In our continued celebration of IYPT2019 and IUPAC100, we are highlighting the individuals in the IUPAC Periodic Table of Younger Chemists who are representing Canada. In this Q&A series, we get to know the person behind the accomplishments. Next is Nimrat Obhi (hassium, Hs), a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto researching new semiconducting organic polymers, in addition to her work in chemistry education and leadership in improving equity, diversity, and inclusivity in chemistry and other STEM fields.
I have always loved science in general, but once I realized that my passion for making things and solving problems extended to building new and exciting molecules, that was it for me. The best part is that some of these tiny structures have tangible applications that can potentially solve huge societal problems.
What excites you most about your work?
I get to explore the unknown. There are a lot of layers to my projects that increase the excitement: I work with plastics that conduct electricity (already cool!), the polymers are challenging to synthesize because they have multidimensional architectures, and we don’t really know a lot about how they behave. Working through this discovery process means that I can troubleshoot my chemistry by applying a lot of creativity, which is also tremendously exciting.
How has being in Canada helped shape your chemistry career?
I have had (and have created) scientific and career opportunities that are deeply connected to the ways in which I am privileged. This is not the case for all of us in Canada, so I would like to firstly acknowledge that. Attending conferences — particularly the past few CCCE conferences — has allowed me to present and discuss my research with a highly diverse group of other chemists, which has definitely contributed to my development as a scientist.
Being part of this tight-knit community of chemists was really made possible by attending the Leaders Overcoming Gender Inequality in Chemistry (LOGIC) Retreats over the past few years. I was co-chair of the team that organized the first LOGIC Retreat in 2017, and the network of people that we were able to build has been invaluable to me in terms of mentorship, guidance, and career advice.
Do your activities extend beyond the usual bounds of chemistry?
I love chemistry, and so want to improve it in additional ways besides “just doing the science”. Our present cultural climate excludes talented individuals who don’t fit into the historical perception of what a chemist “should” look like. I want to shift this cultural lens to be more inclusive and equitable, and working with Women in Chemistry Toronto and the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s Working Group for Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity has allowed me to help drive for this change, which is incredibly fulfilling. Out-of-lab hobbies — music, artwork, skiing, swimming, hiking, and cooking — definitely provide necessary balance for me.
Have you ever received advice that you’d like to pass on to other young chemists?
We have common goals – innovation, solving big problems, improving society, doing cool science. You have to collaborate to achieve these goals, so don’t tear down others: it is antithetical to the spirit of doing research. Always be curious, work efficiently, be ambitious and driven, support and respect yourself and your colleagues, take the time to mentor and advocate for others, and take care of your mental and physical health.
For the equity-seeking individuals reading this: chemistry will be better for having you. You are able to advance the field, to offer unique perspectives, and to push boundaries in ways that others can’t. Don’t give up, because you already know how to rise to a challenge. You most definitely belong here — end of story.
In celebration of IYPT 2019, do you have a favourite memory or fact about the periodic table?
I personally find polonium very interesting! It was the first radioactive element discovered by the Curies and was named after Poland in what was a strong political statement at the time. It is the only known element to have crystallized in a simple cubic lattice at standard temperature and pressure. 210Po has also been used as a poison in a couple of famous assassinations — it is confusing to detect as it emits very little gamma radiation, meaning common radiation detectors such as Geiger counters have difficulty identifying its presence!