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LGBT STEM Day: Nancy Williams

Dr. Nancy Williams is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Claremont McKenna College. Read on to learn about her work, her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, and her advice for making the field more welcoming to LGBTQ+ chemists.

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

We are a mechanistic organometallic group focused on oxidative addition/reductive elimination reactions at platinum. Our current focus is the design of Pt(II)-ligand complexes that should react very favorably with C-H bonds to form unusually stable Pt(IV) alkyl/aryl hydrides. I’ve long been interested in this idea, which grows out of my fascination both with orbital interactions and the mechanistic transition metal chemistry I fell in love with while pursuing my Ph.D. with Karen Goldberg at the University of Washington (she has since moved to the University of Pennsylvania.)

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

Mitsuru ‘Mits’ Kubota (now passed on), my undergraduate advisor, taught me how to be an independent researcher, how to pursue an idea, and how to think beyond the day-to-day work to see the big picture of a project.

Karen Goldberg, my Ph.D. advisor, has been a peerless mentor throughout my career. It is really from her that I learned how to think deeply about science, how to guide a research group, how to ask important questions, how to take risks in research, and how to communicate science. Almost every good trait I have as a scientist, I learned from Karen. She has been there with rock-solid advice and support at later times in my career when I needed that most, and remains a good friend.

Gerard van Koten and ‘Brook’ Brookhart were my postdoc advisors, and they taught me many skills, but also taught me how to compartmentalize a project, to bring a project from start to publication in a short period of time—a postdoc of 1-1.5 years will do that, but it’s excellent training for being an independent chemist, because as a newly independent researcher, you don’t have the luxury of developing projects for years—you have to get things out into the literature.

How did you become involved in advocating for LGBTQ issue within the chemistry community? What has that experience been like for you?

Well, for starters, I came out as trans, and transitioned on the job. When you transition mid-career, you’re a fairly visible member of the community. For me, it has also been important to make being queer and trans a positive aspect of my life and career, and by using my own experience and understanding to advance the opportunities for those who come after me, whether they be LGBTQIA+ or straight, cis members of other marginalized experiences, I can make the challenges of being queer and trans into an opportunity to do good in my community that I would never have been able to do as well had I not had those learning experiences. I began voter canvassing to build support for trans K-12 kids in California schools even before I had transitioned at work, and a lot of what I learned in doing that prejudice-reduction work out in my local community I also find invaluable as I have conversations on campus and in the chemical community about how to help all of our students and employees thrive.

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

We need to be a much better community around diversity, inclusion, and equity more broadly, and this work will have positive impacts on many marginalized parts of our chemical community, not just those in the LGBTQIA+ community. In some ways, the same best practices that apply to other experiences are the same for queer and trans chemists. However, I think visibility and openness are especially important around queer and trans issues. Central to the queer and trans experience has been the way in which we have been told to hide who we are, that our existence is shameful, and that we will be tolerated as long as we are unseen and secretive. This leads to a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and it’s as corrosive to the soul in the laboratory as it is in the military. Because our society’s default position is to hide us, it’s especially important that we be made visible. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we need to talk about queerness and transness. We need to recognize and reward those who do the work of being publicly visible and who mentor younger LGBTQIA+ chemists. We need to hear our straight, cis allies not be afraid to talk about the importance of having queer and trans people in their organizations. Because we are the people who have for so long been invisible and unspeakable, we must be seen and spoken of in public. Of course, it’s also critical that our workplaces be built with queer and trans people in mind, with family leave policies, health care benefits, rules about acceptance and behavior in the workplace, and so on that don’t assume that we’re all straight and cis, and allow us to bring our whole selves to work, but those nuts-and-bolts aspects are perhaps better appreciated than the issues around visibility and silence.

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?

Yes, I’ve done an enormous amount of invisible labor, and continue to do so (though I’ve been better and better at making it visible). At one stage, I started paying attention to how much time I was spending on things I never would have done before transition, and it added up to about two hours a day. It’s much less now, but it’s not inconsiderable. Importantly, however, it is not labor I shy away from; in fact, I often seek it out, recognizing that as a white, able-bodied, neurotypical, tenured faculty member, I am in an unusually good position within the campus LGBTQIA+ community to be able to do that work with limited professional consequences. It has certainly slowed my research productivity, for example, but I am capable of making the time, and neither my mental health nor my livelihood is threatened by taking on this work.

Some of it takes the form of additional mentoring of students (many of whom aren’t queer or trans, but are experiencing some other form of marginalization). Some of it takes the form of educating others about specifically queer and trans issues, or using my own experience to help provide a window to help others think about various marginalized experiences. Some of it takes the form of relentlessly showing up. It’s important to me that I show up when other communities on campus are experiencing challenges, because it is important that our communities show up for each other; if I’m there, the “trans community” showed up…one of the challenges of being nearly the only one. At a certain point, the job of always showing up became too big, and I had to start setting guidelines for myself so that I would have the time and emotional energy to be there for the most important roles I can play, instead of spreading myself too thin. Sometimes it takes the form of just having to think a lot longer and harder about what I’m going to say in a meeting, because I know that my words will be filtered though the fact that I am a woman, that I am queer, and that I am trans, and so I need to be extremely careful to “get it right” because of the way my identity could become a focus for those who disagree with me, and because I always represent my communities when I speak, unlike my pre-transition self, when I got to speak just for me.

What did you do to celebrate Pride Month?

I sing for the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, and as of this writing, it’s only 6/11, and we’ve already had four performances plus we’ve marched in the LA Pride Parade. We’ll be singing for at least three more engagements this month (almost certainly more), including a couple more Pride events.

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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