This month, we’re sharing an episode of the podcast My Fave Queer Chemist. Hosted by graduate students Bec Roldan and Geraldo Duran-Camacho, the show celebrates the excellence of LGBTQ+ chemists everywhere. Stereo Chemistry is excited to share this recent episode featuring inorganic photochemist Irving Rettig. In the episode, Rettig discusses his background in art conservation, his experiences finding support and community in grad school, and his work promoting transgender-inclusive name-change policies within academic publishing.
Read C&EN’s article “LGBTQ+ Chemists You Should Know About” featuring luminaries of the central science.
Note: This episode includes the use of slang terms for some members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The following is an automatically generated transcript of the episode.
Kerri Jansen: Hi everyone. Kerri Jansen here. Stereo Chemistry is currently on hiatus while we develop our first-ever season of new episodes. And as promised, we’ve lined up some great chemistry content for you to enjoy while we’re off working on those new stories.
This month, we are excited to share an episode of one of our favorite shows in the chemistry podcasting world, My Fave Queer Chemist. To help me introduce the episode, I’d like to bring in my colleague, Katie Bourzac. Katie is a senior correspondent at C&EN.
Katherine Bourzac: Hi there!
Kerri Jansen: So Katie, what can we expect to hear in this episode?
Katherine Bourzac: Well, as you might guess from the show’s name, in My Fave Queer Chemist, the hosts, Bec and Geraldo, interview LGBTQ+ chemists on their research interests and experiences with identity, challenges, and achievements in the chemistry field. The episode we’re about to hear features inorganic photochemist and activist Irving Rettig. Irving discusses his background in art conservation, his experiences finding support and community in grad school, and his work promoting trans-inclusive name-change policies within academic publishing.
Kerri Jansen: Be sure to visit the My Fave Queer Chemist feed for even more amazing stories. We’ll include a link in this episode’s show notes.
Katie Bourzac: And for stories about our fave historic queer chemists, check out C&EN’s recent article, “LGBTQ+ chemists you should know about.” That piece features the contributions of innovative queer scientists, many of whom you won’t find in textbooks. These trailblazers influenced inorganic chemistry, agriculture, and more. They helped reframe how the public saw AIDS and mentored queer students. We’d love for you to read it.
Kerri Jansen: We’ll link that article in the show notes, too. And now, without further ado My Fave Queer Chemist.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: This episode is brought to you by the vaccine. Y’all better be getting those shots.
Bec Roldan: Welcome back, everybody, to My Fave Queer Chemist. I’m your host Bec.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: And I’m Geraldo. And we’re really excited for today’s episode. We interviewed an amazing chemist and activist, and we can’t wait for y’all to listen to it. So with that, here’s our show.
Today, we’re really excited to introduce you all to an incredible scientist and activist. Would you mind introducing yourself?
Irving Rettig: Yeah. Hi, everyone. My name’s Irving Rettig. My pronouns are he and they. I am a fifth-year PhD candidate at Portland State University. And I got my undergrad at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. And right now, I am researching sort of main-group photochemistry and catalysis, under the direction of Dr. Theresa McCormick at Portland State University.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Nice, nice, so exciting.
Bec Roldan: Yeah.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: So let’s just start from the beginning, I guess. Can you tell us about your experience as an undergrad at Pitzer, and then how you developed your interest in chemistry? And right before we started recording, you were telling us that the chemistry people were a very small group. So also how was that a part of your experience, too?
Irving Rettig: Yeah. My undergrad experience was really phenomenal. So Pitzer College is a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution). And that meant, you know, was just really a lot of emphasis on undergraduate research, undergraduate involvement in sort of a lot of different levels of the institution itself. Academic and extracurricular, I guess. And so, you know, it was there that I sort of really got to explore doing chemistry research, and then also, you know, like leading backpacking trips with undergrads. And so it was just like a really awesome opportunity to kind of see, you know, I don’t necessarily have to be isolated to doing one thing 100% of the time. And I really loved it. Pitzer is . . . the sort of internal joke of Pitzer College is that it’s Camp Pitzer. It’s just like a fun, awesome, wery, you know, like, “wooey” educational environment. A lot of, you know, sort of like create-your-own-major liberal-arts types. So that school in particular didn’t draw a ton of STEM people, at least when I was there. And so the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camaraderie that I found at Pitzer was this perfect mashup of these, like, really funny, funky hippie-dippie people that were also really, really rigorously involved in research. So I loved that so much.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: That’s so cool that you can like, that they don’t force you to do only research like other schools. Or, not force, you know, but like it’s expected that’s the only thing that you would do. It’s nice to do other things, too.
Bec Roldan: Yeah. Sounds like a very unique undergrad experience. So like I come from a liberal arts school, also. I went to a PUI for undergrad. And that even sounds like so different than probably the normal liberal arts experience, too. Like, what you’re saying about how it’s like way more social sciences-oriented and way less STEM involvement. But yeah, I imagine that you must have gotten a lot of like hands-on mentoring and support, too.
Irving Rettig: Yeah, it was cool, because I think each of the schools is really oriented towards a different subject. And so really, the sort of underlying vibe of the school comes through with every student, even if they’re studying something different. And so I actually ended up barely taking any classes at Pitzer because I was a STEM major, and they didn’t offer many STEM courses. But we had a joint science department with two colleges. And then I also actually took a lot of courses at Harvey Mudd, which is a sort of a computer science and engineering-oriented school. You know, so I got the best of both worlds. I got to, you know, like it wasn’t required to wear shoes on my campus. And then also I got to like, now take these really incredible, very difficult chemistry courses at Harvey Mudd. So it was a really cool experience.
Bec Roldan: Yeah, that’s awesome.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Cool.
Bec Roldan: So before starting graduate school, you worked as a research assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That sounds like such a non-traditional job. Can you tell us about how you ended up working there and what your research composed of while you were there?
Irving Rettig: Yeah. So when I was in undergrad, I actually was an intern at a pharmaceutical company and a process organic chemistry lab. And I liked components of that. And then also didn’t like other components of that. And, you know, as I was, I guess it was after I graduated, you know, I’d spent probably about two years in total, working as a independent contractor for this research group. And, you know, it was cool, but it was inside of a cement box in a basement. And I knew at the time that I wanted a bit more sort of community in my lab setting. And I actually come from an artist family; my mom is a glass artist. And it was sort of just by happenstance that I discovered conservation science. There was a program with Scripps College, which is one of the Claremont consortium, where you could double major in art conservation and chemistry. And my organic lab partner, she was in that program. And I thought it was really interesting. And I was like, you know, wow, that just sounds like a really hard field to get into. And as I was finishing up with this pharmaceutical company, I had done a lot of research about sort of conservation positions, I had applied to a lot of different lab settings, but they were really looking for people who had a conservation background. And I’m like, a little bit old school in that I actually like talking on the phone—if it’s expected. But, you know, like to order a pizza, the fastest way is to call them.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: I could never.
Bec Roldan: I could never either.
Irving Rettig: Yeah, and so I called the conservation lab and I explained that, you know, I had a chemistry background; I had experience with this instrumentation; and I was really interested in interning at a museum and that this museum, LACMA, was one of very small number of museums in the United States that has a full conservation science program. And the boss, who at the time was a 75-year-old German polymer chemist, said like, “Oh, great, we need more of you. Can you interview like next week? Yeah. So I went down there. We really hit it off. The lab there was really awesome. It was actually, aside from the boss, the lab was all cis women. And that was the first time I’d ever, I mean, going from from being at a pharmaceutical company, where, you know, my boss had Latinx heritage, but then the 30 other PhD chemists on my team are all cis heterosexual White men, who just railed on all PhD programs as completely useless. It was really awesome to suddenly be in the setting of women who were all really passionate about getting me excited for grad school, even though that wasn’t really necessarily something that I’d seen as a trajectory for me, because, surprise, I have terrible imposter syndrome and was convinced I was not smart enough to go.
Bec Roldan: That’s such an interesting, like, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody, any chemist, who’s ever even dabbled in art conservation. That’s such a cool experience. I’m sure it was so much fun.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: But if you think about it, it makes sense.
Bec Roldan: Yeah.
Irving Rettig: Yeah. And I really liked a lot of components of it, and then really disliked other components of it. And now I’m in inorganic photochemistry. We had this very cool research project that my focus was studying degradation of resins and varnishes. And I learned this really interesting thing, which was that—you know, this was the first time that I started actually working with photochemistry—but it was actually in the context of trying to show that certain types of LEDs actually degrade varnishes and resins because of the blue fluorophores that they put in them to make them look more white-adjacent. And it turns out it just, like, destroys paintings and destroys varnishes.
Bec Roldan: That’s so interesting.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: It is very interesting.
Irving Rettig: Yeah. It was the first very organic or, you know, radical degradation of these tree resins was the first kind of foray into photochemistry that I had.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: That’s so cool.
Bec Roldan: Yeah.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: And so going along with that, you then moved to Portland State for your grad studies. How has been your experience as an LGBTQ+ grad student there so far?
Irving Rettig: Yeah, it’s, uh, it’s been really interesting. I think that, you know, I actually applied to Portland State on the direction of those women at LACMA. There was actually a professor here who did museum chemistry research. And then it turned out that a project that I was interested in working on fell through, and I ended up working for the right PI (principal investigator), the PI that is, you know, has been advocating for the LGBTQ community as a cis heterosexual woman since her undergrad. And I think that the Portland State Chemistry Department has grown a lot because of my presence.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: We love to see it.
Bec Roldan: Yeah, we love to see it. That’s amazing.
Irving Rettig: Yeah, you know, they just didn’t, they hadn’t—at least what I’ve been told is—that they have never had an out trans graduate student before. And so, you know, they were really willing to listen to the feedback that I had. At least the people who were willing to listen to the feedback I had, sort of tried their best to figure out how they could support me. And there was a bit of fumbling, but I think that, you know, luckily, at Portland State, really, the professors are well intentioned. That well intention has brought them to where they’re at today, which is implementing really, really awesome trainings—anti-racism training, LGBTQ training—that professors at Portland State . . . or, not professors at Portland State, professors in the Portland State chemistry department, of all places, are getting. And I think that they sort of were in the state of a lot of departments in which they were just sort of waiting for somebody of a marginalized identity to tell them what to do. In and of itself.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: But it’s very important that they actually listen. Because some departments think that just by having, for example, a trans student is enough, but you actually have to ask them and listen, you know, what it is we need or they need? It’s good that they’re willing to listen and actually do something about it.
Irving Rettig: It took a little bit of time to, like, train them how to listen properly. But then when they did, it was good.
Bec Roldan: Yeah, I think it’s, I mean, it’s incredible, just thinking about all of the queer and trans chemists who have joined that department since you started. Like, you’re ending your PhD, which we’ll talk a little bit about, but, you know, how far your department has come, I’m sure, in the last, like, 5 years or so. And how you’ve done a lot of, like, the laying of the groundwork for future queer and trans people who end up joining the department, which was really awesome.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Irving Rettig: And I really think that they’re prepared because Portland is such a safe place for trans people. There’s so much access to health care, there’s so much access to, you know, from having a trans therapist to having a trans barista, there’s trans people everywhere here. And I think that, you know, one of the really amazing things that came out of those sorts of conversations that my PI and I had with department members is that they were saying that when they were selecting graduate students this year, typically they try not to choose folks who are local, because, you know, they encourage that so that they leave Portland and they do other things. But then the narrative that Portland is actually one of the safest cities for a trans academic got in there and they took that off of the sort of docket list that they would usually use to stamp down certain applications or not. So, I mean, that’s exciting.
Bec Roldan: Yeah that is so great.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: So you recently submitted your dissertation, which is very, very exciting. What’s next for you?
Irving Rettig: Thanks. I’ll be postdoc-ing with Dr. Miriam Bowring at Reed [College] starting this summer.
Bec Roldan: So you’ll be staying in Portland, right? Reed’s in Portland?
Irving Rettig: Yeah.
Bec Roldan: That’s awesome. That’s so exciting.
Irving Rettig: Yeah. I’m definitely looking forward to (1) working with them, and (2) getting to stay in the city a little bit longer.
Bec Roldan: Yeah.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: That’s cool.
Bec Roldan: Yeah. So you are, by all accounts, a very well-established trans activist in the STEM field. Can you tell us about how you got started with this activism work? And you’ve talked a little bit about this, but has your own PI, lab, and department been supportive of your work through all of this?
Irving Rettig: Yeah. So I think it really where I first got started was just joining my PI’s lab. She actually started the Women in STEM group at Portland State University, you know, sort of as a need to commiserate with the, like, two other female faculty members and other female graduate students. And the graduate student who is the cis woman in my lab, she was just a power femme, you know, like, she wore heels in the lab.
Bec Roldan: Amazing.
Irving Rettig: Yeah, it was amazing. I really looked up to her a lot. And I really looked up to other other power femmes who were in the department. And I think that it was there that we sort of learned to advocate for each other. At the time, I was sort of navigating the world as a closeted trans person who thought they were a butch lesbian. And then with these very heterosexual, very feminine women, and sort of figuring out how we could advocate for each other’s needs within women in STEM. And I think, really, living in Portland is what allowed me to, you know, recognize my own identity. And when I then came out as trans, I said to my advisor, you know, I really don’t want to lose women’s spaces, because I really have gained a way of advocating for myself from these spaces. And I knew how a lot of women’s spaces treated trans people. And I think it was from that initially that I really saw the sort of importance for advocating for trans people initially just in women’s spaces in chemistry, specifically. So, you know, some of the first stuff that I did was I worked with Women Chemists Committee to sort of update their language around applications and awards to explicitly say that when they’re talking about these communities, they’re talking about non-binary folks, you know, trans femmes, and trans women. And I think it was really from there that I got into sort of the more general trans activism in STEM.
Bec Roldan: That’s awesome. Yeah, I can relate a little bit. I think that, like, recently, in the last year or so I’ve been—mainly because I think I’ve just gotten a little bit more recognition from being in the podcast, doing a podcast—but I remember like the Empowering Women in Organic Chemistry conference, which happens every year, and has been happening for the past few years, I remember, there was, like, a whole thing last summer where I got invited. Yeah, where I got invited to, like, speak at this LGBTQ thing at the conference, and I was like, “Well, I’m not a woman.” And so if you actually want to be inclusive of non-binary and trans people, then you have to make that explicit. Otherwise, how are we supposed to know that? And, yeah, I worked a lot with some of the organizers of that to kind of shape some of the language going forward. And it’s still not perfect. But yeah, it’s just like, as LGBTQ people, we don’t have a lot of our own space in chemistry. So, like you’re saying, sometimes you have to fit into existing spaces, which a lot of times is cis women-led initiatives. So that’s been an interesting learning curve for me and for, I’m sure, a lot of cis women in organic chemistry and chemistry in general.
Irving Rettig: Yeah, because I think, ultimately, yeah, it’s really important that cis woman get behind trans-inclusive feminism, i.e. regular feminism. Because there’s this sort of assumption of, like, “Oh, well, trans women don’t belong here, they’re trans.” And then they get pushed out with the expectation that there’s a net waiting for them somewhere, and it turns out that there’s not. But I mean, it’s good. It’s tough to, you know, have to reiterate and have to have those conversations, but yeah, it pays off.
Bec Roldan: Yeah, definitely.
Irving Rettig: Well thanks for doing that!
Bec Roldan: Yeah! Of course.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: So you are part of a group of transgender scientists who have been pushing for more trans-inclusive name-change policies in big journals. Can you tell us about how this work got started? And then how has it been? And is it, like, a tedious process to get your name changed on already-published papers?
Irving Rettig: Yeah, so I sort of first got started with this, I think . . . it’s 2021, probably like 2 years ago now. Wow. I think that when I was first sort of figuring out how to talk to, like, the Women Chemists Committee within ACS (American Chemical Society), I started just writing down things that I saw within ACS—not just publishing, but sort of all over ACS—that were hurdles for me. So there was, at the time, this was in 2019, or maybe it’s 2018, when Allison Campbell was president of ACS, and she wrote a series of letters to different states that were hosting ACS meetings and specifically advocated for the relabeling of bathrooms to be genderless. And that was sort of the first large ACS initiative I’d ever seen that was just outside of the, you know, professional division small-single-room conference spaces. And you know, I was like, OK, well, that seems to be something that is being handled, what about a bunch of other stuff? And one of the things that I had noticed was that I was just having a really hard time getting my name changed, like, within membership, even. You know, and so anytime that things felt weird, I wrote it down. And then I was at a NOGLSTP (National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals) conference, and there was this queer person who does media justice, and they gave a presentation on the gender biases that exist in technology, and where those surface. And in that very short, 30-minute talk that this person gave, I realized, “Oh, this is a software problem.” This is the root of these systems’ problem. It isn’t, you know, just like ACS accidentally fumbling with the membership. And I sort of had this very tunnel vision moment of like, “Oh, this is a much larger problem than I thought.” And then it was sort of after that that I started making my own presentations that were ACS specific. This person was in sort of the queer artificial intelligence community. So I sort of took everything that I had written down and made them into this sort of demands list. And then anybody who was, you know, interested in saying they wanted to support queer chemists or trans chemists, I just would email them this, like, really aggressive list.
And then I would, you know, we had regional conferences, and I signed up to host different events, so that I could just be given a mic and no one would get to tell me what to say. And I could just say the thing that I wanted to say. And it turned out, I had had enough notoriety in these women’s spaces that I started taking up the platform at these women chemists events to start advocating for trans people at ACS. And when I got linked up with, I guess, some folks who were like, “That name change thing on papers, that’s something that seems easy enough.” You know, like “Why doesn’t that already exist?” And, you know, fast forward a year of me sort of just like shooting into the dark in lots of different directions. It was actually a Twitter post that got me in contact with Jess Rucker, who is the director of global operations at ACS. And from there it’s been really fast, so fast.
You’re interviewing me at a good time, because I actually just met with, I meet monthly with the Committee on Publication Ethics, which is the large overarching organization that dictates ethics in publishing across every academic field. And we’re getting ready to sort of finalize these guidelines on establishing name-change policies, which will allow journals that don’t have their own policies to essentially shape their own or default to these ones that were built by the trans membership. So that’s been really incredible. And it was actually through, you know, surprisingly—I mean, maybe not surprisingly, but ACS Publications has been, like, the international leader in name-change policy on publications. Also in trans-inclusive customer service around name change policies. Like they are the ones setting the standard. And they’re the ones who are pushing the most for these, like, major, major, major publishing reforms. And I’m just super proud of the people that I worked with, because, you know, they just have done a really good job listening to the trans community and just turning around and making stuff happen.
Bec Roldan: Yeah, that’s amazing. And, I mean, I can at least just kind of give my own anecdotal story, which I know you already know, Irv, because I told you this. I mean, I don’t know how hard it was before to change your name—must have been really hard for this to even be an issue. And so maybe you have a little bit of an idea of how it was before all of these policies. But I remember just hearing about all of this, all the work that you’ve done; we’ve heard you talk a few times now about this. And so I was like, “You know what, I want to just do it and change my name on my first publication, which is a first-author publication from my undergrad, in, I think, Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters. And it’s a paper in a journal under Elsevier, however you pronounce that. And so I, like, did some looking a few weeks ago, and I found out that literally, like, the week before, they had changed their name-change policy. And it was just like a page on their website that was like, We now have this trans-inclusive name-change policy. All you have to do is email this email, and we’ll get it processed in 10 days or whatever. You don’t have to provide any explanation, any whatever, you just have to email this one email address, and you’re set to go.” So I just emailed them. And I was like, “Hi, this is the citation for my paper, can I change my name from this to this?” And they emailed me like, right back, and they’re like, “Yep, it’ll take 10 days to process it. And then it’ll be changed.” And I was like, it was that easy? But literally, like, the week before, they had changed it. And so I mean, I guess it’s like, those policies haven’t fully gone through for all journals, but I guess a lot of the main ones for chemistry now have updated policies. And now it really is just as easy as saying, “Hey, change this to this.” And that’s that.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: That’s great.
Irving Rettig: I’m so happy that it went really well, for you. Yeah, what policies really looked like before was you could change your name on a past publication. But the assumption that they made was that the only reason that somebody would change their name other than marriage was potentially fraudulent. And so the way that they shaped their policies was, like, very extensive proof of identification. Also, you had to be completely transparent with the name change. And so what they would do is they would print a correction notice on the HTML, at the very top of the article that said, “This author,” you know, like, “John Smith changed their name to Joe Smith.” Which is fine for, you know, John smith changing his name to Joe Smith, presumably. But if it’s somebody who is transgender, they’re like, “No, I don’t want to include a tagline at the top of the research article that I wrote that outs me as trans.”
Bec Roldan: That, like, says, your deadname, also.
Irving Rettig: And it also says your dead name. Yeah. And so that’s like, if they would even allow you to do it in the first place, because oftentimes, it would be that it was up to the publisher whether or not they felt that the change merited like that, that the reason merited the change. So they actually have 100% control. You had to give them reasoning, and then there was no way out of the correction notice, that was an absolute no. It had to be on there.
Bec Roldan: Oh weird.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah.
Irving Rettig: It was made without thinking about trans people at all. Trans and non-binary people or anybody who changes their name for any reason other than marriage. And so when we were sort of shaping new policies, it was very much like, “OK, get rid of these things.” And figuring out essentially, you know, what is the way of doing this completely anonymously, so there is no public notice. And then, you know, also explaining to publishers like, you don’t have a right to this person’s reasoning at all. Like, you can maybe ask for their pronouns, if that’s pertinent to the publication itself. Honestly, what you should do is help them be able to update their name in other user profiles if that’s your role. But yeah, it sucked before and now it’s much better.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: So just to be clear, they don’t submit a correction like you would do for a paper, it’s just you upload a new document with the correct name.
Irving Rettig: Exactly. So essentially what they did is that at a lot of journals, they just added an additional policy. And so if you want to use the old way, you totally can. But now, instead of automatically publishing a correction notice, it requires the express and validated permission of the author to do a correction notice, but that’s not the default anymore.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah, that’s great.
Bec Roldan: Yeah. So do you have any advice for graduate students who want to make their advocacy work, whatever advocacy work they do, a central pillar of their time in graduate school? I know that’s it’s a hard balance to find—I think Geraldo and I are finding that, like, to make sure that you’re doing like your research, and you have all of the other responsibilities of graduate school, then how do you fit in the work that you’re really passionate about on top of your research? Do you have advice on that?
Irving Rettig: Yeah, I mean, I think the sort of the first thing is to either find an advisor that supports that, or make your advisor be supportive of it, which is a hard thing to just say. I recognize that I’m, like, a bit outspoken and a bit angry at times. And so I have to say what’s on my mind or else, like, I’ll implode. I mean, honestly, sort of the first thing is, like, find a faculty member or even a postdoc that will help advocate for you. Because it is more work, to also take on advocacy. You know, I don’t want to sugarcoat it, and say . . . actually, I think my grad school experience was easier having done advocacy work, but, you know, it is something that also takes your time. And so if you’re committed to doing research, and, you know, doing the things that you need to do to get your degree, while also doing advocacy work, it’s gonna be just more hours. But I think that, in terms of how to balance those things, I think that just treating it sort of like a research schedule, you know, make sure that you are taking the opportunities that you have to sort of reflect on what your goals are in activism. And then, again, also not reinventing the wheel over and over again. Finding organizations that support what you’re trying to do or the voice that you’re trying to cultivate to yourself also are really helpful. So, you know, within chemistry, there’s the GTCA (Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies). Even as a graduate student, you can occupy certain positions within the GTCA. I think the other thing even just within your own department, you know, advocating for folks to, especially at things like seminars or with, like, Women in STEM or WCC events, you know, going into those spaces as a queer person and expressing the need to have an out queer speaker that’s talking about their chemistry, or that’s talking about queerness in chemistry as well.
You know, I think that, again, with my experience at PSU, nobody was, like, outwardly bigoted towards me in any way. They were just really apathetic. And really sort of just like, “I’m down with the cause, but I don’t know what to do.” And, you know, sometimes it’s a little surprising, just how much hand holding you have to do. But really, what a lot of departments are looking for is someone to say, “This is what we need.” And I think that the unfortunate issue that arises from that is then that they expect the trans and queer person to take up that work. But you know, I think there’s enough of us around nowadays who are all really interested in activism that you can do something collaborative. You’re not the only person. You can find another queer person in your department and, you know, try to distribute the labor of bringing in a queer speaker between the two of you. Or even things as little as like, I will send out sort of legislature or email templates for professors to sign and send to states that are undergoing anti-trans bills right now. You sort of have to, like, slide it right into their DMs. But they’ll do stuff if you ask them. And if they don’t, then they’re [inaudible].
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah, yeah. But I have to agree with you having a PI that supports you, it’s like the best thing. I have a friend in my lab, Isaac Blythe, which we have had on the show, and I’m sure you know them. They’re a great advocator and activist for the trans community. And they also do research on that. And so Melanie (Sanford) told them that that could be a part of their dissertation. So it’s like, so crazy that you’re a PhD student in chemistry, and one chapter in your dissertation is about research in trans rights, you know?
Bec Roldan: That’s so cool!
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: I love Melanie so much. She’s an amazing PI. I love her so much.
Irving Rettig: Yeah. And yeah, and I mean, I think that, you know, at least PIs who were going to change in the first place are changing, right? You know, kind of see the importance of having this melting pot of identities in chemistry and how that contributes to the bettering of . . . how it makes research better, and how it makes lab communities better, and how it makes collaboration better. I think that those professors are recognizing the importance of that. And then if you say, like, hey, I need a PI that I can cc on emails, when I send this uncomfortable thing, or I need three PIs to put their names down when I invite this speaker to say that they support inviting this speaker. Or, you know, saying to your own PI or another PI, I want to invite this person that went to your alma mater, and I want to invite them because they’re going to talk about XYZ queerness experience. And I think that, you know, asking . . . you’d be surprised at the sort of people that will help.
Bec Roldan: Yeah.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah. 100%. So changing gears a little bit, who is your chemistry or science role model? And why? And you can have more than one if you want.
Irving Rettig: So it’s sort of interesting, because I have a few. Honestly, the people that I have worked with, and will be working with, are people that I, like, really idolized in chemistry. So, you know, my PhD advisor, Theresa McCormick, she’s, like, the smartest person I’ve ever met. She’s navigating having two very young children as a PI, talking about and actually living the work-life balance that she preaches. And she’s just very . . . you know, we talked about when we email back and forth, like, you know, she sends the expression “professionalism is oppression” at the end of an email. You know, like, she’s just a really [inaudible] lady. And she used to curl for the state of Oregon, so that’s pretty cool.
Also, my undergraduate advisor was and is a friend of mine, Dr. Nancy Williams. We sort of established this really wonderful and supportive relationship when I was working in her lab. And she has been so open with me about herself and her life and her transition throughout my time as a chemist. I mean, she was the only trans person that I knew in chemistry up until, like, an ACS meeting three years ago. And the fact that I literally had a trans mentor as an undergrad was really, really phenomenal. And I think that it was her . . . you know, she would teach inorganic and then would drive into downtown LA to go sing with, like, the trans choir and march in the pride parade.
Bec Roldan: That’s so cool. Oh my god.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: That is really cool. Irving Rettig: Really great. I think, you know, Theresa, Dr. McCormick, sort of her very kind words are, like, “Don’t get mad, get manipulative.” like, you know. [Inaudible] get what you want, but in a way that is, like, getting people on your side, not forcing their hand, or making them not realize that you’re forcing their hand. You know, Nancy really showed me that you could balance advocacy work and research together at the same time.
And then I also really, really look up to Miriam, Dr. Bowring, who I’m going to be working with. I think that they do phenomenal science. I really love weird kinetics, and the fervor at which they just, like, scratch the itch of a single mechanism is like, ahh. [Inaudible] And then, also, they advocate for their students and they advocate for trans and non-binary people at Reed in a way that’s phenomenal. And I mean, I think that I also really look up to just every single, young PI at Reed College. A lot of them are queer in the chemistry department, and I think that’s really awesome.
I think a sort of unexpected one is Dr. Allison Campbell. I met her when I was working with sort of organizing the Pacific Northwest regional meeting. And we met sort of personally to go grab, like, lunch and a beer on a couple of occasions. And I really sort of told her about my insecurities around chemistry, that I still don’t think I’m smart enough, that I sometimes have, I mean, not necessarily regrets, but I get nervous about the fact that I went to an R2 to get my PhD, you know, this whole pedigree thing. I’m just not cut out for it, I can’t work hard enough, I’m not dedicated enough, that sort of thing. And she really just gave me, like, the pep talk of a lifetime at this McMenamins bar. Just about, like, if you stay within what you love, and you figure out ways of motivating people to be passionate about their science, or working for you, that you can take on any challenge. And so I’ve really appreciated her. She doesn’t realize that she’s had such a large impact on me, but she definitely has. She’s just, like, the really, just like, big dyke energy. Allison Campbell for President, really. I mean, I know she was already president (of ACS) but maybe again. And, I mean, in the end, she has a passion for science that has allowed her to, you know, climb up the ranks of PNNL and now, like, runs an entire department there. And I really, you know, look up to her for her leadership style, and then also for her transparency around, you know, the sort of where she came from and what she started out with. And she’s really good at fighting the imposter syndrome. Plus, she’s, she’s an athlete, and I love that she [inaudible].
Bec Roldan: Amazing. Yeah, sounds like you’ve had some really great pockets of people in your life.
Irving Rettig: Yeah. I ran screaming out of that pharmaceutical lab, I tell you. [Inaudible] amazing. He was really, really phenomenal and just, like, really kind and generous with his compliments. And the other chemists that I worked with were a bunch of guys that were having their midlife crises and it was a lot. And so I chose to only be with good mentors after that. Strongly vetted mentors.
Bec Roldan: Amazing. Amazing. So last question: Where can people follow you on social media if they would like to connect with you?
Irving Rettig: Yes. Okay, let’s see if I can get this off the top of my head. You can follow me on Twitter as @Irv_does_chem. So, “Irv does chem” with underscores separating them. Yeah. You can also follow me on Instagram, which is a more personal account, but it shows more of my . . . basically it’s just me rock climbing or the dog that I am on a long-term babysitting run for, who is currently sleeping as we’re doing this interview. So for dog and rock-climbing content you can follow me at . . . I think it’s underscore . . . Oh, hang on . . . it’s _wrinklestheclown_. It’s just a weird inside joke so maybe I’ll just change it to Irv does chem too. I’ll just do that, you can follow me on Instagram @dr.irv_does_chem.
Bec Roldan: Yeah. Awesome. Well, it was great chatting with you and hearing about some of the work and yeah.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah, so nice.
Irving Rettig: Thanks for having me.
Bec Roldan: Of course.
Irving Rettig: Yeah. I’m excited to join the posse. Yeah, and thank you for this, because I hope you recognize that this is activism.
Bec Roldan: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.
Irving Rettig: Like it’s fun as well. But activism is fun in my opinion. It’s difficult at times. But, like, this is some really historical activism that y’all got going on here. So I appreciate it.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Thank you so much.
Bec Roldan: Yeah. Thank you so much. It was good talking to you.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Yeah. Have a nice day.
Irving Rettig: You too.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Bye.
Bec Roldan: All right, bye.
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: We’re about a month away from Pride Month. And as we all know, last year, we celebrated Pride on the podcast by featuring some incredible STEM LGBTQ+ scientists. We’d love to hear y’all’s ideas on who we should interview or what should we do to celebrate Pride this year. So send us your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bec Roldan: We hope that y’all are being safe and healthy and continuing to support each other during this pandemic. Please, please, please get your vaccine, y’all, to keep yourself and those around you safe. Remember to fill out the nomination form on our Twitter if you’re interested in being interviewed for the show. You can follow us at @MFQCPod. Take care everybody and stay safe. We’ll see you soon. Bye!
Geraldo Duran-Camacho: Adios!
Kerri: You’ve been listening to an episode of My Fave Queer Chemist, presented by Stereo Chemistry. Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.