By Austin Wadle, PhD Student, Duke University.
In your opinion, which scientific questions will set the trends in the coming decade, and which science problems would you like to tackle?
In my field of environmental chemistry, the common questions after discussing new and innovative research can be summarized along the lines of “Really interesting work, but does it matter?” I think many questions like this will become more commonplace as the veneer of machine learning and other computational methods loses its shine. It’s a question I commonly ask myself that helps guide my research to the most impactful places. I want to help develop and apply the techniques foundational to bench scale chemistry to broader and more complex environmental challenges. This includes how to use the great advancements in cheminformatics to inorganic environmental chemistry to fill in gaps in prediction and precision.
How do you experience diverse leadership, diversity in your lab, publication and peer-review, promotion and career progression, in your host country? What are the impediments for creating inclusive, equitable research labs, departments and practices?
I think my response to this question is very much shaped by how early in my career I am, only just finishing my second year in my PhD program. And while I’m early in my career, I’m also very young, just 23 at the writing of this article and still in the process of figuring out who I am and what that means in a world of diversity and inclusion. I first came out as gay to an accepting family and school environment when I was 15, and then began struggling with my gender, coming out as nonbinary at 20 years old. I was assigned male at birth and still can pass as cisgender in part because I haven’t felt safe enough in a state like North Carolina to seek aspects of medical transition that would ease my gender dysphoria. While progress has been made on trans rights, many of these changes are made in the framework of assimilating transgender people and not empowering us and dismantling oppressive systems like gender. I could bring up some of the relatively straightforward ways my department could improve on this, like adding pronouns to an email signature. While steps like these are nice, none of them address the fundamental problems that I face as a nonbinary PhD student. I need the power to feel comfortable correcting professors and fellow graduate students who misgender me without fear of retaliation.
What is your message to the next generation of scientists, and what are your tips for their success?
My message is one of contradiction. Somehow, we have to balance the hope that we can work to change the system and that the system will never reward us in the ways that are commensurate with that work. Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein wrote that activism isn’t a substitute for technical expertise. It was later reiterated to me that, despite any implications otherwise through diversity statements or espoused values of equity and public engagement, that faculty hiring committees aren’t looking for activists, they’re looking for researchers at the cutting edge of their fields. I’ve tried to establish my own metrics of success, particularly because the world of academia has been set up to unload rejection after rejection on your work. To be clear, I have not been successful in avoiding feelings of inadequacy around both my technical and nontechnical work. However, it is worthwhile. The metrics our institutions use for success will never capture the feeling of gender euphoria presenting my science in a dress, it will never capture the beautiful relationships I’ve developed with my fellow graduate student workers, it will never count the memes I’ve made with friends that explain catalysis better than any biochemistry professor I’ve met, just to name a few of the wonderful things I’ve done as a PhD student.