Raul Navarro develops new chemical reactions in the synthesis of biologically active natural products as an assistant professor. Grace Wang spoke with Navarro, who was at the California Institute of Technology for graduate school roughly a decade before Wang. They discussed shifts in graduate school culture, balancing personal identities and research life as scientists, and their chemistry origin stories. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Los Angeles
Education: BS, Yale University, 2008; PhD, California Institute of Technology, 2014
Current position: Assistant professor, Occidental College
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay cisgender man
Recent fun project: I recently took up sewing! I’ve always been drawn to fashion and like the idea of one day making all of my own clothing. The most complicated thing I’ve made so far is a button-up shirt. It took a surprising amount of time, but I wear it proudly.
Go-to stress reliever: Running! I’ve been running since I was in high school. Although it started out as a way to get good exercise, it has since evolved into meditation of sorts. That might sound odd, but I often find my brain at peace in the middle of a long run.
Grace Wang: When you were just starting graduate school at Caltech around 2008, it was an interesting time, right? Proposition 8, which was intended to ban same-sex marriage, was passed in the state of California elections; on the other hand, Barack Obama had just won the [presidential] election, and during his presidency, gay marriage was legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court. Was coming out a decision you felt like you had to make on a daily basis at a place like Caltech? Was it a difficult decision?
Raul Navarro: Yes, it was an interesting time and certainly feels like very long ago. It’s amazing to me how much the graduate student culture has changed and how much the discussion has really shifted. For example, mental health was not something we talked about when I was in grad school.
Going back to your question about coming out, as someone who identifies as LGBTQ, you kind of have to do this every time you go through transitions, are in new surroundings, and are meeting new people. When I moved across the country from LA to go to Yale, in my head I was walking up to people saying, “Hi, my name is Gay.” At Caltech, I had to navigate this space of coming out again, and now in the context of a really scientifically driven community. In retrospect, I made it such a big deal coming out to my friends and colleagues during graduate school. But that was something that I really had to do, like number 1 [priority]. It was part of being authentically myself, and to acknowledge that and to celebrate that aspect of me contributes to my scientific well-being as well.
GW: You kind of mentioned or hinted at this culture in academia, especially for scientists, of feeling the need to compartmentalize your personal identities and your scientific life. Could you elaborate a bit on your experience balancing the two?
RN: The reality was that when I first started, those parts of myself weren’t things that I deliberately celebrated or acknowledged to be a significant part of who I was. I was very much concerned with developing as a scientist, and at a place like Caltech, you come here to focus on doing that. However, what I ultimately realized was that there are these parts of myself that influence [my scientific work]. Like, there’s no way for me to necessarily navigate being a scientist without being someone who identifies as queer, without being someone who is Mexican American, right? Who I am as a scientist, ultimately, is inextricably tied to all of that.
GW: I happen to know your PhD adviser, Sarah Reisman, to be a great LGBTQ+ ally and very supportive of inclusivity in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. How did having a mentor who values diversity impact your experience in graduate school?
RN: This brings up a good point in terms of active allyship from mentors. Something Sarah said that tipped me off—I forget what we were talking about, but Prop 8 came up, and she clearly expressed vocal support for the LGBT community. That was such a small gesture on her part, maybe, but to me, it spoke volumes of the kind of support system that I had that gave me a lot of confidence to let her know a little bit more about myself and be more personal.
Now, as a mentor myself, I think a part of me wants to be that sort of representation to students that I didn’t quite get growing up. It makes me really sad that growing up, I never had that sort of coalescence of a scientist who is someone that identifies as queer. This is part of the reason that I do what I do. I love being able to teach, certainly, and I think another big motivation for me is to be that representation.
GW: You mentioned you really love teaching—do you have a favorite reaction to teach in organic chemistry class?
RN: I personally love when I get to teach the Diels-Alder reaction because it brings in so many elements of fundamental organic chemistry reactivity, but it also gets a bit into physical organic chemistry in terms of thinking about orbitals. I enjoy teaching how to visualize that stuff. There was one semester where one of the students I was teaching was a dancer, so I was trying to show her how things that I was drawing in one plane move in certain ways, and we started playing with our hands. I came up with a little dance move to make sense of the reaction; it was just really fun.
GW: What is your origin story as a chemist?
RN: I didn’t have an upbringing where I had the privilege to understand what it really means to do research or graduate school or anything like that. Those were such foreign words to me when I first went to Yale as an undergrad. I had no idea. I wanted to be a doctor, to give you a sense for what I wanted to do. I saw a flyer somewhere on campus, and it was advertising a research program for the summer. And I was like, Well, medical schools look for research experience. I just had zero clue.
A week before the program was supposed to start, I still had no idea which lab to join. The program director basically had to choose for me and drop me off at John Hartwig’s lab, and I was assigned a grad student. I just remember seeing fume hoods, seeing all the chemicals, the glove boxes, and I was just like, I can’t believe you can do this for a living! I thought it was just so cool to be in the lab mixing things, even though when I first started taking organic chemistry, I hated it.
How about you?
Hometown: Boynton Beach, Florida
Education: BS, Duke University, 2017
Current position: PhD candidate, chemical biology, California Institute of Technology, David Tirrell’s lab
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay/lesbian woman
Favorite molecule: Pyocyanin. It is a pigment produced by the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa and makes the bacterial cultures appear a gorgeous cobalt-aquamarine color.
Go-to stress reliever: Hiking in the Angeles National Forest
GW: I can relate to the no-upbringing part, but I had the opposite experience choosing a lab. I was like you, premed, never did research, but I had just taken organic chemistry and really liked it, so I went on the Duke chemistry website looking for a lab. I distinctly remember when I saw on the website that there was a new chemistry faculty studying malaria, I felt like something in me clicked. My undergraduate adviser, Emily Derbyshire, initially turned me down—her lab was too popular. I went back and argued for myself because I just had such a gut feeling that this is the research I want to do, at a unique niche intersecting chemistry and microbiology.