Cristina Gouin-Paul

Cristina Gouin-PaulCristina Gouin-Paul is the 2016 recipient of Sigma Xi’s Evan Ferguson Award for Service to the Society. She is the citrus quarantine greenhouse and laboratory support scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, a position she has held for more than 19 years.

She has both an M.S. and B.S. from University of Maryland in horticultural research and grew up doing research with her father, Dr. Francis Gouin of the Sigma Xi University of Maryland Chapter. She was indoctrinated into Sigma Xi in 1999 as an associate member and was elected vice president of the District of Columbia Chapter all at one sentence. In 2002, she was elected president of the chapter and have remained as president ever since, re-elected by members. During her tenure with the DC Chapter, she has organized or helped to organized two to three traditional chapter dinner lectures each year for the chapter. They also co-sponsored meetings with other regional chapters.

The chapter co-sponsors monthly Café Scientifiques, along with the Rockville Science Center and Rockville Science Consortium. She is on the planning committee for the cafés and assists in finding speakers and organizing the monthly free cafés. In conjunction with the University of Maryland and Tidewater chapters, she helped to organize the first annual graduate and undergraduate Sigma Xi poster colloquium. She also helped to lead her chapter out of the proverbial box (restaurant) and organize hikes and tours of various local points of interest that have been well received and attended by chapter members and guests. She has been also been involved in chapter revitalization.

She is also the director of the Mid-Atlantic Region and chair of the Society’s Committee on Qualifications and Membership.

“If there is ever a job or project that involves Sigma Xi, I do not hesitate to volunteer and put every ounce of effort I have into it,” she said.


Heather Thorstensen: Hello and welcome to this Google Hangout from Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society. My name is Heather Thorstensen and I am the manager of communications for Sigma Xi. Today I'm going to be speaking with Cristina Gouin-Paul. She's the 2016 recipient of Sigma Xi's Evan Ferguson Award. This is the award that Sigma Xi gives out to recognize outstanding service to Sigma Xi and its mission. The recipient's name is engraved on a plaque that hangs in Sigma Xi's headquarters in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and the person also receives a lifetime subscription to the Society's magazine, American Scientist.

Cristina has held many leadership roles in the Society, including President of the District of Columbia Chapter, a spot on the Board of Directors as the Director of the Mid-Atlantic Region, and she is Chair of the Society's Committee on Qualifications and Membership. Congratulations, Cristina, and thank you for joining me on the Hangout.

Cristina Gouin-Paul: Not a problem, Heather. Nice to see you, even though it's just virtually.

Thorstensen: Yeah. Your area of expertise is horticulture, and it's an area of study that your parents were also involved in. How do you think your childhood helped shaped you as the scientist that you are today?

Gouin-Paul: I think first thing as a child of scientists, my dad is a retired professor from Maryland, my mother is a landscape architect that what your home life doesn't, your time off from school is usually spent working for them or with them, so you have ... It's a day off of school isn't “run and play with the neighbors' kids.” It was “dad needs somebody to take data” or “dad needs somebody to measure seedlings.” I spent a lot of time working with him taking data. I paid for my first car by transcribing temperature strips from a little digital, not even a digital, thermo printer, onto database forms for my dad at 50 cents a page. Took a while to pay off a car that way, but I did it.

I think it's influenced me a lot to become a scientist because table discussions were never topical and about the news, they were more about my dad's research or what my mom was up to in planting a landscape or something like that, so they were very educational discussions around the table versus what happened in the news today. I think that shaped who I wanted to become and working with my dad a lot, the kind of job that I enjoyed doing was similar to what he was doing.

Thorstensen: Okay, great. Today, that led you to the Citrus Quarantine Unit with the United States Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, as a support scientist. What type of work do you do there?

Gouin-Paul: I manage a greenhouse and a laboratory. Our main focus of data is to keep the positive controls for pathogens and citrus that are worldwide problems, and to develop tests that detect them more efficiently and effectively than are currently available for detection purposes. I basically have 4,000 really sick citrus plants that I have to try to keep alive and I do DNA extractions, ELIZAs, et cetera, on them as needed, and we also have a lot of cooperative work by scientists who will work with citrus pathogens from around the globe. I get to deal with people from France and from Spain and from Brazil and from all the citrus states in the United States, as well.

It's a very dynamic position because I'm interacting with them regularly to process data, ask questions, help to modify and tweak experiments that will get published later on. It's very nice, I've been there 25 years, and I started at USDA as a student when I was in college, so I was also there in the Fruit Lab doing tissue culture and orchard management of tissue culture generated apple trees. I've been there actually since 1986, so this will be my 30th year there on the property.

Thorstensen: Congratulations. You first became involved with Sigma Xi as a member in 1999. How did you become involved with Sigma Xi?

My supervisor is actually a Sigma Xi member and he nominated me for membership, and I knew the people in the DC chapter, a lot of them worked at USDA already, so I was interacting with them on a daily basis. Unbeknownst to me, and I always joke about this at the Annual Meeting, I was nominated as an associate level member and made vice president of the DC Chapter in the same sentence, so I didn't know that was coming, but I accepted it. I enjoy interacting with the group of members because we're very diverse, it's an area chapter, so we're not just based at USDA. We encompassed the entire DC Beltway, so I get to interact with people I don't work with on a daily basis and people from very different fields of research.

Thorstensen: Yeah. I wanted to ask a little bit more about the chapter. Like you said, you became chapter vice president soon after you joined Sigma Xi, and then you became president soon after that. You've been president for the last 13 years.

Gouin-Paul: I think almost 14, I lost track.

Thorstensen: Yeah. You're on your 14th year, and so you mentioned that it's an area chapter. What types of jobs do the people have that are in your chapter and about how many active people do you have in the chapter?

Gouin-Paul: When my tenure started as president, we had about 800 members of the DC Chapter, and that significantly dropped past 50% of that at this moment. Unfortunately, many members don't retire and stop being members. A lot of our membership has actually passed on and we haven't been able to [nominate as many]… In an area chapter, it's very difficult to attract new members and nominate new members because we don't have any universities or colleges associated with the area chapter, so we can't just give students memberships as they graduate and find students who don't already come into USDA or NIH or any of the other places that have members that aren't already members of another chapter.

The DC area I think has about 14 active chapters around the Beltway, so our membership is very diverse and a lot of members come to my events that aren't members of my chapter because I put out an area-wide list, a community that involves everybody no matter what chapter you're in to come to our events, meetings, hikes, tours, et cetera... When we stayed active, we've attracted a number of new members over the years but not at the rate that met the rate of decline, unfortunately, they're not with us anymore.

It's just difficult because we aren't a university-established chapter, so there are hurdles, but the events have to be broad and they have to be all over the place. We can't do brown bag lunches, we can't do auditorium seminars because there's, what, 45 miles of the DC Beltway around the capital of DC, so it's hard to get members just of our chapter together. It's easier just to put out an all-points bulletin to all members and say, "Hey, we're having this event. Why don't you come if we're having one near you?" Because we try to rotate around the area when we had previous events.

Thorstensen: What sort of activities does your chapter do?

Gouin-Paul: For the past eight years, we've done a monthly café, so we're on year eight, so that's eight times 12. Sorry. That's my parrot chiming in the background. We've done 96, almost 100 cafes. We used to have a lot of banquets and dinner-type lectures, but I found that the cost of putting those together became too steep with the price of catering in the DC area. People weren't willing to pay the $50 or $60 to come to an event, and dinner with a really cool science lecture and traffic in this area around dinnertime any night of the week is pretty impossible. We've tried doing other events like on Sundays or weekdays that are luncheons and more daylight based.

We've done different events over the years. The café has really worked for us because there's no RSVP list for me to keep track of, there's no cost involved to a chapter at all. We've done a couple of regional meetings with various local chapters, George Mason, Tidewater, and University of Maryland over the years. Again, it's hard to get… people in this area are so multitasked already that it's difficult to schedule things like that because it's in between sporting events at different colleges, it's all the DC teams and Baltimore teams and there's so many conflicting events in this area to work around.

We're trying to find another niche other than cafes. I haven't quite found one yet other than the banquet, normal things. The hikes are really good for us because we can get a younger crowd that likes outdoors and more mobile to talk with a geologist or a botanist or a breeder from the national arboretum so we've been quite successful with those when I've had the opportunity to organize them.

Thorstensen: Okay. Explain what a science café is in case people don't know, and then, also, the partners that you're using to put them on.

Gouin-Paul: We just find people who are interested in talking about their work and we market it as you get to talk to a scientist without any bureaucracy, without a politician, without anything in between, so some things aren't what you learned on the Internet. They aren't what you heard about on the radio because there's been too many journalistic editings that have gone on in translation of the science out to the public.

We've generally found just word of mouth, hey, if you've heard somebody who's really, you'd really want to hear again, give us a holler, give us a name, and then my partner and I will make the contacts and get the information and get them booked. We're already booking into 2017 at this point, cooperatively working with the Rockville Science Center. It was a program that started about nine years ago. They actually wanted to build a brick-and-mortar science center in Rockville, which is a technological corridor for the DC area, a very high tech biological companies are just a bunch of headquarter buildings, et cetera.

We started the cafes and so we had to gain momentum towards the brick-and-mortar, but thus far, brick-and-mortar hasn't happened and the café movement is pretty much set in stone. Everybody comes, it's always the third Tuesday of the month. George [speaking to off screen pet bird]. My coordinator help is a woman, Ruth Hannessian, who owns, of all things, she owns a bird store, a pet store, but she has a degree in ornithology and she's very hooked into invasive species and birds and because she lives in Rockville and works, owns the store, she meets a lot of interesting people.

She and I together, about 50/50 get the speakers lined up and everything, so we make contact. Hey, what month are you available? Can you be there? Then maintain contact until the actual lecture. The one we have next week is [Tom Coate] a guy who owns a bird and came into her store, and he happens to do all the ear research at Georgetown University, so he'll be giving a lecture on hearing. It's just chance encounters like that and then through my connections with the Maryland greenhouse industry, et cetera, as well, and University of Maryland. We've never run out of speakers and people are always hearing somebody and I'll get a name and an e-mail contact in the mail and say, "Oh, yeah, I heard this person, they're awesome. See if you can get them."

One of the speakers I just lined up is, his name is Call Sign Bio [Dave Baranek, a former fighter co pilot nav/spotter  (aka Goose in top gun). He wrote a book and it's Top Gun Days.] It’s like the making of Top Gun. It's going to be flight safety and high-speed flight and he was a fighter pilot, so that's one of the ones I've just been in contact with and he's now booked for November or September, I think. It's just various contacts like that that I get.

Thorstensen: Okay. What are some of the other topics that you've had at your science café and where is your science café held?

Gouin-Paul: The café, the location that's worked the best for us is a cafeteria style restaurant, it's a barbecue joint with a chow line. There's no waiters and waitresses running around between the tables during the lecture. On a Tuesday night, they're willing to give us the space for free, so we're not paying anything out and they actually have to triple their staff to take care of us, so we bring between probably 50 to 110 on a monthly basis into their restaurant on a Tuesday night when there's nothing else to do.

Other topic, we've had everything. We've had pollination, engineering, celestial navigation, composting, bee research, automobile safety, I mean you just name it, even teaching science. We have two of our members teach personality traits and how to teach people based on how they learn, and I got a lot of flak like “why are you doing this, this isn't science.” It's like “yeah, it's how your brain works and how you understand what you're being taught, and people understand in different ways.” Women tend to be more into images whereas men like directions. It's also a combination of how you speak in your tones and everything else, so it is a science.

Yeah, we've just done the gamut. We've done just about anything you can name, structures, how an elevator works, anything, birds, bees, composting in your backyard, invasive species. I mean, there's just been everything: NASA, several NASA lectures on antigravity life and life in space and that the guy who gave the lecture ended up giving us a tour of the Udvar-Hazy Center. That's one of our out of the box, I call the out of the box Sigma Xi, which isn't in a restaurant, isn't with a podium, isn't with a microphone, and that was a two-hour tour turned into eight because there were so many questions and people really liked it.

Thorstensen: Over the years, what have you learned about what it takes to successfully run a Sigma Xi chapter that might help less experienced chapter officers?

Gouin-Paul: I think communication is the biggest part. It's staying in touch with your member base a lot, and not to the point of annoyance, though. We've had a Rockville Science Center person, former employee or former volunteer sending out too many e-mails and that became obnoxious. It's learning the timing of your people and listening to what they want. The communication through e-mails on a personal basis. I set up my account to handle all my Sigma Xi mail because that way it's separate from everything else so I can keep it separate and keep in tune with what's happening with my chapter. Also, involving, I found a lot of people, and this is another portion of CQM [Committee on Qualifications and Membership] we're trying to work with, with this new communities we have online, which is I think a really great idea and really working well.

We can affiliate members, other members affiliated with the chapter, or an at large member. In a lot of cases, we found out that they don't know that there's another active chapter around because they're not in touch with them. Through the communities, we can most likely link people with two chapters, one that they want to be a member of that may not be an active chapter, may not be doing much, and one, an area chapter or another chapter that's really doing a lot of things so they can hear about, and that's how I've gained a lot of members to the DC chapter from inactive members and from members who are in inactive chapters. They don't even know their chapter is inactive. They're still a member of it but it's not an active chapter, and I'm like, "Hey, you can join us and be on our listserv and get to know everybody, and we have events and we're still doing a lot of things."

The other thing is: [be] diverse. Because we're interdisciplinary, that just opens the door to doing lectures and things on everything. Everybody is going to get a little bit of bounce back from, "Oh, well I'm not coming because it's not a chemistry lecture and I'm a chemist." Well that's not the point of Sigma Xi. The point of Sigma Xi is you're a chemist but you're also probably a little bit of an engineer, you probably got a little other specialty in your field of study.

I’m a plant pathologist, I'm a horticulturist, plant physiologist, entomologist, animologist, microbiologist, virologist, and it goes on. My profession is interdisciplinary, even though I’m a plant pathologist, it's composed of a bunch of things and that's what I think is the importance and why I'm still Sigma Xi because it allows me to interact with all these other people who play a small role in what I do, but you never know where a good idea is going to come from when you talk to somebody in science, a light bulb goes off. You're like, "Oh, I can do that and that would work because I didn't know about that because I'm actually not an entomologist. I do entomology but that's not my primary field of study and I didn't know about that little bit of information." It really just helps. I mean, the communication is just key to a successful chapter.

Thorstensen: Okay. You're also the Chair of the Sigma Xi Committee on Qualifications and Membership, and that's the committee that oversees the health of chapters and the membership at large, which is the group of members who aren't affiliated with a specific chapter. I was wondering: what are some of the challenges that you see facing Sigma Xi's membership today?

Gouin-Paul: The whole trend is we are an aging society, unfortunately. We have a high bump of young members and we have a low middle, and high when people have more time after they retire, after their kids are in college, et cetera, and that's one of our biggest challenges. People see this and I'll bring this out, we're going to have a couple of motions before chapters to vote on soon. That should be going out shortly, in order to get more members, you have to start younger, so there's a motion that we will be sending out so we end up, we have explorer clubs for kids led by a Sigma Xi member or a chapter nearby that would mentor a group of youngsters in a club, a science club at their school, and this could be also virtual, too, given some kids' schools are not near a chapter or may not have a member to run them.

We're also initiating, what else? What are the other motions? The clubs, and if you want to form a chapter, we now can allow―we will put forth to allow―associate members to form a chapter. Associate members are usually younger because they don't have the experience yet to become a full member [by publishing], et cetera, but they may have more time because they're not a PI on an experiment to have more time to give and volunteer to help a chapter. That's an important change.

The website being updated has been fabulous help because of the communities and the blogging, et cetera. I think that's also very important and also getting an eventual goal financially would be to get the American Scientist in a mobile app [other than the iPad app] so we can get that out on Kindles and phones easier than it is right now. That's probably in the future at some point. Just retaining members, and I think part of that is that communication key, making it as easy as possible for chapter officers to communicate with each other and also their chapter members. We have members who are not tech savvy, even directors who don't overly communicate and we need to help them, and I'm sure that Eman Ghanem, Sigma Xi’s new director of chapters is really on the ball with that and she's being very energized behind, and helping, members who need that help to set up that communication process because it's not an easy learning curve for some, but it is kind of a learning curve, so some of us have median and younger generations get it and others don't.

I think it's an important part and it will help the society as a whole to keep and retain members because of the communication. It's always that why Sigma Xi? Why Sigma Xi for you? Why Sigma Xi for me? My part is not, I'm not so much needing the pat on the back and the honor part of it, but the ethics and the outreach part of science to the public is what holds me in. It's communicating that science and to communicate, you have to communicate.

Thorstensen: Yeah, okay, and you're also director of Sigma Xi's Mid-Atlantic Region, and that gives you a spot on the Board of Directors. What would you like the membership to know about what it's like to be on the board and what the board is working on?

Gouin-Paul: The board is multifaceted because we're composed of both the regional directors and the constituency directors, so we have a little bit of everybody. I think that members think the board is just there to run the Society but they don't understand that they need to talk to us to tell us what they want the Society to do and what directions they want the Society to run in. I represent them and from my membership, I send out a Mid-Atlantic e-mail to all members in the Mid-Atlantic area saying, "Hey, what would you like me to work on for the Society? Do you have ideas and directions of what you think the Society should be doing or something we shouldn't be doing?"

I do the SurveyMonkey surveys, things like that to get an idea of what they want me to do rather than what I want me to do because I'm not there to represent me and my goals, I'm there to represent them and their goals. Then being an area chapter myself brings another facet because area chapters function way differently than institutional chapters and college-based chapters. Things that work for the university's baccalaureates research and development don't work for area chapters so much, and the at large is a whole other ball of wax because they're not affiliated with a chapter and it's like okay, why are you in Sigma Xi as just an individual and not with a chapter?

Trying to figure out that key may help us gain more members if we can figure that out, because we are one of the few societies that is still chapter-based, but the chapter-base I think enriches us. Many members who are in chapters I think are there because of that, because there's some camaraderie with a chapter. I still have the original charter. I think it's in a lobby there in our papers that the original DC chapter was actually based at the Smithsonian Institution and there's a letter there that states that they would rather have meetings not during their workday too so they're not taken away from their research.

They wanted meetings in the evenings around weekends or stuff like that so it wouldn't affect their research so much, but they were very invigorated by talking to one another from the different fields of science. I think that interdisciplinary aspect, it's brought a lot in the board and we have to, the board members, have to keep an open mind that what works for them may not work for everybody, but we need to be very flexible, and the board, we try to do that within the extent of our bylaws and constitution. Like myself, if I don't like the laws, I change them, which is why I became a director. We can change the bylaws to be more modern.

We were founded, we just had our [130th] anniversary, and some of the things that were written in bylaws and constitution were written in 125 years ago for that level of the Society, whereas some things are still applicable and other things aren't, and being on the board allows me a say in how we can change and improve that to get with this generation because this generation is who we need as members, and so working with the three of the CQM board, we're trying to get that flexibility in there.

Thorstensen: Okay. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention about what the board is working on besides the items coming up to vote that you already mentioned?

Gouin-Paul: We just had our board meeting, so basically the cycle of the meeting was to approve those motions to be put forth to the chapters. The other is we were still hunting for a CEO, so there was that entire discussion, but John Nemeth has decided to stick on for a while longer, so that's awesome because he's been a great help and a great push of energy into the board. 

We're also going to be moving our [Sigma Xi Annual Meetings], so we're not going to be meeting in November. This will be our last meeting in November. We're moving them into a summertime schedule in hopes of gaining members to attend, [who] are usually busy in November because they're teaching. We're hoping that by moving it to university setting during the summer, staying in dorms so that the price tag becomes a little cheaper and in the summer when, obviously, the professors and who teach classes aren't teaching don't have their teaching schedules to prohibit them from coming to the meetings.

Because we hear at the annual meetings, "Well I'm the only representative in my chapter and I'm retired because I'm not teaching and everybody is teaching, that's why I'm here." I'm sure that a lot of people would like to come to the meetings but their schedule doesn't allow them to in November when our meetings usually are held, so we're making a push in that direction and going to biennial meetings probably versus annual, though that's still kind of being discussed.

Thorstensen: Okay. Speaking of the Annual Meeting, you've been the photographer for Sigma Xi's Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference. Having that experience of being at that event, what do you see as the value of members getting together for that meeting?

Gouin-Paul: The meetings are so energizing, getting to talk to everybody, and putting names to faces of people you've e-mailed with a lot, dealing with chapter events or whatnot because we have caucus meetings for the regions and the constituencies during the meetings. The other advantage is having all the students there and just seeing their energy for science. It's wonderful seeing how motivated the students are even at the high school level to present a poster at a national meeting. If we can keep them in science through that, that's just a bonus.

The interaction between members. A bunch of us have been coming to meetings for a long time, so it's a chance to catch up and also with this new basis of the meetings being more scientific based versus just governance, so to speak, to learn something, the last few have been really, I found really educational for me because I don't get off through my job to go to my annual meetings, we don't have funding. I can go to this because it's on my own time and I found them to be really educational, the sessions you gave at the last meeting on communications and Facebook and Twitter. Half the room was like, "Huh? Oh, that's cool. Let's do that." Just to have communication of science piece is wonderful, and we've had other meetings themed around food and around things that were just parts of the meeting, not the majority, and I'm hoping that this meeting, the science is just majority.

Also, listening to the guest lectures, the award-winning lectures from young scientists from the McGovern Award, et cetera, are just they're fabulous. They're just an insight, a really focused insight into one piece of research, which I think is just wonderful for people to be able to talk about their work that may not have been recognized in other forms before and in front of a general audience because they're speaking across disciplines, so it's focused on their research but it's very understandable for those of us who are plant scientists.

Thorstensen: You volunteer so much time for Sigma Xi and you've mentioned that you enjoy Sigma Xi because it's interdisciplinary and it has outreach aspects to it. Are there any other reasons why it's so important for you to be a part of the Society?

Gouin-Paul: For me, it's all about the outreach of science. You go on Facebook and get e-mails of so much stuff on the Internet that's so not true, and it's great to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody in your e-mail, somebody who you know through Sigma Xi and go, "Okay, can you explain this to me? Because they're not doing this right but I can't explain it any better." Then to learn another piece of information. I always say it's not who you know, it's what you know, and I think scientists as a whole have done a really poor job of communicating their science.

... Scientists tend to be introverts, they tend to be quiet, they're not out there, and so when their research gets waylayed by the Internet and things, they don't speak out, and I think we need to speak out because there's so much stuff going on that is not science-based, it's based on Internet hype. That's why I stay in it because I can communicate with a very huge, broad band of people and be able to pick up the phone or pop an e-mail to somebody and say, "Hey, you do this research. Can you help me out here?" I think that's one of the networking with other people globally has just been an incredible experience.

Thorstensen: Great, well thank you and congratulations on your Evan Ferguson Award.

Gouin-Paul: All right. Thank you so much and I had the pleasure of meeting Evan at my first couple of national meetings and he was Mr. Sigma Xi and he was an amazing person. Being honored in this way is really special. I thank you all.

Thorstensen: Thank you