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 […]

Tell me about yourself. What drew you to chemistry?

I am Derick D. Jones, Jr.; I am a bioanalytical chemist who recently completed my Ph.D. in medicinal biochemistry with a natural products focus. I am non-binary and use they/them/their pronouns.

I must admit chemistry was never on the top of my to-do list, I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but my dream was to become a medical doctor. At that time, medical professionals were the only one’s I knew that had degrees that enabled people to call themselves Dr. XXX. It was not until I got in undergrad, I understood that you can get a doctorate, Ph.D., or any other professional degree in just about everything. It was with this understanding, and after becoming an EMT, that I realized that my passion for helping people was more of a behind the scenes approach. I applaud all medical professionals, because sometimes the news they may have to deliver is not the best. I knew I couldn’t do that.

Chemistry has always been fun to me, even in high school. So I decided that after getting a B.S. in Biology, that I wanted to spread my wings a bit further and get a Master of Science degree in chemistry. I always thought I would be a organic chemist, but that did not happen, I realized that I love teaching it, but I did not have the research experience and passion as others did for the subfield.

What are you working on right now? What are your goals in that work?

I recently completed my Ph.D. where I used mass-spectrometry to answer biological questions. In this case I studied methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is a high priority opportunistic pathogen that is responsible for most deaths/complications associated with bacterial infections. It is unique in that it poses a threat in not only hospital settings but the community. In fact the community-acquired MRSA, is the reason that many biomedical scientists are in search of new treatment modalities, because of the increasing number of cases, and not antibiotics to really treat it.

I studied in particular the language or the communication (chemical signals) that is controlled by one of the systems that are responsible for its pathogenesis. This system releases toxins to allow it to thrive in a hostile or not ideal environment like the human host. This ability to thrive is known as virulence and the chemicals associated with it are known to be virulence factors. I was able to combine biological assay data and chemical data from a high-resolution mass spectrometer and employed bioinformatic strategies to simultaneously track chemical signals that were associated with growth and those that were associated by this system (quorum sensing). I am currently in transition and am applying for postdoctoral opportunities.

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

I was so fortunate to have a village of mentors both in my field and outside of my field. The number one mentor is Dr. Nadja B. Cech. She is a Patricia A. Sullivan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. While she served as my research advisor and committee chair; she was intentional about fostering a relationship outside of science, a relationship that allows one to be fully human, and one that we can learn and grow from each other’s experiences. I can honestly say, without her, there would be no Dr. Derick D. Jones, Jr. She has pushed me to be greater, she has been patient with me. She helped me rebuild the scientist I once saw in myself.

When I joined her lab I was broken. I felt like a failure. I had to seek out counseling and therapy to deal with everything that I had going on, so I could better understand how to handle and balance the things and the feelings I was experiencing. I am a huge advocate for mental health. Professor Cech saw me in a crisis and dropped everything she was doing and walked me to the counseling center (I was not suicidal, just overwhelmed, it is important to note that crisis does not mean suicidal in many cases. You can be happy and be in crisis.).

I am also so grateful for other mentors that have been a huge part of my development: Dr. Daniel A. Todd, Dr. Mitchell P. Croatt, Dr. Gregory C. Bell, Dr. Lake’ Buggs, Dr. Sherine Obare, Dr. Omar H. Ali, Dr. Sayo Fakayode (my advisor for my M.S. in chemistry) and the list could keep going. With this list we have mathematicians, student affairs administrators, graduate school associate dean, other deans and professors respected by many. I never knew I would have such a great village to rely on, and to love on me outside of science. I am so grateful for them all and the ones that I had missed.

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

That they see our intersectionality as unique, but not use it for their advantage or as a token. I want to walk into a room and be recognized as a chemist, not just a black gay, non-binary, person in STEM. I want to be compensated on the same scale. I want employers to be intentional about gender-neutral language in all that they do. That will make us feel included. Another thing that would make us fee included and more will to accept job offers, is to have a community builder’s mindset. LGBTQIA+ folks never demand perfection, just people that will try every day to change the norm. We are looking for people that will stand up for us and stand up with us. It is something that we would want to feel when we walk into a room. Sometimes putting “all-welcoming” in the application would be ideal. Or even having a statement about it.

Do you think LGBTQ acceptance is more common in the workplace today than when you started your career? What challenges remain?

Yes I do think it is more accepting. I think it is more accepting because it became more of a requirement and expectation. I do think that there is a lot of work to be done, for instance, appreciation towards gender neutral language. As a non-binary person, and even before becoming public as a non-binary person, I have advocated for this. Saying hello “guys” is very masculine and is often socialized to masculine nature. I always challenge people to say hello “everyone, friends, associates, colleagues, family, etc.” We can no longer ask people to be patient because “you” are not used to it. Rather your response should be, thank you for providing a safe space for me to grow and learn, and try to become better. We have to look at the history, and how people who are in our community, normally have higher suicide rates, and are traumatized by the sexual promiscuity of people in power. There have been many stories about sexual harassment and in some cases death was a result.

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

I would take it a step further and say we need accomplices. The difference is an accomplice will use the platform of power and privilege to decolonize traditional thinking. They are often the people that challenge people to become better, where as with allies, they are not as action-oriented, they normally just really accept people for who they are. However an accomplice will take a risk for us, by not being afraid. I would encourage these folks to stand up for us, to stand with us. To ask us how we are doing. To listen to some of our stories. I will also encourage fostering meaningful and intentional relationships.

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