Motivation and Science
By: Krysta Kearney
“Face your fears and you will find both your passion and happiness.”
In addition to being an accredited advocate for science, Kim works hard to improve awareness in the LGBTQ+ science community and STEM education. She promotes equality and public awareness to reinforce social changes for LBGTQ+. Recently, she was featured in 500 Queer Scientists which is a visibility campaign for LBGTQ+ people working in the sciences.
“We want to: ensure the next STEM generation has LGBTQ+ role models; help the current generation recognize they’re not alone; create opportunities for community connections and greater visibility within STEM.” - 500queerscientists.com
Moxxi had the opportunity to talk about life and science with Chemical Kim. We found out quickly that she doesn't do anything lightly and has been excelling her whole life. She is always in the pursuit of learning (about who she is and science), supporting her family and advocating for STEM. If you don’t know what STEM stands for, it groups together the academics of Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as one term. We know very well that her teachings have done more than educate, she has helped students jumpstart their careers and encourages ways to become a better self, to listen to your intuition.
Her life hasn’t been an easy road. From a young age, she always knew she was different from her friends. She remarks, “I was that student, that daughter, and eventually the wife that I did everything that I thought society expected me to do.” Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, MI, there wasn’t much diversity, mainly straight, white people. She didn’t know any gay women and was acquaintances with only a few gay men.
Kim used the analogy from the children’s story, The Ugly Duckling, which is a fairy tale written in 1843 by Hans Christian Andersen. If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s based on the tale of a duck who feels a bit out of place, an outcast amongst its peers, and depressed. Always having stood in awe of the beauty of the swans at the farm, one day the duck threw itself at the flock, thinking it would be better to be killed by the birds rather than live a life of misery and ugliness. Then, the biggest miracle happened and the swans welcomed the duck, embracing love and excitement. The Ugly Duckling looked at it’s reflection in the pond and realized it had been a swan all along! The flock of swans (including the ugly duckling) fly away, happily ever after.
“That’s me. I knew I had these feelings, I knew I wasn’t connecting with my girlfriends who would talk about their boyfriends, I didn’t go to prom, I was a science nerd, always into running…I would just put my efforts and focus there.”
After graduating high school, Kim went to Michigan Technological University, which is a college in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here, she met her first boyfriend, then later started dating another man, who eventually became her husband. At the time, she didn’t recognize she was gay. She knew there were these feelings inside of her but she dismissed them. Just for reference, this was in the late 80's and early 90’s, in the Midwest, where there was very little diversity. She didn’t have any gay friends, any gay professors, it just wasn’t a ‘Thing.’
“I just didn’t understand my identity. I knew I was feeling different from other people and I absolutely had crushes, no doubt about it! I just put those crushes to the side thinking, maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think about as women, we hug each other (what’s so weird about that)!?”
Being the person she is, she always tries to do the right thing. When she felt feelings towards a female that seemed wrong, she would just end the friendship. It hurt, but it was the only way she knew how to cope with these “unruly” feelings because at the time, in her mind, they weren’t acceptable. For many years, she embraced Catholicism. She was an exemplary image of what an ideal catholic is and did all the things, went to bible study, taught classes, attended church twice a week, literally everything she could, to show her faith.
“I just really spent time trying to get this out of me, not knowing what I was trying to get out of me, just the unhappiness internally. On the outside (If you knew me at the time) I was very happy!”
So here she was deep into a marriage with a man, unclear of who she was and what she wanted, had feelings of discomfort in all aspects of her relationship with her husband and in most relationships in her life. She was living the picturesque mid-west suburban lifestyle and was a proud Christian, at that. For years, they lived in the quaint town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Kim only has great things to say about it, it's a wonderful community. Her husband travelled a lot, as he was a civil engineer, and she taught part-time while also being a stay-at-home mom, being the best mother she could be. Over the course of eight years, she and her husband had four healthy and amiable children.
It wasn’t until after she came out as a lesbian that it all dawned on her, that maybe that’s not her true calling in life. She loves her kids and is beyond thankful that she has them and is proud of who they have become. In retrospect she realizes now that her kids were a distraction from her relationship with her husband and from being true to her identity. It’s almost as though she subconsciously kept going through the motions, purposely deflecting herself from the truth. At the time, she sought counseling which played a big role in her recovery and discovery. She recalls her therapist saying this once to her.
“‘You have shared with me that you have four kids two years apart each and you fully nursed each of those kids for one year. So for eight years of your marriage, you were either nursing or pregnant. So you were basically hands off to your husband.’ She was absolutely right, you put these excuses that make you feel like ‘Oh my gosh’(a self revelation moment).”
After her fourth (and last) child, she knew that she had to do something for herself otherwise she would not be able to live a successful life, she honestly felt like she would die, it was eating at her that much, the unknown. Internally she wasn’t ok, she couldn’t hide anymore. She started with telling her husband that she had to stop going to church with the family. She felt that maybe part of her struggle was being a young mom with four kids, that she needed to go to church on her own, solo, and pray, to have it make a real impact on her. This still didn’t work, her feelings didn’t disappear.
“People say being gay is a choice. I fought the heck out of it for years…I couldn’t have fought it more...YEARS! When they say, ‘Here is the playbook to not be gay, read it and it will work for you,’ I did and it just didn’t work.”
For her, it was when she stepped away from going to church where she started to really see herself. In speaking with her, she specifically noted that she has no qualms with Catholicism, spirituality is important but she was using religion as an excuse, as an external outlet to change her, when what she really needed to do was work internally and be her.
This heart-wrenching and soul-searching process took her five years. It took that long for her to be able to say out loud, ‘I’m Gay.’ When she first approached her husband and told him, he basically said, ‘Yes, I know.’ She was flabbergasted that he knew. As a catholic man, he felt like god could have taken ‘it' out of her and was always hoping that something would turn around, holding on, that whatever feelings she may be having would eventually go away. After being together for 14 years, they divorced. So, here she was, it was 2006 and she was gay, living in a world of Christianity and amongst many anti-gay people.
“After coming out and leaving my marriage, those who defined me as a good and responsible mom shifted their views of me because of their belief that lesbian, gay, and other queer relationships have less value. I was defined as an irresponsible mom, reckless in my life choices, and damaging to my children’s lives. I was very afraid of losing custody of my children because I am a gay woman.”
Not only was she going through the hardest of times internally, she was struggling to find a balance for her family too. She was finding herself, while also taking care of the four kids and considering her husbands feelings as well. In the small town of which they lived in, their reputation as a family changed and the support group that she once had was basically non existent. The struggles she faced while coming out were beyond her control. The difficult strain and impact it has put on all of her relationships has taken years. For some accepting what being gay means and that a loved one is gay, is a gradual process of understanding. For many, they will never accept it. Still today, many people are afraid of understanding sexual orientation and gender identity outside of the social norms. It was always in her nature to think of others, before herself and it was time to make a difference in that. She had to push aside what other people might think and do what was best for her and her family in the long run, even though many viewed it differently.
She realized how important it was to take care of herself and be herself. Living in a life of misery doesn’t do good for those around you. She had been living in this ‘fake’ reality, wanting to please her husband, her children, and friends...she only wanted everything to be picturesque and happy. Whereas in reality, that type of life only hinders the people around you. It doesn’t exhibit your pure self and plays a more negative effect on your loved ones than positive.
Fast forward, her youngest daughter is now graduating high school! All the kids are doing big things for themselves and honestly, are truly happy. She says it’s their happiness that shows success.
“I know there are women out there that are in a situation I was in and won’t do it because they’re afraid they’re gonna hurt their children, but I’ll be honest, looking back, if I didn’t do it, I would have hurt my children more. They would have seen something that was fake, would have gone down a path that they thought its what other people expected them to do, we all have our regrets of course and I really do wish I would have known my identity before I married a man. In no way did I want that to happen, when I made that decision I wasn’t like ‘Oh, I'm doing it because I want to hurt you or other people.’ But I do know that people have been in the same situation that I’ve been in and if anything people will recognize this. Its hard and it's scary.”
She recalls a time, after the divorce where her eldest daughter (who was 12) looked at her and said, Mom, I want to become a chemistry teacher like you. Kim remarked to her, You don’t have to say that just because I’m your mom. Her daughter said, No, I'm saying this because I see how happy it makes you. Now, she is an adult, lives in Minnesota and is a high school chemistry teacher! Sophie, her second daughter, just moved out to Colorado and finished a firefighting and EMT program. Her son is 22, currently enrolled in college, very athletic, and focuses on health and fitness. As stated above, her youngest is about to graduate high school. Kim says as a mother, she has always taken a certain approach with her children. Since it was her choice to have them come into this world, she never expects her kids to do anything for her own needs. She encourages them to focus on themselves, not their mother. If they can’t come home for a holiday, no big deal. She knows they will see her at the right time, a time that works for them, when they want to. She never wants them to feel guilt, if she earns their respect, then great.
“To me, you raise your children to leave you. It’s sad to say that but I needed to raise my kids in order for them to be good in the communities, for themselves, who they will be with and not worry about their mom, let you be you.”
Initially, she and her ex-husband had split custody of the kids which would leave an occasional week here and there for herself. She would utilize this time to go on mini-vacations where she would attend events around the US, immersing herself in the gay community. On one of her trips, In 2013 she decided to go to Los Angeles, see what it's all about! She knew there was a large gay community there and wanted to see the ocean. At the time, she was following a photographer on Instagram who was based out of L.A.. She absolutely loved her work and figured why not, it doesn't hurt to message this artist and see if she would meet up or have any suggestions on what to do around town. So, she wrote, ‘Hey I’m gonna be in LA, do you want to get a cup of coffee?!?. There were no intention of pursuing her at all, it was just a cup of coffee! (Is there ever, just a cup of coffee?) There you have it, that was it, and the rest is history! They started dating and they are married now to this day! Initially, they were long-distance for the first year, then her wife moved to Michigan, they were there for four years.
Now, they have been in Naples, FL for four years. Kim is a professor of chemistry at Florida Southwestern State College. She and her family desired a move for many reasons. With her wife being Guatemalan, visiting home is much easier from Florida than it is from Michigan. They also were in envy of the warmer weather, love the ocean and Kim knew that she could advance her career and focus more on some of her primary goals if they moved south.
“There’s not a lot of diversity in the Midwest, especially in regards to the Latinx community and part of the projects that I work on is to bring more Central and South American science into the science curriculum. I feel this has brought me a bigger opportunity to do that, to be in a community. Your best source is people! It’s nice to actually be in a culture. You discover more about the culture. (When they visit south of the country) It's nice to be able to go to those communities and get a better understanding of the science they know and bring it to the classroom.”
Chemical Kim is incredibly passionate about her career. Interestingly enough, at first, when student teaching, she wasn’t that great, it didn’t come naturally to her. She had no idea what she was doing. During her graduate studies at Central Michigan University, she always knew that education was going to be her path. It was really hard for her, and she couldn’t find the confidence to teach. She was basically afraid of it, she didn’t think it was for her. So she went ahead and became an environmental chemist but it was always in the back of her head that she wanted to face this fear of hers, wanted to know why she failed and learn from it. She decided to re-approach it and took some education classes which eventually lead to her being a high school teacher.
She has her own unique way of teaching, rather than being textbook driven, a hands-on approach. For the past 20 years, she has been working on how we teach chemistry education from a different viewpoint, improving it, making it applicable. In addition, she brings science to communities especially those that are impoverished, that don’t have access to science. Kim visits places like The Children’s Hospital and The Felicity House, which is based in NY, where they work with women who have autism. She is about to host a lesson for The Step Squad which is in Wisconsin. It’s a program that brings STEM opportunities to a lower-income community of girls. In the past, she hosted a show on the Public Media Network in Kalamazoo known as, ‘The Chemical Kim Science Show’ and from 2008-2017 she was the resident scientist on an ABC affiliate TV station hosting news segments on a biweekly science segment. She continues to appear on local news stations in Naples, FL. All of her segments focus on hands-on science experiments that engage families at home.
As a professor, it has always been rewarding to see when education makes a true difference in someone's life. When someone totally turns their life around, with the help of her classes. It’s the best experience for her to witness and be a part of. She has had many students that were of an older generation, not fresh out of high school.
“My favorite is having these older students who never went to college (especially a stay at home mom) they never thought about themselves, they were always doing things for everyone else, and now (they were like). ‘It’s my time…I'm gonna go to college and start a career.’ Beautiful thing! It was so crazy to see these women coming into my class…they would not really take care of themselves (in the beginning) and literally though keeping in touch after college, going into a career, that they know that’s what THEY want, THEY know that’s going to be important to them, their transformation of how they take care of themselves and the beauty that came out was AMAZING! I don’t think they even recognized what happened to them, that the happier they became, the more they are contributing to life, doing something they’ve always wanted to do, for themselves.”
At many points in her career, she has experienced discrimination both from being a woman and a lesbian. She recalls when she was hired into a full-time tenure track position at a college that she had worked adjunct, the Dean of her department threatened her position by placing her on probation due from her gaining popularity and success in teaching science and outreach in the community. He felt threatened that she was a highly successful faculty member and that her science outreach had gained wide popularity.
“He made it clear that my tenure position would only be secured if I made certain to express to administrators that my success was 100% due to his supervision over me. This Dean knew that I was in a vulnerable position with being newly out as a gay woman, now a single mom, and very much afraid of losing custody because I’m gay. He knew how important financially the full-time position was for me.”
Kim also mentioned that she has had students feeling hesitant to take her class, in fear that she would be teaching from a liberal agenda, since she is a woman or they felt uncomfortable having a gay professor. She states that after having taken her class, the few times this has happened, they admitted it was a horrible stereotype and appreciated getting to know her and learning the science.
A big goal for her is to be STEM visible as an LGBTQ+ member. By being an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, she hopes that her actions and visibility can help alleviate for others similar discrimination that she has experienced. She knows for herself, if she had mentors to look up to that she could identify with, then it may have given her the courage to speak up more as a woman, act sooner on finding her identity and also given her the strength and courage in coming out as a lesbian. It’s important to her that she can be an example for those people and the new generation in STEM.
“If I can get two people to say, 'Because Chemical Kim showed me science and I see that a woman, or even a gay woman (if that’s how they identify), can do it, then that’s me.' Like I said, they can see someone that I didn’t (have the resources to) see, and hopefully feel ‘I can connect with her, and that makes sense to me.’ There are people out there that need that.”
Chemical Kim is a true visionary leader. Her work touches people of all ages, and is making an impact on the generations of the future. Her advocacy for inclusivity both in society and science is bringing humanity a step closer to providing equal access for opportunities for people that have been socially excluded and marginalized. The awareness she not only brings to others but has in HERSELF is remarkable. It goes to show, if you have the will power and strength, no journey is to far. She is one Fearless Female.
“Don’t find something to use as a crutch. Everyone has their own story, their own struggle. I have found that the most successful students that have found happiness are the ones that don’t allow something to be their crutch. If you are afraid of something, face it. If you face your fear, you will find your passion.”
Q + A
Q: How do you find time for all of it?
“It’s like an addiction, I get such a high from the excitement I see when others get that WOW moment of discovery.”
Q: Have you had a hard time as a woman in your field, in terms of equality?
“When I was married to a man and started to raise a family, I experienced the centuries-old hierarchical family norms. Though we both were equally degreed in our STEM fields, my career had less value, far lower pay, and so I was the one to stay home to care for the children and home. For over ten years, I fought hard to stay in my career, even if it meant teaching adjunct and passing over full-time science faculty positions in higher education.”
Q: What does the word Moxxi mean to you?
Mo (the chemical element molybdenum) and 21 (roman number XXI) Also just a fun name to say… Moxxi!
Q: What words of wisdom do you have about being true to yourself?
“The best way to help others and to contribute positively to your environment is to be happy. Do not sacrifice your happiness to satisfy what you think others and society expects of you. The reward of being true to yourself will be your happiness, the happiness of others around you, and the beauty you will feel about yourself.”
Q: Any advice for women?
Instead of watching on a screen how to do something that you love, (you can watch it and get motivated by it), but if you take the step to do it, (absolutely that step is going to be incredibly hard, absolutely its gonna be a struggle), I guarantee you that after that struggle you will find happiness…and such ownership because YOU did it. Don’t be afraid to do it.” .
Q: Are there any quotes from inspiring women you resonate with?
Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Chemical Kim’s facts the Chemistry behind coffee!
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