Professor Tom Welton (Chemistry 1982) steps down at the end of 2019 as the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College to become the next President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
What made you choose Sussex?
I visited Sussex with my school for an open day during the summer, before applying for university. We heard some interesting talks, and it was one of those lovely sunny Sussex days, the ones that make the campus seem idyllic.
What part of the Sussex experience has helped you most later in life?
Well, Sussex was actually my reserve choice - I didn’t get into my first choice university. I now know that this was one of the luckiest things that has happened to me. It has taught me that that’s how life is, and that short term disappointments are often the result of something that in the long term is going to lead you to far happier outcomes. So, I am really pleased that I didn’t get into my first choice.
Any stand out Sussex memories?
Academically - Harry Kroto discovering buckminsterfullerene. His group were doing the work that later led him to receiving the Nobel Prize during the time that I was working down the corridor, and there was definitely a buzz about it right from the beginning. Beyond that, every time I try to pick one thing, I then think of ten others that were just as great, so not really!
Favourite spot on campus?
Outside Falmer Bar.
What do you find most enjoyable about your job?
The ‘you won’t remember me, but…’ conversations. The person will be a former student who you once helped in some way has just taken the opportunity years later to come to say thank you. They are usually correct in that I have no recollection of the event at all, because I was just doing my job.
What do you think can done to improve LGBT+ visibility in science?
More people need to come out. Not only would this make people realise just how many LGBT+ people have, and continue to contribute to science, but the RSC, IOP and RAS have recently written a report on being LGBT+ in the physical sciences, and it is clear from this that people who are out are happier in their workplaces.
What were your experiences of LGBT+ issues in the 1980s and how do you think this has changed over the years?
There has been a complete transformation of what it’s like to be LGBT+ since the 1980s. Back then, it was perfectly legal to sack you for being LGBT+, and I knew people that this happened to. There was legislation being introduced to prevent schools from teaching that happy, healthy LGBT+ relationships even existed (“a pretended family relationship”), the press wrote about us as folk devils and whipped up moral panics around us. Brighton, Amsterdam and San Francisco were probably the only places where people felt that they could make public displays of affection like holding hands and not be attacked. At the first Pride event that I went on we were jeered and spat at; at this year’s McDonald’s were flying rainbow flags. This might be commercialism because they can smell the pink pound and want some of it, but which would you prefer? Of course, the world today is not perfect and there is much more to be done to ensure that the advances that we have made are spread more widely and cannot be reversed, but things are much better than they were.
What advice would you give to LGBT+ students who are struggling with diversity issues in their chosen career path?
Don’t put up with it. There will be plenty of people around you who will help you in this, if only you ask for their support. They are not telepathic, so if you don’t tell them that you need their help, they won’t know.
What's the best advice you've had?
Think before you send that email...
You recently were elected as Head of the Royal Society of Chemistry. What does this mean to you?
It is a fantastic honour, made even more so by it being the result of an election by the members. It also gives me the opportunity to help it continue its work to increase the diversity of those working in the chemical sciences and enabling those to flourish in their chosen careers. I made it perfectly clear that this would be an important focus for me in my election materials, so the membership must agree that it is important to them to. So, let’s get on with it.
What can't you live without?
Who or what inspires you most?
My husband Mike.
What do you do to relax?
Watch rubbish on the telly.
And finally, Sussex once again supported Brighton pride earlier this month. Where have you celebrated pride, and what is your standout memory?
I have celebrated Pride in London since the early 1980s and have been to Brighton Pride many times. Memories of these include sunburn (you have been warned), watching Hazel Dean being dragged off the stage, because she couldn’t leave the love of her fans, walking around market stalls laughing at the unfeasible sizes of the sex toys, but mostly being with friends.