LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Dr. Michelle M. Nolan - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Dr. Michelle M. Nolan

In honor of LGBTQ+ STEM Day on November 18, 2020, ACS Axial is publishing a series of interviews with LGBTQ+ professionals from across the chemistry community, discussing their work, their stories, and how organizations can do a better job of supporting LGBTQ+ professionals in the workplace. View this year’s full list of interviews, as well as interviews for the 2019 event.

Tell me about yourself. What does your job involve? What are the big challenges in your field right now?

I am the chemical sciences librarian at the University of Florida, meaning that I am the information expert for all things chemistry. The majority of my professional duties involve teaching chemical information literacy classes and assisting researchers in their literature searches. Science librarians can train folks on how to use databases, how to ask research questions, and how to formulate search strategies. In chemistry, we have some unique information access points, such as compound structure searching, which fascinates my colleagues.

In addition to chemical information literacy, I am really interested in pushing students to examine information through a critical lens, asking questions such as “how does societal power mediate the ways that scientific information is accepted, trusted, valued, and shared?” I think these critical approaches are particularly important in the current era of widespread disinformation.

There are a lot of major challenges in science librarianship as a field, including that almost all academic libraries are stretched thin in our budgets due to stagnant collection funding and rising electronic resource costs. However, one challenge of the profession that I have been trying to personally make progress with is that many researchers, especially graduate students, don’t realize how the level of discipline-specific expertise science librarians have, and they are not aware of the help we can provide. I hope to change that at UF by embedding myself as a close research partner for students to seek out. 

What attracted you to a career as a chemical sciences librarian? What were some of the hurdles along the way?

When I was working on my Ph.D. in chemistry, I knew that I wanted to work with students, but I was struggling to find a career path where I could focus on student outreach and social justice as the primary role of my work. At that time, I was involved in a number of campus activist and organizing groups, including the Women in Science and Engineering club. At a career panel discussion hosted by WiSE, the physics librarian spoke about the freedom of her position to constantly learn new things, including that she built a free-to-use 3D printing lab for students. As a longtime activist, the underlying radical philosophy of librarianship was also a huge calling to me: the idea that information should be free and accessible to all is a revolutionary way of thinking. I was hooked on the idea instantly. I love providing reference help to chemistry researchers because every day is a different question, and I get to learn about a wide breadth of work rather than a very narrow chemical focus.

After completing my Ph.D. as a student at UF, the chemistry librarian position at the science library here happened to open up, and I transitioned from chemistry Ph.D. student to chemical science faculty librarian in the same institution. I had quite a few technical hurdles during my first year, and I’m still learning new things about library science all the time, but we’re a very team-oriented library, and we all chip in from our own expert domains to solve problems together. 

What does coming to work as your full, authentic self mean to you? What are some of the cultural barriers that make it difficult for trans people in STEM fields to do this?

When I was a student, I never knew any professors or teaching assistants who were non-binary people. I now comfortably identify as genderqueer, but at that time, I was extremely uncertain about what gender identity even meant and pretty lost in my own understanding of queer and trans embodiment. I remember when I first met the director of the LGBT Affairs office, a visibly gender non-conforming person, I was shocked to see a non-binary person in a professional role. It felt so inspiring and validating to witness that representation.

When I went into my current position, I made a promise to myself to be that visible and to actively challenge gender binary discourse in the academic space so that queer and trans students could spot me as someone who would always have their backs. Expressing myself in the most authentic way is highly transgressive to the ivory tower standards, and I have faced some professional backlash for it, but I push on through because it’s very important to me to be the representation I never got to see in the faculty when I was a student.

What do you wish employers and managers knew about attracting and retaining LGBTQ employees?

I think that heterosexual and cisgender people have a false idea of what it means to be “out,” particularly when it comes to transgender and non-binary people. Rather than coming out at one moment of time and then moving forward as an “out” person, trans and non-binary people are in a constant flux of outness. We have to navigate a complicated decision tree of how out to be, how much to share, and how “worth it” it is to bother with every social interaction in our lives. I’ve had a lot of well-meaning folks ask me how to prepare their workplaces to welcome future trans people, and I always remind them of this truth: you have already worked with trans colleagues, but whether you know it or not is decided by the conditions you’ve created and how comfortable that person felt sharing with you.

The most important actions to take now are to assume trans employees are in the room already, to challenge gender binary discourse and transphobia, to look into trans-affirming workplace policies, and to build a culture with explicit community agreements that guard against transphobia. Chances are, trans folks already work with you now. With that knowledge, are there things you wish to change?

What does it look like for cisgender and heterosexual chemists to be good allies in 2020?

If you’re just starting your journey to becoming a good ally to queer and trans people, my biggest recommendation would be to do some deep reading on LGBTQ+ history and listen to the perspectives of queer and trans activists, particularly those of color. Start developing your foundational knowledge, question your own assumptions, and continuously educate yourself on the issues queer and trans people face.

When you have some grounding knowledge, then the work of disrupting queerphobia and transphobia when you see it in action becomes some of the most important work allies can do. As with all oppressed people, our personal and work lives are inseparable because queer and trans people are constantly advocating for ourselves and navigating power systems that are invisible to others. Having allies really stand up in solidarity to interject in meetings, organize collective responses to discrimination, and challenge queer/transphobic workplace policies takes some of the physical and emotional labor off of our backs. As small as it sounds, I always breathe a sigh of relief when a cisgender colleague vocally challenges a gender binary comment so that I don’t have to be the one always pointing it out. I appreciate those who stand by us in the fight immensely. 

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