TUM San Francisco: Alumni-Chat with Polly Arnold – a plea for more diversity in STEM fields

On February 25, 2021 TUM alumni and friends from around the world gathered for a TUM San Francisco Alumni Chat – this time with TUM Ambassador Polly Arnold.

Screenshot of the TUM Global & Alumni event team with Polly Arnold
Professor Polly Arnold (bottom right) in conversation with TUM Alumni Coordinator Isabel Werdin, TUM San Francisco Liaison Officer Jeff Ouimet, and TUM Senior International Strategist Layla Eberle (clockwise FLTR). Photo: Screenshot TUM Global
Chemical elements in vials
Workshop participants were given an exciting insight into Polly Arnold's current research projects in synthetic chemistry. Photo: Screenshot TUM Global
Slide with information about Polly Arnold's projects
Polly's commitment to increasing diversity in STEM fields is reflected in numerous projects. Photo: Screenshot TUM Global

Polly Arnold is Professor of Chemistry at the University of California Berkeley and Director of the Chemical Sciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. At the TUM San Francisco Alumni Chat, she spoke to a gathering of nearly 50 TUM alumni and friends from across North America, Latin America, and Europe. As an audience, we got to see Polly’s twin passions for cutting edge science, and for the promotion of diversity and women in STEM fields.

Catalyzing change in chemistry

Polly opened with an overview of her current research in synthetic chemistry. One question she is focusing on right now is how to improve chemical catalysts. She and her team are developing novel catalysts that contain rare earth elements instead of heavy metals, for example. These new catalysts act faster and are less toxic than their traditional counterparts. 

Other work includes the study of the actinides and their unique electron configurations. Polly’s work has exciting implications, from the safe management of nuclear waste, new and environmentally friendly polymers, and to a deeper understanding of quantum effects.

A passion for embracing diversity in STEM fields

Following this fascinating tour of Polly Arnold’s current work, the focus shifted to her other passion: promoting diversity and women in STEM fields. By way of background, Polly received the Rosalind Franklin Award of the Royal Society in 2012 for her outstanding work in chemistry and the promotion of women in STEM. 

She used her award to produce the documentary film A Chemical Imbalance. The film explores the long history of women chemists at the University of Edinburgh, and asks why women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. With this in mind, Polly guided us through some principles we can all adopt to make the sciences better for women and girls.

How do we bring change to STEM fields?

For Polly Arnold, three points are crucial here:

  • The first and simplest step is to be aware of our own attitudes and actions. It is really as simple as just taking a second to examine whether our decisions are influenced by our own biases. If they are or might be, then we have the opportunity to promote diversity and equality. 

  • Another practical step we can all take is encouragement. Polly related how her own father became aware of her scientific curiosity, and sought to encourage her in it. His first attempt was to arrange a visit to a glue factory. His second was a tour of CERN. The point is that encouraging others, especially girls, to explore their natural curiosity in science and technology will have lifelong and positive impacts on the status of women in STEM.

  • A third practical step we can all take is active promotion of underrepresented persons. Promotion is to be distinguished from mentorship. Promotion involves identifying promising people, creating opportunities for them, and supporting them as they grow in these opportunities and take advantage of new ones. Polly Arnold reminded us that it is not simply enough to examine your team and tick your diversity boxes, you have to follow up on the promotion.

TUM alumni and friends around the world enjoyed this opportunity to look into the very latest developments in synthetic chemistry from a world-renowned researcher at a world-class university, and to learn about the important work of promoting diversity and women in STEM fields. We will of course continue to follow the path of TUM Ambassador Polly Arnold and look forward to further exciting exchange opportunities.