Stanford University biochemist Carolyn Bertozzi is a highly admired scientist, entrepreneur, and advocate for diversity, particularly for LGBTQ+ people. She’s been out since the late 1980s, when being a lesbian could have jeopardized her career. This year, she was awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize in Chemistry for founding the field of bioorthogonal chemistry. Pauline Navals spoke with Bertozzi about her translational research in glycoscience, her work on bridging the gap between chemistry and biology, and her journey as a proud, out gay woman in academia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Palo Alto, California
Education: AB, Harvard University, 1988; PhD, University of California, Berkeley, 1993
Current position: Director, Stanford Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine for Human Health; professor of chemistry, Stanford University; and investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay cis woman
Mentor: Mark Bednarski, my PhD adviser, introduced me to the field of glycoscience, thereby changing my life forever. He passed away in 2006. I am aiming to carry on his legacy.
Precious pets: Two fish surviving more than 5 years now is some kind of miracle for me.
Pauline Navals: Could you describe your main area of research for the readers who don’t know you?
Carolyn Bertozzi: I’m a chemical biologist, and the area of biology that my lab is primarily interested in is glycoscience. For the first half of my career, our focus was on the development of new chemical tools and reactions that could be performed in biological settings. In the most recent decade or so, our focus has been more on trying to understand the role of cell-surface carbohydrates in tumor and cancer immunology. Even more recently, we’ve been studying certain classes of glycoproteins that are distinctly altered in cancer biology and have been trying to figure out how important they are.
PN: From an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Harvard University to a PhD on oligosaccharide synthesis at the University of California, Berkeley, when did your interest in the interdisciplinarity between chemistry and biology first begin?
CB: I actually started as a premed. I really enjoyed the biology courses and was a bio major, but I kind of got hooked on organic chemistry. It’s the chemistry of biology, after all. It was so interesting to me that I switched my major to chemistry. That’s where the action is happening, you know? When it was time to look for a PhD, I wanted to orient my career toward biochemistry, and that’s how I got into carbohydrate chemistry. Did you work with carbohydrates during your grad school?
PN: My PhD focused on peptide formulation, so yes, I’ve been playing with them a bit. But you know what they say, carbohydrate chemistry is usually not the organic chemist’s favorite!
CB: Well, you know, it’s sad! Sugar chemistry can certainly be very frustrating, but if you study it well and invest the time to get the skills to become good at it, everything else becomes boring. Carbohydrates are fun and challenging molecules!
PN: So this shift toward chemical biology wasn’t a surprise?
CB: After I finished my PhD, I really felt that biology was changing, moving, and accelerating so quickly. I went to grad school from ’88 to ’93, and the molecular biology revolution was in full steam. There was so much going on, and I realized that if I wanted to bridge the gap between chemistry and biology, I would have to get more training in the latter. I then jumped out of chemistry and went to a glycoimmunology lab for a postdoc.
PN: In a 2020 interview for ACS Axial, you talked about the challenges you had to face being a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. What challenges remain today?
CB: In college, around the age of 18, I became self-aware that I was gay. At the time, there was plenty of homophobia, as it was right when the AIDS crisis was really heating up. I came out at a time when people were really mobilizing to try and exact political change, but also at a time when coming out could keep you from getting a job. So when it was time to look for grad schools, I needed to go to a place where there was a strong gay community, because safety in numbers, right? I knew Berkeley had a great chemistry department, and when you live in the Bay Area, you are in a generally supportive environment. I know from my friends who work in other places that there were (and still are) a lot of stigmas for gay people in the United States. At least now, we have civil and legal rights that give us some sort of equality in the eyes of the law, but casual homophobia still exists. I’ve been relatively privileged and shielded from it, but step outside of the United States, step outside of Canada, there are places where you’re still punished for being gay, even sometimes by death. We should never lose sight of the fact that science is international.
PN: You are right, our work is international and therefore brings together different cultures and ways of life. I imagine that it is not a simple thing to juggle with being an openly gay woman.
CB: When I present, if someone from the audience asks a question like, “Tell us about your experience as a lesbian scientist,” you can feel the temperature in the room drop a few degrees. But I’ve certainly never been the guest of an institution or program in a homophobic environment, and the immediate people around me have always been very professional. I definitely have trolls on Twitter; any woman on social media does. But nothing compared to the blatant outward homophobia of my college years. Surprisingly, though, being a woman was and still is worse than being a lesbian.
CB: Oh yes. You know, in the late ’80s, maybe 10% of the students were female. That meant that when you joined a lab, there were maybe one or two other women. We were such a minority, so we tried to support each other by starting a monthly get-together for all the women students in the department. To advertise it, we put up posters, as the internet didn’t exist back then. Within a few hours, they were vandalized with sexist insults. It was so hostile. Today, we get to deal with Twitter trolls.
PN: We’ve been seeing a change lately in the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. What is your take on this?
CB: You know, we are living in the wake of some racist events that took place last year, and the murder of George Floyd cast yet another flashlight on the systemic racism built in our history. On one hand, I think it’s very positive that people are trying to build awareness, and individuals who’ve had more privileged backgrounds are being asked to understand this privilege. I certainly would like for my lab to reflect social justice. But on the other hand, I think there’s a lot of cynicism around it.
Hometown: Fonsorbes, France
Education: BSc, 2013, and MSc, 2015, University of Montpellier; PhD, University of Sherbrooke, 2021
Current position: Postdoctoral fellow, bioorganic chemistry, University of Ottawa, Jeffrey Keillor’s lab
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay cis woman
Recent fun project: I started drawing again and am now in charge of doodling characters of our lab members to post on our website!
Best professional advice you’ve received: When you feel like you have too much going on, you only need to trust that everything will be done and under no circumstances should you ask yourself how. One thing at a time.
People are also frustrated with how slow actual change occurs and how behaviors don’t seem to change alongside the rhetoric. The interesting question is, How do we make a change? How do we make our actions reflect our words? For example, if you take a look at C&EN 20 years ago, they didn’t dedicate entire issues for the LGBTQIA+ community. Actually, in 1999 I won the MacArthur award at 32 years old, after only 3 years into my assistant professor position, and they decided to interview me for a “day in the life of” project alongside two other female peers (C&EN, Jan. 31, 2000, page 25). We three had partners, and I had been with mine for over a decade. During the interview, their husbands had the opportunity to talk about what it was like being married to an academic professor. My wife wasn’t interviewed and wasn’t even included in the article. I know the writer had the intention to include us, but unfortunately, at the time it was judged too “bold.” This was C&EN in 2000.
PN: And here we are in 2022!
CB: Here we are!