Sigma Xi Members Hold the Key

by Jamie Vernon | Nov 28, 2018

Jamie L. Vernon

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on an observation I made at this year’s Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference. The meeting, which occurred in San Francisco, was the best attended conference in nearly a decade. The presentations were fascinating, the enthusiasm for Sigma Xi was high and the momentum from the meeting continues to propel us toward another successful year.

During the conference, I spoke with Dr. Virginia Trimble, a gifted astronomer and longtime member of the Society, about a necklace she wore that was adorned by a golden Sigma Xi key that once belonged to her father, an accomplished chemist and member of the Society. It was apparent that it was deeply meaningful to her and it symbolized the pride we all share through our association with Sigma Xi.

During the early days of the Society (late 1800s to early 1900s), induction into Sigma Xi was often accompanied by the presentation of a gold key. Etched on the back of the key was the name of the inductee, the year, and the chapter to which they belonged. The key was often attached like a charm to a chain that held a pocket watch or a brooch, which was the style of the day. Accessorizing with a Sigma Xi key and many additional charms was a way of touting one’s social or scientific status.

Today, the presentation of a physical key upon induction is less common. However, the honor associated with holding the proverbial Sigma Xi key endures. Bestowing the key upon a deserving student or colleague can be personally rewarding because it is your way of recognizing their contributions or potential to contribute to the research enterprise.

Acceptance of the key comes with a responsibility to uphold the values of the Society and connects the inductee to a scientific legacy that includes some of the most influential scientists of our time: Albert Einstein, Gerty Cori, Linus Pauling, Julian Lewis, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Sally Ride, and countless more.

In recognition of this distinguished legacy, I invite members to extend the honor of membership and the key of Sigma Xi to all who embody the qualities we seek in our fellow companions, including dedication to research excellence and integrity.


Jamie L. Vernon is the executive director and CEO of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, founded at Cornell University in 1886 and currently based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA. He is also publisher of  American Scientist.

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