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Owen Priest lecturing to a class
Dr Owen Priest

A lecturer in organic chemistry and a prominent role model, Owen provides specific support for LGBT students.

Q: What inspired you to study chemistry?

A: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to know how and why things worked as they did. “Why do cookies change shape in the oven?” “How do spiders make webs?” “Where does lightning come from?” My mom would answer as much as she could, but would often end up saying, “It’s a mystery. We just don't know.” I felt that there had to be answers to these mysteries and was never satisfied until I had all of my questions answered!

I did chemistry from a very young age. I built model rockets and launched them in the backyard. The model kits came with sodium hydrogencarbonate pellets and I would borrow vinegar from my mom. I didn't understand the chemistry behind how the pellets and vinegar would propel the rockets, but it was cool to watch the rockets launch up over the house. Later I understood the chemistry, which made the memory all the more cherished. My early science teachers were enthusiastic, but not inspirational. That changed near the end of my second year in high school. I had an accident and was hospitalized for a month. After I got out of the hospital, I was in a wheelchair and still not able to return to school. So as not to be left a grade behind my classmates, I was schooled at home over the summer. A woman named Christine Clarke came to my house once a week to tutor me in chemistry. She taught me to see chemistry in a way that I had not yet experienced. Suddenly it was exciting. It was logical. She showed me patterns in the periodic table. Christine Clarke helped me fall in love with chemistry.

Owen Priest lecturing to a class using a molecular model

Q: What did you enjoy about studying chemistry?

A: The thing that I enjoyed most was learning how to design experiments that allowed me to discover new things about chemistry. When I started doing research, I found it exciting that I might be the first person to ever explore the particular problem/reaction. Beyond that, the thing I truly enjoyed was the sense of camaraderie. I always felt as though I had more than just an academic connection with my classmates and lab mates. We worked together, studied together, and had fun together. In the middle of the night, we once took my physical chemistry professor’s door off its hinges and replaced it with the door to the men’s room. Then we moved his desk and chair down the hall into the men's room.

Horsing around with chemistry pals did not stop in graduate school. Late one night, a few of us took a pound of sodium metal and a pound of potassium metal from the lab and walked over to the banks of the Mississippi. Wanting to know which would make a louder noise when it hit the water, we tossed them off of the Washington Avenue bridge. This turned out to be not such a good experiment. No one was hurt but my advisor never again purchased potassium or sodium metal in 1 pound blocks.

Q: What would you have done if you hadn't been a chemist?

A: If I hadn't gone into chemistry, I might have been a stage actor. Growing up, I did a lot of work in community theatres. I loved being on stage – my students have no idea how much singing and dancing I did on stage when I was their age. Ultimately, I decided it would be easier to pay the bills as a chemist.

However, as a teacher, part of my job involves a bit of stage acting. The role I play is of the chemist who tries to get his students to understand how exciting chemistry can be. When I am lecturing in front of hundreds of students, I am on stage performing.

Q: What aspect of chemistry do you most enjoy?

A: The thing I love most about chemistry is that we are always discovering new things. I was in university in 1985 and still vividly remember the day that there was a lot of excitement in the chemistry department about a paper that had just been published in Nature magazine. Everyone was talking about C60. What was this thing called C60 and why was everyone so excited about it? I didn't know, but I wanted to find out. Today, students can simply Google “C60” to find a wealth of information about it. But I will always remember the excitement associated with the announcement of its structure. That is why chemistry is thrilling. There are always new things being discovered.

When I was much younger, I thought chemistry was something to be read about in books. While chemistry has a rich history, it also has a vibrant future. There is a lot of great chemistry in books, but there is new chemistry waiting to be discovered in labs. The thing I like about both teaching and chemistry is that they both keep me feeling young. I feel as though I am learning new things all the time, and I love that about my chosen career.

Owen Priest lecturing to a class

Q: What does your current role involve?

A: I came to Northwestern University 14 years ago – a friend who was teaching at Northwestern told me about an opening and I applied. I was looking for a change and thought it would be exciting to live in Chicago. The fact that I have never left shows just how much I love it!

For my first 13 years at Northwestern, I was the director of the organic chemistry teaching laboratories. As the lab director, I was responsible for the curriculum, lab safety, and laboratory instruction. What that really means is that I was the person responsible for making sure that students did not blow themselves up in the teaching labs. During my time at Northwestern, over 10,000 students rotated through the teaching labs. All of those students still have all of their fingers, all of their toes, and a working pair of eyes. I get students excited about chemistry and work to increase their understanding of the connections between what we do in the lab and what we do in the classroom. This past year, I stepped down as laboratory director and now teach majors and non-majors organic chemistry classes at Northwestern.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: The ahhhhh moment. Students typically come into organic chemistry classes with a feeling of dread. Students hear stories about how hard it is going to be, how much work it is going to be, how much memorisation is going to be required. I rarely encounter students who are excited to take organic chemistry. My job is to get up on stage and show them how organic chemistry can be a blast. I often have students come to me and explain how they are completely confused by a particular chemistry concept. Hard as they might try, they just don't get it. We sit down and I try to find the right analogy that will allow them to see the logic. Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's hard. Eventually, there will come a moment when the student says, “Ahhhhhhh, now I get it! That makes total sense!” I love that moment.

Q: What is your impression of diversity in the chemical sciences?

A: We need to work on increasing diversity in the chemical sciences. There is a disproportionate tapering of underrepresented minorities as you progress from undergraduate, to graduate school, and on to postdocs. In the US, about a third of the population are considered underrepresented minorities, while the percentage of chemistry post-docs is much less than 10%. Women represent over 50% of the US population, and yet make up less than 12% of the executive officers at 42 chemical firms. We can and should work to improve those numbers.

Q: What is your experience as a gay man working in science?

Owen PriestA: My story as a gay man in science is long and complicated. When I started out, I was very much in the closet. During the early parts of my career, I faced discrimination from colleagues and students. Some were supportive, but others were absolutely not. I chose to hide my sexuality and tried to blend in. On the one hand, that was easy to do. I have always thought of myself as a chemist who happens to be gay, rather than a gay chemist. But at times it was hard. It became exhausting to always try to hide details of my personal life. Colleagues spoke about their families, their weekends, vacations, etc. I wanted to be able to do so as well. Once upon a time, that would not have gone over so well with my colleagues and supervisors. I am happy to say that I am completely out of the closet at Northwestern.

My colleagues, and certainly my students, are of a new generation. These days, I feel much more supported. When I was younger, I had wonderful mentors. None of them, however, was gay. Because I never had a mentor who was gay, I try to be very open on campus. First and foremost, I want my students and colleagues to respect me for my ability to teach chemistry. But I also want them to know that I am gay. I want to be a role model for all of my students, but I also want LGBT students to feel that they can come and talk to me and know that I understand where they're coming from. That is why I went through Northwestern’s Safe Space training and have Safe Space and LGBT logos emblazoned on the wall outside the door to my office. If you are walking down the hall and pass my office, you won’t miss it. Some students have dropped in to talk with me because they saw the logos. That has only reinforced my inclination to be more visible on campus.

Q: What more can be done to help minority groups advance in science?

A: Have more role models. Students need to have confidence in themselves and see themselves as achievers. It is easier for students to envision themselves as successful when they have successful role models to work with and look up to.

My advice to those embarking on a career in chemistry, or to those who may be underrepresented in the chemical sciences, is to do what you love….always. Becoming a chemist requires a lot of hard work, a lot of time in the lab, and a lot of discipline. But, if you love chemistry, you will be able to tackle all of the challenges that come up.

Interview by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of Owen Priest
Published June 2014

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