After completing their PhD at the University of Montreal and a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology, Carolyn L. Ladd began working for Dow, developing sustainable technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of industrial processes. Kirstin S. Bode spoke with them about Ladd’s career path and queer activism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carolyn L. Ladd
Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta
Education: BSc, University of Calgary, 2011; PhD, University of Montreal, 2018
Current position: Senior research specialist, Dow, and site implementation lead, GLAD Collegeville
LGBTQ+ identity: Nonbinary, genderfluid, neuroqueer person
Favorite lab tool: My favorite small, scooped spatula: it’s the first thing I build a relationship with in the lab. Also, electrical tape and 1-dram vials. Supply chain shortage makes you appreciate the little things!
I overcame adversity when: During my BSc I had some student loan issues and couldn’t pay my tuition. I worked part-time at an Italian market and mentioned to my manager my plans to quit school. The owner loaned me the money, we worked out a payment plan, and I repaid him after I solved my loan issue. If this stranger hadn’t stepped up, I wouldn’t have finished my BSc.
Kirstin S. Bode: Can you tell me a little bit about the research you did for your PhD?
Carolyn L. Ladd: For my PhD, I worked for André Charette at the University of Montreal. I spent some time working on C–H activation, specifically of cyclopropanes, as well as asymmetric catalysis. I guess that’s when I first fell in love with homogeneous catalysis, and it also made me fall in love with palladium, my absolute favorite transition metal. That experience kind of just got me hooked into doing that type of work.
KSB: Did you choose the Charette group because you were interested in the research? Or did you choose that group because you liked the lab culture and the principal investigator’s personality?
CLL: The thing I loved about working with André is he really embraced creativity and gave his students a lot of freedom to pursue things they were interested in. I talked to a lot of students before I joined, and that was what they experienced. André always told us, “When you run your research, it’s like you’re running your own business.” He encouraged that type of entrepreneurial spirit and made you take ownership of your projects. So yeah, I liked that.
KSB: Was your goal throughout your academic career to end up in industry? Or were you planning to stay in academia?
CLL: During my PhD, I wanted so badly to be an academic! I really loved teaching and ingraining students with concepts like social responsibility and getting them to think holistically about their research. Everyone always seems to think that industry is the alternative if you don’t go into academia, but I think what I’ve realized is that I’m so much happier in industry. I still get to do research, but I feel like I have a lot more opportunity. I love learning new things, and I love being able to talk with people who are doing new things, and I think there’s just a lot of opportunities to do those things in industry, especially working at a company like Dow.
To be honest, though, when I went recruiting, I actually thought I was going to go into pharma. I didn’t even know Dow did organic chemistry! I went to that recruiting session being like, “This is just a practice. I’m not serious about this. I’m just going to ask them a bunch of ridiculously hard questions and see how they answer.” And I got some very genuine and authentic answers, and they were willing to say, “Hey, we know we’re not there yet [in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion]. But we’re working on it.” So, yeah, I would say ending up at Dow was kind of a happy accident.
KSB: It sounds like you have a really supportive work environment. Can you talk a little bit about the “green flags” you look for when it comes to finding that kind of positive work environment?
CLL: I would say I think it comes down to the leaders; that is really the top priority. You want to look for people who exhibit inclusive leadership characteristics. You want somebody who is really self-aware, somebody who’s curious about your experiences. One thing that I’ve thought about a lot lately is working for somebody who has good empathy and is compassionate. When you’re talking to somebody, are they really hearing what you’re saying? Are they asking you questions? Or is it all about them?
In terms of LGBTQ-specific things, I think being at a company that has openly out LGBTQ+ leaders is really important. And being in a place where they actually have LGBTQ+ advocacy groups or support groups is good. At Dow, our GLAD group [Dow’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group] has an executive sponsor, so the fact that this group has someone in power behind it is really important. Oh, and people who put their pronouns in their email signature! That seems like a really small thing, but it’s really not.
KSB: You mentioned being involved in queer advocacy groups at Dow. Could you speak about what kind of activism you do both within and outside of your work?
CLL: During my PhD, I was very into my research. That was my priority—I compartmentalized myself into a little box and said, “I’m going to do chemistry, and that’s all I’m going to do.” Even though I was experiencing issues related to my identity at the time, I didn’t do anything about it. Then I started getting more involved at the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity, and I started realizing that these things matter. If you want people to do their best work and reach their fullest potential, the first step has to be creating a healthy, inclusive culture.
Today, I do a lot of activism work. Last year, I started volunteering for this amazing grassroots crisis text line called Thrive Lifeline. They recruit crisis responders who are from marginalized identities and focus specifically on people in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], but the line is open to anyone. I think supporting people at a mental health level is so important because we need trans people to make it to the other side; we need them to be supported.
At Dow, I’m starting a collaborative project with our trans allies, parents of trans kids, and trans employees. We’re making a working group at Dow called Transform. That’s going to hopefully make sure that trans voices are heard, and we’re trying to figure out where the gaps are, what problems we’re not solving related to trans inclusion at Dow. I guess that my hope is just to make things better for the next generation so that they feel more included and supported and feel like they’re going to end up working in a workplace where they can thrive.
KSB: I really relate to what you said about your activism during grad school because I’m in my first year, and I realized I didn’t know any other queer people at Princeton. So we started a group called Queer in Chemistry—our main mission is to make a space for queer people and allow people to feel like we have a community here in the Chemistry Department. And here I am thinking I’m doing so much, and you’ve listed so many different things you’ve been involved in! I’m very impressed, honestly. But that makes me think, How do you handle activism burnout and finding a healthy level of engagement?
Kirstin S. Bode
Education: AS and AA, Lakeland Community College, 2017; BS and BA, Kent State University, 2021
Current position: PhD candidate, organic chemistry, Princeton University, Erik Sorensen’s lab
LGBTQ+ identity: Nonbinary
First job: My first job was as a phlebotomist at the Cleveland Clinic. It was originally just a job to put myself through undergrad, but I found that I loved patient care, and I gained a lot of health literacy. I still catch myself looking longingly at people’s veins.
Mentor: My undergrad principal investigator, Jeff Mighion, really transformed my life as a chemist and as a person. He was a talented and deeply intelligent chemist, gave great advice about research and life in general, and was always incredibly supportive and helpful.
CLL: I think the first step is prioritization. Think about the things that you want and make a list of the things that you get the most joy from doing. So for me, mentoring other LGBTQ+ folks, I love that service. But I know that the crisis line is really emotionally draining on me. Especially working with youth—it’s hard because they talk about self-harm and suicidal thoughts and that sort of thing. And some of those things hit me in a really hard place, and then I have to really make sure I’ve structured some time for me to do self-care, giving my brain time to recover. I think being aware of how you’re feeling and checking in with yourself is really important.
I also think that work just needs to get spread around, quite frankly. That’s what we need our allies for. It’s OK to pull back if you feel like you’ve taken on too much. It’s OK to say to yourself, “OK, I made a commitment to this thing. Can I give this to somebody else?” If there are some things on that list that you want to do for activism that maybe you could delegate to someone else, find an ally and work with them to come up with a plan.