Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Larry Kushner (SX 1948) 
Interviewed by Josh Sturmsfels (SX 2010)

What made you want to be a scientist (or engineer)?

I started college believing that I would like to become a physician or dentist, but courses in physical chemistry and theoretical chemistry opened my eyes to the fundamental aspects of how and why materials behave as they do.  I was hooked.  

What has been your most fulfilling accomplishment as a scientist (or engineer)? (WHY?)

While I take pride in my own research on molecular structure and on micellar structures in aqueous solutions, it was bringing to the National Bureau of Standards a group of young physicists to work in the field of metal physics and providing them with the necessary resources to launch productive research careers that is my most gratifying accomplishment.  The significance of their contributions to the science of materials far outstrips my own.

What significant changes have you seen in your field during your career?

Materials science epitomizes the interdisciplinary approach to scientific research.  This becomes stronger with each passing year.

What would you consider to be the most important advice you could offer a younger, upcoming scientist?

Be open to new approaches to solving a problem.  Do not hesitate to borrow from other fields of research.  Be problem oriented rather than wedded to specific instrumentation.

What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met in science in the coming years? What would you like to see scientific research accomplish?

We must be successful in meeting the increasing worldwide demand for energy while maintaining an ecosystem conducive to human well-being.

As part of Sigma Xi’s 125th celebration, we are focusing on ethics and responsible research. Have you seen any changes in ethical conduct within your field during your career?

Not really, but the pressure to “publish or perish” is a continuing challenge to being an ethical research scientist.  In addition, with so much of scientific research being publicly funded, to what extent should research scientists be concerned with national goals or the possible negative effects of their work?

One of Sigma Xi’s strengths is its interdisciplinary nature. How important do you think interdisciplinary collaboration will be for solving some of the challenges that lie ahead in science?

It is essential.

Your profile that was provided to me highlighted many of your contributions to the society, including service on several committees, as well as president in 1976. As a current member of the Committee for Qualifications and Membership, I recognize that our society faces many challenges. What advice would you offer to those who currently serve or would like to serve Sigma Xi in a similar way?

Get used to being frustrated, but don’t give up.  You are keeping the Society alive.

What is your favorite part of American Scientist magazine?

I generally pick and choose among the feature articles, depending on the subject matter, but I always find time to read the pieces by Brian Hayes and by Henry Petrosky.

Where would you like to see Sigma Xi in 125 years?

I would like to see Sigma Xi much more prominent at the undergraduate level.  I feel that this is the key to Sigma Xi’s survival, both from a membership standpoint and as a fruitful avenue for chapter activity.