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LGBT STEM Day: Tehshik Yoon

Professor Tehshik Yoon is a Professor of Chemistry at the Univertsity of Wisconsin, Madison. Read on to learn about his work, his advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, and his advice for making the field more welcoming to LGBTQ+ chemists.

What is the focus of your research? What inspired you to explore this field?

I’m a synthetic organic chemist, with a particular interest in catalysis and reaction design. Most of my research group’s work focuses on photochemical reactions. I initially became interested in photochemistry because I thought there was something really fantastic about the idea that you could use light to create new bonds.  I wanted to learn to control these reactions.  When I was a graduate student, you’d often read papers that would say that photochemically excited organic molecules were so high in energy that it would be really difficult to develop highly enantioselective photoreactions. This seemed wrong to me, since there were so many reactions of other highly reactive intermediates (radicals, for instance) that were coming under the control of asymmetric catalysis. So I wanted to challenge this notion, and in so doing provide a new set of tools for building complex molecular shapes.

How did you become involved with the Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies subdivision of the ACS Division of Professional Relations? What has that experience been like for you?

The first events for LGBTQ chemists that I attended were relatively informal gatherings organized by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Science and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) at ACS National Meetings. These were not broadly advertised: I remember there was a mailing list that you could sign up for, and the groups of people who showed up to the events were pretty small.

There’s a great history of the evolution of this small group of chemists into a formal ACS subdivision (GTCA) that Chris Bannochie wrote a few years ago. I formally became involved with GTCA in 2016 when James Nowick, then the chair of GTCA, asked me to consider putting my name under consideration to lead the subdivision.

The experience has been great! It’s been especially gratifying to see how far ACS has come in recognizing the existence and value of LGBTQ chemists. I’ve had the chance to attend two symposia for LGBTQ graduate students at ACS National Meetings, including at the most recent meeting in Orlando. The science has been wonderful, and I’m really inspired by the energy and activism that the participating students bring to this work.  I think we still have a long way to go, but I feel great about our trajectory.

Who are some of your professional mentors? How have they impacted your career?

I’ve been fortunate to be trained in some of the top synthetic laboratories in the world. My MS was with Erick Carreira, my Ph.D. was with Dave MacMillan, and my postdoc was with Eric Jacobsen. All three of these folks are very different scientists, but they all like to tackle big problems that others might characterize as “unsolvable”. I’ve inherited a similar taste for scientific problems from each of them.

I also have to mention Carolyn Bertozzi, who is not a professional mentor per se. She was, however, the first out gay chemistry professor I ever met, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley.  Before meeting her, it had never occurred to me that you could have a successful career as an academic chemist if you weren’t either straight or closeted. I met Carolyn at a formative point in my education, so the impact she had on my thinking about my own career was really profound.

What does the chemistry community need to do to attract LGBTQ chemists and help them thrive?

This is a tough question. There is still a lot of stigma attached to being LGBTQ in the US. Around one-third of Americans still disapprove of legal marriage equality; statements from political and religious leaders continue to pathologize LGBTQ identities, despite all evidence to the contrary; most states in the US have no laws protecting employment discrimination for LGBTQ people; many employers do not equitable access to healthcare for their LGBTQ workers. So there is still a lot of work to be done to make careers in general – including chemistry careers – safe and equitable for LGBTQ people.

I think that one of the challenges specific to the chemistry community is identifying and highlighting the work of LGBTQ chemists. This can be difficult because many LGBTQ scientists stay closeted in professional settings. And even among those who are out, our identities are often not visible through our publications and scientific presentations. For LGBTQ students, it can be really hard to identify role models who empower them to view STEM degrees as a potential path towards a fulfilling career.

This is one reason I appreciate the work of GTCA in highlighting the work of LGBTQ chemists. We’ve organized a number of symposia for graduate students and postdocs to help build an engaged and activist community, we’ve invited prominent academic chemists as keynote speakers to demonstrate that being proudly out is not incompatible with a successful chemistry career, and we have plans to expand our programming to highlight the work of LGBTQ chemists in the industrial chemistry sectors as well.

Do feel like you’ve had to do “invisible labor” in the workplace as a member of an under-represented group in chemistry? If so, how has that manifested?

One of the benefits of being in a gay relationship is that our household duties resist being divided up along gendered lines. So in that sense, I think that one aspect of the “invisible labor” that working women face doesn’t really apply to my situation.

I suppose I get asked to do a lot more committee work than I might if I weren’t gay. For instance, I’ve served on several committees tackling various diversity issues at UW, and I’ve chaired the committee specifically charged to work on challenges for LGBTQ people at UW. This takes up a lot of time, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an impact on an important aspect of the university’s mission.

What did you do to celebrate Pride Month?

Ooh, not much, actually. My husband and I got married in June five years ago, when marriage equality came to Wisconsin. So Pride month is also our anniversary. It’s perhaps not the most exciting Pride celebration imaginable, but it works for us!

This post is part of a series of interviews with LGBTQ+ chemists in honor of LGBT Stem Day. This annual international day for celebrating the accomplishments of LGBTQ+ People in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math is organized by Pride in STEM. To learn more about supporting LGBTQ+ chemists, consider joining the Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies Subdivision of the ACS Division of Professional Relations.

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