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September Research Spotlight on Kelly Chacón, Ph.D.

 K. Chacón large

Tell us about your current career position.  
I am a third year assistant professor in the chemistry department at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
I had a non-traditional path to science and academia; I dropped out of high school at 15 and went into food service. I did not obtain my general equivalency diploma (GED) until I was 22. I think for me, once I caught the learning bug, a key decision was not to allow any “what-ifs” or naysayers to deter me from continuing to learn and progress. I had to begin my journey with prerequisite community college courses in math, writing, and science. I decided to make a simple but firm commitment to do my best, to above all treasure the privilege of education, and honestly, to see just how far I could go before it got too hard. As it turned out, it took a fair bit of time, but the sky was the limit! This is true for many of us if we stay positive, ask for help from allies, and work really hard!

What are the key experiences and decisions that have enabled you to reach your current position? 
From a young age, I did not identify as science-minded. However, now looking back to childhood, I should have known that my love of inventing household shortcuts, identifying and foraging edible local plants, and cooking were indicators of a scientific mind. But as a society, we may overlook these types of traits in children (especially those from underrepresented groups, and/or of low socioeconomic status) and neglect to cultivate those interests into a future STEM career. So I first learned about biochemistry as a field when I was 24, in a prerequisite community college biology course, during a discussion of the Miller-Urey spark chamber experiment. I was fascinated by the idea that life could have arisen from just a pool of chemicals, and wanted to learn more!

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Sigh. Yes, there have been some tough spots. I very nearly failed one portion of my qualifying exam as a third year graduate student, and was very harshly criticized for it. The professor that administered that portion said that a score so low was an indicator that I should not be in science. This came on the heels of trying to write my first scientific manuscript for publication, which also wasn’t going so well and had also received some harsh criticism. Although many know about “imposter syndrome”, few realize how particularly intense and devastating it can be for those from underrepresented groups. I immediately went into a tailspin, because I had worked incredibly hard on both tasks, and it hadn’t been enough. The most important thing that I did at that point was to seek out my university’s mental health resources and find a qualified therapist to talk to. I was scared to see a “shrink”, and in my family, it was not something people did. But getting help changed my outlook and I still see a therapist from time to time, specifically to deal with imposter syndrome and anxiety as it affects me as a minority in academia. I speak out about this now, in order to reduce the stigma.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
A) Start doing manageable, small things that matter to you in your community, even though you think you have no time. Make the time! It will pay off in feeling good in the moment, and in opportunities down the road.

B) Practice presenting your science in every venue that will have you. High schools, local meetings, national meetings, departmental seminars, courses, and lab group meetings are all fair game. Ask for honest feedback, and incorporate that
     feedback into your presenting skills.

C) Practice applying for small research grants, scholarships, travel grants, and self-nominating awards. It feels difficult for those of us in underrepresented groups to “toot our own horn”, but those from privilege do these things without a second
     thought. Start getting comfortable with honestly and positively assessing your own strengths as a scientist and a person.

D) If you really, deep down, with all of your heart, wish to be in academia, but are feeling insecure based on what other people have told you about “the job market”, stop waffling and make a firm decision to pursue your dream. Make it real by
     sharpening your focus– what schools/areas would you like to work in? What kind of research would you like to pursue? Then, look at those schools and what they value and represent. Start doing things early-on that will contribute to your
     CV toward the goal of appealing to those schools. And then, when a job comes up, apply for it! Don’t overthink, just try. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who supported you along the way.

What are your hobbies?
Sewing and altering clothing (I am short!), cooking exotic meals, playing steel-tip darts, drawing and painting, and playing video games like the Final Fantasy series and Fallout.

What was the last book you read?
Wizard and Glass, by Stephen King. The Dark Tower series by King is some entertaining fiction!

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you.
My mentors and role models are the strong women in science who gave me blunt advice when I needed it. My heroine is mi abuela, mama Cande. My grandmother was married at 14, could not read, and gave her life to her 8 sons and her pueblo. She was so full of love, curiosity, and acceptance and I am driven to make her proud of me even though she is no longer with us.

What is it that keeps you working hard every day?
Real talk: An app called “Self Control” that keeps me from playing on the internet while I work. But intrinsically, what keeps me going is that I still, even now, want to see how far I can go before it gets too hard! And I want to contribute something small, before I leave this Earth, toward understanding how our amazing universe and life works.