This week, Gregory Scholes, the William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, begins his three-year term as chair of the Department of Chemistry. He succeeds Tom Muir, the Van Zandt Williams Jr. Class of 1965 Professor of Chemistry, who has held the post since 2015.
Scholes takes the helm at a time of considerable uncertainty. He will face the twin challenges of a pandemic that could again disrupt the University’s research enterprise, and a crisis in equity and diversity that has reverberated throughout the STEM fields. As a first step, Scholes has committed the department to hiring several women professors, and to recharging the climate of mentoring so that more women and students of color are inspired to remain in academia.
This is the first in a series of Q&A stories with Department of Chemistry leadership.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THE ROLE OF DEPARTMENT CHAIR?
First, let me congratulate and thank Tom Muir and Martin Semmelhack for their leadership and achievements over the past five years as chair and associate chair. These are difficult jobs that require juggling many stakeholders. They did it with tact, efficiency, and grace. One program in particular should be singled out: the Edward C. Taylor Fellowships for third-year graduate students in chemistry, which is their crowning achievement.
I’m honored to be the chair of this department. I see my role as leading change. I’m inspired by the words of Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in her opening statement for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Committee Hearing, Achieving the Promise of a Diverse STEM Workforce, on May 9, 2019: “So far, we have gotten by with a STEM workforce that does not come close to representing the diversity of our nation. However, if we continue to leave behind so much of our nation’s brainpower, we cannot succeed.”
There is support across our faculty as well as from our student/postdoc body for the idea of positive changes in the department that will come from increasing diversity. Given the conflagration of current events, the timing is perfect to implement these changes. I know that the faculty will have the self-confidence and the commitment to bring about change by actions, not just by words.
WHAT ARE THE MAJOR ISSUES FACING THE CHEMISTRY DEPARTMENT NOW?
First, we absolutely need to hire new faculty. Of course, this is all part of a plan that was initiated a decade ago, but the focus has now definitively shifted. We must deepen the excellence of our department by leveraging the “diversity of our nation.” As I walk past the wall in the Physics Department that shows all their Nobel Laureates, I am proud of the legacy of Princeton University and proud to be part of it. However, one day when I walked past and saw so many white men on the wall, I thought: What message does this send our student population—especially the women? Do we want to seed the (incorrect) idea that only men succeed in physics? Do we want students and visitors to see Princeton as an institution mired in the past, or thinking decades ahead of its time? This underpins the need to build diversity in our faculty.
We’ve proven that we’re good at building areas of strength – for instance our reputation for modern catalysis research – and we’ve been good at hiring proven, senior faculty. What we need to address now is the self-confidence to take a bet on the potential of rising stars. As part of that, we need to commit to more expert mentorship in order to help early career faculty and their research teams reach their potential.
Perhaps most significantly, one of the things we need to do better is identifying talent that challenges our idea of excellence—to cultivate a diverse faculty, we need to spot excellence that broadens us, rather than mimics us.
ARE YOU ENCOURAGED BY OUR NEW COHORT OF WOMEN GRAD STUDENTS, THE LARGEST EVER?
It’s always a plus to hear this. The question is, what happens to them after we mentor them? There are a lot of studies that track the path of women in chemistry and they conclude that only a small percentage go on to academic positions, compared to their male counterparts. It’s thought that part of this has to do with mentorship. I hope that broadening our pool of role models will lesson this issue.
HOW IS THE DEPARTMENT GOING TO ADDRESS THAT?
Developing diverse mentorship and numerous diverse and inspiring role models will be a key part of the solution. This is precisely what our department can rectify by making substantive changes from the top down.
An important action item is to enhance what Susan Vanderkam, Manager of Diversity Initiatives for the department, is doing. She is building relationships with faculty and students at a selection of historically black colleges. We already have an excellent summer program in place, but the success of this program is only a small step towards what is possible.
To reach potential, it is crucial to get more concrete commitments from our faculty to mentor summer students. I will assist Susan in any way possible. As a first step, we are developing plans for building deep, two-way, formal relationships with several chemistry departments at historically black colleges in order to create substantive collaborative programs. I am going to be personally committed to, and involved with, this initiative. One expected outcome will be better connections that should provide a new pipeline of excellent students, and it will help us better spot potential recruits at all levels.
ARE YOU COMING IN WITH A PLAN TO IMPROVE DIVERSITY?
The short-term plan is to act very quickly to diversify our faculty through hiring. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, it’s harder than you’d expect. As I said earlier, we need to learn how to identify a broader pool of excellence. If it were easy, then everyone would be doing it. But let’s come together as a department and combine forces to take the first steps to curate a more diverse faculty. This is the litmus test for a first step in our commitment to change.
DO YOU HAVE BACKING FROM THE UNIVERSITY?
Absolutely—the university is incredibly enthusiastic about these plans and I thank Sanjeev Kulkarni (Dean of Faculty) for his support. There’s a limit to the number of faculty we can appoint based on the number of slots that we have, which is fixed. There’s a little bit of temporary flexibility and openings will arise due to faculty turnover. Owing to a university initiative, opening up just one chemistry slot can yield positions for two new women or underrepresented minority faculty.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY TO THE GRAD STUDENTS AND POST-DOCS CONCERNED WITH THE DIVERISTY CRISIS IN STEM?
It’s a complicated issue. I think what they need to know is that we’ve put a lot more thought and effort into this than they realize, and for a much longer time than they realize. We’ve been working on an action plan for at least a year now. Doing something is harder than saying it should be done. It’s hard work. But we are committed to changing this department for the better. Importantly, I want to hear what the grad students and postdocs have to say, and I would like to engage them in parts of the process of improving our department.
WILL STUDENTS HAVE A PLATFORM FROM WHICH TO SPEAK, GOING FORWARD?
I think that the students and postdocs being vocal about this big issue in a constructive and realistic way will help all of us. The administration is 100% supportive of any initiative to address diversity. Being able to articulate why it matters to the students and how they are committed to help, I think, is important. Where the students and postdocs can make the most substantive influence is to serve as mentors in programs like the Charles H. Leach, II Summer Scholars Program.
Associate Chair Paul Chirik and I have scheduled a “town hall” meeting with grad students and postdocs next week to introduce ourselves, describe some of our plans, and to hear what they have to say. We’ll be sending out information via email. Anyone who wants to participate who does not receive information should get in touch with Maura Matvey.
ANY OTHER CHANGES YOU’RE ADVOCATING FOR?
Paul Chirik is leading changes in teaching. We are looking carefully and deeply at teaching: at the classes that we teach, how we teach, who is teaching, how it’s done. Teaching is central to the success of Princeton as the 6th top undergraduate institution in the world. You’re going to see development in curriculum, in the methods we use for teaching, and in the structure of the undergraduate classes. Some of these changes are going to spill over and benefit graduate teaching, as well. That’s something that we are already meeting about, so there will be some noticeable changes in the short term.
ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO MENTION?
I want to highlight that Paul is a key co-leader in all of the goals for our department. He is a fantastic partner in our quest for positive change. We talk regularly and we’re both 100% behind taking action. The outcome will be that diversity promotes excellence. I want our department to be the role model for the new STEM.