Rochelle A. Diamond
Managing Director, Flow Cytometry/Cell Sorting Facility, and Lab Manager for Dr. Ellen Rothenberg's Laboratory
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
December 21, 2021
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, December 21st, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Rochelle A. Diamond. Shelley, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
ROCHELLE DIAMOND: You're very welcome. Glad to be here.
ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your title or titles, as it were, and institutional affiliation here at Caltech?
DIAMOND: Oh, goodness. I wear two hats. I am the Lab Manager for Dr. Ellen Rothenberg and have been for going on 40 years. She hired me in 1982. I'm also the Managing Director of the Flow Cytometry/Cell Sorting Facility for the entire campus.
ZIERLER: As a member of the professional staff, does that mean that your salary comes from grants, or is it corporate funds from the Institute?
DIAMOND: In the case of the Rothenberg group, it's coming off of grants. In the case of the Facility, it's coming from a number of sources. We are supplemented by Beckman Institute. We have money that we charge for usage by our user group. It's an hourly rate that supplements the Facility. Basically, that's what it is. We don't have any grants for the Facility. I would love to have one for the facility at some point.
ZIERLER: Your knowledge might be anecdotal, but having a 40-plus-year relationship with a professor, running a lab, is there any equivalent like that in Caltech history, or maybe even anywhere else in the country?
DIAMOND: I think that there are some equivalents on campus. Lots of times, professors will hire someone to help run their lab. By running the lab, in my case, it's both financial and scientific. I do all the ordering, work with the grant manager on budgets, consult with every researcher in the Rothenberg lab and use my experience to help them make magic happen for their science. Most professors have admins. I'm really not an admin. I don't keep Ellen's calendar, instead what I do is facilitate and expedite, remove the entropy barriers to the science. Ellen is like family to me now. We're kind of a two-legged stool [laughs], in a sense, that everybody in the lab sits on, and hopefully we keep everything balanced. I'm the one that has the P-Card for the whole lab.
ZIERLER: Tell me about Ellen's lab. What are the big research projects? What are its aims?
DIAMOND: We are developmental biologists working in the immune system. How do the T-cells get to know who they're going to be when they grow up and exit the thymus? We don't normally work past the thymus, although we're starting to work with what's called ILCs and other types of cells that pass through the thymus. We are trying to figure out the molecular programs that they all use to be selected, to be shunted in various ways depending on the population needs of the body. How do these molecular machines work to make this happen? Not only are we working with DNA, we're working with transcription factors and other factors that bind onto the transcription factors. Basically, we're trying to figure out the plan! [laughs]
ZIERLER: You used the word machine, molecular machine. Why the metaphor of a machine? Why does that work in this context?
DIAMOND: Every cell has DNA, which is the full blueprint of every cell. Somehow, there are molecules that know what molecules to make, to make the cell different. I think of it like a blueprint, like an electrical blueprint, that you're going to have capacitors and resistors and other kinds of information technology to tell the DNA what to do and how then it will express its RNA, and how that RNA is regulated as well. Over the years, we have found many discoveries by other labs here at Caltech, for instance the Mitch Guttman lab, that there are different kinds of RNA that we used to think was junk, which it isn't. We used to think there was junk DNA. It isn't junk, it's messaging, and it is the way that the environment is talking to the cells and the way the cells react. I hope that's understandable.
ZIERLER: With your undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and so many years in the lab, in some ways do you feel like you have earned an unofficial PhD, just working so many years in this field?
DIAMOND: In a way, member of the professional staff title means that, and most people don't even know on campus that there is a title like that. There's only a few of us. But yeah, I use all of my experience, not just my biochemistry and molecular biology degree, which was pretty rudimentary back in 1974, but also the experience I had back at the City of Hope, on being a team member that [laughs] actually produced the first synthetic insulin ever, that started the entire biotechnology revolution. That's how molecular biology degree worked for, but also biochemistry degree for understanding the protein chemistry. Then I moved to another lab where I built instruments for protein sequencing, for actually sequencing carbohydrate chains and things like that. Some people have called me a "spritzomaniac" meaning I have a lot of different skill sets and different mindsets. I actually think that I think like a cell. In my work with all of my clients, I pretend to be the cell, and sense what its feeling and try to make things better for the processing.
That's the skill I bring to solve the problems. I'm really a problem-solver on a molecular level and integrate that to the instrument needs.
ZIERLER: In the Rothenberg lab, what aspects are geared toward basic science, just understanding nature, and what are geared toward applications, even clinical applications or therapies?
DIAMOND: It's 99% basic science and always has been. Only in the last six months have we thought about translational. We're actually bringing in a couple of postdocs who are tilted in that direction. But basically we have just been trying to solve a biological problem, which will eventually help translationally, but it has been really a basic science group.
ZIERLER: A much more nuts-and-bolts question—managing a lab during the pandemic, this unending pandemic which might be unfortunately getting worse right now, what has that been like where the lab means you can't Zoom in to work?
DIAMOND: I do Zoom in to work. I have not been to Caltech except twice since the pandemic.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
DIAMOND: I am constantly on Zoom, not only with the lab, but mostly with the facility and my clients, because I'm servicing 27 other groups on campus, and some of them have multiple people. Then there's new people who come in, and I actually do an intake for what the project is and try and solve the problems before they ever get to the sorter or get into training for use of the analyzers. Fortunately, I have two wonderful instrument operators who are really, really fantastic. We get on the intakes together, and we solve the problems and get to know what the project is, online, before then they come to the Facility. One of them will take on the project and train or run the experiment. No one sorts on the sorters except for my operators, but they do train for self-service on the analyzers.
We have to know everything about the project. We have to know the biosafety level of the project. We have to know whether they've ever had any experience with flow, and what exactly are they doing. Caltech's flow facility is very unlike other facilities at most universities, because the labs at Caltech are so varied and unique. We do everything from material from ocean such as sea urchin and jellyfish cells to different kinds of mammalian tissue cells such as chicken neural crest cells, mature neurons, immune cells, embryonic stem cells, cell lines, not to forget microbes and chemistry on beads. We are sorting mixed cell types and to purify them by single-cell sorting for cloning or purifying millions for downstream genomic processing for looking at the RNA that's running in the cells or protein expression using all of the wonderful other facilities on campus to do those kinds of molecular assays.
ZIERLER: What has been surprising about your ability to run a lab remotely, without ever stepping foot on campus for so long?
DIAMOND: It's mostly hard for Ellen's lab, because as she says, I see things that others don't. I see problems that others don't. I am an instrument guru, so I see when an instrument needs to be fixed or needs to have an upgrade, or we need to get the hoods re-certified or we've got a problem that they don't see because they're not used to it. Just getting the pipettors [laughs] recalibrated is a problem. Because those are things that I used to do hands-on, for everybody. So it has been more of a problem for Ellen's group than it is for the Facility, I think. Although I think the one thing is that people don't see me as much, and I think I lose a little bit of credibility by not being there.
ZIERLER: Some technical questions, first just a definition—what is flow cytometry?
DIAMOND: [laughs] Flow cytometry is a technology that uses lasers and hydrodynamic focusing of fluids to push a cell through the system. We can engineer such it that the cells go single file through the system, and the cells can be interrogated by one to five lasers which are physically separated in time, and we can put all of the data about that single cell together as a packet to know exactly what fluorochrome/colors are on each cell. At the same time we use scatter from the laser light to tell how big the cell is and how dense much like what you would see in a microscope, and turn that into mathematics to get a readout of the cell morphology. We can actually, without even colorizing the cells, take a blood sample, run the cells through and look by scatter to tell the difference between lymphocytes, granulocytes, monocytes. It's a very powerful technology. You can actually phenotype a cell or decide who that cell is by their characteristics, by either color or morphology or both.
So we can take that same technology, use it on a larger instrument called a cell sorter and take that information, which is done in real time to decide which cell we would like to separate from the rest. We then put a charge the cells, and run the cells through electrodes to pull positive and negative cells away to literally sort cells into tubes or plates to purify them. Then you can take those cells and do molecular assays, or put them back into culture, or transplant them. It's a gateway to many, many other technologies.
ZIERLER: Over the course of your career, what have been some of the real technological breakthroughs that have allowed this science to be possible, either in terms of instruments or computers or anything else that might be relevant for your work?
DIAMOND: Flow cytometry and cell sorting is commercially available, although it continues to upgrade yearly in terms of the technology and engineering. It was invented many, years ago in the 1970s by Len Herzenberg up at Stanford working with Mack Fulwyler at Los Alamos to create this technology, the ability to pull cells apart electronically. That started everything. Basically, we rely on a lot of different fields. The fields of fluorochrome chemistry and cell surface protein discoveries are continually pushing the number of fluorochrome and fluorescent proteins that can be cloned into cells or molecules that can be attached to antibodies that recognize surface or internal proteins. Many new types of assays have been created through the years that we use, for instance DNA dyes that we can use to look at the cell cycle—are they starting to divide or are they quiescent? We can tell that. There's just so many assays. David Chan's group uses the technology to look at different dyes for mitochondria and the kinds of things that they're doing in various cell types and under different conditions. We can actually sort the cells with that mitochondrial information. So just a lot of different technologies.
ZIERLER: What are some of the big questions in the field, the goals, where all of this research is headed in terms of both understanding and in terms of translational?
DIAMOND: I think trying to understand the basic science is important, because it applies to many kinds of cells. That's relevant for the time we live in, for the COVID, the fact that we were able to get monoclonal antibodies out there so quickly. Antibodies are really important in flow cytometry because they can be attached to different colors or molecules, or even molecules that we can then bind to other molecules to pull them apart, either with magnetic beads technology or our high end sorters. I think it's important because the technology is used in the clinic. It's used to look at all the different cell types in your blood. It's used to diagnose for blood diseases or cancer, for pathogens, or purifying stem cells for transplantation. Just all kinds of things. The thing about flow cytometry is that if you can think of it, you can probably find a way to use it, utilizing the technology, in a faster way. I think it's just something that's going to continue to be relevant. It is a sister technology to microscopy. With microscopy, it's really difficult to then pull the cells out, but you can use the microscopy and decide, "Oh, I want to see those cells," and then put them through a flow cytometer/cell sorter and isolate them. Then you can put them back on the microscope. Once you have purified the cells from on another, by size, shape, color, or an assay, you can use other downstream technologies.
ZIERLER: I'm curious in your work if theory is relevant in thinking about how things might work and then using that theoretical framework to measure or understand what you're observing.
DIAMOND: Certainly, the theory of how the sorters work is really important to creating a a workable approach to putting a sample through the instrument. There's a lot of things that we do to help our customers make their experiment work the first time, because of the theory of how it works. There are examples of how that actually can happen. For instance, if they're dealing with a tissue or a cell line that is adherent—we suggest the use of various enzymes to take the cells off the plates, or to separate them from the interstitial workings of a tissue. But those same enzymes, they can play havoc, because a lot of times they add something called EDTA, which is a chelator, to the cocktail. The problem is that when you isolate cells, the cells can get damaged and some will die. The DNA in those cells leak out and if you use EDTA, the damaged cells can let in EDTA which will lyse the nuclei and make more DNA on the cell surface - like sticky caramel corn [laughs] and clump the cells and clog up the sorter. We tell the researchers to wash out the EDTA, and then add DNase 1, which is an enzyme that chops up the DNA so it's not sticky. Then the cells will flow nicely through the sorter. Sticky cells are a real problem for the research. When the instrument clogs then the game is over.
So using the theory of how the cells are isolated and what the researcher is using makes a big difference, because most people haven't thought about it. One of my jobs, is to make things go right the first time, by looking at the theory of what the cells are, what the researcher is trying to accomplish, how are making single-cell suspensions, what buffers are they using. Should we use our typical phosphate-buffered saline in the sheath tank that the fluid runs through the instrument all the time? Or should we use synthetic seawater [laughs] if we're using a marine samples like sea urchin cells or jellyfish cells? You have to know what you're using, and you use theory a lot to figure it all out and how the cells will be affected by it.
ZIERLER: Looking back to 1978 and being really right in the middle of cloning the human gene for insulin, do you feel like we're still in that biotechnology revolution, albeit at a later stage?
DIAMOND: Absolutely. That's how all these drugs are being made. That's how Amgen is flourishing. I bought Amgen stock when it first came out. [laughs] That really is my pension, actually! [laughs] That was a true experience, and my very first experience of dealing with postdoctoral fellows. It was a harsh experience. It was a harsh experience, because I was supposed to get my name on the paper, and I was only acknowledged, because there was politics in the works when it happened. That was my first experience of, "You don't have a PhD, you're a woman, you're going to have a foot on the top of your head."
ZIERLER: Relatedly, some broad questions. We'll talk about so much of your leadership work in the LGBTQ community. At Caltech, just in sort of broad historical perspective, thinking over the past 40 years, where have you seen real progress and where is the work that remains to be done? Within that, I wonder if you can define, what does progress look like to you?
DIAMOND: First of all, progress will look like when everybody feels comfortable to be themselves and give themselves fully to their work. When I first came here, there was not a Women's Center, much less an LGBTQ center, much less a CCID center. This is part of my story—and we'll get into this more, I think, as we go through my personal history—but Ellen Rothenberg really saved me. I was at that point working on the national front as an activist because of what had happened to me in two jobs before Caltech. I had a wonderful interview with her. We talked for hours, and she said to me, "I want you to come on board with me. I want to consider you as my lab manager." I said, "Ellen, I'd love to, but let's stop right here. I am a lesbian. I am an activist. I've actually brought press into my previous lab. If this is a problem, let's just stop right here, because I just can't deal with going back in the closet." She told me that her last manager at the Salk Institute, before she came up to Caltech, was gay and he was fabulous. And I hired on immediately. But I was probably one of the only out people on campus. Some people have said I was the big dyke on campus, always with my door open, with something on my door that related to who I am.
I lobbied for the Women's Center. I did a lot of informal discussions and counseling with people who would seek me out. I was grateful when we had an ombudsperson and when we finally had the Women's Center. My friend Kate Hutton and I were on the first Women's Center board, but when there was a change of provost, we were both kicked off. The only thing that's in common is that we're both lesbians. I did an AIDS panel. I can't even remember when it was, but it was early on in the AIDS epidemic. It was, I believe, for the Caltech Y. It was available to the public.
Then I started getting hate mail. That was really scary. I just powered on. I was grateful when we got the LGBTQ Library in the basement next to the music rooms. I was grateful to start actually supplying that library with books that I had.
It was quite a time, and there has just been this evolution, very, very slow evolution, where we started the LGBT group and we finally had our own room to meet in. That was progress. It was progress to have the library moved to the center, where everybody could check something out, and have some safe space. There just wasn't any, for many, many years. I think we've made a lot of progress. We have a lot more progress to make. There are still people who don't want to be out. They're scared. It's interesting, because when you're not yourself and you're in a laboratory situation where you're a team, if you can't discuss what you did on the weekend by the water cooler, if you evade questions or you make up a new life that doesn't exist and you get found out, people don't trust you. You no longer are really part of the team to be trusted.
ZIERLER: You're probably not as effective in the lab as you otherwise could be.
DIAMOND: Yes, because you're using all your brain power to remember what you told people! [laughs] I did that for a while in my early career, and it just sucks the life out of you.
ZIERLER: This is to say that there are closeted people in the Caltech community now, who feel these things?
DIAMOND: Oh, yeah. It's across the spectrum. I'm sure there's still people who are married but feel inside that this is a sham, because it's out there. It's everywhere. People are still trying to figure out who they are. Young people especially need role models, and they need people who are visible to show that they can do what they want to do in life. Yes, you can actually be a professor like Victoria Orphan. You can do that. I remember being asked by Dianne Newman to come and talk to Victoria Orphan and her partner because they were trying to recruit her. I said, "Sure," and we talked for like two hours, and Victoria and Shana came to Caltech. But they had no way of doing that until I was visible and I could tell them about the community in the area and on campus. I had grad students who were being harassed by their lab mates and literally sabotaged, and I had no place to go, except to the ombudsperson, because it had to be confidential. We don't have an ombudsperson anymore; we need an ombudsperson. We need that. That's something that is on my list to try and lobby for. Because when we went into a depression in the sense of money coming into the Institute, they eliminated that position, and it was a very valuable position. So there's still things we need to do.
ZIERLER: In understanding progress, I wonder if you can delineate between institutional support—the material support for a library or a center or people who are trained in these things— versus the much more ephemeral change in culture, in the ways that people understand acceptable ways of speaking or in interacting with other people, that don't come from institutional mandates but are just gradual over time progress is made. I wonder if you can reflect on both of those aspects at Caltech.
DIAMOND: I think we've made progress in the sense of actually having some diversity, equity, and inclusion committees, and also hiring somebody like Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux where we have a vice president now who is overseeing things like climate surveys, which we definitely need. Part of the problem is the climate surveys in the past never actually looked at LGBTQ. That's something which is changing, but we don't even have a handle on how many people are on campus. We don't have a handle on how many people are in STEM. The group that I have been working with for years has been pushing the National Science Foundation to actually ask these questions on their grant applications, on the grant reports coming back. They did a pilot survey this spring, but now they say they're not going to do it anymore. It's like, "What?" Because institutions say, "Well, we don't have to do it because it's not required." Or, "It's not necessary. We know." No, they don't. They don't know at all. It's difficult, because we're in the throes worldwide of not knowing how many people are in STEM, and what we should be expecting in terms of ratios and whatnot.
Not only LGBTQ but intersectionality, because everything can be a double-bind or a triple-bind in the way that an individual is working. You might be a bisexual or a transgender person in the closet. You might also be a woman. You might also be Hispanic. All these things add up, and all things are personal identities that they would like to be able to have a role model of, a person they could talk to. "How did you get to where you are?" These are so important, especially for young people, and there's so many people out there that even their family situations are really bad. The COVID time has really been an interesting time, because there are a number of people who are on campus who are out to the CCID, and feel freer to be who they are on campus, but then COVID hit and maybe they had to go home and maybe they're not out to their families. Talk about psychological stress. Trying to put everything that you took out of a box, back into the box is a problem.
ZIERLER: In the broader effort to make Caltech more diverse and inclusive, in what ways are LGBT issues in alliance and have symmetrical goals with, for example, the Black experience, or the Latino experience, at Caltech? Where, by definition, are the identities different, and therefore the processes and goals and aspirations are different?
DIAMOND: Every community has a different outlook on the LGBT community, within their own community. That is a whole other ball of wax to straighten out, in a sense, because people are trying to find their own identities within their own communities. In my view, we're all fighting the same war. It's not just racism. It's not just what we used to call homophobia. It also has to do with religion. There's this whole thing that makes up individuality, and the fact that people need to learn how to accept people for who they are and appreciate that difference which can actually change the way we look at problems. That's important for Caltech. Diversity for looking at science and technology—every brain is different. We need them all. That's what is important about our relationships within the people who we work with, and who we travel this adventure with. Everybody matters.
ZIERLER: Exactly on that point, what is the motivation that science as a stand-in for society owes this to underrepresented members of the community, and when do you flip that where you say, "Science needs new ideas, and it needs a multiplicity of perspectives" and so by definition science is a beneficiary of diversity?
DIAMOND: That's definitely true. I think that there have been a lot of studies that say diverse minds for solving problems are important. Because our neural networks are different. They just are. But I think that it's really important that science lead the way. In order to do good science, you have to be an honest person. You shouldn't plagiarize. You shouldn't make up things. If you're going to do good science, you have to use just the facts. The facts are important for society to understand that we need to be ethical. We need to have an ethical society that everyone has a chance to do what they are good at and just the ability to bring their whole selves not only to their labs but to their families. The acceptance is really important.
I think Caltech is—I hate the word "woke", because we're not, at least this point. But the whole fact that we've gone through looking at certain members of our Institute as eugenicists and what that meant, and trying to understand what that meant at that time historically versus now, and how science can be used in a way to be harmful as well as helpful—we need to be on the side of helpful. I'm a proponent of definitely making sure that history is understood, not only for today but for what it was when it happened. Eugenicists are important in my life because I'm Jewish and a homosexual. Those two things, eugenicists have wanted to stamp out in my lifetime. And still do! Still do. The fact that Pasadena has been littered this week with anti-Semitism on people's lawns, because of COVID, of all things, it's still scary. We, as the scientific community, need to stand up and say, "That's not right. That's not right."
ZIERLER: Have national trends like the widespread acceptance and federal support, as it were, for same-sex marriage, for example, have those been things that translate to an experience being better or easier for you in science at Caltech?
DIAMOND: Definitely that, because I am able to navigate as myself, number one. I'm not afraid, because I have a wife. I can talk about my wife. I can say, "My wife did such and such," and people get it right away. They don't necessarily get it when I used to say, "my partner." Well, my partner could have been a man. Could have been a dog. [laughs] It could have been anything! I always got the thing, "Oh, what is the business that you work with your partner with?" Business partner, right? It's a definition that right away says who I am as a person. It's important also because it gives me a little bit of feeling that we're making progress. But I have to tell you that that progress is always two steps forward and one step back. We're seeing that with the Texas abortion cases. Because if you can do that with abortion, you can also go back and change those marriage laws. It's not set in cement. As I navigate, there's still a lot of work to do. There's a lot of minds to get to know. May not be able to change them, but they may know that a person exists that they may like, and it might, maybe, change a few neurons, sometimes.
ZIERLER: Let's go all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them.
DIAMOND: To understand them, you need to understand my grandparents. [laughs] Maybe someday I can get you to come to my house, and I'll show you my historical archive, because my whole family has been sending me stuff. Basically, on my father's side, the Diamond side, my grandfather was an immigrant from Poland. He went to New York, and was an apprentice, and saved up enough money to buy a pushcart that he then filled with dry goods, and walked across the United States selling dry goods in the 1880's. He got to El Paso and sent for his brother, and they started a store. They then decided that business wasn't too good there because there was too much competition. They decided to go further west, and went to Phoenix yo set up shop. They started Diamond's department stores, which became an icon for years.
There were three main Jewish families in Phoenix at the time that were rivals, all mercantile families. There was Diamond's, there was Goldwater's. You may know that name, because of Barry Goldwater. And there were the Korrick's, who sold out to Macy's. My family kept that store until the 1960s when both my uncle and my father, with bad hearts, ended up selling it to Dayton-Hudson corporation, which eventually was sold to Dillard's.That's my father's side.
On my mother's side, my mother's grandfather and his brothers were mercantile loggers on the Riga River in Latvia. The older generation had most of that merchandising sewed up, and the younger people said, "Latvia looks like this, and Michigan looks like this. Let's go over here, because there's a river there, and we'll do what we would be doing in Latvia."
DIAMOND: So they did that! They came and started a department store in 1907 called Himelhoch's which means "high heaven" in Yiddish. Then they brought the womenfolk over. Unfortunately, the women hated the United States, so they went back, but the menfolk stayed. The entire family, the whole family in Latvia were killed in the Holocaust. That was the Himelhoch's, but also there was another set of Jewish families called the Garfinkels. They were also in Detroit. They got together, and my grandfather met my grandmother. Part of the Garfinkel family were Garfinkles and that family were merchants for explorers, and so my grandfather Garfinkle married my grandmother Himelhoch and they moved to Seattle with my great grandfather Garfinkle. They set up the base camps above Fairbanks for the Nansen and Amundsen exploration of Alaska and the Arctic. They used dogsleds with merchandise for navigating through Alaska and into the Arctic. One day, my grandfather didn't come back, and his father went and found him, under his dogs, still alive, managed to get him back to Seattle, but he was never the same. My grandmother said, "What are we going to do?" and my grandfather didn't know. She said, "What about—have you ever thought about putting beauty salons the department stores?" He said, "Oh, that sounds like a good idea." So, they did! They started in all the high- end stores so stores could do fashion shows and stylistic things for upper-class clients.It was then that my grandfather took my mother, who was in her twenties at the time, down to Phoenix, Arizona, to see if he could install beauty salons in Diamond's department stores.
ZIERLER: [laughs] Wow.
DIAMOND: They met, and they were married, up in Seattle. During that marriage ceremony, my mother's sister and my father's brother met, and they were married shortly after that. So I have a very close family; let's put it that way. That's the relationship of my family to me. I was the only girl in my generation. I had two brothers, one a dentist and the other a lawyer. My younger brother got me into science. They both went to Berkeley, but my brother who became the dentist was really into science, and he would come home with his microscope and slides, and we would jump the golf course fence to the lagoons and we'd get pond water and frogs and things and take them home and look under the microscope. He just really kindled that interest in me.
ZIERLER: Where did you grow up?
DIAMOND: Phoenix, Arizona. Being the only girl of my family, and my brothers not wanting anything to do with the store, and neither did my cousin Robert who was an only child, they looked at me and said, "You're going to take over the store." I was a tomboy. I hated dresses. [laughs] That just wasn't me. My father sent me to a modeling school/textile institute in California, and four weeks later, they called him to come and get me and gave him his money back, telling him I had no grace. [laughs] I was allergic to the makeup—it turned my face orange—and I was horrible in high heels. I kept falling off of them. [laughs] Literally he had to come get me.
ZIERLER: Do you have a clear memory of putting these things together and realizing that they had something to do with your sexual identity?
DIAMOND: I think so, because I considered myself a tomboy, always. I grew up wearing Lone Ranger pistols, and I had a hobby horse when I was young. I actually had cousins who had a pony and I would go every weekend and ride the pony. Yeah. That was me. [laughs] I knew that I needed to be a girl, because that's what my parents—my parents always wanted a girl. I was it.
Along came my high school years. They wanted me to be more active in the temple. My father started the temple, brought the rabbi from Seattle. He was very prominent. I actually take after my dad in the aspect of his philanthropy. He always believed in philanthropy. He started the Goodwill Industries in the area. He was on the board of the hospital. He was president of the Anti-Defamation League in Phoenix. He was on the board of the temple and had been president. My mother had been part of the Sisterhood, and president of the Sisterhood. I always knew that I was expected to give back, and to be active. I started doing things with the temple youth group. I went to El Paso for a meeting and became ill. I was not well. The assistant rabbi flew me back. I thought I just had the flu.
Two weeks after that—I was starting to feel better—was the debutante ball [laughs]. I had the actual real coming out as a debutante. [laughs] I took cotillion classes. I had to learn to curtsy for the queen. I had to make tea, and all that. Anyway, it was for the hospital. There was a big debutante ball. I asked my best friend in high school, who was the last chair clarinet in the marching band, and I was the second to the last chair clarinet in the marching band, if he would take me to the debutante ball. Cliff was from the other side of the tracks. He was poor. But he was my best friend. He got so excited to take me to this event that he borrowed his father's Chevrolet Malibu convertible, went to Pep Boys and bought a seat belt that went all the way from the passenger side across the bench to the driver's side, he was so excited. I was like, "Oh, okay." I think he had more in mind.
Anyway, he picked me up. I still wasn't feeling that great. We got to the dinner at the Westward Ho Hotel, which was the big hotel at the time, downtown. In the middle of dinner, I did not feel well. I excused myself and went into the women's restroom, and I didn't come out. After about a half hour, he started to get worried about me. He asked the matron to go look for me. The matron couldn't find me, and so he asked permission to go into the women's restroom because he had seen me go into it. They let him in. He went under the stall and found me, and climbed under the stall and got me out. I was passed out in the stall, and he picked me up and he took me out to the car, put me in the car, and was so upset that he drove his father's Malibu over the big cement bumper in the parking lot and got the car hung up on the transom. [laughs] I didn't remember any of this until he told me this later. He had to go back into the dinner and get his friends to come out and lift the car up off the bumper to drove me home. But as we went onto the street, I threw up in his Malibu. [laughs] It was very bad.
He got me home. He picked me up, got up the walkway, up the steps, and knocked on the big door knocker. My mother answered the door. She said, "What have you done to my daughter?" He just brushed past her, took me up the spiral staircase, put me on my bed and ran out of the house, and I didn't see him for four years! Turned out I had viral encephalitis, but they misdiagnosed me. I didn't know that until I went off to college, to a different doctor. Turned out that the virus had affected my pancreas, and so that's why they thought I was diabetic and had been in a diabetic coma. I was in a wheelchair for over a year. I had to go through rehab to learn how to walk again.
My left side is still weak from it. Anyway, when I wanted to apply for college, I wanted to go to Berkeley like my brothers and my parents said, "No." They said, "We've gotten you into Temple Buell College in Denver, Colorado," which was like a finishing school. That's the kind of school where you go to get a degree called an M.R.S., a "Mrs."
ZIERLER: Did they have any idea, or did you at this point, know that you were gay?
DIAMOND: Inside. I mean, I know I was in love with all my friends. But the two years I spent there at Temple Buell College were hard, were really hard. I had never heard the word "lesbian," ever, and I didn't know any gay people, when I grew up. None. I only started seeing gay people—there was a couple of women at the end of my hall at Temple Buell who definitely were together. I went, "Hmm!" Of course, I was always falling in love with my roommates, but like stuffing it, just absolutely stuffing it. I put all my energy into the antiwar movement. It was 1969.
My grades were really bad because I spent all my time on the antiwar movement. The end of my sophomore year, a friend of mine said, "Hey, you want to go to Hawaii for the summer and take some science classes?" "Yeah!" So I did. I went with my friend Katie, and went to the University of Hawaii. I took a class in developmental biology, embryology, and the rest is history, because I fell in love with that. Absolutely fell in love with that. And I'm still doing it! [laughs] Developmental immunology!
ZIERLER: Why that field specifically? Why did it speak to you?
DIAMOND: It was all about how things get to be who they are. How does that happen? How do organisms know what they're going to be? The grand plan. What is that? How does an organism know it's going to become a flower, or a sea urchin, or a human being? How does a single cell know how to get to where it's supposed to be, and how do they know what it's supposed to be? A cell is a cell. But that's not really true. I was just fascinated by that. The fact that you could go out in the morning and harvest sea urchins and get sperm and get egg and then put them together in a beaker and all of a sudden, the next couple of days, under the right conditions, you're starting to see a sea urchin [laughs]—wow! It's like, what is this plan? What is this plan? Anyway, I probably have gotten away from the questions you've asked me.
ZIERLER: No, that's great. When did that translate into switching colleges?
DIAMOND: I wanted to stay at University of Hawaii, but they kicked us out because they needed the rooms for the Hawaiians. They didn't have enough room in the dorms. The apartments were so expensive we decided we had to go back to the mainland. I knew I had to raise my grades, so I did. I got straight A's for two semesters at Arizona State. Then I applied to University of California. I wanted to go to Berkeley. I couldn't get in, but I did get into Santa Barbara. That's how I got there. I took genetics. I took all these courses. I volunteered in a tissue culture lab, one of the very first tissue culture labs, the only one on campus. That gave me my tissue culture experience. I joined the Tissue Culture Association. I was able to do that without a degree with Ellis Englesberg sponsoring me. I worked during the summer in his lab. It just was in me to want to do that, to work with cells, and so I did. My senior year, my father died. I've got to backtrack just a little bit. When I was in Hawaii, my friend Katie and I were on the beach in Honolulu. We had a big bonfire, and we were sitting there in lawn chairs and roasting marshmallows. Somebody walked up to me and said, "Shelley?" I turned around and it was Cliff, my long-lost friend.
ZIERLER: This was four years after?
DIAMOND: Yeah. Cliff had joined the Navy. That's how scared he was. [laughs] He was a senior at the time. He joined the Navy as soon as he graduated and became a radar operator for the U.S.S. Okinawa. His job was to track and get the recovery of the Apollo missions in the Pacific. He was on R&R in Hawaii and he just happened to run into me on the beach. We struck up a conversation, and we kept in touch. Like I said, he was my best friend. He told me what had happened [laughs] which was crazy. In Santa Barbara, we kept corresponding. He got stationed in San Diego. Then my dad died, and he was just getting out of the Navy. One of the things about being on a helicopter carrier is that you have to take your turn as a Medevac gurney person, occasionally. He got shot down in the Mekong Delta and was on the river for a few days and he get amoebic dysentery, which then turned into other things. When my father died, he came to Santa Barbara to be with me, because I was not sure what was going on in my life.
ZIERLER: Meaning you had not come out to yourself, even, at this point?
DIAMOND: No. He came, and he got sick [laughs] and it ended up with Crohn's disease from the amoebic dysentery, and he needed insurance. So I married him. We were married for ten years. He knew. He knew I loved women. He just thought it was quirky.
ZIERLER: Meaning he knew in a way before you even knew?
DIAMOND: I think so, I think so. We talked about it. Anyway, he just thought, "Well, we'll have an open marriage, whatever." At that point, I met a woman at a lesbian bar. She came home with me, and the three of us lived together for a couple years, at our home, up in Altadena. The euphemism was, "She's the maid." [laughs] This was the end of the 1970s, early 1980s. When I graduated, we came to Los Angeles, because I had a job at USC as a technician, and I was there for three and a half years. I got two papers out of it. I was working for Bob Stellwagen at the time. When Bob left for a sabbatical to England and shut his lab down. I said, "What am I going to do?" He said, "I have this really good friend out at City of Hope who's looking for somebody just like you." He arranged the interview, and I got the job as a coordinating technician for the insulin project with Art Riggs.
ZIERLER: Can you tell me a little bit about City of Hope?
DIAMOND: [laughs] City of Hope was fairly small at the time. City of Hope was very tight- knit. A lot of labs knew each other. A lot of labs worked with each other. The insulin project was different because Bob Swanson, who was an entrepreneur, had put up money for Herb Boyer's group up at UC San Francisco, and the two groups at City of Hope to worked together to try and do this race that Eli Lilly had put up $3 million to the winner, to make the first synthetic human insulin. It was an 18-hour-a-day experience. I was working almost 12-hour days. People would fly in. The postdocs would fly in from San Francisco, and they would work on it maybe three or four weeks at a time, and then go back, because they had families. There were two technicians really on the job, me and Louise Shively. Man, I was making 12 gels a day and I was expected to be the one to do the radioimmunoassays because I had experience doing those, and just helping in any way I could.
I would get in at like 7:00 in the morning, and the first thing I would do was grab a Geiger counter, because these guys were so sloppy that I had to decontaminate all the doorknobs, the stools that they sat on. Everything was radioactive. That was the first thing I did. Then I would set up all these gels and get things going for what they were going to do. We finally got the transformations going, we were able to use a French press, get the protein out. There was just a whole number of steps to finally get an active insulin molecule, and I was in charge of assaying that. I was the one standing actually at the scintillation counter when we got it, and I started screaming, and everybody knew that we were successful, and we won the race!
Cliff had been apprenticing at an instrument manufacturer for glassblowing. He became a certified glassblower and a machinist. We actually made the commemorative pieces for the PIs that had a little bit of the insulin that was cast in plastic resin. He did that. He did all this artistic stuff for them. But it was wild, because it was national news. There was a press conference that was on all the national news.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can convey why this was such a big deal. What was the breakthrough?
DIAMOND: The breakthrough was that no one had ever made a molecule that was actually a drug from recombinant DNA. It was the very first time that molecular biology played a role in making a product. It was a proof of principle, really. Actually, proof of principle, it wasn't even that. The first little project was to make somatostatin which was human growth hormone, but that just kind of went by the wayside. "Okay, let's get the insulin done." It was also the very first product that was ever made, ever done, where—there was a moratorium on using human DNA, so they took the amino acid sequence and translated it to the DNA and made just little pieces of it, and then used molecular glue to put it all together. This was Keiichi Itakura's lab at City of Hope that synthesized all of that. Then it was our job to take the pieces that he made and ligate them, molecular glue, put them together, and then put that into the bacteria. That had never been done! That was also very remarkable, because you weren't allowed to use human DNA. You had to figure out a way to do it. And they did.
ZIERLER: What do you see as your contributions to this amazing breakthrough?
DIAMOND: The ability to get people to work together, to keep it all together. It was a coordination thing. We had people coming in from Mexico, just all these different people who wanted to be part of it. I had to keep it all together and make sure that they were pushing everything forward in a way that they weren't each just individually doing stuff that meant nothing. It was like being a music director.
ZIERLER: Did the translational aspect, being involved in research that was actually going to help people, was that specifically satisfying and rewarding for you?
DIAMOND: It was, because it became the product Humulin, and Humulin is still on the market today. That's human insulin that's being used. Yeah, all these years, and it's still being prescribed. Because there was no human insulin in those days. You had to use pork or beef insulin that was made by grinding up the pancreas and isolating it all. There were people who were allergic, or there were Jewish people who didn't want the pork insulin. There were so many different aspects to it. Having a human insulin completely changed the way that diabetes was being treated. So yeah, it's a claim to fame!
ZIERLER: Of all the places, why City of Hope? Why was this the home institution for this research?
DIAMOND: Keiichi Itakura was the key. He could synthesize base pairs together. He would synthesize the actual components, and then Art's lab would take those and glue them together and concatenate those until they were a full DNA molecule, and then transfect that into the bacteria E. coli,and let the E. coli do the protein engineering work for us. It all had to work, or it wouldn't work at all. It was brilliant.
ZIERLER: What else did you do at City of Hope, or was this the main project for those years?
DIAMOND: That was the first year and a half. [laughs] Then I didn't get my name on the paper, and I quit.
ZIERLER: Your name being left off the paper, how did you understand that? Not having a PhD, being a woman?
DIAMOND: Yeah, Art Riggs came to me and said, "I'm sorry. I know that we thought you were going to be on the paper. But Herb Boyer insists that it only be the postdocs, because they need it."
ZIERLER: They need it. Why don't you need it?
DIAMOND: Yeah. Well, because I don't have a PhD, I'm not going to go anywhere. I'm a woman. I'm not going to run the lab. [laughs] That was the way things were thought of in those days. Women were just "the help."
ZIERLER: But you stayed at City of Hope. Did you think about leaving at that point?
DIAMOND: Oh, yeah, I quit. I was emptying my desk, and I was in the women's restroom. I was crying. The lab manager from down the hall came in. She said, "Why are you crying? You just had a press conference. It was fantastic. You guys are celebrities." I said, "I just quit." She said, "You what?" I said, "I just quit my job." She says, "Wow." She says, "Do you know anything about carbohydrate sequencing?" I said, "I don't know one goddamn thing about it." She says, "Well, if you want to learn, come to my office on Monday." [laughs]
ZIERLER: Who was that?
DIAMOND: [laughs] Karen Feintuch. She was the manager for the Jack Shively group. So I did join, and I did learn first carbohydrate analysis. A woman trained me who was leaving. She was going to become an antique appraiser [laughs]. I learned the techniques, and then they started me on gas chromatography/mass/spec to actually look at what's called mannose chain branching. Mannose is a sugar and it's on the surface of certain cells. I learned how to sequence those mannose chains. Then they lost somebody who was working on a gas phase protein sequencer, and Jack came to me and said, "Would you mind taking this over? Would you want to try it?" I said, "Sure." So I learned a lot about that.
In those days, there weren't big computers, so the way you designed instruments to function was to use a "bread board" and install electronic components manually, soldering resistors and capacitors to the wiring. I was having a terrible time with that, so they brought in an engineer from the Biomedical Instrumentation Division, and he started working with me to help with that. Now, I have to backtrack a little bit, because my husband Cliff, we had a glassblowing business in our garage that we actually serviced City of Hope researchers, and also we built agarose gel apparatuses and custom instruments. I was part-time the technical advisor for that. [laughs] But City of Hope bought us out, machine equipment and everything, and Cliff was ensconced into the Biomedical Instrumentation Division, making instruments, or making modifications and designing things.
Anyway, I was working with this engineer from Cliff's department. I was making progress. I was able to sequence a couple of things. And we actually did the insulin protein sequencing from Eli Lilly that needed to be done for the FDA, so I kind of went full circle on that. But then the instrument that I was working on started malfunctioning. Now, I have to tell you, at this time is when I actually—I wasn't out, but I came out to myself, and I had an affair, my very first affair with a woman.
Because she worked at City of Hope, too, somehow this got out, and the engineer I was working with started sabotaging my instrument. We would be going through things, and then overnight, all of the valves would flip and all of the chemicals would come together, and it was a mess. It was an absolute mess. Then I would spend half my week cleaning the instrument, starting all over again, trying to figure out what went wrong. Then it would happen again. And again. And again. Different things. I was just beside myself. I actually—it made me sick. I was so anxious and so concerned. Jack came to me and he said, "This isn't working. You need to look for another job." I said, "Okay, fine." To get rid of the stress.
ZIERLER: Did you suspect what was going on?
DIAMOND: I didn't know what was going on. I really didn't. Because I wasn't trained in electronics. I wasn't sure what was happening. I looked for another job, and I actually got a job at UCLA. Another infamous project! Cliff called me five or six weeks into my job, and he told me, "I know what happened to you." I said, "What are you talking about?" He says, "We had a big luncheon for somebody who went away in the Instrumentation Department, and Jim was invited." And he had too many martinis, and he told everybody he had run me out of the department.
ZIERLER: What was your reaction?
DIAMOND: [laughs] My reaction was I felt like, "How many other people have gone through this? How many other people are there out there?" Ugh!
ZIERLER: You understood this as hatefulness.
DIAMOND: Yes, absolutely. That was how it was portrayed from Cliff. It was interesting, because I was still with the person that I had the affair with. On a Saturday morning, we were lying in bed [laughs] listening to something on National Public Radio called I Am, Are You? I had never heard of that before. It was a woman by the name of Amy Ross who had helped start something called Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists. She was talking about it. My lover at the time turned to me and said, "I dare you to go to that meeting. I dare you!" So, I went! I found the group; I liked the group. I became friends with Amy Ross, who actually is now a trustee of USC [laughs] and has had several stints as vice president of biotech companies up in Seattle. She's back here now. Anyway, I became great friends with all these people. Soon after, I left my lover. Actually, she left me.
ZIERLER: Was Cliff aware of what was going on at this point?
DIAMOND: Oh, yeah. We were still married. We were married ten years. It was only after I met my current wife, Barbara, hat we decided to divorce. But Ellen and the lab knew Cliff. A lot of people on campus knew Cliff, because he made equipment for people. Where was I? Anyway, I can't remember my train of thought now.
ZIERLER: Back to UCLA.
DIAMOND: I got this job because it was a program project that Marty Klein was heading, and there was an assistant professor, Howard Stang, who I joined up with. He hired me. There was another bigwig, Winston Salser, who was head of the Molecular Biology Institute who also was on this program project. The program project was kind of a proof of principle for gene therapy. But it was making a gene that could be put into cells like a hematopoietic stem cell type, to cure alpha thalassemia, which affects some women. Marty took the DNA and went to Europe and to Italy and to Israel and he put this into women, I guess their bone marrow stem cells. This was not something that was approved or even talked about with NIH, and NIH got wind of it, and the entire program project grant was totaled. NIH said, "You have no approval for doing this." It was crazy. We had a bunch of lawyers and everything. Winston had threatened Marty's life. [laughs] It was a whole another ball game. I said, "I'm out of here" and I put my resume into Caltech, and I met Ellen Rothenberg. So I've been burned—
ZIERLER: You really had a lot going on when you met Ellen.
DIAMOND: Oh my god! [laughs] Yeah. You have to understand—
ZIERLER: Before you had that formative conversation with Ellen where you explained who you were, when did you have that conversation with yourself, or when did you gain enough self- confidence to say, "This is who I am, and my career will only proceed with that identity out there"?
DIAMOND: When I went to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists and met people like me, who gave me the courage to be who I am. It was something that I had to metamorphosize myself, morph into, being out. Learning how to be cautious. Talking to Cliff. Then he ended up getting a female lover on the side. But I think what really broke up my marriage was not that. It was the fact that he started smoking lied about it, and I couldn't deal with the dishonesty. In those days, the 1970s there were the hippies, and anything goes type of people around, so it wasn't that uncommon, but it was a little crazy.
The early 1980s was the start of the AIDS epidemic. Amy Ross and I started the women's program at LAGLS, and we did a lot of things. She actually was an AIDS expert. She did a lot of her thesis on AIDS and the brain at USC. We both started talking about AIDS to our communities, to understand the immunology, number one, and number two, what the virus actually can do with AIDS in the brain and all. Most of our LAGLS group had been started by men, Walt Westman at UCLA and other people around the community. Our friends started to die. We had started along with 13 other local groups across the nation, a fledgling group of like- minded people. All of use gathered at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting to talk about our issues, and homophobia in AIDS research. We needed to be able to talk about what's going on between our community and science. AAAS was very receptive. Shirley Malcom, especially, was very receptive to this. I've known Shirley now for a long, long time, one of Caltech's trustees, who is also the mother of Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux. It's funny how things happen and connections are made.
Anyway, we gathered the 13 groups together and did a symposium on homophobia in AIDS research and then decided that we needed to have a national umbrella group. LAGLS started putting that together. Walt Westman, Amy and a few others started putting things together, and then Walt died. And many of our men friends died. The rest of us, the women, my wife included, pulled it together. It became what was called NOGLS, and then later on in the 1990s we changed it to the name National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) to be more inclusive. We have changed it now to Out to Innovate, to be even more inclusive. That's where the activism came in, because I became vice chair of the group, and I started talking on the national front. I started putting together a symposia at AAAS Annual meetings. I was the liaison to AAAS. I ended up becoming a AAAS Fellow because of it. That's so unusual for a non-PhD to have that.
ZIERLER: Was AAAS ahead of its time in terms of providing support and infrastructure for this activity?
DIAMOND: I think so, but it took them a long time to make us an affiliate. We applied and we applied. It actually was my wife and I who figured out that what we needed to do was to incorporate in the state of California, to get a non-profit status, and to pull together everything that we've done with them and put a complete package together for the affiliation. At the meeting in San Francisco where the AIDS crisis was really roaring, the board accepted us an affiliate. It was interesting. Randy Shilts had just passed away that day, and it was on their minds. I think that that kind of pushed things over.
ZIERLER: Did you understand in the early years the AIDS epidemic to be primarily an epidemic of gay men? Or as a lesbian, did you feel that you were at higher risk also?
DIAMOND: I wasn't sure about the second part of your question, because at that point it
hadn't really been determined how it was fully transmissible. In other words, could you get it just like you get COVID? People didn't know. But I was watching the research early on. When I say that, I was still at UCLA, and our lab was across the hallway from Mike Gottlieb's office. Gottlieb was the first physician to report having gay male patients with a condition called Kaposi's sarcoma, later linked to AIDS. He didn't understand why he was only seeing it in gay men. Then one day, we had a discussion about gay sex. Weeks later, Mike asked me if I could pull together some people in the community to form an educational group. AIDS Project Los Angeles taking shape and we formed its first medical advisory board. I was also on the first board for Lesbian and Gay Health and Health Policy Foundation that started at UCLA.
That's how I got into all this activism. I was, number one, trying to keep the group together. Number two, trying to solve the AIDS thing and how we could help the communities how to educate. Why homophobia was affecting AIDS research, money, and why the Reagan administration was not doing anything about it? How it was that all of my friends were falling by the wayside. I mean, it was tough. We had friends that we took care of. It was a very, very telling time, and emotional. It's funny how in the beginning, it mimics COVID in a lot of ways.
ZIERLER: One way I'm thinking of the connection is with the National Institute of Health and Anthony Fauci. I'm curious, did you interface at all with the NIH or the FDA?
DIAMOND: Not with the FDA, but we did have conversations with NIH. I had conversations with Francis Collins.
ZIERLER: Was he sympathetic?
DIAMOND: Yeah, actually, he was. The person, his second-in-command that he talked to a lot, was gay, and so—yes.
ZIERLER: To make the context even more apparent, this conversation that you had with Ellen, part of it was not just that you were a lesbian but that you are a political person, and that you would not come to Caltech just to run a lab, that you had bigger aspirations than that. You made that clear to her as well?
DIAMOND: I made that clear to her, yes, before we ever decided to work together. It was really important to me, with the AIDS crisis going on. Actually, because I was working in an immunology lab, it helped me understand more what was going on and how to understand CD4 cells and the immune system. I learned a lot just from her and being in her lab enabled me to be able to educate more on that front.
ZIERLER: From that first conversation, what was your takeaway of who Ellen was as a person, where a busy Caltech professor, they might not want to deal with all of that? They might just want somebody who is good at managing a lab and, "Don't give me all of the other stuff that might be a headache for me." What did that tell you about who Ellen was?
DIAMOND: Ellen has a big heart, number one. She has a major big heart. But also, she's special in just being able to connect. She looked at me as a skill set that she could really use. I looked at her as an opportunity to use that skill set. It just was serendipitous that a year after I came, Leroy Hood came to her and asked her to set up a facility. She turned to me and she said, "Don't you have instrumentation experience?" [laughs] I said, "Yeah." I said, "But I don't have any optics experience." She said, "Why don't you talk to the EM manager in Jean-Paul's group, and see if he would help you?" I said, "Okay," so I went down and talked to Pat Koen.
He had been at Caltech quite a while. He said, "Well, I don't know, but I'll try. I always kind of like doing different things." He and I came together, and six weeks later, we took our first customer. Ellen had previously hired somebody else before me who was a computer jock, and he had tried to set it up the instrument, but he had all the wiring was backwards for the detectors and never got it working. I figured out what was wrong.
But the other good thing is, Ellen came from the Salk Institute. The Salk had facility running a cell sorter of the same kind that Caltech had bought for the group. Ellen arranged for us to spend some time at the Salk with Joe Trotter, the manager of the Salk facility learning everything I could from him. I came back and like clockwork, Pat and I wound up working together for 35years. He passed away this last year. I was really sad, because he and I were like—we just fit.
What was interesting about Pat was he was a grand poohbah of the Elks Club, and he was doing all this nonprofit stuff, so I would gather information about non-profits from him. He was Canadian, and he was a redneck, but by the time after the first or second year and he knew what I was doing, he loved me. He would do anything for me, including take me back and forth after the day of work. I changed him, changed his attitude, and he was able to change some other attitudes. And that's how it goes; it's like dominoes. But yeah, I would never have been as good without Pat. He was part-time, just like me. He was 50% in the facility and 50% in the EM facility.
ZIERLER: Just to clarify, in that initial conversation with Ellen, were you determined at that point to be out across the Institute, or just privately with Ellen, that she knew this about you?
DIAMOND: No, I was determined that if I'm going to be out, I'm going to be out. Because I had to be able to do interviews. I had to be able to work with Amy Ross. There were people who were dying of AIDS on campus. There was a technician in Lee Hood's group who died of AIDS. We had a professor who died of AIDS, and he never came out.
ZIERLER: Was there anybody in the administration who was proactive, who saw this as a crisis, who might have seen you as a budding leader, that came to you?
DIAMOND: I think that's why they asked me to do the AIDS Forum for the Y, because I was out, and I had some pamphlets that NOGLSTP had made, and I was able to distribute. But that's also when I started getting hate mail. Ellen didn't know about the hate mail for a while, and she got so angry that I didn't give it to her so she could give it to the FBI! [laughs] But it's like, "Ach."
ZIERLER: Why did you want to keep that private?
DIAMOND: Mostly anger, for me to be able to rip it up and throw it away? It was a tension release. It was just—uch! The only thing I worried about was that they would come after me physically. I think that's what she worried about. But the FBI came on campus a couple of times, and I took those classes. I still carry the card of the FBI agent. He and I talked. The P.O. Box gets hate mail all the time. It still happens. It's the times we live in. There has been an upsurge of it lately, because people have time on their hands.
ZIERLER: Did you strengthen your resolve as a result of getting this hate mail?
DIAMOND: Oh, yeah, because we need more people who are out. That's the only way we can diffuse some of this and also be role models – to be not afraid to do it. Because the fear, they love to make you fearful. I think that some of the psyche is like being a bully. It's the bully psyche.
ZIERLER: Were you ever physically intimidated or threatened?
DIAMOND: Physically intimidated? Being at the Hollywood Gay Pride Parade with the Christians shouting right in your face—yeah, every year. LAGLS had a contingent, and we would join up with people at JPL and other places and march down the street. There would be picket signs in your face, and yeah. Every time I rounded that corner, I always dreaded it. Fortunately, nothing happened. I was really pleased the one year we actually won the Grand Marshal's trophy for what we did.
ZIERLER: How did you get involved with the Beckman Institute?
DIAMOND: I did not put that together. That was something the Beckman Institute put together. I think they wanted to support the centers that were doing things for multiple groups. I don't know who applied or if there was even an application, but they just said, "Okay, you're going to have a subsidy now." That was great.
ZIERLER: Was the Beckman Institute good for you professionally?
DIAMOND: I think it was. Certainly, the money helped, because we would not be able to take care of the salaries otherwise. We do charge hourly, but it's not enough to cover. We've been in the red a number of times, and they've bailed us out many times. It just depends. Because we have to cover a service contract and our supplies and our salaries. It's a big enterprise.
ZIERLER: Beyond the mundane stuff, was it a value scientifically to be involved with the Beckman Institute, bringing that experience back to Ellen's Lab?
DIAMOND: That's a good question. I don't know if they really had anything to do with Ellen's lab, other than subsidizing some of the centers that the lab uses. There's an imaging center and other centers that they support. But I think that we would really be in a hole without them. It's a significant chunk. They give us $150,000 a year right now. We were getting more, but they had to cut all of the centers by 25% this year, which is why I need to do something to keep us afloat. But it's a significant chunk of money.
The Beckman Center is supplied by the Beckman Foundation. I can tell you that the Beckman Foundation itself has helped me, but not through Caltech. That is because I am the treasurer of the Southern California Flow Cytometry Association, which covers the entire Southern California area from Santa Barbara to San Diego and out to Inland Empire, and I've been that treasurer for a number of years now. Except for COVID, we hold our annual summit, where we bring the vendors together with speakers, poster sessions, the whole gamut, for two days of trainings, talks, posters, at the National Academy of Science Beckman Center in Irvine. Because I'm part of the Beckman Institute here at Caltech, I think that helped me gain entrance to that auditorium and campus. So that really did help me, but in kind of a peripheral way.
ZIERLER: A question that is as much about politics as it is about the science—when you're inspired to write an article that appears in a peer-reviewed journal, I wonder how much of a motivating factor was it, to go back to the insulin issue where you were left off that paper, where if you're the writer of the paper, there's no question that [laughs] your name is going to be on it. Then as a subset to that, how do you carve out that place where you're going to be the author where there are postdocs, there are professors, there are people that you would consider quote unquote these are the people who write papers for peer-reviewed journals?
DIAMOND: In the beginning, I did want to have my name on papers. That was important because if I needed to go for another job, that is really helpful, because it means I've done some seminal work. It means I actually did work on the project. Now, it doesn't mean as much to me, in terms of scientific papers, but I've done some op-eds, for Science magazine, for instance, where I've actually taken the editor to task. That was only my name, and that has gotten such a huge following. I get people who say, "I saw this. Would you mind writing something for my journal? Because we want to talk about this issue." It's a little bit different than science. It's coming from my other hat. But at my age now, I'm happy to be acknowledged, and I'm acknowledged in tons of my clients' theses and papers and stuff. It's not as necessary for me anymore to be a coauthor or a first author.
But the thing that really helped me, David, I have to tell you, was writing my book. That was the game-changer, because that was where I went from a technician to a member of the professional staff. Ellen, unbeknownst to me, took that and all of my resume and everything, and took it to the accreditation committee, which is what has to happen—it's like a tenure committee but it's an accreditation committee—and got me up into the ranks of research faculty. Before that, I was not faculty; I was staff. Being an MPS makes me research faculty.
ZIERLER: I just want to state for the record the book you're referring to, of course, is In Living Color: Protocols in Flow Cytometry and Cell Sorting, which came out by Springer in the year 2000.
DIAMOND: Right, 800 pages of protocols. [laughs]
ZIERLER: Did you realize that you just had too much for an article and this needed to be a book? Intellectually, how did that develop?
DIAMOND: It developed because I wanted to write all the protocols I had, and all the protocols that I used from friends in the field, in one place, so that when I did an intake, I could say, "This book is in the library. Please go and see how flow cytometry works. How does a sorter work?" It's all there in the book, and I'm still using it. I still used it a couple months ago with an agarose bead protocol that Victoria Orphan's lab needed. They wanted to do it but they didn't know how to do it, and I said, "This is in my book." And they got it to work! [laughs] They were encapsulating microorganisms in agarose gels, little beads, about six microns.
ZIERLER: Back to the activism, in 1990 when you were chair of the Board of Directors for the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists, how big was the organization at that point, and what was its actual geographic reach?
DIAMOND: It was national, because we had a number of regionals. I actually don't know, because we don't know the count of people in those regionals. We also had individual members which were 300 or 400 people who would sign up yearly just as individuals who weren't part of those groups, those like Triangle Area Gay Scientists, Humboldt Society which still exist. Others have faded out like Houston (HAGLS) and Dallas (DAGLS), and High-Tech Gays up in the Bay Area. There were all these different ones. High Tech Gays was a huge—I think they had like 800 people in their group or something like that. I used to go up there by train and talk with them.
ZIERLER: What was the value of bringing these regional groups together, both politically and even culturally or emotionally, to have these bonds nationwide?
DIAMOND: I think the value was always numbers, for one, and also being able to help each other with expertise from their groups. We still have a newsletter that goes out quarterly. We're always looking for role models, so we started a program for nominating scientist of the year, engineer of the year, educator of the year, group or corporation of the year, organization of the year, that kind of thing. Those were national awards which helped people to be able to have role models but also to be celebrated wherever they were. Then we started a scholarship program, which I think just about all the major university finance departments know about us. We get a lot of applications for those scholarships. We have some corporations that actually donate money to the scholarship fund. We started two years ago fellowships for transgender, non-binary, and intersex people only, for career development that was funded by an anonymous donor. That has been interesting as well, having those kinds of ways to spread the information that these programs exist, but also to help corporations and in some cases other organizations with their equal employment opportunity statements, their inclusion policies, and now the DEI thing that is happening across education an corporate entities - providing information about different groups and intersectionalities.
We are part of the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment. We've been talking with them about things like occupations and research for field biologists and keeping track of the world laws. Because oil companies, for instance, will send technicians or researchers or investigators to various countries in the world where the laws are such that if you are found to be homosexual, you will be either incarcerated or hanged. Educational things like that are important. We're working with groups like OutRight International which follows the world dynamics for LGBTQ people, the laws and customs. But we also do work with the Human Rights Campaign that does a survey of companies. If you have an index of 100%, you're great for LGBTQ people. But it varies in terms of their policies and where you are and what you stand for.
I gave a talk to the Lockheed Martin LGBT group. I took the HRC map for the good states— Lockheed is 100% on the HRC thing—and I put where their executive offices are, and they're all in those wonderful purple states. Then we looked to see where their shops are, and they are all in states that have no protections for LGBT people. I said, "This is why you don't get 100% of your people coming out, because they're living in places that their neighbors might not like them." Or maybe there's no public accommodations. Your marriage may not recognized or you might not be able to adopt or foster children or change your name if you have transitioned. And boy, their eyes got wide. They never realized, because they've always gone, "Well, I don't understand why all of our people are not out." It's like, yeah, there's reasons. This is the kind of education that needs to happen. NOGLSTP and now Out to Innovate has given me a voice to be able to speak truth to power.
ZIERLER: Back on the administrative side, in 1991, when you were named as a member of the professional staff, was this sort of an honorific? Was it a promotion? Did it actually change your day-to-day at all?
DIAMOND: It definitely changed my day to day, because I'm treated more like a PI. I'm not treated like, "Just do your job." It certainly put me on a first-name basis with a lot of professors. The other thing that happened to me was when AAAS made me a Fellow, and it was actually David Anderson that stopped me on San Pasqual Walk, and said, "I saw you became a AAAS Fellow. Congratulations! Wow!" That was like—[laughs]. He recognized me, and then he started treating me a little differently. Becoming a Fellow and becoming a member of the professional staff definitely gave me more gravitas, and also made me feel like I could speak truth to power in terms of their research. The other thing that happened was I've been on a couple of investigation committees where it had to do with flow work, and people who committed fraud within my facility, even. They were some big groups. I won't name names, but one of them tried really hard to get me off the committee. The committee chair made them apologize to me.
ZIERLER: [laughs] Good! In the mid-1990s, when you served on the Board of Directors for the Lesbian and Gay Health and Health Policy Foundation, first of all, where was the AIDS epidemic at that point? How well-controlled was it, and how important was AIDS just for the need to have such a foundation?
DIAMOND: It was important, because as we know, AIDS still exists now. It was well before PREP, and there was a lot of education that needed to be done, on a national level. There were certain documents that the Foundation put out which were helpful. The chair of the committee was ensconced at UCLA Center for Health Policy. He was very well-known for his work on Agent Orange. He was a powerhouse, and I just tried to help, to keep it all together, put the newsletter out. Basically, I was more of an infrastructure person than I was as a speaker because he was powerful. I had enough to do, but I was happy to be part of it because it gave me some gravitas for what I was doing with NOGLSTP.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the Out to Innovate summits. How did that come about and what was the value of having them?
DIAMOND: Oh, I so wanted to bring the students together with role models. It was my idea. The scholarships were my idea, too. I just wanted to help young people find a community that they could, number one, be proud of, but number two, be part of, and find some mentors. Find places to go where they didn't have to worry about not being out. The other thing was to bring older people who wanted to help together with young people, so starting the mentoring program was important, to get people to mentor, to give them some hope, to sort out things. I remember going through this myself. How do you sort this out? The first person you ever have to live with is yourself, and then you can live with other people. But you have to decide who you are and what you are and how you want to present yourself, and find a safe space to do it in. That was important to me, to be able to bring people together to find safe space. Even if you're in Birmingham, Alabama, you can find a mentor in California and over the internet talk to talk to each other and find out things and become friends and give them a hand up, through the network. That's what that summit is. Not only poster sessions, but also using those recognition award people to come and give talks about their lives. How did they get to be where they are? What they're doing. And just mingling at dinners and lunches and just sitting at their tables and having real conversations were life-changing for these kids and adults alike.
ZIERLER: Just to demonstrate that they're not alone. Fundamentally, that's what it's about?
DIAMOND: They're not alone. They can take pride in what they're doing. They can present their work. If it's a good poster, do a flash talk. Be aware of the scholarships. Actually, this is a lot of times when people volunteer to be on the Board, because they like what they see. It's a demonstration of what can be done. For a while, we were doing it every two years, and then another group called oSTEM, which is more about students, came about. That's a whole ‘nother story. They asked us to do a joint meeting with them. We've done that twice.
ZIERLER: You mentioned scholarships. What were the funding sources? Who was supporting this?
DIAMOND: The first two two years we had a grant from Battelle National Foundation. Actually, the person that got that going for us is now the chair of Out to Innovate. It's funny. The first two years were funded by Battelle, national labs. After that we started writing grants proposals to Motorola Solutions Foundation which we've been doing for the last ten years. They've been very good to us. Started out with $20,000, and at one point we had $40,000 or $50,000 a year. Then by having a corporate foundation supporting there have been some engineering groups who have also been donating, and we're almost up to $100,000 a year now. We also have private donors and members who donate yearly. In terms of being able to award scholarships. It's usually $5,000 for second place, and $8,000 for first place, so it's significant. And now we have begun some community college transfer scholarships.
ZIERLER: In 1997, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center recognized you with the L.A.C.E. Award for Professional Achievement. I'd like to hear about that and more generally if being in Los Angeles, where perhaps the entertainment industry has been progressive and out in front in these issues to some degree, if that made it less of a regional recognition and more of a national recognition, just by virtue of being in L.A.?
DIAMOND: That's a good question. [laughs] The L.A.C.E. Award, I was happy to get it, and somebody from JPL actually nominated me. Amy Ryan, and Amy Ross also, were the two letters that went in. I think they recognized me for a lot for the work on AIDS activism and pulling together LGBT people in the STEM fields. But [laughs] the L.A.C.E. Award was also a way to get you to donate to the Center, to buy a table. It also was interesting, because there were people in my family who I didn't think respected me who wanted to come to the dinner. That was a turning point in terms of my family. Knowing that they finally accepted me was big. But the disappointment at the event was that the MC was Ellen DeGeneres, and she didn't give any of us recipients the time of day. So in terms of the entertainment industry [laughs], that was of no help whatsoever. [laughs] More help in terms of the entertainment industry actually came from me sitting on a jury with somebody from the entertainment industry! [laughs]
ZIERLER: While we're on that topic, later on, a few years later, the Walt Westman Service Award. Who is or was Walt Westman?
DIAMOND: Walt Westman was the founder of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists. He was the original founder. He was a geographer at UCLA who pulled us all together. He was the chair when I came on board, and his death was the reason I got involved in the leadership. He died of AIDS.
ZIERLER: Did you ever get to meet him?
DIAMOND: Oh yeah. We were good friends.
ZIERLER: What was he like?
DIAMOND: [laughs] He was a person who was really straightforward. Kind of like lines on a map, he could engineer what he wanted to do. He was the driving force for going to AAAS. He was a AAAS Fellow. He was out. He was well-respected. He and Amy Ross really drove that program. I came on board and that's how I met my wife, Barbara. Walt was dear to my heart.
Really hard. That's why we named the volunteer award after him, because it has to be given to someone who has actually done something for the group that is meaningful, and not just somebody else in the community who has done good work. It has to be somebody that has actually helped the group.
ZIERLER: As context for the creation of Caltech's Center for Diversity, what were the issues and who were the people that drove this development? Because at the institutional level, it's so difficult to get things going. What were the turning points that culminated in the Center for Diversity at Caltech?
DIAMOND: I think it stemmed from the Women's Center group, because there were a number of us who were part of the Women's Center but had other issues and bringing them forward to try and get something done. Kathleen Bartle-Schulweis comes to mind, because she was a driving force to help the LGBT group. She and I worked together a lot on that. I think once we got Robbie Vogt out [laughs], who was the provost, that helped a lot, actually.
ZIERLER: He was not an ally in this regard?
DIAMOND: He was not an ally at all. He was the one that dismissed me and Kate from the board. It was hard. I think it helped to get some LGBT people into the Center for Diversity. Taso was a good one. Anyway, they were driving forces to get our room in the center, and to get our library moved, and also to put together programming for the Fred Shair Award and other awards for diversity. I think that was important because it drives publicity that these programs exist, and that these programs have other things besides giving awards. In other words, there's a place to come together to talk, to have programming. I think that the Mellon Fellowships really helped, and having something at the end of the year, these receptions at the Athenaeum, where it looks like it's really meaningful, that's nice. It's not just something that happens at the Center, but something real. It makes you feel like you're really part of something, because the Athenaeum is so special.
ZIERLER: On that point, I wonder if you can compare winning the Fred Shair Award, comparing that with previous awards. The Fred Shair Award, of course, is a Caltech award. I wonder what the takeaway is in terms of you being recognized at the place you work, how meaningful that is.
DIAMOND: Very. Very much so. More meaningful than the Center award, because people came up to me and thanked me for the work I was doing at Caltech. That was meaningful for me, because I didn't know that many people knew what I was doing. I think it's a meaningful award. I think we need to do more of that. I'm the kind of person that likes to say, "Thank you." I don't know if anybody has told you this, but for years, anybody who has helped Ellen's lab or helped the Facility, at Christmas time, I give a handmade basket to everybody.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
DIAMOND: Did you know that?
ZIERLER: I did not know that.
DIAMOND: Yeah. So the shops, electrical, plumbing, air conditioning, all the guys that help me during the year, anybody who has done something significant during the year, I keep a list of, and I thank them, and I thank them from the lab. I think those kinds of things, to give back, to say, "Thank you" are meaningful. They're meaningful to me. So for Caltech to say, "Thank you" struck my heart, because I didn't think anybody really noticed that much.
ZIERLER: One of the more fun-sounding memberships, since 2014 you've been a thought leader for DiscoverE. That's the letter "E" at the end of "Discover." First, tell me, what is DiscoverE?
DIAMOND: DiscoverE is a non-profit that works to make engineering more accessible and more a path for young people to take up. I've been representing LGBTQ in their thought leader group. But more than that, I've been able to get some interesting programming. Right now, we do what's called a Persist Series, where we bring somebody in who talks about their life on the internet. There's also a girls' program. There's a Future City program where the kids come together and build a city. Just a number of programs. You can get on their website and have a look at it.
Basically, I just have a way of running into people who I think might be interesting to help. For instance, I do a lot with the Point Foundation. I give them money. They're an LGBTQ scholarship program for all kinds of education. I'm always looking to see if wherever I go, that there might be somebody who might be good for the DiscoverE Persist program. I ran into somebody at a fundraiser who happens to be in sort of Hollywood, actually in Las Vegas, who is the administrator for Cirque du Soleil. She arranged for all the engineers in their company to talk to the Persist people. They do things like underwater stuff and all kinds of crazy things. The female engineers of Cirque du Soleil became an hour-and-a-half program on the internet for people to watch and listen to their stories, and that kind of thing.
I actually interviewed Frances Arnold for Discover. I brought her over to the Morgan Library in Kerckhoff and I got the Caltech AV people and Leslie Maxwell, to come and help me. We did an interview just before Frances Arnold received the Nobel Prize. She received the Nobel Prize and then she was on our broadcast! Things like that. Serendipity, right? I love doing stuff like that, putting people together and making a difference.
ZIERLER: What were the circumstances when you were asked to be keynote speaker for the National Science Foundation's Pride Celebration in 2017?
DIAMOND: That was the greatest honor I've ever had. Seriously. I never thought I'd be a part of something like that, or just to go to NSF and meet everybody. Oh, that was probably the highlight of my life, besides my wedding to my wife, Barbara. NSF was welcoming and wonderful. It was broadcast, as well as an in person, talk. It was just significant to my life. I felt like I had actually done something that got recognized.
ZIERLER: Given how big that stage was, what did you want to talk about? What was important for you to convey?
DIAMOND: I talked about NOGLSTP. I talked about our programming. I talked about being yourself and finding people of like mind and giving each other a hand up, which NSF can do. I talked about seeing if NSF would start counting us. Really mostly about coming on board and helping us, individually, and being part of a movement.
ZIERLER: Did Caltech celebrate this achievement for you? Were you recognized back on campus?
DIAMOND: No, but I have the announcement poster up on my office door! [laughs] And I have a commemorative plaque and certificate of appreciation award.
ZIERLER: Your affiliation with DiscoverE is ongoing?
DIAMOND: Yes, I'm still a thought leader.
ZIERLER: What kinds of things do you do on an ongoing basis as a thought leader?
DIAMOND: A number of companies have a representative to this group, and we talk about programming, and what sounds good, and how diverse it is, and try to get as much diversity into the programming as possible through the year. They've started to make small little videos now, instead of a big, giant one, which can be ongoing. It's a way also for me to meet some of these people in the companies that are doing their diversity work. It's a networking thing for me as much as it is to have an LGBT voice for them.
ZIERLER: Was there in 2019 something going on that there needed to be a Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment, or was that just a general recognition that this was a body that needed to be formed?
DIAMOND: It was instigated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Shirley Malcom asked me to be on it. They needed LGBTQ representation. There were a number of issues. Most of the societies did not have a way of even putting together a meeting code of conduct for ethics. So the Society has actually made a road map for how to get started, all the way through the legalities of putting together programs like this to forming
a Legal Council and an Education Council. There's brown bag zoom meetings every quarter to about things that are happening in the over 130 societies, helping each other with ideas and referrals. I've actually used that information, the road map, to help the Biology DEI Committee to think about invited speakers for having Caltech policy on speaker invitations. We asked Lindsey's office to give us the Caltech stance on what we should put on speaker invitations so that we don't run into something like what MIT experienced this year, where they had someone who came and just talked about anti-affirmative action..
It has actually been good, because there have been a number of societies who we've worked with through NOGLSTP. They had no idea even the definitions of what LGBTQ letters stand for. I did a three-hour brown bag session for the consortium on nomenclature of the LGBTQ community, pronouns, and do this, not that to steer away from troubles, . What happens when your society has a contract with a hotel or a campus that is in a state that California, for instance, will not pay for California employees to be paid for travel to your meeting because your state doesn't recognize LGBTQ people in their laws, do we have a boycott of those states? The state of California does. The question is, well, do you just continue to have a meeting there, or is there something you can do to make it better? I went through the all-gender restroom argument, and making DEI a focal point of the meeting, having an LGBTQ track to talk about those issues in STEM, as an example. AAAS actually did that. Two years in a row, they had me do all those different activities to showcase DEI at their annual meeting.
ZIERLER: To bring our conversation right up to the present, in terms of your energy, both your emotional energy and your scientific energy, how much of a given week are you spending on the science, and how much are you spending on the activism? Is that different than it was ten, 20, 30 years ago?
DIAMOND: My weekends are activism. My work week is my work week. I try and keep them separate, unless I'm on campus and there's meetings of either the DEI Committee or something going on in the CCID. I am on the LGBTQ Working Group for CCID. But the past two years, it has all been by Zoom anyway. Basically, stuffing of the newsletters and everything else that I do for Out to Innovate, that's all weekend stuff. Barbara and I try and box that to just certain days, because you lose track of things if you don't. I have a to-do list here, and a to-do list there.
Unless there's something pressing that somebody needs actually to have a Zoom with me, it's usually on a Saturday or Sunday. All our board meetings are on Sundays.
ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, and that we started talking about your current work, I'd like to end this wonderful discussion with some ideas that look to the future. Because so many of your motivations on the activism side have been oriented toward making things better in the future, what are the big areas where there's still fundamental work to be done, and where this is no time to rest on laurels even in retrospect and an appreciation of all that you've accomplished up to this point?
DIAMOND: History shows us that anything can happen and pull the rug right out from under you. The Supreme Court decisions that came down the last couple of weeks make me nervous, because they can go back and revisit, revise, or completely change the scope of the law. Anybody can sue and go back and revisit the Supreme Court decisions and nullify all of the marriage laws and whatever else they don't like. The years before Biden, the four years before Biden, were tough, because many of the things were taken away. We have to be vigilant. We have to be continually educating. We have to build our coalitions. We have to build our friends. And we have to show our faces, because if we don't, then people think that nothing is needed anymore. The fact is, we always will need it. We always need it more than never.
We have so many students who are disowned by their parents, who can't get financial information from them to get a scholarship. They may live in their cars. There's so many people. And not just in the United States, but I get letters from around the world— "Can you make me eligible for scholarships? Can you do something for international students?" Right now, I can't. I can do it for the fellowships, but not for the scholarships. It's really difficult. There's so many things that need to happen. There's a lot of people who are out of work, because the first people that they let go are the people they don't like. That's a fact.
I think we've got to continue to put pressure on NSF and NIH to do the demographic surveys, the census surveys that need to get done. The first thing I'm always asked is, "How many LGBTQ people in STEM are there?" I can do a back-of-the-hand calculation from the Census data, but I can't tell you how many people are in STEM. It's interesting. Always there will be work to do, until the day I die, I'm sure.
I plan to keep working until I'm 75, mainly for Ellen. We're a team. I want to get the facility up to a state of the art so we can bring in somebody good. I have to tell you that's very difficult right now, because the biotechs are sucking up all of the flow people and paying them extraordinarily well. I lost an operator two years ago because Amgen picked him right up, gave him three times the salary, shipped him off to San Francisco. And I was grooming him [laughs]. That's tough.
There are things I need to do at Tech to make things workable for when I do retire. I don't want to leave it in a legacy environment. I want to continue to help Ellen fulfill her dreams. She has a dream. I try to make magic happen for her. That's what I do.
ZIERLER: On the science side, what is Ellen's dream, and how will you help her get there?
DIAMOND: Ellen's dream is to solve the puzzle. How do these cells navigate, and how well do they navigate? What can help or be a deterrent? Mainly, how does the blueprint work? We haven't solved it. We're getting there, but now we've got to go back all the way to the embryonic stem cell and see how that transfers. That's what we're going to do. We just got a little grant from the Merkin Institute for Translational Research to start that with a brand-new postdoc.
ZIERLER: Just as a postscript, I wonder if you take comfort in the science to some degree where progress in science can't be ripped out from under you the way that progress in inclusivity and diversity sometimes can.
DIAMOND: That's an interesting question. Science can always be ripped out from under you, depending on where you are, whether your country is free or not. Science is not believed by a number of people in this country right now.
ZIERLER: That's right.
DIAMOND: Much less an LGBT person doing science might scare somebody. The propaganda is always going to be there. It was there in the 1940s. The fact that propaganda —the decimation of literature on Pasadena lawns for 200 houses in my neighborhood that named every Jewish scientist in NIH and CDC leadership, in FDA that is in control— that's scary. They even named Rachel Levine and put "and a transgender" in that propaganda. That's scary. I think Rachel will be targeted. Yet Rachel is one of the best healthcare policy people in the country.
So we're living in a time where I can't answer that question. I think we have to be vigilant. I think no matter who we are, if we are a scientist, I think we have to use our best ethics, judgment that we can use, be fair, be just, and be inclusive, and listen to diverse voices. I think that's really where I'm coming from with this. It's not just about LGBTQ; it's about all the intersectionalities.
ZIERLER: I'd like to thank you so much for spending this time with me, for so honestly and openly and with such verve sharing your perspective and insight on the activism and the science. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do this. I'd like to thank you so much.
DIAMOND: You are welcome. Anytime.