Most of the world stood still last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown that came with it, but the US-based analytical chemist didKathryn Nesbitt, who recently retired from academia to pursue a career as a professional football referee, thrived. In November, Nesbitt became the first woman to be named U.S. Major League Soccer (MLS) Assistant Referee of the Year, and the following month she became the first woman to lead a championship game in professional men’s sports in North America.
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Nesbitt started as a referee when she was 14. That was just a few years before she fell in love with chemistry, thanks almost entirely to a great high school teacher. Finally, she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Saint John Fisher College in Rochester in 2010 and served as a football referee throughout her time there.
Upon graduation, Nesbitt immediately moved to the University of Pittsburgh and received her PhD in chemistry in 2015– In the same year she started working in Major League Soccer. After a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, she was hired as Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Towson University in Maryland in August 2017.
“It’s a pretty big university, definitely more teaching, but I also had a research lab there where students worked with me,” recalls Nesbitt. Her research focused on improving techniques for sampling brain chemicals through microdialysis.
Ultimately, she decided to leave Towson in 2019 to focus on refereeing. The trigger for this decision was the opportunity to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in June.
A hard decision
“Leaving chemistry was a really, really tough decision for me – I absolutely loved my job at Towson,” she says. “It’s a lot to be an assistant professor on tenure track, and it’s also a lot to lead football internationally at one of the highest levels, and I just wanted to see what happens when I can do one thing at a time.”
The election as World Cup official showed Nesbitt that she can do great things as a referee. “I didn’t want this to be my last international referee match, I wanted to do more,” she said. Specifically, Nesbitt’s eye was on the men’s professional player. “There can be more career opportunities on the men’s side,” she explains.
Timing her departure from science was challenging, however – Covid-19 hit the world about a year after she left Towson, closing essentially everything, including sports, in the US and worldwide.
“It was really hard for me to take,” she says. “I made this decision to focus on refereeing and then I couldn’t.” Fortunately, US professional football started again in July 2020 with a bubble tournament in Orlando, Florida. An entire Disney resort was set aside to house the players, referees and coaches. They stayed in this protective environment for 50 days and could not walk, were tested for the virus every other day and had to wear masks.
Olympia in view
Analytical chemistry is a good preparation for a career as a referee, said Nesbitt. “All those years of chemistry and all of my training in it have helped me a lot in solving problems,” she says. “When making decisions on the soccer field, we often have to think about different components in order to make difficult decisions correctly.”
Your next big goal is to become a referee in the Olympics. “I’ve always had the ambition to make it to the Olympics somehow, so that would mean a lot to me,” she says.
Nesbitt wants to continue to lead bigger and better games and break barriers for women in professional sports. But she misses chemistry and intends to return there at some point.
“Even if it looks like I’ve decided on a different profession, the ultimate goal is to get back into chemical research and teaching,” she says. But Nesbitt realizes that this could be difficult. “I realize that I may have to start somewhere else and that’s fine with me,” she says Chemistry world. “I’ll find out when I’m there.”
Meanwhile, Nesbitt is keeping up with the chemistry literature and has even managed to publish a few essays since she left science based on work after her departure.
“It is important to me that this part of me remains relevant,” she says. “We’ll have to see how it goes in the next few years because I have big dreams in the referee world, but I don’t want to lose my other passion either.”