Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Marye Anne Fox (SX 1998) 
Interviewed by Elsa Youngsteadt (SX 2009)

What made you want to be a scientist?

I grew up in the days when Sputnik had just been launched and there was a general national appreciation of the importance of science—so much so that [many people] considered a scientific career. They may have rejected it ultimately, but they would have at least considered it. Of course, once you get into science, it’s so intoxicating that you want to stay and learn more and more and more.

What has been your most fulfilling accomplishment as a scientist?

Winning the National Medal of Science, because it reflects the science that we’ve done, the mentoring I’ve given my students and postdocs, and an emphasis on scientific education.

Are you still able to do research, given your duties as Chancellor? 
Not as much as I would like. I average about two papers a year, which is an order of magnitude lower than when I was working full time as a scientist. But I love science and scientific research so much that it’s just impossible for me to give it up completely.

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

I’d say a shift from being a single investigator to more and more involving collaborative research. It’s happening because the problems that remain in science or engineering are themselves interdisciplinary. They require expertise in things as disparate as the social sciences, chemistry, engineering and medicine.

The single-discipline problems typically involved instrumentation and application of that instrumentation to solve some problem. Now we say: Whydid we make this particular molecule and what significance does it have in the broader context?
What advice do you have for a younger, upcoming scientist?

I’d say work like anything all week and at least half a day on Saturday. But then take off Sundays so you can be with your friends and your family. You need to have balance in your life; you must wish and work.

What do you think are the most pressing needs to be met in science in the coming years?

We obviously have an environmental challenge all over the world. Globalization and progress in information technology [have] changed the methods for interaction and collaboration. Being able to affect that integration of globalization and information technology means new problems are going to be posed to the scientific community. Very exciting problems.

What would you like to see scientific research accomplish?

We do science because it can improve the human condition. That’s true whether we’re talking about clinical medicine or organic chemistry or fundamentals of algae growth. All of them need to be brought together to see results. One of the most pressing problems that humankind faces is the need for alternative fuels. By that, I mean not just silicon solar cells, but a whole range of alternative ways of generating energy.

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?

I would say not. I think the reason I don’t see a major change is because scientists have always, in chemistry at least, focused on ethical behavior. There is an exception to every rule, but I think in general everyone understands that the entire basis of science is being able to rely on someone else’s measurements. You have to work together to make sure that the highest standards are employed.

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?

Since the challenges themselves are interdisciplinary, they won’t be solved unless there’s an interdisciplinary approach to their solution. So I think it’s very important that this be an area in which training takes place. We do that in our best universities by having people cross from one department to another for courses and for collaborative research.

What is your favorite part of American Scientist magazine?

One of my favorite parts is that there’s a record of the thinking that’s gone on in the scientific community... [on] the editorial [“From the President”] page. I also like the book reviews, and of course the articles are very interesting. I particularly like the ones that Roald Hoffmann produces, combining an artistic sense with a scientific base.

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

I’d like to see Sigma Xi having informed the scientific community of the astonishing advances that will have been accomplished over its 125 years. [An anniversary] is a wonderful occasion to be able to celebrate one’s successes, to marvel at the achievements of those who came before us and those who succeed us, and to reflect on the importance of their contributions.