The first time Kelly N. Chacón went to the synchrotron at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory during graduate school, they were hooked. All that time spent in their home laboratory preparing samples, freezing them with liquid nitrogen, and shipping them to the national laboratory was about to pay off.
Hometown: Astoria, Oregon
Education: GED, Clatsop Community College, 2003; BS, Portland State University, 2009; PhD, Oregon Health and Science University, 2015
Current position: Associate professor, Reed College
LGBTQ+ identity: Queer/bisexual woman
Role model: [My Abuela] Mama Cande married at 14 and was illiterate and had a very difficult life, yet never lost her faith or love of humanity. My Gramma Jan was a daughter of an early feminist and lived life on her own terms. Both taught me so much, and their love keeps me going, even though they are gone. I am driven to achieve because they were not allowed to do so many things that are open to me now.
Go-to stress reliever: Talking to my therapist! And honestly, so much TV, since the pandemic started. I admit it, TV is now officially my friend.
Before starting the experiments, Chacón was “not really sure” what they were going to see, they say. But when the beam was fired up and the data started coming in, they could “literally see the atoms interacting with other atoms.” The minute that happened, Chacón says, “I just knew that this was what I wanted to do.”
Chacón describes themself as “very nontraditional—in a lot of senses of the word.” A desire for independence led them to drop out of high school at age 15. They worked in food service for a number of years before—and while—getting their GED. A high score on the GED exam pushed them to attend community college and, later, to transfer to Portland State University, where they got their first taste of chemistry.
That same independent streak drew Chacón to academia. They liked the idea that “you could kind of work for yourself,” they say. Chacón started working at Reed College in 2015—straight out of their PhD at Oregon Health and Science University.
Now Chacón is an innovator in bioinorganic spectroscopy, using light-based measurements to study enzymes that digest toxic metal ions.
In 2020, Chacón received the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (Career) award—an early-career grant that the NSF describes as its most prestigious award. The grant includes funds both for Chacón’s scientific work and for their work supporting students who are underrepresented in science.
Chacón will use the funds to carry out their research on a class of bacterial proteins known as tellurium ion resistance (Ter) proteins. Ter proteins are widespread in the world’s microbes despite the relative rarity of tellurium. Bacteria use the proteins to reduce toxic tellurium ions to elemental tellurium, which is much safer. But scientists’ understanding of this biochemistry is extremely limited. “We don’t understand thing 1 about the fundamental chemistry of tellurium in living systems,” Chacón says.
Tellurium is found in all sorts of electronics, including solar panels and cell phones. Beyond the basic-science appeal of uncovering the unknown, the project could have several practical applications. Chacón hopes that a better understanding of Ter proteins could be used in the bioremediation of contaminated soils and help scientists develop safer ways to mine this valuable metal.
The project “really was starting from complete scratch,” Chacón says. As a professor at a liberal arts school, Chacón does a lot of their own lab work. For 5 years, they worked alongside their undergraduate thesis students and students in their laboratory classes to gather the data that underpinned their NSF award.
Chacón is “not afraid to tackle hard problems” and is “really creative about the kinds of problems” their lab focuses on, says Hannah Shafaat, a bioinorganic chemist at the Ohio State University. “There are a lot of challenging aspects about working on that project, and they’re not afraid to just do it.” Shafaat first met Chacón at a bioinorganic chemistry symposium in 2014, and their paths have crossed numerous times since. Shafaat still remembers the “incredibly compelling” talk Chacón gave, she says.
Chacón’s NSF award also includes funding for them to create and organize an annual 2-day symposium at Reed that will bring together graduate students from historically marginalized backgrounds, including students of color, LGBTQ+ students, first-generation college graduates, and those from low-income families, including people with intersecting marginalized identities. This symposium, which has been derailed for the moment by the COVID-19 pandemic, will create space for these students to share their science and experiences with one another and with undergraduate students at Reed. Chacón also intends the symposium to help students learn more about what it’s like to be an academic.
As a self-described “White-passing Brown person,” Chacón has always been keenly aware of their identity. As a child, they noticed how they were treated differently from their father, who immigrated to the US from Mexico. Chacón describes the lasting impact of seeing the prejudice that their dad faced. “From an early age, I always was advocating for people to look past what they think someone is and really just look at the person,” they say.
Chacón says they bring “vulnerability and belongingness” to their work—being open about their identities and honest about their struggles creates a space where everyone feels welcome. It’s an approach that certainly resonates with the students Chacón interacts with. They are “a really talented mentor,” says Gavin Dury, a senior who has worked in Chacón’s laboratory for nearly 3 years.
“It’s been pretty incredible to see how powerful Kelly is.” They have “this confidence and also this vulnerability,” Dury says. Chacón “makes it really clear” that doing science can be difficult, they add. But at the same time, Chacón makes Dury feel welcome in science—reminding them that they’re “smart and talented and deserving to be there.”
In their research, their teaching, and their mentorship, Chacón is always trying to push the boundaries of academia—making academia assimilate to a new, diverse generation of scientists rather than the other way around.
“As a professor, I feel like it’s my job to really make huge changes while I’m here on this earth,” Chacón says. This goal is inextricably tied up with their multiple intersecting identities of being a “queer Latino that grew up poor,” they add. “The things that I’m interested in and the changes that I want to effect, a lot of that comes out of my lens of being queer.”