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June 2018 GWIS Lead

Wednesday, June 20, 2018   (0 Comments)
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June 2018
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Donna Nelson: Organic Chemist, Diversity Champion, and Protector of Television Science Integrity.
Dr. Donna Nelson has been awarded the Florence R. Sabine Award for Research Excellence, a GWIS Honorary Membership Award. Dr. Nelson obtained her BS in Chemistry from the University of Oklahoma and her PhD in Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin and started as faculty at the University of Oklahoma. She was the first woman and the first assistant professor to be a Faculty Fellow at this university. She has been a visiting professor at MIT, and in 2016, she served as the president of the American Chemistry Society. Dr. Nelson lent her expertise to the hit television show Breaking Bad as the Science Advisor. She is also known for the Nelson Diversity Surveys, a collection of data sets that quantify the representation of women and minorities among professors at research universities. Below is a transcript of her interview that has been edited for clarity.
 
I appreciate you taking the time today to answer these interview questions. The first questions are, “Why organic chemistry? What drew you to that field?”
 
Well, both my father and grandfather were medical doctors. Growing up I was thinking I was going to be an MD and take over my father's practice just as he took over his father's practice. I went away to college and took all my requirements. When I told my parents I was going to be a physician, my father said “No, you don't want to be a doctor. You need to think about how that would impact your life. You would be around sick people all the time. You would start to think everyone is a hypochondriac. It gets to be depressing. You need to do something where you'll have the option for lifelong learning. You want to be around people who are intelligent and not complaining all the time. It'll just be a much better lot.” And actually, I've been very happy that he made me think about that. I was a student involved with professors at the time; I liked the autonomy and other benefits that I could see that they had. I saw the options for travel and other opportunities, so I decided then that I wanted to be a professor even as an undergraduate. I had already taken so many chemistry courses that I got my degree in chemistry, and then, when I went to graduate school, I found I liked organic chemistry more than other divisions, so I became an organic chemist.
 
You grew up in a very small, rural town. How has that influenced how you teach, and has it held you back from any opportunities?
 
No, I don't think so. I think that it could have in some ways. I think that each type of surrounding offers detriments and advantages. My father, being an MD, was the only doctor in that small town, so he had to think a lot about his community, his practice, and his patients. Every person in that town was a patient of his because he was the only doctor in town. My parents were constantly telling me that I needed to keep that in mind; how I behaved influenced their opinion of my father, and it was very important that the community felt like they had a doctor that was competent, that they could rely on etc. It was very important how I behaved and the image that I presented. I contributed to my family's image to the community.

This influenced me greatly. To this day, I think about the scientific community in all my projects. As ACS (American Chemical Society) president, my goals were all community-oriented, a community of ACS members. You can see that influence in my diversity surveys and even in my advising for Breaking Bad. I consider that a community service; I did that without being paid. That upbringing influenced me greatly and, I think, in a good way.

When I was a child, in that small town, I did think about whether I would have any opportunities there because you're sort of isolated in a small town. So many small towns don't often have many opportunities. However, one can make their own opportunities by reaching out and looking a little farther.
Dr. Nelson teaches an organic chemistry course at the University of Oklahoma.
Photo by Paul Hellstern via newsok.com
Could you explain your research in a way that non-chemists could understand? We have a lot of different backgrounds represented in our scientific community here at GWIS.
 
My research is really wide ranging. Being a Professor, I had the autonomy to select the type of research that I wanted to do. The first research that I did as a professor was additions to alkenes—a very important reaction in organic chemistry. It is a reaction that's used to build many important molecules. Alkenes are readily available from petroleum and have a carbon-carbon double bond functionality. This is the point in the molecule that is reactive so other functional groups can be added there. It's possible to build the molecule up and make all sorts of pharmaceuticals and other useful molecules, so adding groups at the point of a carbon-carbon double bond is a very important reaction. Many of these reactions are taught at the undergraduate level. As I thought about becoming a professor, I was of course thinking about what sort of research I was going to do. I knew that, as a woman becoming an organic chemistry professor, it might be difficult to attract graduate students, and that was true. I knew that I would have to worry about getting funding, so I knew that I needed to work on something that wouldn't require a lot of funding. I also knew that I needed to work on something important because you don't get tenure if you just work on things that are obscure. And I knew that I needed to have a project that would not be that difficult to do, so that undergraduates might be able to work with me; studying mechanisms of additions to alkenes fit all of those things, so I selected that as my project. I had always heard that if your research appears in the undergraduate and graduate level organic chemistry textbooks, that’s evidence that it's important work, and I did achieve that. My work was important at a very basic level, so it was referenced in those books.

Later, when single-walled carbon nanotubes were first discovered, it was stated that those specific nanotubes were like a giant net of carbon-carbon double bonds. It turned out that's not true, but that's the way they were viewed initially. So I thought, “Well, that’s in my research area, and I need to work on those.” I started trying to functionalize single-walled carbon nanotubes using some of the same reactions as additions to alkenes, because that's the first way they were viewed. It turned out that it didn't really work that way, but it got us interested in it. We were able to functionalize the nanotubes, but not always by creating a covalent bond to a carbon atom. Those single-walled carbon nanotubes can be functionalized by complexing to other organic molecules—for example having a long polymer wrap around the tube and complex to it by using the functional groups in the polymer. We studied that, and we were able to get some of the first analytical methods to work with those functionalized single-walled carbon nanotubes, in particular NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance).

Simultaneously, as a community project, I realized that there were problems with the way that the undergraduate organic chemistry textbooks were written. They had critical mistakes such that the material did not agree with the research literature. So I had a project that involved many undergraduates where we reviewed all of those undergraduate organic chemistry textbooks and identified those mistakes. This was a community effort benefiting organic chemistry students by making organic chemistry easier. Students often say that organic chemistry is difficult, and it's harder to learn a subject if the textbooks used have mistakes.


In the case of my work with diversity, it’s obviously for the community of underrepresented groups—women and minorities—in science. Part of the work was actually funded research, so it really was research. That work is reported in a number of places, starting with the Wikipedia page - the Nelson Diversity Surveys.

Another project that was obviously community service was my scientific advising to Breaking Bad. That again was trying to get the errors out of the science that's presented to the public on television. So many people complain that the science presented on television is just garbage and it confuses students, and makes it more difficult for them to learn.

So all my research, except for the alkenes research and single-walled carbon nanotube research, has been geared to communities in science.

 
I noticed that you have several publications targeting the graduate student and postdoc levels, the next generation of scientists coming up. Do you have some advice for someone thinking about graduate school or someone facing the job market today?
 
A person has to figure out really what they want to do and make certain that they're making themselves happy. They shouldn’t merely do something for their parents or partner or anyone else. They have to figure out what they want to do and what's going to make them happy. Once a person determines what they want to do, assuming that it's realistic, they shouldn't let anyone discourage them. For every important thing that I've ever done, there have been people surrounding me saying “You can't do that.” However, if one really thinks they can, and if they’re realistic, then they should go right ahead and do it.

It is also important to pick high level goals, because if a goal is really low level, it won’t accomplish a lot and people won’t be interested. I would say take the high level goal, go for it, and don't let people discourage you.

A final piece of advice is to recognize opportunities. They're there, but one must recognize them. A perfect example of that is the Breaking Bad article in Chemical and Engineering News, the ACS magazine. Vince Gilligan said that the Breaking Bad writers had no science background and didn't know any scientists, so they were having difficulty writing the material for Breaking Bad. He said we would appreciate constructive comments from a chemically inclined audience. I read that article and saw it as an opportunity to improve what's shown on TV. He was inviting us to help him, so I asked the editor to relay to him my offer to help. I offered to help for free because he said that they had no money to hire a science advisor. Later on a set visit, I told him that the magazine went out to 160,000 members of the American Chemical Society. I asked him, “How many volunteers did you get?” and he smiled and said “One.” That's why I say one must recognize opportunities because they often just stare you in the face. One must recognize it as an opportunity and figure out how to take advantage of it. However, initially I thought “They're not going to pick me. I'm in Oklahoma, so far away, they're going to pick somebody nearby, they're going to have a flood of people offering to help. I don't have a chance. But what the heck. I'll go ahead and give it a shot.” It turns out, I was the only person that responded.
Dr. Nelson stands between Bryan Cranston (left) and Aaron Paul during a Breaking Bad set visit in Albuquerque, NM., in May 2013.
Photo via wikipedia.com
This is a nice segue into your work as the Science Advisor for Breaking Bad. What was most surprising about being part of a hugely successful television program?
 
I learned different things along the way. I had never done anything like this before, so many things were a total shock. It was like going into a different world in so many different ways. The questions that they were interested in initially were things like what kind of person becomes a scientist? That's really hard to answer if you think about it, because we're not all alike. I had to immediately think about our commonalities. I said we all like to solve problems, we enjoy solving tasks, we like working on things like brain teasers, we're very quantitative, we're good at math, and we're generally smart. I tried to think of things, because I wanted to help them, but I wanted to be realistic also.

I was female, obviously, so when I met people on the set for the first time, some would say “You're not a scientist,” and I would say “Yes, I am.” Some had preconceived notions about what a scientist is. I realized it's probably very good to have this interaction with them, because they are creating representations of scientists. Most of us are just normal people. Sometimes one said “You don't look like a scientist,” so I would ask “What's a scientist supposed to look like?” Sometimes I would tell them “I am a tenured professor of organic chemistry. I assure you, I am a scientist.” I think it was a little bit of learning on both ends.

It was strange how the show impacted my life, because I got so many phone calls from so many people to interview me. Many were undergraduates, graduate students, and even high school students. They couldn’t reach people like Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul, but they could reach me. So they called me saying “I have a science blog and I want to do something on Breaking Bad. So I want to interview you, can I have a few minutes?” I thought “How gutsy of this little kid to do this. They're so interested in science that they've actually created a blog.” I would always make time for them. I was so impressed that the show inspired these kids to become that interested in science. It was shocking and it made me feel really good. The week before the show ended and the week after the show ended, I was sitting on the phone so much, even on the weekends. It took up my life during that time. I was surprised at how the popularity of the show sort of spilled over onto me.

 
So would you do it again?
 
Oh absolutely! It was a great learning experience. It was a stretching exercise for me. We talk about scientists working across borders into other disciplines and across boundaries into other countries, and with scientists who have different backgrounds, different races, different genders. This was like going into a different world because, in many ways, we didn't speak the same language. They were artistic people with totally different goals, so it was a stretching exercise. I think that it's good for all of us to become more flexible and really try to understand people. It was a great activity. I've benefited a lot from it.
Dr. Nelson speaking in Bayreuth, Germany, on 16 May 2014 about her activities as science advisor to the television show Breaking Bad.
Photo by Brian Engel via wikipedia.com
 
Circling back to talking about diversity and your surveys. The Nelson Diversity Surveys have been going on since 2001 (released 2002, 2005, 2007, 2012). What was the big impetus to start this project?
 
Again Chemical and Engineering News, the magazine of the American Chemical Society, had an article by a reporter. She had done a study in which she phoned the chemistry chairs of the top 50 chemistry departments and requested the numbers of their faculty, disaggregated by rank and gender. How many female professors, female associate professors, female assistant professors, and the total number of professors by rank. The numbers for women were so low. I tore the page out of my magazine and taped it on my office door. Some undergraduates working with me were female and underrepresented minorities and when they came to my office they'd notice because I normally don't have anything hanging on the outside of my door. They asked me about it. One Black person working for me and an Asian young lady asked me why didn’t they collect data on minorities—it's just about women. And I said “Well, I have attended a lot of professional meetings, and there are very few minority faculty at those meetings.”

The data were listed on the page, department by department so one could see exactly what the faculty demographics were. I said “If you look at the minorities, it would probably be zero, zero, zero and that wouldn't be very interesting.” So the students agreed. That night at home I started feeling guilty about that response. I thought, "That's not the reason to refrain from doing the study; that is the reason to do the study, to unveil all the zeros." I went back and asked the students if I guided you, would you want to do the survey about the minority faculty? They said yes.

Then I had to ask the person who did this original study if she was planning on surveying minorities. I didn’t want to infringe on her territory. It was an ethical concern. So I called and asked her, and she said no. I told her that I had students who wanted to do the projects. She said “Sure, it’s OK. I don’t care.” So then with her permission we did the research.  


That's how it started, and I had no idea at the beginning how important it was going to be. I think what really made it important, was my concept of communities. When I saw how few minority faculty there were, the drastically tiny numbers, I had to ensure that each one existed. So we looked them up online, just to make certain that the departments were reporting accurate numbers. Sometimes there were mistakes that had to be corrected. In the process of contacting the minority faculty, we formed some communities. There were almost no Native Americans to contact. I'm part Native American, so I was one of them. The Hispanic faculty were doing a lot better, they were making progress more rapidly. They weren't that concerned, because their numbers were improving.

But the Black faculty were very concerned about their numbers. They said that they knew they didn’t see any Black assistant professors, but they thought that they just weren't meeting them. They didn't know that there were actually zero Black assistant professors, the survey revealed. When they realized that the number was actually zero, they became very concerned about it. They publicized the results a lot, asking how can this be? This shouldn't be that way. There were quite a few Black associate professors and full professors, so why were there zero Black assistant professors? The concern about the lack of Black assistant professors was well publicized, and the survey took off from there.

That very first survey I funded. We didn't wait to write a grant proposal. I knew that the students were there, they wanted to do it right then, so I paid for anything that had to be purchased out of my own pocket. This turned out to be a good decision, because the time was right. Again, that's the community thinking that grasped the opportunity.


Another thing that sociologists took interest in was releasing my raw data. I was advised to keep the raw data confidential and publish as much as I could from the raw data. Instead, I released them to the community, so that the community can do as much as they can with them. The goal is to move the community effort forward, not just me. By doing that, other researchers joined the effort, and it got bigger and bigger. We did the surveys in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2012.
Dr. Nelson speaking at a ceremony in which she received the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization of Women in Las Vegas, NV, in 2004.
Photo by Chris Brammer via wikipedia.com
You just finished the presidency of the American Chemical Society, which is the world's largest scientific society with almost 160,000 members. How was that experience?
 
Well, I learned a lot. I keep learning to do different things; I'm growing. And again, ACS is a community, so it fits naturally into my personal goals. ACS is a community of chemists, and people had been telling me to run for ACS President. I had declined. Finally they pointed out that I was the science adviser for Breaking Bad and if I ran for President that year, I would win. It turned out they were right. Again, you have to recognize your opportunities because a lot of it is timing.
 

You're extremely active with your research, mentorship, outreach. How do you find your balance with everything that you want to get done and everything you want to accomplish?
 
Well, it's somewhat difficult, but I keep growing. So the types of projects change and some activities I must leave. I don't know that I will do the diversity surveys again. I think they had a very important purpose at that time, but people are really aware of the low numbers now. People are motivated and vocal, and I think the community doesn't need that prodding. One must be able to recognize when there's no longer a need for something and be able to move on, even if it is a project you’ve loved.

This year, when I was publishing the last of the diversity surveys, I was asked to co-write a book for Breaking Bad, and I was still immediate past president of the American Chemical Society, and I was doing speaking engagements, and I was starting a new research project, and on and on and on. When you're starting new things, while bringing former projects to an end, it can be difficult to balance it all. You have to know when is the time to initiate new things and when is the time to bring something to a conclusion. You must select, because nobody can do everything.

 
You've written about the future of science and a little bit about science policy under the current administration at the beginning of 2017. Now that we're over a year into this administration, how are you feeling about science and politics?
 
I would like to tie science to innovation more for the public and for President Trump. I think that would help us a lot. I think that scientists see the connection between science and innovation quite clearly, but I'm not certain that non-scientists see that relationship. If we, as scientists, could help make that connection for the public, make the relationship much clearer, I think it would help us a lot. President Trump, his cabinet, and our leaders are very interested in innovation, and if we could make the relationship between science and innovation much clearer, it would help us a lot.
 

As you look back, what are you most proud of?
 
My persistence to bring significant and difficult projects to completion. If one doesn’t persist, one won’t succeed—they will just give up. It’s also important to be able to recognize a goal and opportunities for it. It took persistence, and the courage to have that persistence, to find ways to make something of myself, coming out of a small town that really did not have all that many opportunities. At each stage this is very important.

People helped me along the way by giving me advice, and one thing that I always did when I had a difficult decision to make is that I would ask for opinions from about a dozen people that I respected. This can produce unusual answers. Then when making the decision, those answers will sort of populate one particular area, and one can see where the answer most commonly given is. The thing is, one can also see the unusual answers that would characterize a very unusual path, and then it's up to you. Do you want to take the unusual path or do you want to do what is going to be commonly accepted; sometimes you want to do what's most common, and sometimes you want to do what's most unusual. You must make up your mind for yourself. It's your individual decision, and you must ascertain that you’ll be happy with your decision.
Interview conducted by Michelle Booze. Copy Edited by Rozzy Finn.

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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