LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Professor David K. Smith - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Professor David K. Smith

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.

Professor David K. Smith is a professor of chemistry at the University of York, where he is well known for both his nanotechnology research and his advocacy of increased diversity in the chemistry community.

What drew you to chemistry?

I was drawn to chemistry by two outstanding teachers. One was a showman, who always engaged the class with exciting practical demonstrations, the other was a real intellectual, who loaned me his original copy of Pauling’s classic book ‘The Nature of the Chemical Bond’. From that moment on, I was hooked by chemistry, and in particular the bonding theory that underpinned it. Even today, my research is rooted, fundamentally in using and manipulating non-covalent interactions. Interestingly, I found out much later that one of those two teachers was gay – but back in the 1980s, it was actually forbidden by U.K. law to discuss sexuality in a school setting. There was absolutely no support for a gay kid like me, struggling to come to terms with how I felt. As a student, I simply threw myself into my chemistry, and really suppressed all aspects of my own personal identity. Like many gay people of my age, I look back on those years with a sense of pride in what I achieved academically, but also a sense of regret about what I missed out on personally.

What is your current research focus?

My research team works in the area of supramolecular chemistry, using non-covalent interactions to self-assemble nanostructured systems. We have been particularly interested in generating functional nanomaterials from the simplest possible molecular-scale building blocks. We like to understand the fundamental molecular features that program and control their assembly. In this way, we can start to design the nanoworld from the bottom-up, using chemical synthesis of building blocks, which are then programmed to assemble in smart and selctive ways.

However, we also always try to find real-world applications for the systems we create. Many of the applications we target in my lab are inspired by my husband’s personal health challenges. My husband Sam had cystic fibrosis, which ultimately required a lung transplant, and sadly, 8 years after his transplant, in 2019, he passed away. I often mention this when giving research talks at conferences, or in my outreach to school students, and it has been a fascinating way of opening up the issue of diversity within a research-led environment.

Currently, my research team are particularly interested in self-assembled supramolecular gels. One key application that we target is in tissue engineering – we have the long term goal of creating programmable gels that can help grow organs from a patient’s own stem cells, suitable for implantation. This would potentially avoid problems associated with transplant waiting lists, and rejection of the organ graft – the thing that ultimately led to my husband’s death. We try and design gels that are shaped, patterned and structured such that they can instruct the growing stem cells precisely what to do in a sophisticated way, with both spatial and temporal control. I love the idea of chemistry being in charge of biology in this way!

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

I don’t really have any formal mentors as such. There are many people I respect and admire for all sorts of different reasons, but broadly, I have tried to find my own approach to being an academic. This probably means I make a lot of mistakes along the way, but it also means I have probably done things quite differently than many academics. I have always wanted to not just be a research scientist, but to fuse research, teaching, outreach and diversity work within my role – the remarkable flexibility of academia has allowed by to do this in ways that keep me interested and motivated.

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

It’s a fascinating question. I think an awful lot of progress has been made in some places, but the problems are definitely not all solved. In 2019, The Royal Society of Chemistry did a survey of Physical Scientists in the U.K. to find out just that. As a member of their Inclusion and Diversity Committee, I was very heavily involved in the process, and helped launch the resulting report. Fascinatingly, LGBT+ scientists who were ‘out’ at work reported being happier and experiencing significantly more inclusive workplaces. Clearly a more supportive environment will encourage more people to come ‘out’ as having ‘out’ individuals to act as role models and advocate for rights can significantly improve the environment – a virtuous circle.

Nonetheless, we found that LGBT+ scientists were more likely to consider leaving science as a result of the prevailing culture (28% had considered leaving) than heterosexual cis-gendered respondents (16% had considered it). Specifically, the culture was more welcoming for gay men than for lesbians (perhaps linked to poor gender inclusion in the physical sciences), and the culture was least supportive to non-binary and transgendered individuals, with almost half of these respondents having sometimes considered leaving science.

Sadly, non-binary and transgendered individuals are the focus of a kind of ‘culture war’ in the U.K., with significant push-back against their rights and freedoms. Tragically, in some cases, conservative parts of the lesbian and gay community have also taken steps to distance themselves from trans and non-binary rights, even going so far as to suggest that they run counter to the rights of LGB people. I lived through the culture war against gay people in the 1980s, and I know from bitter personal experience how awful it feels – especially for young people struggling to come to terms with their own identities. It is vital that the LGBT+ community stands united to support freedom of sexuality, identity and expression for all of its members.

However, all of that is only a Western, European perspective. Globally, things are far less comfortable. There are many countries where being gay remains illegal, where being transgender can see you imprisoned or killed. Many scientists travel to these places for conferences, fieldwork or collaboration. There are researchers in our labs who come from these countries, enjoy the freedom to explore their true selves, but then may have to navigate the transition back to their home country.  Even more importantly, there are fellow LGBT+ scientists in these countries who live in an atmosphere of fear on a daily basis – we must show solidarity with them and be prepared to fight on a global level for LGBT+ rights and freedoms.

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

There is so much employers can do to make workplaces more welcoming. Some of this is cultural and a lot of it is quite easily done, but making sure you go the step beyond is more challenging.  For example, many employers establish LGBT+ staff networks, but the best employers will involve specific senior managers explicitly in those networks. Many employers have LGBT+ inclusive policies (and those that don’t should be ashamed), but the best employers provide LGBT+ specific examples. For example, a bullying and harassment policy should have one of the examples directly related to LGBT+ people.

In terms of individual managers, rather than at an institutional level, things can be much patchier, and many old prejudices cling on. There needs to be clear training provided to help staff see the implications of their individual actions. In my own department, one of our trans students bravely wanted to provide ‘Trans 101’ training to all of our academic staff. Given that LGBT+ diversity is still so often hidden, seeing one of our own undergraduates talk about these issues really brought them to life, and personalized them in a way that will live on in people’s minds. This helped us initiate a number of departmental actions, such as asking all new students and staff what their preferred pronouns were as a standard part of induction.

Increasingly, LGBT+ families are becoming a part of everyday life. On a personal level, as a single bereaved dad, I would like to see managers adjust more easily to the idea that men may be the primary caregiver to children. In fact, this applies irrespective of sexuality, and would do lots of good for women in science. I would also like to see greater flexibility in the workplace, and a greater understanding of non-traditional routes to establishing families, such as adoption, surrogacy, and support for families with non-traditional structures and specific needs.

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

We need good allies more than ever. An important ally will help advocate for LGBT+ rights, not stand back passively and expect LGBT+ people to do all the heavy lifting. However, it is also vital to listen to LGBT+ people and self-reflect. As an ally myself to other minority groups, I can say I don’t always get it right – as well as speaking carefully, I try to amplify authentic voices wherever possible. We also need active bystanders, who are prepared to speak out. It may be as simple as politely pointing out that actually, someone’s personal pronouns are different to what is being assumed in a conversation, it might be actively calling out homophobic comments at a conference, it may be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an LGBT+ person who you have observed being bullied and harassed. Active bystanders can play a key role in changing the culture of science.

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