Chemistry

How Diversity Drives Innovation: An Evening With Joseph DeSimone

Dr. DeSimone spoke at Stanford University on November 9, 2017, about entrepreneurship, collaboration, and innovating with purpose.
Editor's Note: An Evening With Joseph DeSimone took place November 9, 2017 at Stanford University. Full event video and video highlights are available on the NSTMF Youtube channel.

Get outside your comfort zone.

It’s a phrase we hear often, and an idea that drives Dr. Joseph DeSimone in his day-to-day work. Dr. DeSimone, a recipient of the 2013 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, has always been a believer in the power of collaboration and learning from other people’s experiences, whether in academia, in industry, or as a mentor to students.

Growing up, Dr. DeSimone said he was always drawn to science. After falling in love with polymer science during his undergraduate studies, he moved on to Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) to pursue his graduate studies – specifically because the institution was, as he described it, a “powerhouse in polymer science.”

It was there that Dr. DeSimone began to see the power of collaboration in science. Throughout the year, the polymer science department would host workshops through which industry scientists came to campus to learn about new developments in the field.

“I really liked the utilitarian aspects [of polymer science],” he said. “So I started making lots of connections to polymer scientists and engineers throughout industry.”

Despite having interviews with more than a dozen companies coming out of Virginia Tech, DeSimone decided to take a position as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he was just 25 years old. The university was building its polymer science department, and gave Dr. DeSimone a budget to get it off the ground.

“I walked into the chemistry department there and they really cherished what I was going to do, and it was legitimate,” he said. “I think the hallmark feature of the University of North Carolina is the ability to collaborate. The barriers to collaboration were low. In fact...you were pulled together.”

"The barriers to collaboration were low. In fact...you were pulled together.”

That appreciation for diversity and bringing together different opinions, Dr. DeSimone said, “was something that was just who we were at the University of North Carolina.”

And Dr. DeSimone has taken that to heart. Over the years, he has made a concerted effort to ensure the students in his research group have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. According to Jennifer Widom, dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford, half of the doctoral students in Dr. DeSimone’s research group are women or students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in science.

“In addition to being a scholar and entrepreneur, he has been an incredible mentor,” Widom said. “What I find most incredible and inspirational is his commitment to diversity in his research group.”

His commitment ran so deep, in fact, that he was ready to turn down his invitation to be the keynote speaker at the American Chemical Society’s Division of Polymer Chemistry workshop in 2000, which was to be held in Charleston, SC. Dr. DeSimone discovered at the time that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was boycotting the state of South Carolina over its use of the confederate flag over its Capitol building.

“I brought it up to my group that there was this boycott and we talked about it and decided we weren’t going to go as a group,” he said.

In a letter to the organizers of the workshop, Dr. DeSimone and his students wrote that they supported the NAACP’s position “that this symbol of institutionalized racism should be removed from the seat of current political sovereignty,” and suggested that the workshop be moved to another location.

Not long after, the ACS decided to relocate the workshop to Savannah, GA.

Dr. DeSimone also carried his belief in diversity of background and opinion to several companies he has started over the years, including Carbon and Liquidia Technologies. Dr. DeSimone ended up founding Carbon after working with a former student, Alex Ermoshkin, who wanted to work with 3D printing.

Although Dr. DeSimone says the two butted heads along the way about which direction to take with the company, they worked through their differences to crack the code for a faster and more efficient method of 3D printing.

“We have respect for individuals – it’s an important part of our culture. We have a great mission, a great purpose. I think it’s important to have those things,” he said. “What I love the most is that we’re living at the intersection between hardware engineering, software engineering, and molecular science. I love the convergence of all those different disciplines.”

“It starts with understanding that diversity is a fundamental tenet of innovation."

Despite the intentionality of the direction of his companies, Dr. DeSimone says there’s still much that can be done to improve diversity both in Silicon Valley and in the scientific fields more broadly.

“It starts with understanding that diversity is a fundamental tenet of innovation,” he said. “I can tell you I know of students that grew up with not much money. They think about problem solving differently than a student who grew up with a lot of money. Everyone brings their experiences to the design table. And if you are trying to maximize inputs and perspectives...you have to engineer your community. I found it to be a secret sauce of the things we’ve done over my career.”

It doesn’t stop, though, once you get people in the door, he said. To improve diversity and to make it stick, leaders need to develop and identify opportunities of increasing importance for individuals. As in academia, a researcher might progress from being an author to the first author on a paper and so on to other more esteemed positions, someone working in industry should have the same sorts of growth opportunities.

Having an environment and a community that supports this kind of methodical improvement will be critical for diversity, Dr. DeSimone said. Leading by example, he said, can also help change other people’s perspectives and stereotypes.

“I think it’s by doing, and being conscious about engineering your communities,” he said. “[It’s] leading from that perspective and cherishing people and being clear about the importance of a breadth of exposures and disciplines.”