When Anne McNeil attended an American Chemical Society conference a couple years ago, she was surprised to find a symposium in her field with no invited women speakers. Less than a month later, another symposium was announced, and again no women were listed as keynote speakers.
“I pulled out my phone and typed on Twitter, ‘How could we have let this happen?’” she said. “Our community is more diverse than this.”
McNeil, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of chemistry, LSA, received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from The College of William and Mary. She graduated from Cornell University with a a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, then attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology for postdoctoral work in polymer chemistry.
“The first time I became aware that I was a woman in science was in graduate school,” she said. “Before, there was a fairly diverse population of students. Graduate school was a shock to my system. I ran into a lot of ‘guy culture.’”
McNeil’s experience at the conference inspired her to take action. Diversify Chemistry was born.
Diversify Chemistry works as a database for finding individuals who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds in chemistry. Users upload self-reported, personal data, which is filtered through searches based on specific categories such as a chemistry subfield, race or sexual orientation.
“The polymer chemistry community is actually very diverse,” said McNeil, also a professor of macromolecular science and engineering, College of Engineering. “The conference was an inaccurate portrayal of what its demographic is actually like.”
She was inspired by a similar existing project, Diversify EEB, created by Regina Baucom and Meghan Duffy of the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in LSA. McNeil wanted to adapt its framework to create Diversify Chemistry. Baucom, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Duffy, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, helped her throughout the process.
Before actually creating the database, McNeil reached out to her community of fellow chemists on Twitter, asking for their pre-emptive opinions. She received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.
Prior to launching Diversify Chemistry, McNeil created a Twitter page for it, on which she posted regular updates on the launch date, as well as interesting articles related to diversity and science. The account garnered 500-1,000 followers before the site even launched. Her goal was to create a pre-existing following so that when she featured the website it would have instant interaction with an audience.
“The page created a lot of buzz and hype around Diversify Chem,” McNeil said. “And lots of conversations about diversity before the site even existed. I feel like nothing would have happened without Twitter.”
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She envisions that Diversify Chemistry will be used by event and speaker coordinators, award committees, scholarly publishers, and hiring committees as a source to find individuals from underrepresented backgrounds.
McNeil currently works on a project called #365DiversifyChem, which involves almost daily tweets featuring one scientist from Diversify Chemistry, including a profile picture, current position and employer, and a link to the person’s most recent scholarly work.
Diversify Chem has caught the attention of news sites and has received international recognition. And, most recently, the American Chemistry Society has asked to collaborate with her on expanding Diversify Chemistry to include industrial chemists.
“My goal is for every chemist to know that it exists,” she said. “And for the people who need to be on there to be on there. I won’t stop until it happens.”
Q & A
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Giving my “tenure talk” to the department and sharing the accomplishments of all the amazing students who worked in my lab.
What can’t you live without?
Chocolate and weekends with my family.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
The Museum of Natural History. I’ve already been over to take a sneak peek at the new entrance!
What inspires you?
Watching live performances (of anything — sports, arts, music, even lectures!) and appreciating the talent and hard work that went into it behind the scenes.
What are you currently reading?
“Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” by Angela Saini, and “Introduction to Modern Climate Change” by Andrew Dessler.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
There are too many to name. My network is big!