LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Professor Lisa Eytel - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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LGBTQ+ STEM Day: Professor Lisa Eytel

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 are you currently working on?

I’m a clinical faculty member at Boise State University, so I’m a teaching faculty member. I dabble in chemistry education research, looking at how we can teach better for students, and thinking about perspectives on how they are learning and their perceptions of what we, as faculty, do for them, along with developing new undergraduate labs.

What drew you to chemistry in the first place?

I went to college initially for a forensic science degree. I went to a small school, Russell Sage College, in upstate New York. I really enjoyed my freshman year chemistry and biology courses. When I got into my sophomore year, I was taking organic chemistry and analytical chemistry. I found organic chemistry to be a challenge. It was not an easy course, as I think most people that have taken it would say. But I found that I really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed the thrill of figuring out puzzles.

As I got further into thinking about my future, I realized that forensics was not a field where I would not have the opportunity to justice work, as I was hoping that I would. Forensics is a very isolated field in many ways. I found that I really enjoyed organic chemistry and had a really amazing mentor. I really enjoy teaching it too and helping my friends learn.

Who were you your mentors, and how did they impact your career?

I would not have gotten into gone into chemistry without my undergrad mentor Dr. Tom Gray, for many reasons, one of them being he really pushed me, really encouraged to apply for summer research positions.

Being at a really small school, most people never heard of it. One of my upper-division courses had three people in it.  So, in a very small school, we had very personable relationships with our faculty. But it also meant that I was competing with people who had a ton of research experience and mentorship, from graduate students and beyond, for summer research positions.

Dr. Gray encouraged me to apply my sophomore year for summer positions. I got rejected, and that was really hard. It was one of my first rejections, actually. And it was really hard, to the point where the following year I was not going to reapply, because I didn’t want to go through rejection again. I didn’t feel like I was good enough to get into a research position that was nationally competitive, when looking at the people who did receive that position.

The people who were accepted were from huge schools, and so it’s like there’s no way I’ll get into a research position. I still remember, he gave me this look and this sigh, and said, ‘you should really apply.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m not going to get in.’ When I told him I wasn’t going to, he said, ‘I’m not upset, just disappointed.’ He gave me that exact emotional toll and it worked for me and pushed me to want to apply for that summer.

I was at SUNY Binghamton that summer, and worked under Wayne Jones on solar cell research and segregation of dyes. I really enjoyed the camaraderie within the lab environment. And the research I did definitely showed me that I did not want to do inorganic research, but I really enjoyed the research, nonetheless, and the results and things like that. Having those graduate student mentors present, but also my faculty mentors back at Russell Sage were super to push me to graduate school. When I got to graduate school, I had a range of faculty mentors, and graduate student mentors, both in research and teaching, that helped get me through.

You’re obviously very connected with the next generation of chemists. How do you feel that acceptance changed in the workplace?

I’ll say when I first started graduate school, in2014, I could name out faculty members in chemistry on my two hands. That was really disappointing for me. It was actually something that I shared in a meeting when I was a first-year graduate student as we chatted before a weekly research check-in meeting, I was just sharing how frustrating it was.

We were doing click chemistry at the time, I was working in Vicky DeRose’s Lab at [the University of] Oregon for that semester. Click chemistry is Carolyn Bertozzi’s work and we had just hired Ramesh Jasti, who I was going do my first year rotation under, and he had come from Carolyn’s lab as a post doc. Carolyn was definitely the name in LGBT+ chemists. I was pushing for her to come to Oregon for a research talk, as an amazing woman scientist and a gay scientist and just all the work that she’s done in the field in so many different ways. And she was one of the five people that I could name off the top of my head that were out.

So I shared that frustration and one of [Oregon’s] faculty members, Mike Haley – I feel I can say this because he’s now publicly out — he actually came out to me later that week and let me know, ‘Hey, I know this because I am gay.’ He was not out at the time and I was kind of floored by his coming out. I think that him coming out really late in his career and late in his life took a pretty big toll on him to where we saw it manifest, stress-wise, as that year went on. It was really frustrating to see and really sad to see.

I was happy to be who I was and be in a department that had other queer students and trans students at University of Oregon. There still are queer and trans students in the graduate programs and undergraduate programs there. There’s still struggles for sure, even at the UO there’s definitely transphobia present and to some degree telephobia, where when you’re talking about your partner, you really have to read the room and decide, ‘Is it worth it?’ Is it worth revealing your partner’s gender using the term girlfriend or boyfriend or using just the term partner?

Even the term partner, I think a lot of the older generation of people tend to automatically think, ‘Oh, that means that person is queer,’ when in reality, partner is just a non-identifying term. I think that is an area where the terminology is difficult for a lot of people.

It’s also in teaching and definitely being at a different university in a different region of the United States. Now it still definitely feels taboo, if you are not this straight person, to reveal that in your science courses, or to be who you are and share parts of your life with your students, that would be normal for this straight person.

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

Oh, man, I want to expand that and just say, ‘attracting maintaining non-cisgendered/heterosexual/white people.’ The attraction is one thing, but maintaining is really where there is burn out and where the struggle is apparent. As a relatively new faculty member, I’m only in my second year. I will say that I have been struggling this past year, just in a new environment.

People sharing pronouns is just a simple thing. It shows allyship, and shows that you understand the importance of calling people by their correct pronouns and their correct names and the impact that has. When you are not sure that it’s the correct thing to introduce yourself with pronouns on the hiring committee or for the first department meeting at the end of the year or something like that, then that that set the tone that those pronouns are not that important, or that you assume that everybody is presenting with the binary products which is not true. So do the work and educate yourself. Like, Google is real! But also, there’s so many realms of education available to you on a college campus.

I know that we as faculty are generally overworked. But there are gender studies classes that you can take as a faculty member for free or really cheap, or you can audit them. Or you can go have a coffee with the faculty member who teaches those. Or you can take courses on equity and inclusion of classrooms and apply those across the across to your colleagues. I think willful ignorance is something that needs to be changed in so many different ways and I think that we are moving too slowly. Honestly, it should not take somebody who identifies within the LGBT+ community or somebody who is black or indigenous to point out all the problems within our system.

I was going to ask you about like, you know what allyship looks like in 2020. Is there anything else you want to add?

I would say you have, like, educate yourself and be willing to ask questions, be willing to make those mistakes even. And don’t over apologize if you make a mistake. Acknowledge, fix it, and move on. Don’t over apologize. Don’t point things out. Just fix it and move on. And don’t repeat the same mistake over and over, because when you repeat the same mistake over and over, and you keep apologizing, that is showing that you are not actually doing the work to learn and fix yourself.

Some easy tips would be, when you only know someone’s name and you don’t know their pronouns, use they/them/theirs. Use it to describe other people. I mean when you’re talking about a reviewer, when you’re doing your research and you get a review back, use ‘they/them/theirs’ to talk about reviewer number two and how much you hate them! The classic running joke, but for real, use it as a part of your everyday language and your everyday vocabulary. Don’t assume somebody’s gender. That’ll make it better for so many other people, not just LGBT+ people, but everyone.

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