President-Elect Candidates Share Goals for Sigma Xi’s Future

September 19, 2018

The three members who are running for president-elect in the 2018 Sigma Xi elections share their goals for the Society, leadership experience, top priorities for Sigma Xi, and their personal qualities that would make them effective leaders.

Active members will be able to vote online October 29–November 27.

If elected president, what would be your goals, particularly concerning membership, fiscal growth, and policy for Sigma Xi’s future?

Audeen FentimanAudeen W. Fentiman:
My goals for membership would be to recruit new members, retain those members, and re-engage with members who have left. Some specifics:

  • Recruitment. It is an honor to become a member of Sigma Xi; few who are invited will decline. The key is to encourage current members to nominate new members, including those from groups typically underrepresented in science and engineering.

  • Retention. To retain new members, we must make belonging to Sigma Xi more valuable to early-career researchers. Examples include making employers aware of the prestige of Sigma Xi so they will value employees who are members and emphasizing professional development opportunities within Sigma Xi.

  • Re-engagement. Those who have left Sigma Xi and built successful careers will need a reason to come back. One way for Sigma Xi to re-engage them is to provide a set of well-coordinated programs that make it easy for researchers to contribute to society in a way that is meaningful to them.

Some fiscal growth, resulting from more dues, larger meetings, and more donations, will follow directly from growth in membership. In addition, I would seek funding through grants or contracts for development of programs that can both serve the sponsor and increase the value of Sigma Xi to its members.  

As for policy, it would be my goal to position Sigma Xi as an advocate for scientific research and as a widely recognized and respected source of researchers who can provide technical information to policy-making bodies in a form that is useful to them.

George Perry George Perry:
Sigma Xi is THE scientific and engineering honor society. Growing that vision requires creating greater value in membership and recruiting and mentoring younger, more diverse members to excellence. Increasing membership through nomination of faculty, staff scientists, fellows, and students following success such as award of tenure, major awards and grants, should be coordinated with universities and national funding sources. Outreach at major diversity events such as those from the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), and Science Fairs (I led the Texas Science Fair for over a decade), could connect award winners with affiliate/associate memberships. I also plan to focus on bringing in new funds through philanthropy from organizations that share our goals in forming policy and mentorship. Lastly, I will build on Sigma Xi’s history of being a source for the best science to inform policy.

Sonya SmithSonya Smith:
One of my goals as Sigma Xi president will be to increase the number and the dollar-amount of awards that the Sigma Xi offers to support research; especially for emerging researchers. I will aggressively pursue fundraising from public and private entities to support this expansion of opportunities. I have experience in raising needed resources in tough institutional financial times. When I took over as chair of the mechanical engineering department in the fall of 2011 we had a severe shortage of laboratory support staff and an ABET accreditation visit looming the next year. There was also a hiring freeze at the university at the time as well as staff reductions. However, in spite of the austere financial climate, I was able to successfully negotiate for two new laboratory staff positions that were in-place when the evaluation team visited. I will fight for and raise needed resources for Sigma Xi with the same vigor and commitment.

Tell us about your most relevant leadership experience.

My most relevant leadership experience is with the American Nuclear Society (ANS). I served on the Board of Directors for four years, chaired three different national committees—Planning (twice), Local Sections, and Public Policy—served on several other national committees including Finance, chaired a special technical committee that prepared a report for the policy makers on nuclear fuel management options, and testified before the U.S. Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future on behalf of ANS.  

The ANS Board of Directors plays a very active role in the financial affairs of the society, oversight of the standing committees and professional divisions, review and approval of proposed programs for members, and establishing policies for the organization.  
As chair of the Planning Committee, I led the effort to develop and implement the organization’s strategic plan, including defining and monitoring the contributions of each unit of the society. Chairing the Local Sections Committee gave me an opportunity to lead an effort to develop and implement programs to revitalize local sections. The Public Policy Committee prepared and planned distribution of informational statements, designed primarily for a non-technical audience, on topics related to nuclear science and technology.  

I have also held leadership positions in both Sigma Xi (Chair of the Ohio State University Chapter) and the American Society for Engineering Education (Chair of the Environmental Engineering Division and the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering Division). 

I have led several professional and educational organizations. These include the reactivation of the Case Western Research University Sigma Xi, following in the footsteps of Fred Robbins, the only Nobel laureate to lead Sigma Xi. In Cleveland, I initiated the Science Café, as I did for the Alamo chapter when I moved to San Antonio. I am also past president and secretary/treasurer of the American Association of Neuropathologists: I was only the second PhD elected as president in its nearly 100-year history. As secretary/treasurer for nearly a decade, I administered all aspects of the society.

As a chair of pathology at Case Western Reserve University, and until recently, as dean of the College of Sciences at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I have led a complex research-educational team to thrive. While dean, I raised over $50 MM and look forward to advocacy for Sigma Xi. A major passion is inclusion, which I accomplish through example and mentorship. SACNAS awarded the Distinguished Professional Mentor Award for my efforts. I lead the National Organization of Portuguese Americans and am proud of my first generation status. 

My most relevant leadership experience is as principal investigator (PI) National Science Foundation (NSF) Howard University ADVANCE-IT (HU ADVANCE-IT). I also have a strong commitment to gender equity and I wanted to create a program that would better position the university in the promotion and retention of its women in STEM faculty. I formed a team for this initiative and we successfully won $3.4 million from  NSF for HU ADVANCE-IT. The purpose of HU ADVANCE-IT is to attract more women faculty in STEM disciplines at Howard; to ensure more STEM women faculty are prepared for promotion, especially from associate to full professor; and to make a path for women in leadership at Howard. HU ADVANCE-IT also promotes family-friendly policies that benefit both male and female faculty members such as pauses in one’s tenure-clock for the birth or adoption of a child. In order to have a strong research community we must be able to attract and retain the best faculty and students. Those potential Sigma Xi members will expect the society to advocate for opportunities for career advancement as well as family friendly policies. As Sigma Xi president I will work with the chapters to ensure the society exceeds this expectation.

What is the most significant issue within Sigma Xi that you would exert time and effort to address? 

If I am fortunate enough to be selected as president-elect of Sigma Xi, I propose to spend my time working with the Sigma Xi membership, leaders, and staff to develop and implement a plan to increase the value of Sigma Xi to its members and society at large. The result of this effort will be growing Sigma Xi, raising its visibility and reputation, and positioning Sigma Xi to help re-establish the public’s respect for scientific research and their understanding of its importance. This must be a coordinated, multi-pronged effort. While Sigma Xi members and other stakeholders will contribute to the final plan, some components I propose are:

  • Increase membership by recruiting new members from a wide range of disciplines, retaining current members, and re-engaging past members,

  • Obtain external funding to develop a suite of programs that provide opportunities for Sigma Xi members who are interested to engage with students, teachers, or the public, using their expertise and passion for research to broaden understanding of the importance of scientific inquiry.

  • Identify a group of Sigma Xi members interested in dealing with the media, policy makers, and employers and carry out a coordinated effort to make those audiences aware of the importance of research to society.

  • Position Sigma Xi as the place to go for scientific expertise and clear, unbiased, and easy-to-understand presentations of scientific information. American Scientist  can be a valuable vehicle for this effort.

  • Coordinate Sigma Xi’s efforts with other multidisciplinary scientific organizations such as AAAS.

Sigma Xi has always provided career development but must do more to establish itself as the scientific society that mentors success. The progress and infrastructure is there but Sigma Xi must initiate, embrace, and promote a broader range of excellence. Partnership with the National Mentoring Network and other successful efforts can amplify Sigma Xi’s effectiveness. No less important is informing the public what science is and its essential value to advance our understanding of critical issues, whether they be global warming, environment preservation, or evolution. We must present the nature of what scientific evidence can address and the progress needed through evidence-based conclusion.

If elected Sigma Xi president I will focus on increasing our membership among the next generation of researchers through increased visibility and direct membership outreach on platforms and in spaces frequented by these potential members. I will also increase our partnerships with other professional societies such as the American Physical Society (APS), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Partnering with these and other organizations will increase awareness of Sigma Xi and the benefits of membership.

What particular personal qualities do you possess that might help convince members to vote for you?

People who know me would probably answer that question by saying “She knows how to build a team that gets things done.”  That includes (1) articulating a vision for an organization, (2) working with members and external stakeholders to flesh out the vision and build consensus around it, (3) collaborating with members and stakeholders to develop a detailed plan to make the vision a reality while helping each participating group to define its role in the overall effort, and (4) successfully implementing the plan.

I have had a chance to hone that skill in a number of different settings in addition to the work with the American Nuclear Society mentioned earlier. One example is leading the team that redesigned the first year engineering program at Ohio State University, converting it to a student-centered, hands-on, team-oriented program that contributed to significantly increased retention of engineering students through graduation. Another is developing and implementing a plan for coordination of the regional campuses of Purdue University.

Some personal qualities that contribute to my ability to build teams that get things done are:

  • Respecting others’ skills, knowledge, experience, and perspectives, and sincerely appreciating the contributions they make,

  • Listening carefully (including asking for input from those who may be hesitant to speak up) and synthesizing what I hear to propose a plan of action that the group can agree on,

  • Being highly motivated to complete any task I take on, persistent, gently persuasive, and extremely energetic, and

  • Characterized by others as sensible, trustworthy, and calm.

My colleagues say persistence, inclusiveness, integrity, broad understanding of science and engineering and finally, strong leadership and fiscal skills. All that, wrapped in an active scientist at the forefront of the most important disease of our time: Alzheimer’s disease. I lead by example.

Every administrator faces challenges and I do not expect my tenure as Sigma Xi president to be any different. However, I do believe that I possess the emotional intelligence to lead through those challenges with grace, respect, integrity, and with an inclusive spirit. My leadership will not only be data-driven but also holistically person-centered. This approach will foster an environment of respect for Sigma Xi members and staff. It will also foster an environment where all constituency groups have an equitable opportunity for growth and career development.

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety