An interview with Nessa Carson

Name: Nessa CarsonNeesaCarson

Current Job: I make potential new medicines for the drug discovery process

Scientific Discipline/Field: Synthetic organic chemistry

Country: UK (previously USA for a bit)

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): Oh… let’s just go with Q I guess. L also works. 

Website: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nessacarson

Twitter: @SuperScienceGrl

What does your job involve?

Well, I’ve only just started in my current job, but synthetic organic chemist makes new substances that have never been made before. It’s very cool to be the only person in the world who knows the properties of the crystals you just put in your glass vial. In my current job these substances are potential medicines. Over 99.9% will not become a marketed pharmaceutical – but each ‘failure’ is important because it tells us more about what we need to do to make the drug work better. 

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

While I was in the USA, I completed a three-year research Master’s degree, and before that I did a chemistry degree at Oxford University. If anyone younger is reading, they may like to know I did biology, chemistry, physics, maths, and statistics for A level (one or two of those just for fun). I just tried to dedicate as much time to education as possibly during my training, from high school onwards. 

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

I don’t think it affects any major decisions. I generally choose not to have more privacy around my private life than cishet colleagues, but I’m young so it’s not been much of an issue so far. It’s a decision I can reevaluate if circumstances change. In industry people are far more professional than in academia so the topic is much less likely to come up, removing sources of potential awkwardness for those who don’t want to be “out”. 

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the bad ones since I still know these people, but those have happened (nothing major, high school notwithstanding). Other LGBTQ colleagues can be good at telling you who to avoid without it becoming gossip for the cis/hetero majority. In the absence of many women to fawn over, most of the negatives are from straight men more than happy to ignore your orientation and overlook the context and identity that come with it. I’ve had a couple of those people who make it all about themselves too, bragging about how accepting they are – the type that track you down to tell you that they saw a photo of their gay second cousin’s babysitter’s brother’s wedding and it was really cute. Those people are invariably worth avoiding. Many colleagues in the USA were wildly uneducated in the fundamentals of queer issues (what does cis/trans mean, how do same-sex weddings work), which has been much less of a problem in the UK. To my very happy surprise, after no fun at all in high school, almost everyone in the UK has been indifferent to it. 

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

When I was a young child, I was a big fan of Sir Isaac Newton, despite his eccentric/unscientific side. He made a number of fundamental discoveries using operationally simple experiments and the immense power of his logical brain. He seemed to me very sure of himself – although that did lead to him sometimes being wrong and often being disliked. In university my ultimate role model was Dorothy Hodgkin, still the only British woman to win a Nobel prize. She was such a fastidious, tenacious and resilient crystallographer, common female traits that she took to an extreme and I would love to be successful in emulating. I don’t remember particularly having any queer role models growing up, but I was excited when I saw queer representation in the media I consumed. The paucity of queer voices out there leads to some poor choices being accepted as role models by teenagers. 

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to make a positive impact on science somehow, and the way I see maximizing my impact is through doing something different from other people. If there are a great many people soldiering on one plan, whether that’s a type of job, a way of thinking, or a subfield of science, it seems to me that an individual is more likely to have greater impact elsewhere. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

t’s notable that almost all the female scientists I knew during my Master’s in the USA were single-sex educated, queer, or (like me) both. Supposedly, this liability to end up in science is due to previous experience of transcending gender barriers. It seems that feminism is critical for queer women and non-binary people’s success in these fields, and I would encourage feminists to maintain intersectionality as the keystone of their cause. 

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