Global statements on diversity: Pall Thordarson

Scientists around the world answer the same three questions...
Global statements on diversity: Pall Thordarson

By Pall Thordarson, University of New South Wales. 

In your opinion, which scientific questions will set the trends in the coming decade, and which science problems would you like to tackle?

In short, I think we will trend towards studying complexity; complex chemistry, complex materials, complex biology. For example – liquid-liquid phase separated droplets. This is a new emerging paradigm in biology. We are now realising that the way in which the cell organises itself depends quite heavily on the transient formation of liquid-liquid phase separated systems, consisting mainly of two components that until were recently dismissed as “junk”, i.e., intrinsically disordered proteins and non-coding RNA. These complex structures appear to have many roles, ranging from how (multi)-cellular development is controlled to diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The solution to understand liquid-liquid phase separated systems will not come from biology – it will come from chemistry! This field is well suited for pushing the boundaries of what researchers in chemistry can study and understand and will require effort from many areas within chemistry including supramolecular, colloidal, organic, systems, computational, polymer and biological chemistry. Through better understanding, we will eventually learn control over these systems with novel drugs designed and made by chemists. Furthermore, these studies will bring us much closer to answer what is arguably the biggest unanswered question in science – how did life originate. In my opinion though, we might realise that the even more important questions are: what is life and how can we make synthetic life?

How do you experience diverse leadership, diversity in your lab, publication and peer-review, promotion and career progression, in your host country? What are the impediments for creating inclusive, equitable research labs, departments and practices?

Diversity is mainly about leading by example. It is important to realise that diversity is really just about being decent – treating no person unfairly just because of what they are. If we all stop for a moment and reflect on that, we could go much further again. The problem is that our culture(s) still have many hangovers from times when it was acceptable to treat people unfairly due to some of the characteristics that made them unique. Now, you can’t “force” people to accept diversity or force them to acknowledge that their own views or actions are not always fair or equitable. But education and motivation can work. This is why leadership is so important. A leader, be it a supervisor, departmental head or University President that is truly committed to diversity can motivate those around them to follow. We all can do this. We need to recognise our own weaknesses, mistakes and prejudices and then lead by example to convince those that are around us to follow.

What is your message to the next generation of scientists, and what are your tips for their success?

There is so much left to do! We are on the cups of some very exciting times in chemistry, material science and biology as we start to embrace further the complex and dynamic nature of most matter around us. Science brought us out of poverty and saved untold billions of lives from untimely deaths. Recent events have reminded us all that Science is a matter of life and death.

Scientists are also by and large reasonable people. Our community now overwhelmingly embraces the good that diversity brings to science and that should fill you with hope. Don’t let the odd naysayer distract you. To succeed – stay true to chasing your big questions, treat people with respect but also expect to be respected. Seek out role models in your community for advice and support – most successful scientists did get there because they do care about the profession as a whole and they will be happy to lend the next generation a helping hand if asked. 

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