When Christopher J. Bannochie isn’t traveling the world, he works at the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) and is a councilor for the American Chemical Society Savannah River Section. As a nuclear chemist, he has identified various species of mercury in radioactive waste. As an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, he serves on the board of directors for the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity at Johns Hopkins University, represents the professional society Out to Innovate on the ACS Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Respect Experts Panel, and is the management sponsor for the Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Employees and Allies Association at the SRNL. Kieran Tarazona Carrillo spoke with Bannochie about his experience in chemistry, his advice for LGBTQ+ people, and the places he has traveled to. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a bit about your current research and the most interesting aspect of your work?
I’m currently a senior R&D manager, so I’m not actually doing any research myself. In my past life, about 3 or 4 years ago, I was doing a lot of work with mercury speciation in high-level waste at the Savannah River site. Probably the most interesting thing was just how difficult it is to measure various mercury species, especially in a highly radioactive matrix. We were making a whole lot of species that no one thought we were making.
▸ Hometown: Minneapolis
▸ Education: BA, St. John’s University, 1984; PhD, Texas A&M University, 1989
▸ Current position: Senior R&D manager, Advanced and Energy Materials Group, Savannah River National Laboratory
▸ Best professional advice you’ve received: “Let it go, Chris, like water off a duck’s back.”
How did you know that you wanted to go into chemistry?
I didn’t know until I had chemistry in preparatory school and really liked it. I liked math as well, so I was looking at becoming an accountant or taking chemistry courses and becoming a scientist. I wasn’t particularly wed to either one, so I flipped a coin and decided to go into chemistry. I loved it and never changed my mind, though I did get a minor in mathematics. That’s probably how I first got interested in chemistry; the radiation work and radioactive materials didn’t come until I was in graduate school or during my postdoctoral fellowship.
So how did you become involved with radioactive materials and inorganic chemistry?
My PhD was in bioinorganic chemistry, and I worked on the development of radiopharmaceuticals, but it was all nonradioactive work as a graduate student. Then I did a postdoctoral fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine in the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology. The researchers worked on radiolabeling compounds for testing in rats and lower mammals and prepared materials for human use. Some of it was for treatments, but most of the work was related to imaging.
My former group at SRNL was previously doing work on biomining using microbes to mine for rare earth elements, and we were studying foam glasses (e.g., pumice) to determine how organisms interacted with them. The Pantheon in Rome has been standing for 2,000 years, and it’s just concrete. There’s no rebar in it because they didn’t have that technology in those days. But they found that what made Roman concrete so durable was the pumice that they used in their concrete formulations. In fact, they used to ship this pumice from mines in Italy all over the Roman Empire, so the same formulation would be used everywhere, and that’s why their structures are so durable.
Another project we had was looking at radiation-resistant microbes to isolate the mutations that make organisms resistant—to either incorporate them into other organisms or search for organisms that have those particular characteristics inherently.
Shifting gears, what has been the most rewarding experience that you’ve had throughout your time advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion and diversity in chemistry?
We organized a petition in 2013 pushing the companies that worked for the Department of Energy (DOE) to approve domestic partner benefits. Starting in January 2014, they agreed to provide same-sex spousal benefits for anyone who was married to someone of the same gender as long as they had a valid marriage license. We achieved that, and it was a big deal. The rest of the country didn’t get those benefits for another year and a half, when the Supreme Court made its ruling in 2015. So that was a really rewarding accomplishment.
I can see that being very rewarding. How did you find your voice with regard to advocacy?
There were two instances where I really found my voice. The first, I was on the ACS Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs, which is charged with updating the ACS Professional Employment Guidelines. I was assigned to a subcommittee that was supposed to discuss the next revision of the guidelines, and they had sent us copies of the documents in advance to make our edits. I sent back my comments, not really thinking anything of it, but I added sexual orientation to the list of qualities that shouldn’t be discriminated against. I retell this story in “Alphabet Soup and the ACS: The History of LGBT Inclusion,” a chapter in Diversity in the Scientific Community Volume 2: Perspectives and Exemplary Programs (2017, DOI: 10.1021/bk-2017-1256.ch016).
The second one was when I was on assignment at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. They had an LGBT employee organization and LGBT newsletters from their diversity office. When I got back to Savannah River, I was annoyed that we had nothing like that, so I made a point to meet with our lab director about doing something. That was a pivotal experience. She was very supportive, but she got stymied as much as I did trying to get a change to occur. It took years. We finally got our employee resource group recognized by the DOE 7 years after it was formed.
In today’s world, there’s a lot more cultural diversity, both in academia and in the workplace. Knowing that different cultures have different views and levels of acceptance, what advice would you give someone who may be working with someone who’s intolerant of LGBTQ+ people?
When I was the procedures and training manager at the SRNL, we developed a new onboarding class. One of the modules I established was a talk on implicit bias. It has some exercises for people to test themselves and gives advice on how they can work to improve their implicit biases, and that has been really well received by people.
It’s very easy to do the awareness piece on implicit bias. It’s very difficult to go to the next step. What do we do now that we have everybody aware of the problem? How do we actually fix the problem? I think everyone is still trying to figure out how to do that. It’s extremely challenging.
What advice would you give students and other young professionals who are underrepresented in their field and want to become more involved?
Just be yourself, and be visible. Don’t be afraid of what other people think, because if you do that, it’ll [stop you from progressing]. It’s always important for people to be their real selves and their full selves and not be hiding things. Hiding is what people did in my day. I didn’t even come out until I was actually working.
Did you find any hurdles or difficulty because you came out while you were at work?
The laboratory was always pretty good. Our larger plants were less progressive, but I didn’t have a lot of direct interaction with those folks. It’s a funny story how I came out to 13,000 people at once. We had held an LGBT Pride program at the Savannah River site. I think it was one of the first ones, and it became a huge community. It became an issue in the newspapers, and there was an article written on this program that generated over 500 letters to the editor, which were probably 90% negative. I was reading all this, and I finally got fed up. I said, “These people don’t understand what we did”. So I wrote a letter to the editor. A couple of days later, I got a call from the Augusta Chronicle. They wanted to make my letter to the editor a guest editorial in the Sunday edition of the paper, and I agreed. Sure enough, that Sunday, my guest editorial appeared in the Augusta Chronicle. Well, what I had completely forgotten is that in those days, the Savannah River site had a clipping service. Anytime anything mentioned the Savannah River site, the clipping service picked it up, and it was put in our daily newsclips that were distributed to all employees. So when I got to work on Monday morning and the employee communication came out with all the newsclips for the past weekend, I opened it up, and there was my guest editorial. I was like, OK, I’ve just outed myself to 13,000 people. I mean, some people knew, but 13,000 people didn’t know.
Lastly, I saw that you’ve traveled to 44 countries and been to all seven continents! Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It was always one of my goals to visit all seven continents—ever since I was young—and Antarctica was the last one. In January 2014, we went to Argentina, then took an Antarctic cruise across the South Atlantic Ocean, and I set foot on the Antarctic continent. It was fantastic. But then they went and found an eighth continent on me: New Zealand and New Caledonia are not on the same tectonic plate as Australia, so it’s a separate continent—so now I’ve got to go to New Zealand.
I had my next trip postponed twice because of the pandemic but had it rescheduled for January 2023. I’m traveling to South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam over the next month. So the new count will be 50.
Kieran Tarazona Carrillo is a graduate student in analytical chemistry studying the metabolome of feces, urine, algae, and crab gills at the University of Alberta.