Dr. Jay Kroll, a recent PhD graduate of the chemistry department, has learned many things in his time at CU Boulder. His chemistry research has provided new insights in atmospheric chemistry. He also studied the sense of belonging and perceived ability to succeed in the sciences among general chemistry undergraduate students identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and other sexuality (LGBTQ+). A startling observation from the CU Boulder grad-student climate survey released last fall was that LGBTQ+ graduate students leave their programs at twice the rate of their straight peers. To Kroll, this suggested that STEM educators still need to fix the leaky pipeline leading from STEM intent to a PhD, and his research helps pinpoint where we are losing LGBTQ+ students. I sat down with Kroll to learn more about balancing scientific research with his education and advocacy efforts.
For Kroll, a typical day begins with coffee with his mentor, Dr. Veronica Vaida, and other lab members, where they troubleshoot recent problems or just chat about the latest experiments. Kroll will often discuss his research on chemical reactions of sulfur in the atmosphere. These reactions are important to understand because sulfur dioxide is released from burning fossil fuels and is a potential molecule for geo-engineering a cooler climate.
During a tour of the lab Kroll showed me several instruments called spectrometers that he uses to “watch” sulfur chemistry in a variety of conditions. Kroll shines simulated atmospheric light on various environmentally-relevant particles and detects what different molecules or compounds form. These reactions inform models of the chemistry in our atmosphere and help us understand the negative side-effects of adding excess sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere.
One instrument—my favorite—bounces laser light between two mirrors 50,000 times so that the light travels 50 kilometers before hitting the detector. The long distance increases sensitivity, helping Kroll to see rare “forbidden” states of sulfur that can happen in the stratosphere and may be a harmful byproduct of geoengineering.
Dr. Kroll got his start as an undergrad in an astro-chemistry lab at Emory University looking for complex molecules in giant dust clouds in space – the clouds that lead to star formation. Despite the atmospheric chemistry and climate modeling focus of Kroll’s research at CU, he remains very much a part of the astrochemistry community through both research and outreach. Kroll joined the Vaida lab to learn more about planetary atmospheres. After all, he says: “It’s only one step away from space!” Furthermore, Venus has a lot of interesting sulfur chemistry that Kroll has used to model reactions in Earth’s atmosphere.
In his time at CU, Kroll has also developed a passion for teaching. He especially likes working with students during office hours, helping them work through environmental chemistry problems one-on-one. He enjoys working with non-chemists the most.
“I just want [the students] to have a basic understanding of chemistry and a mental model of how molecules behave,” said Kroll. “So that when they hear about [a scientific discovery] in the news, they have a basic understanding of it and know why it’s cool.”
This love of teaching led Kroll to explore education research, including adding an education chapter to his doctoral thesis. His research in chemistry education centers around determining what proportion of the general chemistry population identifies as LGBTQ+ and evaluating their sense of belonging and ability uncertainty, or their belief that they have the necessary skills to succeed in the chemistry classroom.
“Something I was really interested in is how gender and sexuality impact our students in the classroom,” said Kroll. “We often talk about the fact that there aren’t as many women in STEM as there should be and that many women start out as STEM majors, and then they leave or finish their STEM major but don’t go on to work in STEM. It’s also assumed that LGBTQ+ students do the same thing, but there’s not a lot of research on it.” As a chemist who is also an out gay man, Kroll emphasized the importance of having LGBTQ+ role-models in chemistry that helped him to find a sense of belonging in science.
From Kroll’s research, we now know that about 10% of the general chemistry population at CU identifies as LGBTQ+. He also found that these students do not have a significantly lower sense of belonging in chemistry than their classmates. These results are encouraging and suggest that CU Boulder’s introductory chemistry courses are inclusive of students of all sexualities. This is only a small part of the larger picture of LGBTQ+ identity in STEM, however.
Kroll’s work is especially interesting in the context of two recent publications on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer (GLBQ) students in STEM. Last fall, the CU Boulder grad-student climate survey reported that fewer GLBQ students feel welcome and respected in their graduate program compared to their straight peers, and that they are more likely to leave the university without a degree. Furthermore, a recent article in Science Advances found that GLBQ students were 8% less likely than their straight peers to persist in STEM through completion of their undergraduate degree. While Kroll’s results of first-year chemistry students is encouraging, he’s concerned that the pipeline leading from STEM intent to the completion of PhD is leaking students who don’t feel they belong.
Kroll has a few tips for scientists and science educators to ensure a more welcoming classroom for LGBTQ+ students and help repair the leaky pipeline.
“Often, especially in professional settings… when I introduce myself, I give my preferred pronouns,” said Kroll. “It still makes me really uncomfortable because it’s not something I grew up doing, but it lets people know that you’re at least aware that someone may use different pronouns than what you’re used to, and creates the environment of respect.”
Kroll also recommends Safe Zone training for everyone because it teaches relevant terminology and familiarizes attendees with barriers to LGBTQ+ success in the classroom. The training gives out stickers to display in an office as a cue to LGBTQ+ students or coworkers that they are welcome.
Dr. Kroll’s parting advice to graduate students is “Be willing to try weird things, and communicate with your advisor.” Education research seemed like a crazy idea, and now he has learned so much about social science, statistics, and students’ sense of belonging and competence in the sciences. Kroll’s passions for chemistry and education have blended nicely to create an environment where all his students can feel welcomed and encouraged to have fun with science and be their full selves. He plans to continue this work in a teaching and research postdoc, and the next generation of scientists will be lucky to have Dr. Kroll as a mentor!
By Kelsie Anson