Widening the Lens

“My complexity makes me a better scientist.”

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By Leah M. Rader Bowers, Ph.D.

My chemistry career really started my senior year at The College of Wooster taking a physical chemistry course taught by the brilliant, fun, well-traveled Dr. Sarah J. Smidtke Sobeck. As my senior thesis advisor and professor, she taught me how physical chemistry could be applied to anything from art to computational modeling to tackling climate change. Her encouragement and celebration of my full self/variety of interests are what I held onto tightly throughout graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Dr. John M. Papanikolas) and hold onto now as a postdoc at Princeton University in Dr. Greg Scholes lab.

It wasn’t until a year ago that I started identifying as non-binary. Not much about my life changed because all parts of my identity existed on a spectrum for as long as I could remember. As a light-skinned biracial Black femme, my life was never black and white. Coming out was my ultimate refusal to let anyone pin me down for the sake of their own comfort. Today I am equal parts scientist and community organizer. I am an organizing member of Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), a spectroscopist and computational chemist, an editorial board member of the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) Newsletter and have taught physics at the W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute all while I’ve been here at Princeton.

I decided to try short hair; I code, travel, and read; I love doing building renovation projects and watching Bachelor in Paradise. I am complex and that complexity makes me a better scientist. My scientific collaborations flourish because I’ve pulled concepts from mutual aid to really assess what folks on my team are good at and pull our skills together in a way that makes sense. I understand that good mental health increases my productivity and that of my labmates, so I advocate for that whenever possible. The projects I take on are successful because I am in a group that allows me to bring my whole self to the table in a position of leadership.

The ivory tower of academia is starting to show cracks in its foundation. Women/femme scholars like Dr. Nikole Hannah-Jones and Dr. Lisa Jones see the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion industrial complex for what it is and withdrew their applications from tenure-track positions from UNC-Chapel Hill when board and high-donor politics confirmed they wouldn’t be supported there. Losing these amazingly diverse, complex, insightful scholars there and everywhere else costs institutions greatly. It costs universities in terms of the ingenuity of the research they output, of the propagation of creative scholars that could have been born from the parent scholars’ mentorship, of the community that their campus could have had and so much more.

I constantly think about what a shame it is that academia is this way. I worked hard to make the department at UNC better for all graduate students and postdocs as co-president of Allies of Minorities and Women in Science and Engineering. Jadedness unfortunately set in after years of performing unpaid diversity labor, being told to “just focus on science”, tokenism and an onslaught of microaggressions, to the point where I can’t enjoy the amazing research group I’m currently in.

My message to graduate schools is this: You cannot force students to hide part of themselves and expect the best results. Instead of focusing so much attention on the number of underrepresented scholars we attract as academic institutions, redirect that focus toward cultivating researchers to be freely all of who they are on and off campus. The possibility of what could be produced is endless.

Leah Rader Bowers, Ph.D. is a laser spectroscopist, computational chemist and community organizer. Her pronouns are she/they. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. She received her B.A. in Chemistry from The College of Wooster, and a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on how individual molecules moving as one can enhance functionality of a given system. Leah’s identity as a non-binary biracial Black femme has driven her desire to make space, safety and success possible for all BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students of color as they navigate academia.