Raychelle Burks
CCCE2019 keynote speaker Raychelle Burks introduces her audience to the intricacies of race-based “code switching” in public behaviour, one of many topics she addressed in a discussion of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

The 102nd Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CCCE) in Quebec City featured an entire day of sessions devoted to various aspects of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) as they affect people in all walks of their personal and working lives. It marked the third year that this theme has made up a major part of the program, with each iteration presenting even more facets of this wide-ranging field.

This year, for example, included talks from individuals with disabilities, who shared their stories of how they dealt with this challenge to continue pursuing their careers. Cary Supalo, a totally blind chemist who founded an American firm that develops equipment for scientists like him, demonstrated some of that technology as he gave a PowerPoint presentation that ran as seamlessly as that of any other speaker at the conference. He also recounted major turning points in his life that helped integrate him into the scientific community, such as when a student started a fire in a laboratory he was managing and he found himself responsible for showing emergency responders what had happened.

Alison Thompson, a faculty member in Dalhousie University’s Department of Chemistry, shared her own account of dealing with a somewhat more subtle disability, a speech impediment. She acknowledged that the clear enunciation her audience enjoyed was a testament to how hard she has worked to deal with this problem, but she added that such success also hid her disability from public view and could make it more likely to be overlooked. Thompson emphasized how crucial it was for her to receive help with this problem when she was younger; had she not had such support to encourage her to address this “hidden” disability, her entire life could have turned out differently.

“She did an excellent job of describing some of the hidden barriers that people might come up against,” said Stephanie MacQuarrie, an associate professor in Cape Breton University’s Department of Chemistry, who was among the organizers of the conference’s EDI events. “She did a great job of talking about how we’re humans, and not just chemists.”

She adds that such personal perspectives reveal the essence and relevance of EDI. While a chemistry conference is meant to be knowledge-oriented, MacQuarrie suggested that facts alone are not enough to convey the meaning of this broad subject. “We’re humans, not just chemists,” she explains. “You can’t just talk about facts because people can’t get on board. You need a personal story behind it.”

That approach was reflected by other EDI presentations, equally candid and intimate, from chemists with diverse gender identities, indigenous identities, or cultural identities. The role played by race was set in a lively presentation by keynote speaker, Raychelle Burks, a chemist with St. Edward’s University in Texas, who combined her passion for pop culture imagery with a blunt recognition of the barriers that confront a black woman in her profession.

The response of institutions to EDI was also discussed, as Nathalie Podeszfinski of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council outlined the granting agency’s newly minted Dimensions program, a made-in-Canada version of Athena SWAN, a well established UK initiative that has enabled post-secondary institutions to advance gender equality and remove obstacles to the advancement of female scientists’ careers.

Nola Etkin, interim Dean of Science at the University of Prince Edward Island and another key organizer of the EDI theme, credited the conference and session organizers for their hard work in assembling this array of speakers, in particular Canadian Society for Chemistry past president Kim Baines, who has championed these efforts as chair of the CSC Working Group on Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity. “It’s not just a one-off and it’s not a conversation that’s done,” concludes Etkin. “We’re building a tool kit for everyone — not just the individual skills in terms of being more aware and accommodating, but what we can do to be pro-active and what we can do to change our departments and change the world.”