Gay and from a council estate, Tom uses his leadership role to promote inclusion in the chemical sciences.
Tom’s interests in chemistry have flourished from his early interests in aeroplanes and science. “When I was young I wanted to join the RAF to fly fast jets. As I grew older and realised that would involve killing people, I went off the idea.” After his O-levels, Tom aspired to become an engineer but after studying waves, particles and the description of the atom during his A-level chemistry classes, his interests diverted:
“From that moment I was hooked on chemistry and I haven’t become unhooked since.”
During secondary school, Tom remembers his teachers creating an encouraging learning environment and many of his classmates went onto university; a rare occurrence in those days. “It was amazing to be taught by Dr Pearce. I think that meeting him was the first time that I discovered that there was a type of doctor who wasn’t a medic.” Tom went on to study chemistry at the University of Sussex: “I was really lucky in that I did not quite make the A-level grades to get into my first choice (I got ACD, but needed BBC), so I went to my second choice. I can really see now that it was a much better place for me in all sorts of ways.”
Don't hold yourself back
The University of Sussex played an important role both socially and academically to Tom: “Not only was there a senior member of staff with a Nobel Prize, John Conforth, but there was this very exciting and charismatic spectroscopy lecturer who was trying to work out how compounds formed in space which led him to the discovery of buckminsterfullerene (Kroto).”
The university and its neighbouring town, Brighton, were centres for the development of modern ideas; being young and gay was easier there than in many other places at the time.
“There was a dedicated Lesbian and Gay Society Room in the students’ union that was next door to the Sports Federation office; we were great friends. As much as this might seem totally normal today, it was not the experience at most universities at the time.”
Tom is currently Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College. “A lot of my job is what’s called leadership. For me, that’s trying to set an environment in which people can flourish at all levels with everyone getting a chance to succeed. I believe that an academic department is an ensemble performance and that there is no point having a couple of so-called superstars, if they are there at the cost of everyone else.”
As well as his leadership position, Tom heads up a research group working on ionic liquids and teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students.
“My kind of research has been based on two questions: why did it do that? And what happens if you do this? I work with solvents, which are liquids that you dissolve other things into, so that the dissolved things can react with each other more easily. The solvents that I use are made up of ions, which is very different to most common solvents which are made up of molecules. So the third question is, does the fact that they are made of ions make any difference?”
Tom is openly gay and proud of it; he advises others “don’t hold yourself back.” Having seen gay friends lose jobs and face violence in the past he says, “my life in science has always been free from all of that. I have only ever been dealt with as a professional, with the vast majority of people who I have met being kind and supportive.”
“I have always thought that it’s not so much that I am ‘out’ about being gay, but more that I have never had any desire to pretend otherwise.”
Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion!
Tom believes inclusion is key. “Don’t set up artificial or hidden barriers. Being inclusive is like being unique, it can’t be modified; you are either inclusive or you are not.” As a head of department, Tom strives to be inclusive but he emphasises this attitude needs to be present across the board, to even the newest undergraduate students.
“Everyone can and must play their part. So, after reading this don’t go away saying ‘this is what other people need to change in order to make my workplace more diverse’ ask, ‘what can I change about how I behave to make my workplace more inclusive.’ If you do this, tomorrow where you work will be slightly more inclusive than it was yesterday.”
Further to his views on inclusion, Tom recognises problems that still need to be addressed. “While advances are being made in all areas of diversity, the one that seems to me to have gone in reverse during my working life has been economic social mobility.”
Tom sees there is an obsession with school exam results but these are reflections of resources available to schools rather than a student’s ability. He says, “this has been exacerbated by more and more emphasis being placed on the reputation of universities. We need to recognise that some people’s talents fit the demands of roles that they get later in their careers more than passing the tests that we set for 18 year olds.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy Imperial College digital library
Published December 2014