JAWS Shreds Stereotypes, Spotlights Diverse Chemists

Daniela Arias-Rotondo of JAWS Chemistry Seminars
Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Daniela Arias-Rotondo is challenging the stereotypical image that comes to mind when we picture a scientist by inviting undergraduates and postdocs to present their science in JAWS, a series of chemistry webinars spotlighting scientists from underrepresented groups.

When you hear it’s time for JAWS, don’t fear a shark attack. Instead, get ready for a chemistry seminar featuring Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Daniela Arias-Rotondo, who is challenging the stereotypical image that comes to mind when we picture a scientist.

JAWS, or Just Another (Chemistry) Webinar Series, gives scientists from underrepresented groups a chance to be heard, and undergrads and postdocs a chance to share their work through easy-going conversations and publicity in a production quickly gaining recognition.

The project was started by Arias-Rotondo along with post docs Craig Fraser of Northwestern University, Madison Fletcher of New York University and Monica Gill of Carleton University. Its name would’ve been Just Another Chemistry Series, but the acronym JACS is well known as the Journal of the American Chemical Society. As a result, and to show a little humor, Arias-Rotondo and her fellow organizers chose JAWS.

“One day we might get a cease-and-desist letter from Steven Spielberg or someone,” Arias-Rotondo said. “We’ll figure out what name we give it at that point. But for now, who doesn’t like sharks?”

The point of JAWS, though, is down to earth as it enables early career chemists to build foundational presentation skills.

“As scientists, we always emphasize that it’s important to be able to communicate your ideas,” Arias-Rotondo said. “And one thing that we’ve always seen is that it’s hard as a postdoc or a graduate student—and even worse as an undergrad—to get the opportunity to present your science.”

Professors commonly receive invitations to give talks and attend conferences. They might also be the people in line for a Nobel Prize. Students, however, gain experience working with faculty yet their work gets little exposure. That’s something Arias-Rotondo wants to change.

“Even with the pandemic, we’ve still been doing talks, and giving people who don’t have a name for themselves yet an opportunity,” Arias-Rotondo said. “We’re particularly looking at those who, even under normal circumstances, maybe wouldn’t be as likely to present. A scientist doesn’t have to be the old white guy with crazy hair. Being able to invite these other people who don’t necessarily fit a mold to come in and talk about their science is so important in terms of really showing a broad spectrum of people that you can be a scientist, too.”

The show has built buzz for itself through a loyal following on its Twitter feed. It’s also drawn presenters from every continent except Antarctica and viewers from all over the world, including JACS Editor-in-Chief Erick Carreira, an organic chemist and professor at ETH Zürich.

“We saw the name among our attendees and we began texting back and forth while watching,” Arias-Rotondo said. “We were wondering if that was really him or somebody impersonating him because it was huge for us. It was a sign of how far we’d made it.”

Recent JAWS guests have included post docs from University of California, Vanderbilt University and National University of Singapore who have presented on topics ranging from radiation to molecular aggregation. The time for JAWS varies to accommodate presenters from a variety of time zones, but generally it’s scheduled at 11 a.m. or 8 p.m. Eastern on Tuesdays. Presentations are posted online for about a week. Ultimately, Arias-Rotondo hopes to measure the success of the program not only by the number of viewers or its website traffic, but by successful variations of representation and its impact on students including those at K.

“I hope that my students see that they can attend the seminars, they can present at the seminars, and that there is a welcoming community that wants them to be chemists,” she said. “I also want them to see me as someone who is not just teaching or doing research with them but also working to make science more available and more accessible for people.”