Denise is co-founder of Out in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM), a society that empowers LGBT communities within science.
Inspired at an early age
Denise’s interest in science really began when she started experimenting in her kitchen, something she found more exciting than the chemistry kit her parents had bought her. She was then inspired by one of her school teachers who taught her how to size a thermite reaction:
“It took me a while to understand some of the numerical relationships but, once we got into the meat of the chemistry, I was hooked. It was like I’d stumbled onto the translation code for a language my brain was already running in.”
Denise had a number of other role models, including her mother, who completed her degree in engineering whilst raising her, and Madame Curie, who was the only famous female scientist she was really aware of while growing up. During her undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware, Denise was inspired to delve further into science and moved to Penn State University to pursue postgraduate study. In her current role, she supports the application and analytical development of titanium dioxide pigments in plastics, which uses her skills in inorganic, polymer, analytical and biological chemistry.
The beginning of oSTEM
Denise struggled at the start of her career with issues around her personal identity. She identifies as bisexual and has a non-binary gender identity, which has made it difficult to find acceptance. She explains, “I lived in a conservative area so I wrestled with how visibly out I wanted to be, and was left feeling very isolated.” Around this time, Eric Partridge – a friend of Denise’s and President of oSTEM – attended a focus group on what could be done to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in STEM fields. Following this, Denise and a small group of her fellow students started oSTEM, a society dedicated to educating and fostering leadership in LGBT communities in STEM fields, now a national organisation in the United States with several affiliates abroad. Their support involves helping people to find safe groups to study and socialise with, providing mentoring, and facilitating connections and employment opportunities. During this process, they become a strong community of people who support each other. Denise reflects on oSTEM:
“It’s hard to believe that we’ve come from being six scared kids in a borrowed office to an international non-profit organisation with more than 50 groups. I believe we can change the culture of science to be more inclusive by being visible and by helping provide support for young people studying in STEM fields that they might not have from their families and peers because they’re LGBT.”
The challenges of being out in science
While completing her postgraduate studies, Denise left her research group as she was treated differently for being from a sexual minority. Now, she appreciates being able to work with a group of people who have respect for each other both as scientists and as individuals.
Denise is currently working in a large business group but she still feels like the LGBT community is underrepresented in the chemical sciences – she understands that she is one of very few who are out at her site. She explains, “Being a part of a sexual minority is often something we can make invisible to establish our credibility before we let our colleagues see something they might reject us for. That’s harder for gender minorities, and harder still for racial and ethnic minorities.”
Diversity in STEM
Denise suggests that a number of things could be done to promote diversity within STEM, such as providing scholarships for conference attendance to underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students and young professionals. A combination of training and consideration of our personal interactions can help to attract, retain and promote scientists from underrepresented communities.
She offers advice to anyone setting out on a chemistry career, “If you know what you want to do, find out what training you’ll need early on and start with it. Secondly, be willing to adjust what success looks like as the cards in your hand change. The job market can be unforgiving, for both academic and industry positions, but keeping your options open can keep you in the game. It is critical to find a support network and mentors, even if they’re not directly in your field. They will encourage you to move towards the future you want and guide you through unfamiliar processes.”
Finally, she encourages those who are underrepresented to keep a “strong sense of self” and emphasises the importance of diversity in the sciences:
“Differences in our backgrounds lead us to bring different perspectives. Breakthroughs come from looking at science and at people through a different lens.”
Words by Florence Greatrix
Images courtesy of Denise Conner
Published November 2015