Q&A: Kay Xia: Inaugural College of Chemistry Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Scholar

Kay Xia working in the lab Kay Xia working in the lab. Photo Annika Page.

Fifth year graduate student Kay Xia (lab of Dean Toste) is the first recipient of the College of Chemistry Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Scholar Program. This scholarship covers a year of tuition and includes a stipend for a graduate student to work on a project that’s related to DEI in the Department of Chemistry. We were delighted to speak to Kay Xia, the inaugural scholar, about her interests and approach to establishing a course for incoming graduate students on the ethics of scientific discovery.

College of Chemistry: Kay, thank you for talking to us about your project. What interested you about participating in the DEI scholarship program?

Kay Xia: Initially I was interested in looking at the question of whether the research we currently do in our labs might contain some personal biases towards certain groups of people. If we look at the question historically, studies have shown that research can inequitably benefit people who are already in positions of privilege. When there are identified harms resulting from research, the most impact appears to be toward people from communities historically excluded from scientific research.

CoC: What made you decide to develop a course on scientific ethics?

KX: The Chemistry graduate students have been doing an annual graduate student climate survey since 2018 looking at several questions about the student experience at the College. I added a set of questions that asked what factors are important that their research topic addresses. 

CoC: What did you learn from the results?

KX: The results were nice to see. The three major traits the survey results showed the students valued included the novelty and originality of their research, the importance to basic science, and increasing personal knowledge or skills. Many students answered that improving social equity was personally important, but they didn’t see how chemistry could impact it. Students also responded that various prosocial impacts should be valued more than they currently are.

CoC: How did the climate survey guide your class development?

KX: As a result of the 2022 spring survey, we decided to develop a scientific ethics class for the fall semester. It was a required course for first year grad students, but we wanted to keep the workload light because fall semester is a busy time for them. The class was part of their research credit. They met six times throughout the semester as a discussion group with the department chair Matt Francis and Associate Dean for DEI Anne Baranger, to discuss various case studies.

CoC: What did you use for your first case study?

KX: The first case study looked at Berkeley and nuclear chemistry discoveries. The focus was on the initial research of generating plutonium. We also looked at the long-term issues of mining of uranium and the fallout of the pollution from that. It was a good case study to lead with because it helped the students understand that these research issues are complicated and even very basic research can have large impacts. And even for something that a lot of students initially thought was very black and white, for example military research, is not so simple. 

CoC: What were the other case studies?

KX: The second case study was on hormonal birth control. Organic chemists Carl Djerassi and Luis Miramontes synthesized the first progestin derivative that ended up becoming the first birth control pill. Some of the fallout we discussed were the questionable practices used in the trials in Puerto Rico by biologist Gregory Pincus and obstetrician John Rock. There were also the impacts to the indigenous population harvesting wild Mexican yams used in the production of the pill.

The third case study was about rare earth elements, which are useful in a number of chemical industries, including clean energy and computer manufacturing. We looked at the mining and sourcing issues including environmental, political, and socioeconomic impacts. We were using that as a way to get the students to think about the life cycle of chemicals. 

The fourth case study was on the general topic of legacy chemicals that enter widespread use before it is discovered there are negative impacts. We focused on PVCs because they’re manufacturing process is very toxic and hazardous and they are a “forever plastic”. At the same time, PVC pipes are the main replacement for lead piping, which is very positive. And when they’re used for non-consumable things, they’re actually very durable and can be a useful material. 

As a positive example, we looked at the Nobel Prize research of alumnus Mario Molina, et al, and their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone. From a humble start on tests of CFCs, within 14 years the world passed the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone in the atmosphere. This is a huge success story for chemical research.

CoC: What did you take away personally from this project?

KX: I really appreciated how the department worked with me on this so that in a relatively short turnaround the department Chair Matt Francis and Associate Dean of DEI Anne Baranger were both willing to teach an extra course and make it happen. That sent a strong message that the department cares about this as a subject and that they want the students exposed to this kind of material. I also appreciated how the students responded very positively to the course content and the chance to connect with each other over these discussions.

Personally, the fellowship allowed me to take courses in other departments and to spend time developing this course. “They” always say when you teach, you learn the most. It was really cool for me to get to look closer into these case studies. I think this will influence how I do my own research going forward.

Silhouetted group of students.