LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Michael Anthony Morris - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Michael Anthony Morris

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 drew you to chemistry?

I love this question because I always love learning how other chemists decided to pursue chemistry. Everyone has a unique journey!

To answer your first question, my pronouns are he/him/his and I’m a gay chemist who is passionate about chemical biology, chemical education, and diversity and inclusion in STEM. I’m currently wrapping up my Ph.D. in chemistry at University of California, Irvine, and I’ll be defending my thesis in just a few weeks!

When I was young, I was fascinated with learning how the world works. I was always probing my parents with questions about science, even though they were non-scientists. Their go-to response was “let’s look it up in the Encyclopedia.” This scientific curiosity led me to take lots of science classes in high school — biology ended up being my favorite subject. In fact, I had no interest in chemistry until my first year in college, when I began as a biology major taking general chemistry courses. I loved learning about reaction kinetics and mechanisms, and how they can be applied to understanding biology and biochemistry. At the end of my first year of college, I decided to change my major to biochemistry, enabling me to take upper division chemistry courses and work in a chemistry research lab. Carrying out chemistry research as an undergraduate affirmed my decision to go to graduate school and learn more chemistry!

What is your current research focus? What are you hoping to
achieve/discover/understand?

My dissertation research involves studying the mechanism of action of a recently reported antibiotic called teixobactin. Teixobactin is unique because it can kill Grampositive pathogens without detectable resistance, which is a remarkable property considering that most antibiotics are suspectable to drug resistance. Because of this exciting property of teixobactin, I wanted to characterize the cellular localization of fluorescent teixobactin analogues in order to better understand how this fascinating antibiotic works. Using fluorescence microscopy, I was able to determine that the fluorescent teixobactin probe localizes to the septa and sidewalls of various Grampositive bacteria, which is consistent with an antibiotic targeting peptidoglycan
precursors. This was a fun project because it combined organic synthesis, microbiology,
and microscopy.

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

I wouldn’t be here as a chemist without two formative chemistry professors I had as an undergraduate at Union College. Professor Laurie Tyler taught my general chemistry course my freshman year and inspired me to switch my major to biochemistry. I am also indebted to Professor Laura MacManus-Spencer, who was my research principal investigator (PI) in college, and
also encouraged me to apply to graduate school.

Another important mentor of mine is my current PI — Professor James Nowick, who is an out gay chemist. James was the first out chemist I ever met, which was incredibly inspiring. When I began graduate school, I was disappointed by the lack of representation and visibility of LGBTQ+ chemists and role models, so James encouraged me to apply as the chair of the Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies (GTCA) subdivision of ACS.

I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to serve as GTCA chair because I met so many other inspiring LGBTQ+ chemists who are doing amazing things for the chemical LGBTQ+ community. The best part of serving as GTCA chair was organizing the LGBTQ+ graduate student and postdoctoral scholar symposium series for ACS National Meetings, with the help of James, Professor Tehshik Yoon, and Professor Lisa Eytel. These symposia enabled LGBTQ+ grad students and postdocs to present their scholarly research and to network with other LGBTQ+ chemists at ACS National Meetings.

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

A recent national and longitudinal study found that there is a leaky pipeline of queer STEM majors. This is concerning because this decreases the pool of talent for all fields in STEM, including chemistry, and imposes barriers for aspiring queer scientists to succeed. Although this study is done in the context of college STEM students, I think it extends well in the employment and retention of LGBTQ+ chemists. If employers want a diverse pool of talent that includes LGBTQ+ people, then they should recognize that LGBTQ+ scientists are underrepresented and need to feel supported by their workplace in order to feel comfortable working. To provide support for LGBTQ+ workers, employers should maintain an inclusive, non-hostile workspace and have clear anti-discrimination policies.

On top of that, employers should invite LGBTQ+ speakers to present talks and highlight LGBTQ+ role models in their field. These are a few effective methods to attract and retain LGBTQ+ scientists.

The Human Rights Campaign measures the corporate equality index (CEI) of U.S. employers, which ranks companies based on their policies that support and protect LGBTQ+ employees. I think the CEI is a general good resource for employers to determine best practices for protecting and retaining LGBTQ+ employees.

Do you think LGBTQ acceptance is more common in the workplace today? What
challenges remain?

Gauging acceptance in various types of workspaces is tough, but I think LGBTQ+ workers are feeling more comfortable compared to work environments from a decade ago. Two recent landmark Supreme Court cases, Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2020), expanded the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect employees against discrimination due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. The latter case is especially important because it protects transgender employees from employer discrimination. These are transformative legal protections for LGBTQ+ employees, and I definitely feel more comfortable knowing that I have these protections as a gay chemist in America as I move forward in my career.

Despite recent legal advances, hostile work environments for LGBTQ+ employees are still pervasive in the United States, and many countries have abysmal LGBTQ+ protections. I hope that representation of LGBTQ+ people in various facets of society will be one effective way to mitigate these issues on a global scale.

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

This is a great question! I encourage everyone to learn about implicit bias — which involves determining your own unconscious biases towards specific groups of people. Harvard University created various online implicit association tests that can help identify what kind of unconscious biases you may have. Recognizing your own unconscious biases can help you become a more thoughtful and inclusive ally. On top of that, many institutions and universities offer LGBTQ+ ally training, and these are generally helpful to equip non-LGBTQ+ people with the necessary tools and knowledge become better allies.

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