Bec Roldan (they/them) is a second-year graduate student at the University of Michigan, working with Professor Corey Stephenson. They have a BS in chemistry from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. (Twitter)
Geraldo Duran-Camacho (he/him) is a second-year graduate student at the University of Michigan, working with Professor Melanie Sanford. He has a BS in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. (Twitter)
Ed note: Our conversation with Bec has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How do you and Geraldo know each other?
Geraldo and I are in the same PhD cohort, here at the University of Michigan. We're both second-year chemistry graduate students. We met during orientation last year, and we just hit it off and became super-great friends. And we're both organic chemists, too, so we see each other a lot because of that.
What's the podcast origin story?
During orientation, we were both really surprised to find that there was a huge number of queer people who were in our incoming PhD cohort—there were 45 people in our first-year cohort, and 12 of them were LGBTQ. That's a pretty big percentage.
And so the two of us really gravitated toward a lot of the queer people in our department, as queer people tend to do. We found this really incredible support system, and that really helped us through our first semester and our first year, and that's still a huge support system that we both have here.
So I remember we were talking near the end of the first semester, and we were like, “This is so weird that there's such a huge queer community here.” I wasn't expecting that—none of us were expecting that. We think of chemistry as very white and cis and straight and homogenous, and then here we are with this crazily diverse group of queer people in one department. And we were like, “I wonder if it's the same in other places, in other departments, or how that is in the chemistry field in general.” We didn't really know of any avenues for queer chemists to connect with each other.
We thought, We're really lucky that we have this community here. But surely, there are grad students and postdocs at other institutions that aren't as lucky, or there might be other flourishing queer communities in different chemistry departments that we just don't know about. Wouldn't it be really cool if we could talk to some of these people who are graduate students like us, or postdocs, or professors, or industry professionals, and talk about their queer journey? Do they have a support system? A queer community within the chemistry field? And if not, this would be such a cool avenue to create something that doesn't already exist while also highlighting and sharing the research and also the personal stories of all these different people. Because as we know, queer people are so different, we all have our own experiences. We all have our own stories and journeys with queerness and with our own careers and stuff. And so, we thought that this would be the perfect way to highlight the complexities of the queer experience and really honor all of the work that queer people are doing in the chemistry field, because it often goes very unrecognized.
[When we decide to feature someone], Geraldo and I do some research on that person and we formulate some questions and send them to that person a few days before the interview, so they have a chance to really form their thoughts. And then we also always ask people whether they have any specific topics they'd like to talk about. So we're not going to assume that transgender people want to explicitly talk about transitioning, or whatever. That's a big assumption that we never want to make. So if someone is like, “This is my identity, and I really want to highlight this” or “I really want to highlight this certain aspect of my story,” then we're like yes, but if not, we just come up with some questions about their career path, about their personal journey so far. And then a lot of times it just leads to bigger conversations about things we hadn't planned beforehand, and we try and let there be room for very organic conversations as well.
Are there any specific people you really want to have on the podcast at some point?
Yeah, we have a dream list. I mean, we've gotten to talk to some incredible people—like I'm already flabbergasted at all the amazing people that we've gotten to talk to—but I think my personal dream is that we have Carolyn Bertozzi on one day. She's this incredible professor at Stanford who's been out in the chemistry field long before there was proper recognition and proper visibility for LGBTQ people. She's amazing, and I'm convinced that she's going to win the Nobel Prize someday, so she's my dream.
I think it would be fun to have big scientists who have huge careers, but I think it’s also really awesome to talk to people who are graduate students just like us who are from institutions across the country. Geraldo and I have made some seriously amazing friendships through this webcast. In fact, we have a big group chat of a lot of queer chemistry graduate students from across the country, and we just talk and chat, and that all came out of starting this podcast.
So we have some dreams, we have some big plans, but I think that every story is important and every person's journey is important, no matter how old they are and how established they are in the field.
Has there been anything particularly challenging?
I think just being in graduate school is a tough thing, this semester especially. We haven't gotten to publish as much this semester just because of fellowship applications and preparing for candidacy, and then just all the stressful parts of graduate school—even outside the pandemic, which makes everything a lot harder. This is a really amazing passion project that we both really love, but it’s been challenging, too. Sometimes, we can't prioritize it because we have other stuff going on in our lives.
Have you learned anything surprising?
Every queer story is different and every queer person has their own journey with their queerness and their career and things like that, but as we have a lot more interviews versus when we first started out, we start to hear similarities in some stories. So we'll listen to a tenured professor at a big university and they're talking about the struggles of coming out in graduate school, or they didn't come out in graduate school until much later, or things like that. And then we'll talk to a graduate student who is 20 years younger than them, and we'll listen to the same stories and the same struggles.
I think that's been one of the really interesting things about making this really inter-generational and across different career paths and positions in life, that we can hear how different generations handled different things, but then we can also hear a lot of the same themes that are just a part of the queer experience. We all struggle with coming to terms with who we are, we all struggle with how to go about living the most authentic way we can. And that has been really surprising.
And everything that has come out of it beyond the interviews has been really amazing, too. We are very clearly building a community of people, which is what we said we wanted to do at the beginning, but we didn't know how that would take shape. But it is happening. We're already talking about this dream of planning the first ever LGBTQ chemistry conference and what that would look like.
It's been surprising too just the sheer number of queer people who are in our field and who are out. We've talked to people who are the only out trans person in their entire department, and they're doing things that need to be done to further queer acceptance and respect of queer people in their own specific department. And then we'll talk to people who go to UCLA or go to universities that have big, bustling queer communities and hear about all the work that they're doing.
Everything outside of just the interviews that sprung out of doing this—we didn't know what to expect. We have an article coming out in C&EN on advice for graduate students living authentically, we’ve gotten a lot of recognition in our own department and on Twitter and Social, it's just crazy how much has happened, how many things we've never expected. Just surprising and incredible that it’s growing to be something bigger than we could have imagined. And we're just getting started.