Sigma Xi Speaks: Fostering a Culture of Excellence

by Jamie Vernon | May 28, 2021


Earlier this month, Sigma Xi leadership installed two new chapters of the Society. These chapters, based at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington and Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, represent the latest expansion of Sigma Xi’s local reach. For more than 130 years, Sigma Xi has built and nurtured a community of scientists and engineers joined together by their commitment to research excellence. The research enterprise today is much more complex, but the need to belong to a community has never been more important for early career researchers. These new chapters represent an important part of our growing community.

Sigma Xi chapters have been integral to fostering a culture of research excellence on nearly every major educational campus in the United States, numerous federal research facilities, industry laboratories, and many institutions around the world. Our chapters are the primary means by which the Society identifies and recognizes new talent as each generation puts forth its best and brightest students to advance our understanding of the universe. 

Members have often shared with me the feeling of pride when they were nominated by their mentor or colleague based on their scientific achievements. It is thrilling today to see social media posts from students from around the globe sharing their feelings of satisfaction and validation after being nominated to be a part of this distinguished organization. And it is exciting to attend and witness induction ceremonies occurring in conjunction with graduations worldwide.

The requirements to become a member of Sigma Xi are not simply quantitative, such as GPA or class rank. The qualification for becoming a member is based on the recognition by a fellow researcher that one's scientific contributions are meaningful and noteworthy. The nature of this recognition brings joy to the faces of students who are nominated at the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting after winning their research division competition. I share these feelings each time I wear my Sigma Xi lapel pin to a conference or gathering of scientists and engineers and I have enjoyed invoking these feelings with each nomination of an accomplished colleague or student.

As executive director, I’ve also come to appreciate the broader role that Sigma Xi serves in mobilizing the research enterprise. Our chapters have historically provided support and encouragement during difficult times. After the1906 San Francisco earthquake, a three-member engineering team from the Sigma Xi Stanford chapter was commissioned to oversee reconstruction of the campus. The Berkeley chapter separately publicized its concerns about public health in the devastated city of San Francisco, where rapidly breeding rats gave rise to cases of bubonic plague. An eradication campaign led by the Berkeley chapter prodded public officials to action and raised funds. In recent years, we have seen chapters assist in the responses to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 

The past year has challenged our ability to provide the connectivity that we have come to expect from our chapters. The pandemic disrupted activity at all levels. Research was slowed or halted, early career researchers were not able to demonstrate their talents, and many students have not had the privilege of being recognized for their accomplishments. 

There have been glimmers of hope and moments of success. Sigma Xi members and chapters have responded directly to the pandemic, serving in official and unofficial roles to save lives. Sigma Xi headquarters and several chapters have filled the vocational void by providing Internet-based events, including a virtual annual meeting, online inductions, and research symposia. We have monitored research accomplishments throughout the year and nominated scientists and engineers who exhibit attributes of excellence when chapters were unable to do so. To help with feelings of anxiety, Sigma Xi offers 24/7 emotional support through our partnership with Happy the App. We have also continued to provide research funding to students who have been fortunate to resume their research projects. 

As we emerge from isolation and social distancing, we should seek to honor the resiliency and persistence of all our members as well as those who seek to acquire a career in STEM. It will be important in the coming months to support one another as we return to our labs, plan trips for field work, fire up the core facilities, and get back to the work of discovery and development. 

In addition to ramping up our research activities, I hope chapter leaders will consider the important roles they play in providing a network to help members as they attempt to return to normalcy. A simple social gathering could go a long way toward easing anxiety of the past year. These events can serve as the basis for discussions about how we maintain or restore our commitment to excellence. 

For those chapter leaders who wish to do more, Sigma Xi will be reaching out to you to determine what types of programs you might like to organize to strengthen your community. We have identified six areas of excellence in which we will be seeking funding to support chapter programs: diversity, equity, and inclusion; ethics; STEM education; science communication; policy; and research support. 

Feel free to contact me at if your chapter would like to be a part of grant-seeking exercises or a pilot to support these types of events in your member community. 


Jamie L. Vernon
Sigma Xi Executive Director and CEO

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