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Duncan McGraw speaks at the United Graduate Workers of UNM's Rally for Recognition on Sept. 3.

Grad student Duncan McGraw seeks to support his community


Duncan McGraw, who works as a research assistant and is pursuing a Ph.D. in optical science and engineering at the University of New Mexico, is passionate about playing an active role in his community and bringing more perspectives to STEM fields, as well as promoting fair working conditions for graduate workers.

A lot of the work McGraw does involves lasers and studying light. Specifically, McGraw studies how light interacts with materials and how to use it to convey information and do computations. According to McGraw, lasers have always been of interest to him, which is what inspired his interest in this field.

Within the STEM program and McGraw’s field of study, McGraw is one of the few queer individuals. He identifies as a nonbinary, pansexual man and uses he/they pronouns. McGraw hopes people understand that his queer identity doesn’t make him any worse at what he studies, but aids his department by bringing in a different viewpoint. 

“It definitely applies to researchers of color as well ... women and nonbinary people — the full range of human identity; (because) there are so many different experiences and perspectives ... while they aren’t typical in research, they can be incredibly valuable in giving insights that otherwise would not be explored, or fully investigated,” McGraw said. 

McGraw became interested in attending UNM around when the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting UNM in March 2020, and moved to Albuquerque last summer in order to start his studies. Those circumstances, coupled with strenuous conditions in a research group, made the beginning of his time in Albuquerque an isolating experience. After dealing with contract issues that resulted in not getting paid for the first two months, he began to get involved with the United Graduate Workers of UNM and their unionization efforts.  

McGraw, who currently serves on the graduate student union’s coordinating committee, said working with the Union became an incredibly important moment for him and connected him with a larger community at UNM.

“I feel like (the Union has) a very strong community there in terms of checking in with people across departments,” McGraw said.

Amy Ross, a close friend of McGraw’s who has known him for years, said she was by no means surprised when he got involved with the union efforts. She said McGraw is “hands down one of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met.”

McGraw said the Union is protecting all graduate students’ access to education, especially for international students, queer students and students of color.

“There are so many people who have been paid poverty wages, have had to question whether they need to return home, and even with that there are concerns with visas,” McGraw said. “And I think what I want people in engineering fields to understand is that there is a community within the Union for (them).”

Ross said McGraw’s work for the Union reflects who he is as a person “because he's always been someone that's wanted to push traditional boundaries.”

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Outside of his research and union work, McGraw also loves to play music and was an active member of the University of Kansas’ acapella group in his undergrad.

“It's a great way to connect with people and just kind of explore your own identity, your own mindset, in a way that's a little bit more abstract,” McGraw said. 

In the future, McGraw hopes to start a STEM research and education co-op. This would be an “anti-hierarchical and anti-capitalist” alternative to the current education system, and would instead work to focus efforts on providing solutions to pressing global issues.

“I think that removing the profit incentive from research and education will allow us to focus on the real problems facing humanity, like the climate crisis, food and housing insecurities and the development of automation as a means of replacing human workers,” McGraw said.

Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at or on Twitter @madelinepukite

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