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Celebrating ten years of Athena SWAN Gold

Posted on 21 May 2018

In a two-day event, York Chemistry celebrated 10 years of holding an Athena SWAN Gold Award, the longest held award at this level.

Poster session at the scientific symposium to Celebrate Diversity in the Chemical Sciences.

In this landmark two-day event, Professor Carolyn Bertozzi, of Stanford University, USA, visited the Department, giving a keynote research talk and public lecture. Carolyn Bertozzi’s name is synonymous with bioorthogonal chemistry, she has been described by the RSC as a “Rockstar Chemist” and even has her own Lego avatar.

The symposium on 16 May started with a vibrant poster session showcasing the diverse range of internationally-leading research in the Department. Carolyn met with a group of early career researchers to discuss career development, leading to interesting discussions on balancing an academic career with having a family. 

Professor Duncan Bruce then opened the symposium with an overview of the Department’s Athena SWAN work. He recounted how the Department started by focusing on gender equality, but now encompasses all forms of diversity, making a genuine difference to the people who work and study here in York.

Left to right: Professor Duncan Bruce (Head of Department), Dr Caroline Dessent (Equality and Diversity Group Chair) and speakers: Dr Kirsty Penkman, Professor David Haddleton, Professor Carolyn Bertozzi, Professor Paul Walton, Dr Meghan Halse and Dr Will Unsworth.

Professor David Haddleton of Warwick University, who was himself a student in the Department, and carried out PhD research with Robin Perutz, gave a lecture on ‘30 Years of Controlled Radical Polymerisation’. David is one of the Royal Society's ‘Parent-Carer’ Scientists, and in his excellent talk, described his career as being hugely influenced by his family.

Outstanding talks were then presented by Kirsty Penkman, Paul Walton, Meghan Halse and Will Unsworth. In many cases, these talks highlighted collaborative work here at York, a key feature of research enabled by the supportive environment in the Department. 

Professor Carolyn Bertozzi then presented her keynote lecture in which she demonstrated with panache how she has transformed the field of chemical biology. Her research focusses on understanding cell surface sugars involved in cell recognition, which has relevance in diseases such as cancer and infection. She has developed powerful bioorthogonal methods so that biological systems can be synthetically manipulated in their living environment.

The afternoon was rounded off with a wine reception and a celebration cake complete with candles.

Professor Carolyn Bertozzi giving her public lecture.

On the evening of 17 May, Carolyn Bertozzi then gave a moving talk in a Beacon Public Lecture on ‘The long game of STEM diversification'. She discussed her own life and career experiences, not just as an award-winning scientist, but also as a lesbian woman, in a lecture that took in the full sweep of America’s recent social history. 

As an undergraduate student looking for summer projects in organic chemistry, Carolyn was told ‘there are no women in my lab!’. She described the importance of her own resilience, and vital support from those who were open, supportive and encouraging. 

She spoke powerfully and poignantly about the HIV epidemic, her fight for partner benefits for her (now) wife, and the ways in which marriage equality legislation impacted on the gay community and her own young family.

Carolyn ended her talk by highlighting recent research based on authorship as a measure of the gender gap in academia, which estimates that it will be over 50 years before gender parity is achieved in chemistry.

Carolyn was then interviewed by freelance Guardian journalist Kate Ravilious, who opened the questioning out to a panel including Dr Liz Rowsell, Corporate R&D director at Johnson Matthey; Dr David Bass of the Equality Challenge Unit; and Professor Dave Smith from York Chemistry. The panel spoke passionately about efforts to address some of the issues highlighted by Carolyn’s talk and discussed ways in which departments and institutions can try to accelerate the pace of change.

Hopefully, in another 10 years time, progress will have continued apace, and it won’t be 50 years until gender parity is achieved here in York.