David’s research was influenced by his husband’s cystic fibrosis. He champions the use of YouTube in teaching and as an outreach tool.
Out in science
Professor David Smith is a relatively rare thing – an out, gay chemist, happy to talk about sexuality in science. He is an award-winning academic at the University of York, and is passionate about engaging a diverse range of people with the wonders of chemistry. Unusually, Dave’s LGBT identity has become an integral part of his research and work on public understanding of science activity, and this has made him one of the most visible out gay scientists.
Inspired by his partner Sam’s cystic fibrosis, Dave has pursued research into a range of medically-related topics. One such project emerged when Sam had a successful double lung transplant. Dave had long conversations with surgeons and learnt that one of the key drugs used during surgery was heparin. Heparin is an anticoagulant, important in major surgery because it stops the blood clotting while the surgeons work. However, once surgery is finished and the patient is sent back to the ward, the blood needs to clot and an antidote (protamine) is used. In a number of cases protamine causes side effects and, while sitting at Sam’s bedside, Dave realised that knowledge in his research group could provide alternative heparin binding agents, potentially with fewer side effects. Since then, Dave’s team has published results reporting potential new heparin reversal agents, as well as some heparin sensors which may help surgeons better determine the precise amount of the drug in the bloodstream.
More than just doing the research, Dave uses this personal context to explain the work his team does – at research lectures and international conferences, but also in public lectures and schools engagement work. When asked why he has chosen to do this, Dave says: “placing my research clearly in a personal context puts several messages across. One is that research can be a personal thing and you can be driven by what you’re passionate about. The other, although I don’t make a big deal of it, informs the audience that I’m gay.”
“There aren’t many ‘out’ gay scientists - especially in chemistry. I think it’s important that students see that a wide range of people get involved in chemistry and that your background and personal life are not barriers to achievement.”
Dave’s research was recognised with the Royal Society of Chemistry's Corday Morgan Prize in 2012.
To engage more widely, Dave has a YouTube channel which, in addition to providing revision material for his own undergraduates, reaches an international audience and explores topics as diverse as the science of Breaking Bad or the 'chemistry of a curry’, his own research, and also the representation of LGBT scientists. These videos can uniquely reach a diverse audience who may stumble across the science while sitting in their own living room - a very different approach to traditional methods of outreach.
Inspired by the levels of engagement generated by these videos, Dave designed a module for his undergraduate students in which they could opt to make YouTube videos on polymer chemistry instead of writing an article. So far, well over 100 York students have made innovative and inspirational videos on topics ranging from ‘Polymers in skateboarding’ to ‘Polymers in the Mars lander’. All of the student videos get playlisted on Dave’s YouTube channel and reach a global audience, so the students effectively become global educators in their own right by taking part in this course; they are diverse young voices reaching a diverse global audience. This type of innovative educational approach has seen Dave rewarded with a National Teaching Fellowship from the Higher Education Academy.
Being gay at York
Dave does not think being gay has ever been a hindrance in his own career, but does remember agonising over coming out and wondering how colleagues and students would respond. Indeed, he notes that many LGBT scientists worry about whether or not they should talk honestly with colleagues and mentors, or whether they should bring their partner to a departmental event.
“Young scientists in particular are often hugely dependent on their supervisors, who hold a lot of power over their current work and future career. It can be very scary to put your trust in your supervisor having an enlightened attitude.”
Recently, Dave surveyed out LGBT chemistry undergraduates at York, and discovered that they find the department a remarkably inclusive and safe space. Furthermore, they really appreciate the presence of out staff members and other students, which allows them to feel that they will not be discriminated against and can succeed at the highest levels in their own careers. Since speaking out on the issue, Dave has found that more students have come forward to talk to him about problems or worries they may be having.
When asked why diversity matters in chemistry, Dave sums it up quite simply: “Chemistry itself is diverse. There are diverse problems to solve in diverse communities around the world and a huge diversity of chemical approaches we can take to solve them. If we limit who can and can’t be chemists, then we’re not going to find answers to that diverse range of problems. If you are confident in who you are and what you want to achieve, both in your personal life and in your work, nothing need be a barrier and you can achieve anything you want.”
Interview by Andrea Banham and Jenifer Mizen
Images © Howard Guest /Royal Society of Chemistry
Published June 2014