A Word With… Butler chemistry professor Anne Wilson

Photo by Josa Kerns.

AUDREY DAVENPORT | amdavenp@butler.edu  | OPINION COLUMNIST

This is A Word With…Anne Wilson

The Butler experience is a combination of different factors — classes, events, friends — but surely a very important one is the professors. Beyond standing at the front of their classrooms or staring at you from a computer screen, they have phenomenal insights that all students should be aware of. “A Word With” is a weekly series that highlights some of the professors who make the Butler experience what it is.

Anne Wilson is notorious in the chemistry department for coming to lectures in costumes, engaging genuinely with students and being an amazing mentor. Last year, I remember knocking on her office door and complaining about a biochemistry assignment I was struggling with. She spent an hour of her time helping me, even though she isn’t a biochemist herself. She gives students her time while also challenging them to push themselves, which allows them to grow in ways they may not have imagined before.

This semester, Wilson is teaching a Natural World class about the chemistry of food, along with a speech class. The Natural World provides students with a unique opportunity to learn chemistry in a very tangible way. From learning about electrolytes in sports drinks to making butter and whipped cream in the lab, Wilson’s curious and creative mindset comes to the forefront in her classroom.

Did you know that you always wanted to be a scientist, or was there any other path for you before that?

Oh, no. No, no, no. In high school I was one of those kids who was reasonably good at enough things that I kept on taking classes in all of those things. And actually, after my sophomore year of high school when I had chemistry, I said “I’m never taking chemistry again.” I took physics and I didn’t enjoy that either. 

I had this idea that I was going to be an English major and that I was going to write the great American novel and live on the coast of Maine, overlooking the shore. So I had this very romantic idea of what I was going to do with my life. And when I went to college I signed up for classes on my own with zero guidance. I looked at my schedule and just took classes that I thought I should take: English, European history, calculus — because obviously every English major needs calculus — and a science class, so I took chemistry. 

In my second semester English class, it became very clear that I was going to get a B. The instructor was just not very impressed with anything that I had to write. In the meantime, I was having a great time in the chemistry lab. The chair of the department, who was the lab instructor, came over and told me, “oh, you should take organic chemistry.” He basically dared me to take organic chemistry, and I didn’t know anything about that class. Everyone was wound really tight and really upset. But I seemed to really like it and I did fine. And it seemed to me like if I put in effort in chemistry I got the reward, but not for English. So, I ended up changing my major to chemistry. So it was purely by accident.

Where did you go to undergrad?

I went to Oberlin, which is a little liberal arts college in northern Ohio. I chose to go there because it was so far away from my hometown. I felt like it was the right place for me because of the conversations that I had on my recruiting trip. I needed to be in a place where I felt like I would learn something. I remember being really intimidated by a literature class I observed, but the conversations they were having about character development were incredible. I thought that it was a great environment where everyone got to contribute something and I was ready to be in that kind of a place.

What part of student engagement in research and in the lab do you enjoy?

You get to see a student who isn’t so sure about doing research, and they think that they don’t know anything. But by the end of the project they are taking charge of the projects, and it’s really nice to see that maturation in the student. It’s also fun, when things don’t work, to figure out what’s going on, which happens 80% of the time in research. You also really get to help students chart their own path. In other disciplines, I’m not sure that there is that same opportunity. We’re really lucky here in Gallahue.

What was your graduate experience like?

I went to the University of Utah because I wanted to see a different part of the country. I really enjoyed the program and I liked the faculty members and my peers. I did well in the classes and research was great; it was fabulous to hit the slopes for a half day and then be in the lab until midnight. To say that I didn’t have doubts in graduate school, that I didn’t think about quitting once or twice a minute, that would be disingenuous. We all have doubts and we all have moments like that. But you know that is where you need to have a good support system that helps you through the challenging times. Anything that is hard to do is worth doing. But you are going to face those times of doubt. I really wanted to be doing the kinds of things that I am doing now and I am glad that I stuck with it.

What ended up being really interesting was by the end of my first year I was the only female organic chemist left. And I was looking around the room, and I was the only woman in the room. It was a little disconcerting. At the time, organic chemistry was not particularly welcoming to women. It was challenging.

Do you feel like there is still a barrier for women being in the lab or research space?

I think that there are challenges that are being held up. I think you just need to be very intentional when bringing women in. Saying, “we are going to be serious about considering all candidates.” But you definitely have to be intentional. You have to use certain terminology. Women are still sought after to check a box. The fact that I was the first woman tenured in the department says something. And that wasn’t that long ago. We have a history of being an institution that is welcoming to women and people of color. And we have done better in the liberal arts and the professional school side of things than we have in the sciences in that aspect. And we have made huge improvements since I’ve been here.

Have you ever considered teaching a class about women in STEM?

[Chemistry and biochemistry professor] Dr. O’Reilly and I have talked about it. There are ways to do it and do it well. But the issue is where would we put the class. Because we want science students to take the class and as many people as possible, really. We think it would be important because there are real opportunities to talk about how some schools have diversified really well in sciences and how others haven’t. I always wonder while I’m teaching chemistry, how do I decolonize organic chemistry? And that’s been something that I have been trying to get my head around. How do you decouple the way something has been taught for so long with the fundamentals that you need to know about this discipline? And this is going to take more than just me to do.

Is this idea of ‘decolonizing chemistry’ something you are involved with outside of Butler?

I have been doing a lot of my own DEI work because it’s important for me to do. Certainly acknowledging my role as a white woman in propagating the racist culture that we live in. What can I do to disrupt that? It’s not anyone else’s job to educate me, it’s my job to educate me. And it’s really hard when you are trying to do this work in other aspects of your life and you turn around and you realize that all of this is what I’m teaching. I’ve worked really hard to educate myself on the important things that are out there and really up my sensitivity to a lot of these topics.

Science was overtly racist for a very long time. And then it became subterranean racist. And it’s still very hierarchical, and it’s a real challenge to break some of the perceptions that are out there. 

When we first started talking about diversity and inclusion things, I thought “well, this doesn’t apply to me, I teach the sciences.” And I have come full circle on that. I no longer believe that there is not a role to play. Often, science is used to justify racist perceptions and beliefs. And I can not stand idly by anymore and watch it happen. And it wasn’t until I did some serious self-examination that I realized that I had a role to play. It might not be that big, or my voice may not be as loud, but I no longer put things on pedestals that I did before. 

It’s very important that I acknowledge the challenges in my own field. Especially because I was one of the people who was like “no, that doesn’t have anything to do with me.” I set my mind to things and I just know that I am going to do them.

If you were to go back to your English major first-year self and say, “look at all these things you’ll do…” Do you think you would have believed it?

I would have been pretty sure that you were crazy. 

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