An Interview with Kay Brummond, Recipient of the 2021 ACS Award for Encouraging Women into the Chemical Sciences

Kay Brummond, winner of the Chancellor’s distinguished Teaching Award; 20180219

Kay Brummond is a Professor of Chemistry and currently serving as the Associate Dean for Faculty in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences (DSAS) at the University of Pittsburgh. As a first-generation college student, she received her BS from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, her PhD in chemistry from Penn State, and performed her postdoctoral studies at the University of Rochester. Her first faculty appointment was in the Department of Chemistry at West Virginia University in 1993 where she was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 1999. In 2001, Brummond joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh as an Associate Professor and was promoted to Professor in 2006. She served as chair-elect and departmental chair in the Department of Chemistry from 2014 to 2017. Her research group discovers, develops, and mechanistically understands chemical reactions in organic chemistry to overcome challenges posed by complex compounds. She and her coworkers have published 90 journal articles, reviews and book chapters. Brummond has delivered over 200 invited lectures and symposia and her students and postdocs have presented over 60 conference posters at national meetings. Twenty-five graduate students have obtained PhD and MS degrees under her direction and she has mentored over 40 undergraduates and 15 postdoctoral fellows.

Brummond’s scholarly excellence and service to the chemical community are recognized with the 2021 ACS Award for Encouraging Women into the Chemical Sciences; a 2018 Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award; a 2018 Provost’s Spotlight on Women Leaders Series; the 2016 Harold Kohn Endowed Alumni Lectureship–Penn State; the 2016 Oxide Diversity Catalyst Lecturer; the 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) Pittsburgh Award; a 2010 ACS Fellow; the 2007 ACS Akron Section Award; the 2007 Carnegie Science Center Emerging Female Scientist Award; a 2005 Johnson & Johnson Focused Giving Award; and a 2003 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award. She served as the Executive Director of the ACS 45th National Organic Chemistry Symposium in 2017. As Executive Director, Brummond was responsible for oversight of every aspect of this biennial meeting including the selection of the diverse speaker slate. Brummond has made important contributions aiming to broaden participation in the chemical sciences. The strategies that she has championed as an academic leader are driven by an overarching goal to close Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) gaps in the sciences. She has combined a bottom-up approach, as an active researcher training and mentoring the next generation of chemists, with a top-down approach, implementing DEI strategies at the departmental and school level, providing a far-reaching and powerful platform for broadening participation of underrepresented groups in STEM.

You work hard to encourage, promote, and mentor women in chemistry. In your experience, what has changed for women over the years, and

I still remember the first day of a fluid dynamics class being one of only two women in a classroom of  about 30 students. This was the first course in the chemical engineering curriculum taking place in the school of engineering. Early on, I was invited to work with a study group, a learning experience that, combined with my hard work, helped me to perform at the top of the class on the first exam. Eventually, the study group dissolved, and the second exam didn’t go as well for me. Afterwards, I met with the Professor to discuss one of the problems on the exam. Instead, the conversation turned to him questioning if I had made the right career choice, and did I really want to be a chemical engineer. While his questioning may have been well intentioned, I left his office very upset, and feeling like I had just been told that I was not one of them. As a first-generation college student coming from a school in rural Nebraska, I was not equipped with the tools or the support system that could help me, so I transferred out of the school of engineering.

That was 40 years ago–the climate for women is very different today. We have access to rigorous research and other education opportunities that help us to better understand gender disparities and barriers, and inequities in STEM. Professional development, mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship of women and underrepresented groups are taken seriously by our institutions and employers. We have a vocabulary where hurtful actions are named and can be called out, such as: microaggression, unconscious and conscious bias, racism, sexism, and misogyny. Increasingly, we are afforded leadership opportunities. We have access to powerful affinity groups for women and other minoritized individuals such as the Women Chemists Committee (WCC), National Organization for Black Chemist and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

However, even in 2021 the leaky pipeline for women in STEM is evidence that more work needs to be done. I have created a listing of actions that I see as steps towards becoming an ally and in doing so creating the change needed to narrow the gender gap in chemistry, and STEM more broadly. These range from short-term to more long-term actions, and include:

  1. Inviting a woman chemist to give a seminar;
  2. Engaging with women’s research;
  3. Developing an inclusivity and/or diversity statement together with your research group;
  4. Nominating a woman for an award;
  5. Educating yourself on gender disparities, and barriers, and know the data;
  6. Celebrating the chemistry achievements of women;
  7. Working to prepare the next generation of women chemists;
  8. Mitigating unconscious biases through your actions; and
  9. Working to fix the institution not the individual.

Who were your most important influences and inspirations?

I’ll always remember being late, not once but twice, for a part-time job that I held while doing research as an undergraduate in an organic synthesis lab. The first time I was doing a large-scale dissolving metal reduction and the second time I was searching chemical abstracts (volumes) for an experimental protocol to prepare a starting material. I had lost track of time because I was deeply engrossed in, and so enjoying what I was doing. Because I really enjoyed my part-time job and I was a conscientious employee, I saw both these incidents as a giant billboard telling me that a career in chemical research was right for me. It was a wonderful experience to be a part of an intellectual team that was working to solve societal problems using chemistry. And my courses now felt like they were more relevant–I started looking for ways that I could advance my research projects. I continued to pursue this career path with intention and to this day feel fortunate for this life-changing experience and undergraduate research opportunity afforded to me.

Data continues to support what I discovered back then: that undergraduate research experiences act as a pathway to a career in science, can enhance learning, help in retention, and contribute to career satisfaction. My research group and I have mentored over 40 undergraduates in independent projects with some of these students going on to pursue their own career in the chemical sciences. As the Chair the Chemistry Department (2014-2017), I collaborated with the Chemistry Department Diversity Committee to broaden participation by establishing the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) PITT for women and other underrepresented groups majoring in chemistry. A total of 20 participants have engaged in original research, self-mentoring workshops, and a capstone research presentation; and are provided with campus housing and organized social events to enable a cohort experience. My continued involvement beyond establishing the inaugural class includes: reviewing applications, attending leadership lunches and research presentations, and organizing self-mentoring workshops. A grant I received accompanying the 2021 ACS Award for Encouraging Women into the Chemical Sciences will go towards supporting two SURF students in this program.

What are the most effective ways to strive for equity in the sciences?

As a Professor of Chemistry, my strategy to achieve equity in the sciences combines a bottom-up approach as an active researcher, training and mentoring the next generation of chemists with a top-down approach, implementing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategies at the departmental and school level.  Excellent one-on-one research training and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students, and postdocs is crucial to helping them to become scientific leaders. A majority of PhD graduates from my lab are women (55%), nearly twice the national average, all of which have secured positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, national labs, and academia. Further, as chair of the Chemistry Department Diversity Committee (2011-2014), I worked to broaden the participation of graduate students and faculty in our department and the School by implementing educational workshops with an aim to enhance our culture of inclusivity. In 2011, I led the organization of a Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists (COACh) workshop on “Effective Negotiation Techniques” for senior and junior women faculty in the Natural Sciences; positive feedback led to the offering of a similar COACh workshop in 2013 for chemistry graduate students and postdocs. These successful workshops led to our department offering a series of Self-Mentoring Workshops by Coaching/Verve Leadership for our graduate students (2014-2017). These workshops provided students with tools, resources, and best practices to effectively manage their journey through the graduate program, including self-management, goal-setting, decision-making, planning and scheduling, self-evaluation and personal development.

In 2014, I was motivated to serve as the Chair of the Chemistry Department by the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) partnership mechanism for closing diversity gaps, which engages the leadership of research-intensive chemistry departments, representatives from diversity communities, and social scientists. This top-down approach involves changing the more deep-rooted culture, policies, and practices of a department, and works as a complement to a bottom-up approach. Further, as the first woman in the Department to achieve the rank of full professor, I was uniquely qualified to implement and champion the changes needed to move the needle on equity in the sciences and broadening participation of underrepresented groups at all levels.

DEI successes in the Chemistry Department while I was Chair include: guiding the promotion of the first African-American woman to associate professor with tenure; the promotion of the second woman to the rank of full professor, a first early promotion and tenure in the department for a woman; and the hiring of a woman as a junior faculty. During my three-year term as Chair, my efforts to increase representation of women at senior faculty levels at PhD-granting universities were recognized by selection as the 2016 OXIDE Diversity Catalyst Lecturer and led to our Dean requesting my service as Associate Dean for Faculty.

I am currently serving as an Associate Dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences (DSAS) while maintaining an active research program with seven graduate students. The DSAS is the home of 30 departments, 12,500 undergraduate and graduate students, and ~700 full-time faculty, ~half of these faculty are in the Division of Natural Sciences. I manage all faculty tenure and promotion cases and in response to 2016 Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) survey data, I am engaged in increasing faculty satisfaction with tenure and promotion policies, expectations, and processes by enhancing transparency for all faculty promotion processes and providing more clarity on tenure and promotion policies. Some of my strategies for increasing faculty satisfaction include: leading panel discussions for the promotion of Assistant to Associate Professor with tenure and for promotion from Associate to Full Professor; and developing on-line promotion workshop videos combined with face-to-face Q&A sessions. I transferred criteria and procedures for appointment, evaluation, and reappointment of our Teaching Faculty from a password-protected handbook to the DSAS website. I developed an on-line promotion workshop videos combined with face-to-face Q&A session for our Teaching Faculty.

In addition, I chaired the DSAS Diversity Task Force, a group created to address a low ranking of the DSAS on diversity-related questions on the 2016 COACHE faculty satisfaction survey. The goal of this Task Force was to gain a better understanding of the DEI issues in the DSAS so that meaningful and effective strategies could be implemented. My explanation of this approach at a round-table DEI discussion at the 2019 Organic Reaction & Processes GRC, where I was a plenary speaker presenting our group’s research, led to an invitation to present my top-down approach to broadening participation in an inaugural diversity lecture at the 2020 GRC (postponed to 2022 due to COVID); evidence that others recognize my experience in discipline specific issues and my efforts to enhance inclusivity can lead to gap-closing measures for their departments and universities.

Article by Anna Sromek