HeychemTutor got a chance to sit down with esteemed professor and advocate Dr. James Nowick, who is currently based out of the University of California-Irvine. We sat down to discuss chemistry, LGBTQIA+ rights, and advocacy. This was a project Heychem set in celebration of June 2017 Pride month.
HeyChem: How did you first get into chemistry?
Nowick: My father was a scientist, and my parents allowed me to build a chemistry lab in the basement when I was a child. I built the fumehood myself. Around the age of eight I got interested in electrochemistry. It was easy to see the reactions going on. Later on, I started to love organic chemistry, though I wasn’t initially drawn to proteins. I guess there was a shift from visual to the abstract. Around the summer of my junior year in high school, I was able to get a position in a mineral engineering lab at Columbia University. By the end of my time there, I was synthesizing surfactants. This only helped me fall more in love with organic chemistry.
HeyChem: When you graduated, you attended Columbia University as an undergraduate while actively participating in the scientific and LGBTQIA+ communities. Can you speak of your time there?
J.N.: Yeah. My first lab was inorganic, but the second one I worked in was organic from sophomore to senior year under the mentorship of Tom Katz. I loved the work. I’ve always been interested in how molecules fit together, and Tom’s lab was a great match for me. I think the most important thing about my attending Columbia in that setting is the people that were there at the time. There was a great deal of collaboration in a group environment. I was alongside so many great minds there, Sam Gellman, Steve Zimmerman, Alanna Schepartz, Alan Goldman, Dan Kahne- all now first rate faculty members at their respective institutions. When your norm is exceptional, that’s the norm.
HeyChem: After your time at Columbia, you went on to MIT to do PhD work. There, you founded two bodies intended for different reasons, could you describe those?
J.N: I started my PhD classes at MIT in 1985. I started looking for an LGBT+/ally group on campus at MIT, just seeing what they offered. It was mostly undergraduate oriented, and I’m not going to say that their problems are lesser, just that grad student problems and undergrad students problems are vastly different. There was a disconnect. So I made up an LGBTQIA+ cocktail hour. I thought people would want cocktails, you know? We’re grad students. Turns out what they really wanted was coffee and donuts. So we changed it to the Gay and Lesbian Graduate Student Coffee Hour! I also formed a K-12 outreach program that continues to run to this day — the MIT Chemistry Outreach Program.
HeyChem: What were some of the challenges for you by forming this informal meetup?
J.N: I guess the biggest challenge was finding someone to pass the torch and continue on when I was getting ready to graduate. I didn’t want it to fade out. The Gay and Lesbian Graduate Student Coffee Hour lasted for another 18 or 20 years or so, so I’d say it was successful.
HeyChem: What was the climate like on campus during your studies? Was there any pressure by your peers to closet yourself?
J.N: No, not really. MIT was a pretty accepting campus. I mean, you’d hear about things. I was able to bring my (then) partner (now husband) to my laboratory’s group parties and it wasn’t a big deal.
HeyChem: What about considering the era? You’re growing up as a gay man in the middle of Reagan’s administration, did you feel any pressure from that outlet?
J.N.: Again, no. I was a pretty active LGBTQIA+ advocate starting as early as 1982. I was in a community that encouraged new ideas. Being an active member in the 1980’s, there was quite a lot of discussion about new anti AIDS/HIV drugs, as well as dialogue about Reagan’s administration. But I didn’t feel a pressure to hide who I was.
HeyChem: Do you see any parallels between Reagan’s election and our recent one?
J.N.: Definitely. Both elections were galvanizing to minority movements. We have marches and demonstrations now that reflect the worries of today’s society. Activism has increased, and social media helps people connect. You know, when I was forming the LGBTQIA+ grad meet and greet, I would have to do the legwork and plaster dorms with flyers. Today, you guys can just use Facebook. Times have changed.
HeyChem: After your time at MIT, you went on to work at the University of California: Irvine. How did you land there?
J.N.: After I had graduated, it was between three picks: Emery, UC Irvine, and Northwestern. I chose UC Irvine cause it felt like the best fit.
HeyChem: Was it your first time on the west coast? What differences did you notice?
J.N.: It was my first time on the west coast. The weather is better. Orange County was a bit smaller than what I was used to. What I did notice was how Pride events on the east coast felt more like activist-based demonstrations. Here on the west coast, it felt more like a party. It was entertainment or a festival to a sort. That sort of chaffed me a little. On the east coast, major events like Boston or New York Pride was a celebration as well as a protest- it was less like a capital venture.
HeyChem: Since starting your time at UC Irvine, you’ve accomplished quite a lot! You created and taught freshman seminar on LGBTQIA+ issues in science. Can you explain your goals and the curriculum for the course while it was taught?
J.N.: “Queer Scientists, Queer Science” was a freshman seminar designed to be a light course focused on unique perspectives from within the LGBTQIA+ world. I rounded up a bunch of LGBT colleagues who gave presentations each week. I also assigned some readings. At the end of the term, I assigned a term paper. There weren’t heavy assignments, it was more focused on setting up dialogue and learning in an easy and fun way.
Heychem: You also taught undergraduate chemistry, as well as rose through academic ranks to department chair. What has been the most rewarding role for you?
J.N: Teaching will always give me the satisfaction I want. It’s my goal to be an active educator in the classroom and in my research lab. I appreciate how open-ended research is, and am grateful for my lab and graduate students now. We’re just getting to some good stuff so to speak, in the organic chemistry world. I think we’re just on the cusp of making great discoveries. For instance, mine and others’ work with amyloid proteins (proteins that aggregate and clump in the body) has progressed research and treatment for lots of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimers. We’re also making breakthroughs in developing antibiotics, that I am very excited about.
HeyChem: Tell us some more about your work in the American Chemical Society as part of the Gay and Transgender Chemists & Allies committee?
J.N.: The Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies subdivision of the American Chemical Society’s Division or Professional Relations is dedicated to ensuring an inclusive professional environment. We collaborate with the National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) as well as with other national organizations to achieve and maintain LGBTQIA+ advocacy and inclusion. .
HeyChem: What do you see for future advocates and allies of the LGBTQIA+ community both in and outside of acadamia?
J.N.: For the LGBTQIA+ community, I see us still advocating for recognition. There are historical issues that have left a residue on our current society that we still need to face. Our community struggles with issues such as adoption and the lack of federal protections against discrimination. Discrimination is still legal in more than 30 states. In fact, discrimination has increased at a state level in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. Although we’ve come a long way, we have a farther to go. These are interesting times we live in.
Heychem: Finally, do you have any words of wisdom or advice for younger generations?
J.N.: I would encourage younger people to create things. To not be a consumer, but a creator. Don’t take what is given to you. Life will be driven by markets if we’re complacent. When it comes down to LGBTQIA+ rights and scientific community recognition, this needs to be a grassroots effort. Whether it’s the “Occupy” movement, the “99%” movements, or the “Resist” movements, this involves real people with real causes. I encourage people to take those causes and create with them. It needs to be a sustained effort- persist in your creation.
This concludes our interview with James Nowick. If you are interested in further knowledge, visit Nowick’s UCI page at http://www.faculty.uci.edu/profile.cfm?faculty_id=2043 , or his lab page at https://www.chem.uci.edu/~jsnowick/groupweb/. Heychem would like to thank Dr. Nowick for his time, patience, and contribution to society.
Picture Source (x)