Of Community and Conversation

by Robert T. Pennock | Oct 12, 2021


Much of science is done in solitude and silence. Think of Jane Goodall, alone in the forests of the Gombe for months, quietly watching the behavior of chimps. Think of the scientist at the bench, oblivious to everything but what is happening on a microscope slide. Even in a group lab, researchers typically work alone—at the fume hood, hunched over their pipettes or flasks, or at a computer, mesmerized in the glow of some SPSS statistical analysis. Such focused observation and analysis of evidence is the foundation of science. 

But there are times that scientists do come together and converse. They meet to show off beetles they collected or to demonstrate a curious phenomenon. They challenge and check each other’s work. They swap stories of failed experiments. They talk excitedly about the glimmers of emerging discoveries. These parts of science are done in community and conversation.

The first word of Sigma Xi’s motto—Companions in Zealous Research—highlights this collaborative aspect of scientific practice. Sigma Xi has long nurtured the communal values that support excellence in the research community. Its Grants in Aid of Research program will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. These seed grants have helped many budding scientists get their start. Its Distinguished Lectureship program began in 1937 to sponsor talks for local chapters. I was honored to be a Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer in 2000 and spoke at some two dozen chapters. The stimulating discussions in these events demonstrated to me the vibrancy of the community. Many chapters run a Science Café program to engage the public in the conversation.

This year, Sigma Xi launches two new initiatives to extend the Society’s program to advance science’s ethical culture. The first is what we are calling Curious Conversations. Rather than giving a prepared talk, invited researchers will be interviewed in a conversational format. And instead of talking about their research findings per se, the discussion will focus on what motivated their research and the values and character traits that are important for discovery and innovation. We also aim to pilot round table mentoring meetings that use structured discussions to explore how the scientific virtues undergird excellence and integrity in research. We will kick these off at this year’s Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference and hope to find funding that will let us expand them so they can impact a broader, national audience.

Sigma Xi’s mission is to celebrate and give voice to the scientific spirit. I hope you’ll think of how you can contribute to these efforts, support the community, and join the conversation.



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Robert T. Pennock, Ph.D.
Sigma Xi President

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