This chapter focuses in on the field of supramolecular chemistry. It gives an overview of the kind of interdisciplinary STEM research it encompasses, as well as the history and background to WISC.
It was Jean-Marie Lehn who first coined the term ‘Supramolecular’ and, alongside Charles Pederson and Donald Cram, won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for innovations establishing this scientific field. Lehn described supramolecular chemistry as ‘chemistry beyond the molecule’ with the aim of ‘developing highly complex chemical systems from components interacting by non-covalent intermolecular forces’.1 Therefore, supramolecular chemistry can simply be defined as the study of the non-covalent interactions between molecules. This is often referred to as a host–guest scenario in which reversible interactions temporally hold together two or more chemical species, thus forming a supermolecule. In essence, you can think of these supramolecular reversible interactions that hold molecular species together as a type of atomic hook and loop fastening, similar to those developed by VELCRO®. If you pull the hook and loop partner strips
However, despite the scale and scientific diversity within this area of study, there is a significant lack of representation for women. For example:
Only 12 publications were included in a 2018 Special Issue of Supramolecular Chemistry highlighting the achievements of women across the international community. This can be compared to the 27 articles included within a 2013 Special Issue dedicated to Professor Rocco Ungaro.2
Only 5 international women principal investigators attended the 2018 UK RSC’s annual Supramolecular and Macrocyclic Chemistry (MASC) interest group symposium (150 attendees).
Male speakers outnumbered women 4:1 at the 2019 International Supramolecular and Macrocyclic Chemistry (ISMSC) conference.
Only 2 women have won the RSC’s Bob Hay lectureship prize for supramolecular chemistry in the period 1991–2021. Similarly, in that time only 2 women have won the Izatt–Christenen Award, and only 1 woman has won the Cram Lehn Pedersen prize 2011–2021.3
Until 2019 only 2 women had served on the RSC’s MASC committee since 2001, and in 2021 2 out of 25 were women, and all committee members presented as white.
As we saw in Chapters Three and Four, the chemical sciences are a discipline that has had less success at achieving parity or representation when it comes to gender balance and diversity. When women are in a minority, then it is more likely that they will feel isolated. One way to combat feelings of isolation is
History of WISC
WISC developed along a number of different threads that coalesced at the same time. The first, and probably the most important thread, was the friendship between a small group of young, early- and mid-career women in the field: Jennifer Hiscock, Anna McConnell, Cally Haynes, and Claudia Caltagirone. They realised that they needed more support and organised themselves to have bi-weekly online meetings to generally connect, talk about their research, publications, and grant proposals. These women had something that earlier generations of women in science did not have – a peer group. Their friendship laid the ground for what became an informal online peer-mentoring group. They read each other’s grant and fellowship applications, collaborated on projects, and supported each other through job applications and moves to different countries. By 2019, they began to be approached by other women in the field who wished to join their unintentional peer-mentoring group, including Marion Kieffer, and realised that the successes they were seeing as a result of their support of each other was something that could be of benefit to others. They felt that the reason their peer group was so valuable was because it was a field-specific approach to mentoring rather than general or even discipline-specific. They garnered the support of two of the most senior women in supramolecular chemistry – Professors Kate Jolliffe and Michaele Hardie – to support their idea to roll out clusters of mentoring to other women. However, before they rolled anything out, they wanted to survey the supramolecular community to ascertain whether their own ideas about supporting early-career researchers were the same as those in the rest of the community.
The second thread comes in at this stage. As they had little experience of designing and implementing surveys or any
WISC believed that mentoring would be the most valuable thing to offer initially. From their own experiences they were particularly aware of the ‘jump’ from post-doc to independent researcher, but they were cautious of projecting their own experiences and assumptions onto others. WISC set about designing a logo and initial website with Rosa Burton (Burton Designs) and put out its first survey. This garnered 100 qualitative responses within the year it was open, reaching data saturation long before this.6 At this time these initial WISC members began reaching out to other members of the supramolecular
In addition to the small group mentoring programme led by Marion Kieffer, and as a direct response to the results of this first survey, WISC has set up community clusters. The first of these, spearheaded by Emily Draper, was the Parenting Cluster. This included all parents, of any gender, whether they were biological parents, step-parents, foster parents, adoptive parents, or prospective parents. WISC has since formed two new clusters: for those with a disability/chronic illness/neurodivergence and for first-generation supramolecular chemists. These clusters act as arenas for targeted support and discussion that have arisen from survey responses and emails to WISC, and they all approach this targeted support slightly differently. The Parenting Cluster is very research-focused, and aims to provide support, a place to share experiences, to learn, and to document its findings. The Disability/Chronic Illness/Neurodivergence Cluster arose out of Jen L’s work on ableism in academia,7–10 and is supported by Anna Slater. This group meets regularly to provide a safe space for people within the field to share experiences, give support, and learn from others. The cluster supports much of the advocacy work that is carried out by the NADSN STEMM (National Association for Staff Networks’ Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) Action Group and members.11,12 In 2021, four members of the cluster, Kira Hilton, Orielia Egambaram, Jen L, and Anna Slater, won funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry for a project to imagine the future accessible laboratory.
The third cluster, for first-generation supramolecular chemists, was launched September 2021, and will likely be much more structured in terms of its activities and research. Half of the WISC board identify as first generation, and it has been recognised that those who are new to higher education experience more barriers than those who already have ‘capital’
The final threads came as a result of WISC forming officially. WISC initially secured finances through the Royal Society of Chemistry Diversity and Inclusion fund to develop the network, and started to put together grant applications for other funding streams, several of which were successful (see later in the chapter). WISC now has a formal structure, a website (thanks to the Biochemical Society and Dave Robson), and a programme of events and ongoing funded research work, including a part-time research assistant in Sarah Koops, funded by Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (Germany). Within a year of its official launch in November 2019, WISC had a paper on EDI accepted by one of the most prestigious international chemistry journals.16 The speed of the network’s growth has surprised us all. It speaks to the need to do something different to address marginalisation and inequality in science, and a willingness to try and play with new ideas.
‘Calling in’ and ‘calling out’
The concept of ‘calling out’ on matters of racism, sexism, ableism, and the like is commonly known.* Within STEM,
I am so aware of my heart pumping and expanding; not sure whether terror or pride mostly terror and fear and instantly on to the next thing but where is the
p a u s e
To date, WISC has secured funding and support for different projects through professional/learned bodies including the Royal Society for Chemistry, the Biochemical Society; national funding bodies such as UKRI, and the Royal Society/BA APEX;** institutions including the University of Kent, Universita degli Studi di Cagliari, and Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, and companies including Scot Chem, ChemPlusChem, Crystal Growth & Design, and STREM Chemicals.
These aspects of work interweave and are interconnected (see Figure 5.1) and are all dedicated to meeting the wider WISC aims of supporting women and those who are marginalised to progress within supramolecular chemistry through creating a sense of community and kinship. We summarise some of the main activities we are engaged in in the following sections: the website and logo; events; surveys; support clusters and mentoring; research; and publications.
Website and logo
One of the first things WISC did was to create a website. WISC’s logo and website uses colours reminiscent of the suffragettes (see Figure 5.2 for the design of the 2021 pin badge for the first WISC skills workshop and future events, which incorporates the WISC logo). While WISC would never condone militaristic action, we recognise that if we
After an initial in-person panel event at the early-career researcher MASC event held in the summer of 2019, WISC launched in-person at the December 2019 MASC symposium, which was attended by supramolecular chemists of all genders and career stages. The COVID-19 pandemic put paid to plans to run similar invited sessions at MASC and ISMSC (the International Symposium of Macrocyclic
The first WISC Skills Workshop, led by Claudia Caltagirone, was postponed to September 2021, and was shifted to become a hybrid event, with vMASC running the virtual elements. The workshop focused on providing a gender-balanced programme of speakers, opportunities for early-career researchers to present, and retained the area-specific focus that WISC specialises in while championing equality. The virtual element, which was free to all who registered, allowed participation from across different continents and countries, including Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The workshop report31 and a conference report published in Nature Chemistry32 show that it met its aims. The plan is for the skills workshop to be a bi-annual event.
This is a wonderful initiative and I would be absolutely delighted to contribute to it at any capacity!
There is a shortage of role models for women. I have participated in conferences with 1% of women as speakers, it is clear that women are underrepresented. We need to support each other through experience sharing and make each other visible, at least among ourselves, to be able to promote each other.
Continue with the great ideas! It would be good to discuss issues surrounding the effects of parental leave on careers and how to minimise this, particularly with respect to getting funding bodies on board with these adaptations.
From personal experience I have found that regular mentoring and support makes a world of difference in terms of career development. As a female in science, there are often other factors to consider, such as family constraints, and having support from other women who are in a similar circumstance may be advantageous.
Advice, knowing their route into supramolecular chemistry, mentoring sounds really useful too :-)
Half a year parental leave. No troubles returning, at least that I noticed.
My return was smooth, as this was managed within my contract as a faculty member.
Once I returned, all of my former colleagues and peers were amazingly supportive.
Support is patchy, expectations are wildly different, and I lost a first authorship which may have affected how people perceive my career. Some in the community are incredibly supportive. Some less so.
I started as a professor immediately after finishing mat [sic] leave, so I didn’t have work to catch up. Overall, my transition was smooth. However, reviewers DON’T SEEM TO PAY ATTENTION to the ‘Leave of Absence’
entry in the CV. on my grant review, only 1/3 reviewers acknowledge the leave.
On returning I found I was behind on my research and unsupported.
I am quite scared about having kids before getting permanent/more stable.
From past hearsay and departments I’ve worked in, it’s almost as though women who have taken career breaks in chemistry seem to just fall off the radar, with no support from the department, and that those that really push forwards with their career are seen to be really ‘pushy’ or ‘over-reaching’, which is awful! Needs to change.
Findings from WISC’s second survey, exploring experiences of being in and running research groups through COVID-19 and the impact on mental health were submitted to a leading chemistry journal, and are shared in more detail in Chapter Seven.
Support clusters and mentoring
As mentioned, the support clusters and mentoring programme have been running since early 2020. The clusters all have regular events, or activities, and the mentoring programme had 7 mentors and 19 mentees from three different continents as of July 2021. The mentoring groups were constructed to bring 1–4 mentees together around a more senior academic (one or two career stages ahead) in order to create a support network beyond the usual one-to-one mentoring relationship.
WISC has a number of ongoing research projects, and the methods used within these are discussed in Chapter Two. These projects include a collaborative autoethnography project that crosses continents to enable participants to find points of connection as women PIs explore life inside and outside the laboratory. Findings from this are shared in Chapter Seven, and were used to feed into the vignettes woven throughout this book. The collaborative autoethnography was originally planned in order to explore how women PIs could enhance the communication of their teams, facilitate more moments of inspiration and creativity that occur in order to increase the quantity and quality of their scientific outputs.
Linked to this, Jen L has also worked with two research groups, using reflective and creative approaches directly to enhance their capabilities as scientists. The groups met with her bi-weekly, and each meeting had an aim, or topic for discussion. She enjoys this work, describing herself as “filled with fizz” after a session. Topics have included the qualities and attributes of a chemist, what pressure feels like, and motivations, for example. The work from the groups fed back into the collaborative autoethnography sessions, which then fed into the research groups of all the members.
To date, WISC board members have published a number of blogs, an editorial,33 an article for the UK professional magazine,34 two peer-reviewed papers,16,35 and have more in the pipeline, including a chapter in a book titled Women in Academia: Voicing Narratives of Gendered Experiences in Higher Education.36 We wanted to ensure that our work was disseminated to a wide audience – of those who work in and around STEM, as well as those who work in and around academia.
Aspirations and plans
WISC has aspirations to increase its reach into other continents. Jens L and H were asked to contribute a workshop to a ‘bootcamp’ run by EFeMS (Encouraging Female Minds in STEM37) aimed at young Black women in Africa, encouraging more women to progress into STEM careers. The workshop drew on lessons learned from the public engagement project, taking from creative SciComm (science communication) techniques to explore how these young women experienced the barriers and challenges of being Black in science. The YouTube platform was then used to shape the footage generated in the workshop to form part of the public engagement
Our second survey highlighted the need to bring WISC’s successful model to other areas of the world. Nathalie Busschaert, Davita Watkins, and Kristin Hutchins are spearheading a US version of MASC, and will lead the second WISC Skills Workshop. We are keen to explore links already made with India, and to respond to and support WISC members who have made contact and who have responded to our surveys and attended events. We are aware that our virtual and online presence enables participation from women and those who are marginalised across the globe, but our focus has been concentrated on Europe and the UK as that is where the majority of the Board work and live. While we aspire to extend the reach of WISC and engage more people in our events and projects, we also measure success by looking at how our work affects people on a personal level as much as wider work in the field.
Above all, we want to hold true to our original aims – to support the retention and progression of women in supramolecular chemistry through building an inclusive community and sense of kinship. We feel that the model we have created – using an area-specific focus, utilising EDI expertise, and bringing qualitative research approaches to scientists – is something that can be replicated across other countries, subject areas, and disciplines.
Mira, 27, Post-doc
When I heard about WISC I was really keen to join a mentoring group for women. I’ve been offered mentoring before, but this was a bit different. The way they set it up was to have a small group of us all more or less the same career stage, and then to have a more senior mentor. All of us are in the same field, which means that we can be really specific about what we are aiming for, who we need to talk to, if we need advice when something isn’t happening, or if we need to look for funding or a job. I’ve always heard of the old boys’ network but this is a bit like a new girls’ network! Just not so exclusionary! I really liked that most things WISC do are open to everyone. They’ve made a big thing about being inclusive to those who are trans, and they have special support clusters for parents and for people with disabilities. I haven’t used any of them yet, but I recommended one to a friend and I think she’s been in touch.
It’s nice to feel that I am part of a community. It’s hard making friends and getting to know people when you’re on short-term contracts and moving about every two years. The precariousness of the whole thing gets me down. I guess I’m lucky I don’t have a partner because it means I’m ‘free’ to chase after new jobs no matter what country they are in and don’t have to worry about them having to follow me and find a job or deal with a long-distance relationship. My friends who have moved overseas for jobs say it’s the hardest thing. I do worry that I am going to be too old to meet someone and have a family when I finally get something permanent though.
The WISC community is even valued by the old guard. You know, the old white men who are the most senior and who everyone thinks can’t change or don’t want to. My old PI actually recommended me to get in touch with WISC. He said “Mira, I know I didn’t always make it as easy for you as I should have done, and I definitely didn’t for the ones who came before you but I know I need to do better. I need to learn more. I saw this and it looks like something worth being part of. Maybe they can help you where I couldn’t.”
My mentoring group are really close now. As well as the formal sessions with our mentor, we have a messaging group where we chat about everything else as well. We’ve helped each other by looking at fellowship applications and papers, and talking through major life decisions. One of us went for a major fellowship recently and seeing her do it makes me think that this is something that I can do soon. I don’t think I would have even known about fellowships before, let alone how to write an application or what makes a good one, or
I’ve actually offered to mentor my own group now and I know more of us mentees are doing the same – mine are all PhD students. It’s an international group, and although sometimes the contexts they’re in can be different, we all have that connection of being in the same field. It feels good to give back to WISC and to the community, and hopefully I can act as a role model to them, help them not to feel so alone, and inspire them like WISC and my mentor have inspired me.
This section is based on an article that appeared in Chemistry World.34 Parts have been reproduced and built upon with kind permission from the Royal Society of Chemistry.
‘In partnership with the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society (‘the Academies’) and with generous support from the Leverhulme Trust, the APEX award (Academies Partnership in Supporting Excellence in Cross-disciplinary research award) scheme offers established independent researchers, with a strong track record in their respective area, an exciting opportunity to pursue genuine interdisciplinary and curiosity-driven research to benefit wider society’.38