Pieter Bots

See Yourself in STEM - Pieter Bots

Tell us a little bit about you:

I am a gender non-conforming/queer gay earth scientist, focusing on geochemistry and environmental mineralogy, originally from the Netherlands, but since 2008 based in the UK and since 2016 in Scotland, Glasgow. I am also an artist and a crafter. When I can, I regularly attend an arts class in Life Drawing. But also, I have designed several logos, made my own shoulder bags, made stuffed animals and backpacks for my niblings, and I drew a portrait of my sister with her oldest child for my dad’s 70th birthday. Other than that, I am a massive geek with respect to fantasy. I really enjoy playing fantasy games and also watching many fantasy series; my most recent discovery is “The Dragon Prince” (I’ve already watched the seasons that have so far been released four or five times). Finally, I am passionate about increasing diversity within academia (and geosciences). Further, because of my own (negative) experiences and the stories others have told me, I have become invigorated to actually achieve meaningful and lasting change within academia (and the geosciences specifically), not just with respect to sexuality and gender identity, but also as an active ally to ethnic/racial minorities.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

I usually describe my research by saying that I try to understand the chemistry of the damage we have caused to the environment to figure out how we can best clean this up. In a little more detail this involves looking at how heavy metals and radioactive elements behave in the environment; and whether these can pollute our groundwater and drinking water. I also look at how much effect our efforts to clean up the damage, and whether these efforts will actually help with respect to making sure that heavy metals and radioactive elements will not contaminate our groundwater and drinking water. At the moment I am working on two project in this area, in the first I am trying to understand how radioactive elements bind to clay minerals, and in the second I look at how coatings form on concrete structure and how these coatings can help remove radioactive elements from water at heavily contaminated sites.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

As far as I remember, I have always been interested in science, and specifically in earth sciences. As a child I was fascinated by, for example, dinosaurs, volcanoes and earthquakes. I think I have always found it fascinating how the earth is pretty much destructive (and life-giving at the same time), unstoppable, chaotic and unpredictable. I remember that when I was 11 an earthquake (magnitude 5.3) hit the Netherlands at night, but I completely slept through this earthquake. At school afterwards, I initially thought that everybody talking about the earthquake was messing with me because they knew how interested I was in that kind of things. When I realised they weren’t messing with me, I was really disappointed that I did not feel the earthquake. Afterwards at high school I became interested in chemistry, in large part because I had a teacher who only taught tricks to calculate the answers needed to pass exams. I wanted to understand how the chemistry worked, not the tricks. When I realised that, I knew I wanted to do geochemistry.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

I think with respect to my interest in the natural world I think it was my mum who inspired me. She worked at an educational farm, developing and delivering biology lessons for primary school children. She always took us outside into nature, and we always had many (small) animals at home, ranging from a cat and chickens to stick insects and slugs (which she needed for her projects). She was also of the opinion that if a child is clean after playing outside, they didn’t play well enough. Thinking about her (and my dad’s) attitude to me and my siblings reminds me of a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Kids are born scientists”; that when restricting children in what they play with and how would remove any curiosity in children and they will become less interested in sciences. In school and university settings I don’t think I have had any role models, at least none that I can really identify myself with.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

Bluntly said, at the moment most diversity and inclusion initiatives at many departments are simply box-ticking activities. This is really emphasized by a recent tweet from Professor Fleming: “We don’t talk enough about how “integration” historically meant placing Black and Brown people in white supremacist environments. That’s still what “diversity and inclusion” means today”. Unfortunately, I have experienced and noticed this is also true for LGBTQ+ in homophobic, women in sexist, people with disabilities in ableist environments. Without structural changes in professional cultures and in attitudes towards what leadership should look like and how leaders should act, walk and talk, professional environments will not be inclusive to people who are underrepresented/marginalised and all diversity and inclusion efforts will only benefit those who already fit in.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

There have been quite a bit of proud moments, this ranges from the first publication from my PhD, getting hired as a postdoc, getting my first grant as PI funded, hearing that my undergraduate intern was awarded a PhD position or a PhD student that I mentored was hired as a postdoc. Each of these were very special and made me proud, and all represent different stages of my career so far. I wouldn’t know which or what to choose as my proudest, feels similar as having to choose which of my niblings I love most.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

I could share several instances involving homophobic comments, racism, (explicit and implicit) bias etc. But the most frustrating I have found is that when trying to address this often it either angers people (telling me to stop arguing/starting a fight with academics in positions of seniority) or they tell me that “it’s just the way things are”.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

Friends and Family.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

My main advice would be to be your unapologetic self. Also, I wanted to mention that advice is usually (if not always) based on the advice giver’s personal experiences, which is hardly ever applicable to the needs of the person receiving the advice. So, don’t listen to advice that does not make you smile, and definitely don’t listen to unsolicited advice.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) A large picture of my face featured on the side of two buses in Utrecht. b) I was runner-up at an Andy Warhol lookalike contest in Leeds. c) I was interviewed for a nightlife magazine in Copenhagen.