A few weeks ago, during a meeting of American Chemical Society editors in chief, I had the pleasure to hear a talk by Stanford University’s Carolyn Bertozzi, a recipient of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She shared the prize with Morten Meldal of the University of Copenhagen and K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research in California. Bertozzi spoke eloquently about what it was like for her to be both an insider and an outsider in chemistry at different points throughout her career and life journey. She recounted that at times, her upbringing and her research success made her feel like a real insider, but at other times, because of her gender and her sexual orientation, she was an outsider. The conflict, confusion, and pain she expressed were palpable. Yet for her, this conflict, when mixed with her keen intellect and support systems, helped propel her to the pinnacle of our field.
Bertozzi recognized that her outsiderness helped recruit a diverse set of trainees to her lab. Because they felt free to be themselves, they could dedicate more energy to being creative in their research. They pursued new questions with incredible tenacity and with a growth mindset to try something different. As we now know, this wonder and commitment led to the development of bioorthogonal chemistry, for which she shared the Nobel Prize. She attributes her success to the inclusive environment she created.
For as long as I’ve known Bertozzi, she has always fought for equity. During her talk she recounted that when you’re an outsider, the only way you get in is when someone (an insider) throws you a lifeline. Today, she uses her insider perspective to throw lifelines to connect communities. She approaches difficult conversations with a sense of curiosity and an eye toward inclusion that help diminish divisions. She makes it seem effortless to find common ground with someone whose views are orthogonal to hers. Part of Bertozzi’s brilliance stems from her ability to ask the simple and powerful questions “What about . . . ?” and “Why not . . . ?” These kinds of questions demand thoughtful answers that will propel us forward.
Bertozzi’s voice is obviously much louder today than it was just a few short months ago. She is dedicated to using her bigger platform to continue to demand inclusion. During her talk to our group, she reinforced that we are leaders in our fields and that our voices carry more weight than we might realize. And that we can and should and must use those voices to lift up those who follow us.
Her talk resonated with me on many levels—as a woman, as the first in my family to earn a PhD, as a leader with a platform. I am privileged to have people in my life who could affirm me when I asked “Why can’t a girl do that?,” “Can I take the harder version of this class?,” and “What about a college far away from home?” I am grateful every day for those people closest to me who supported me at each step, even if they didn’t need to, even when it was hard. My obligation to chemistry and to society is to do the same for those who come after me, and I try to make a small difference each day. Now, with a larger platform, I’m asking you to do the same: Where can you lend your expertise? Where can you make an introduction to open a door? Where can you let someone know that you see them as they are? Where can you be an ally? Where can you use your voice?
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