It was an all-too-familiar situation. In the fall of 2017, at an American Chemical Society national meeting, Anne McNeil noticed that the speakers for an awards symposium on polymer chemistry were all male and predominantly white. “Polymer science is a field where there are a lot of women doing really excellent research, and I was thinking, ‘How is this still happening?’ ” says McNeil, a macromolecular chemist at the University of Michigan.
▸ Hometown: Buffalo, N.Y.
▸ Education: B.S., chemistry, William & Mary; Ph.D., chemistry, Cornell University
▸ How McNeil promotes diversity in her own research group: By promoting a group culture where everyone feels respected, valued, and able to bring their full, authentic self to work.
▸ Biggest help in launching this website and initiative: I had such a great support system among my University of Michigan colleagues, as well as my fellow academic chemists on Twitter, which provided a sounding board for ideas and challenges along the way. I really valued all those conversations.
▸ Advice for someone wanting to start a similar website for a different area of science: Send me an email! I can connect you with my professional website designer, and you can use and adjust our template for your purposes.
The symposium was just one example of a situation in which a senior scientist has felt that the presence of women and individuals from underrepresented groups was seriously lacking. Fortunately, the scientific community is starting to push back. At the Frontiers in Cancer Research meeting in October, 23 of the 28 invited speakers were women. And the French Theoretical Chemistry Network announced in April that it will no longer fund conferences for which all the invited speakers are male.
Inspired by such progress, McNeil wanted to do her part in creating more gender balance and overall diversity. “I thought, ‘I should do something about this instead of just complaining on Twitter.’ ”
So she did. In August, McNeil launched the Diversify Chemistry website, www.diversifychemistry.com, aimed at bringing more visibility and professional opportunities to individuals from underrepresented groups in the academic chemistry community. The website includes a directory of diverse scientists who are available as conference speakers, peer reviewers, job candidates, awards candidates, and more. The initiative is inspired by similar efforts also started at the University of Michigan, in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology (Diversify EEB) and philosophy (UPDirectory).
Diversify Chemistry invites individuals who self-identify as being from an underrepresented or disadvantaged group according to their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability to add their information to the online directory. This directory includes their name, affiliated institution, website, email address, and area of specialty. In just three months, the directory has grown to more than 180 individuals.
“If you want to create a diverse speaker list for a symposium, it’s much easier if you have a list of diverse people to choose from than it is to recall them from memory,” McNeil says. “We need to be more intentional about including people that represent more diversity in our field.”
McNeil emphasizes that Diversify Chemistry is about more than diversifying the roster of symposia speakers. She intends for the website to be an invaluable tool for search committees seeking applicants for faculty positions, journal editors seeking peer reviewers, or people looking to nominate outstanding chemists for awards. Even journalists looking for expert sources in different areas of chemistry for their stories can look to Diversify Chemistry, McNeil says.
The website was built with easy navigation in mind. One section is devoted to users who want to submit an entry to the directory and another to users who want to view the directory. McNeil says she moderates the list to make sure that everyone who submits their name and ends up listed qualifies according to their self-identification. There is, of course, an element of the honor system involved.
To keep the list a manageable size, McNeil has narrowed the focus to academic chemists and postdocs. She intentionally does not include graduate students on the website because many graduate students haven’t yet committed to a career path, academic or otherwise, she says. To keep the information on the website updated, McNeil plans to email everyone on the list once a year, asking them to review and update their information.
McNeil says she has some funding from the University of Michigan to support the website, and she is looking into other sources of support. The few hours a week that she devotes to working on the website are well worth it, she says. “I don’t view it as adding something else to my plate; I view it as part of my job to help others.”
When she is not working on the website, McNeil oversees a research program focused on synthesizing novel organic polymers and their applications. She also conducts education research focused on introducing elements of authentic research into introductory labs and its impact on student learning.
McNeil says she hopes that Diversify Chemistry will encourage more discussion about diversity in the sciences and inspire the creation of initiatives to diversify other employment sectors in the chemical sciences, such as industry. She invites scientists from other fields to use her website as a template for creating their own directories of individuals from diverse backgrounds.
And she hopes that the chemistry community will help her spread the word about the Diversify Chemistry initiative: “Now when I see people posting that they have a position open, I tell them to check out the list.”