lauder brand that focuses on hair care. It's really cool because they're this super green, super eco–friendly company. Their factory is 100 percent wind–powered and some really high percent of their products are contained or packaged in secondary–use plastic. I did stuff like looking at hair and how we visualize hair in microscopes. All of the marketing and sales and business functions and engineering and science functions are under the same roof. Even higher ups in the company were so down to get lunch and talk about who you are and what the company is like. One interest I developed over that summer was sustainable or minimalist packaging. After graduation I'll be going to work for Estée Lauder on Long Island. I'll be doing engineering for them at their plant in Melville, and I'll either be doing product development or packaging, both of which are really really cool. Makeup has a lot of really cool science in it, which I think a lot of people don't expect.
Street: How do you hope to continue your advocacy work post–graduation?
TK: At the end of this past conference I was talking to one of the directors of the conference and she was like, "Would you consider doing this? Would you consider working with us?" And I was really excited by that idea because I'm going to graduate, I'm going to go work, and it's going to be weird because I'm going to lose this community that I've gained all throughout college that I value so much. It's sort of my way of trying to stay involved. We have our conference in the fall, so it’s just be a lot of organizing. I'm going to see how it works out with work. I think my job shouldn't be life–consuming in so many of the ways that a lot of people’s jobs are here. I feel like school is so 24/7, which in a lot of ways is so great, but in some ways I just really need seven hours of sleep, so I'm excited to have more space to work on it and have more space to work on myself.
Street: If you are a building on campus which building would you be?
TK: So in my dreams, I would be the Singh Center–perfectly engineered, super–efficient, really state–of–the–art and beautiful looking–but realistically, I'm probably closer to LRSM [Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter], which is a little run–down, but comfortable its own way.
Street: What is your go–to Wawa item?
TK: I usually will just roll through and get a quart of chocolate milk because that stuff is so good.
Street: What is one makeup item necessary for any drag persona?
TK: Oh geez. I think the thing I really loved is contour. A few people came up to me and were like, "Omg, I didn't even know it was you at first." You can really just reshape a face which I didn't know was an option.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn...
TK: People who treat service workers well and people who do not.
Street: What is your drink order?
TK: It's a new addition to an old classic. It's a pomegranate single margarita with a single salt rim from Copa. I live right at 40th and Spruce, so I'm right next to Copa and right across the street from Allegro's, which is sort of the Bermuda Triangle of me burning money on things I don't need.
Street: What is your the top place on your travel bucket list?
TK: After working over the summer, I have a bit of money saved up, and my siblings and I want to go to Ireland together.