The indefatigable scientist Richard Feynman once defended the subjectivity of beauty by pointing out that if our eyes were receptive to a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the only description of a rainbow would be found in dry research papers, devoid of all the romance we associate with this phenomenon. On the other hand, there would probably be a great deal of literature on whatever rainbow-like phenomena might be generated by X-rays, which we currently only know from dry research papers.
Feynman’s memorable assertion captures the perspective of his varied scientific career, which was thoroughly integrated with his personal life and individual outlook. And according to Nola Etkin, winner of the CIC Award for Chemistry Education, this is precisely the way such careers should unfold.
“We like to think of chemistry as an objective science, one that should be unaffected by the personal,” she said. “But the truth is that whether we are in the classroom, the lab, or the boardroom, we bring our whole selves. What happens in those spaces is necessarily impacted by our differences of experience and identity.”
Etkin was addressing the CIC Annual General Meeting, which was held virtually on May 27. Her featured presentation, entitled “Teaching To, and From, the Rainbow,” candidly reviewed her own career, which was shaped not just by a love for chemistry, but a growing awareness of who she was and the broader contribution she wanted to make to society. She related the challenges of this journey, which were highlighted by a conflict with her doctoral thesis advisor at the University of Alberta that brought her to brink of abandoning her degree.
She was rescued from that brink by the mentorship of the late Margaret Ann Armour, who would become a major force in confirming and defending the diversity of the Canadian scientific community’s ranks. In 2005, Armour became U of A’s first Dean of Science for Diversity, a post from which she oversaw the “rainbow” of distinctions such as gender relations, accessibility, or race. For Etkin, this confirmation of her own place in this rainbow provided her with the momentum to complete her studies and do much more.
“In the end I did get my PhD,” she recalled. “but I was no longer the naive young woman who got off that plane six and a half years earlier. For the first but not the last time in my life, I had suffered overt discrimination. And not for the first time, I could not distinguish whether that discrimination came because I was a woman, or because I was a lesbian, or indeed because I was just different.”
It would be the better part of two more decades, she added, before she could resolve the divide between her personal and professional identities. After joining the Department of Chemistry at the University of Prince Edward Island, she devoted as much energy to working with the local gay community as she did to her academic work. These two aspects of her life eventually began to merge, so that she vividly remembers the first class in which she related the chemical use of “cis” and “trans” to their meaning in gender identity, a connection that she hoped might resonate with students who might be struggling just as she had done.
“It’s really our responsibility — and it’s a huge one — to try and ensure connection with those students,” she said, noting that this was more important than ever under the current circumstances, where instructors and students have become physically removed from one another. But even if the COVID crisis were suddenly resolved and chemistry education returned to its previous state, she argued that this priority would remain paramount.
“With all that’s going on, we are still, more than ever, teaching to the rainbow and how important it is to keep an equity lens on all that we do with our students.”