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American Scientist July-August [1999], Volume 87, No. 4

An Interview with Sigma Xi President Peggie Hollingsworth

Science Advocacy

On July 1, [1999] Peggie J. Hollingsworth begins her one-year term as president of Sigma Xi. She is a University of Michigan pharmacologist and toxicologist who has been active in Sigma Xi, both locally and at the Societal level, for many years.

You have been active in Sigma Xi at all levels of the Society's governance. What do you remember about your induction into Sigma Xi?
I was co-manager of the Scanning Electron Microscopy and Microprobe Analysis Laboratory in the University of Michigan College of Engineering in 1978 when the director of the laboratory, Professor Wilbur C. Bigelow, asked if I might wish to become a member of Sigma Xi. I expressed an interest, was nominated and elected, but like many of our inductees did not become active in the local chapter for quite a few years.

How did you first get involved in Sigma Xi activities?
In 1984 Herbert P. Galliher, professor of industrial and operations engineering, became chapter president in Ann Arbor. At that time, like many Sigma Xi Chapters in large universities, our chapter's activities were quite limited, consisting mainly of the annual recruitment and initiation of new members. Consequently membership was declining.

Professor Galliher and the members of the Chapter Council decided to take steps to "revitalize" the chapter, and an invitation was sent inviting each member to join the Chapter Council. I accepted the invitation. Almost immediately I was elected chapter secretary, and after two years in that position became vice-president and then president.

Did you have a particular mentor who encouraged your involvement?
Robert Zand, Professor of Biological Chemistry, one of our current directors-at-large, was on the Chapter Council in 1984, as he is today, and urged me to represent the chapter at the 1985 Annual Meeting and to become involved in Sigma Xi activities at the regional and Societal level.

I represented the chapter at the Annual Meetings from 1985 until 1988 at which time I was elected a regional director for the North Central region. In 1992 I was asked to become chair of the newly created Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity which today is a standing committee of Sigma Xi.

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What goals do you have for your year as president?
First, I would like to see Sigma Xi increase its efforts to stimulate participation of members of the Society in Sigma Xi activities at the level of the local chapter.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the annual banquet and initiation ceremony of the Wabash Valley Chapter in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was impressed by the interest and enthusiasm of its members. It seemed clear to me that this chapter, which serves Indiana State University, Hulman-Rose Polytechnical Institute, St. Mary's College and the Stillman Institute of Technology, would blossom with some additional nurturing by the parent organization.

We must develop ways to better communicate with our local chapters so that they are made aware of the rich variety of programs with which Sigma Xi is involved and of the excellent resources that are available from the administrative offices in Research Triangle Park.

Second, I would like to see Sigma Xi develop further the mentorship program that has been suggested by the Committee on Diversity. This program would involve the participation of Sigma Xi members as mentors to young faculty, researchers, and industrial professionals at the local level.

Although the program was suggested as a means of encouraging women and members of underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science and engineering, it is a program that can and should be made available to all young people, irrespective of gender or ethnicity.

An effective mentorship program would increase greatly the visibility of Sigma Xi within the academic community and would prepare young scientists and engineers for participation in the activities of the society. Such a mentorship program would add greatly to other key Sigma Xi programs, such as the Grants-in-Aid of Research program.

Third, I would like to see Sigma Xi continue and even intensify its efforts to make the science and engineering professions more inclusive and to better educate society at large as to the value of science to the well-being of humankind. The important annual forums that we have had and are planning on educational issues and the workshops on diversity and inclusiveness that have taken place at the time of our Annual Meetings are elements of such efforts.

The activities of the International Committee are also designed to make science and engineering more inclusive as well as to stimulate interactions among scientists and engineers on a global sphere.

We learned recently that the highest number of chapters in the Society's history have been reported in "good standing." Do you think this indicates a resurgence of activities among the chapters?
This is of course very good news especially in light of the annual reports of a decreasing membership and the nagging concern we have had for many years that we must find ways to reverse the decline in our membership. "Good standing" means that local chapters are inducting new members and are filing an annual report with the international office in Research Triangle Park.

This news suggests that there is an interest in Sigma Xi at the "grass-roots" level and that the time might now be ripe for efforts that I have already mentioned to build the Society at that level.

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Is the science advocacy program that Michigan chapters have developed a model that other Sigma Xi chapters can effectively pursue?
The science advocacy program in Michigan involves a number of Sigma Xi Chapters across the state, and I believe that the concept behind the program originated with the Sigma Xi Chapter at Michigan State University.

In this program Sigma Xi members make themselves and their expertise available to members of Congress, Senators and possibly other elected officials in an advisory capacity. A number of the University of Michigan Chapter members have participated in such meetings with members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan.

I personally took part in two such meetings, one with Congressman John Conyers from Detroit and the other with Congressman Vernon Ehlers from Grand Rapids. At each of these meetings there were representatives from at least three different Sigma Xi chapters as well as the Congressman. My impression was that these meetings were quite valuable and that all who attended benefited from the meeting.

The science advocacy program has a number of attractive features:

What other areas do you think might be worthwhile for chapters to consider?
Local Sigma Xi chapters should continue to support activities that have traditionally involved the participation of their members, such as judging at local science fairs and providing awards to K-12, undergraduate and graduate students and to outstanding teachers at every level.

Other activities will depend to a large degree upon the composition of the local chapter, that is, chapters in large research universities will function somewhat differently than chapters in small colleges, industrial chapters and chapters associated with governmental agencies.

Sigma Xi chapters on the local level can function best if they provide their constituents with programs that others do not provide. For example, in my own chapter we have presented a series of forums on topics such as ethics in science and undergraduate education, many of which have resulted in publications of their proceedings in monograph form.

We also sponsor an annual address by the president or by the vice-president for research on the research status of the university. We normally seek co-sponsorship for all of our programs. In addition, we communicate with our members by means of a newsletter and, not surprisingly, we have a chapter Web page that carries news about our activities. Sigma Xi's administrative office has provided invaluable assistance for many of these activities.

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You will be presiding over this year's Sigma Xi Forum on reforming undergraduate science and engineering education. What do you hope will come out of this conference?
The idea that undergraduate education, not only in science and engineering but in all disciplines, should be more inquiry and research based has been actively debated for a number of years.

In a Sigma Xi forum on science education held in 1992 at the University of Michigan, Professor Homer Neal, who at the time was a member of the National Science Board and who subsequently became interim president of the University of Michigan, recommended that every undergraduate student be required to have a research experience as part of her/his education.

The issue was brought to the forefront in April 1998 with the report of the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates at the Research University. This report was highly critical of undergraduate education at many of the major research universities in the United States, and among its recommendations was one similar to that which had been made by Homer Neal.

A forum on undergraduate education in October 1998, was hosted by Sigma Xi and other faculty groups at the University of Michigan. This forum, entitled "Research Universities and the Undergraduate: Designing Education for the 21st Century," featured as opening speaker Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny, president of SUNY at Stony Brook.

The reception the Boyer Commission Report had on university campuses demonstrated that the concept of a required research experience was highly controversial and certainly not accepted by all faculty.

The Sigma Xi forum, planned to take place in conjunction with the 1999 Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, takes place at an opportune time. Educators will have had ample time to deliberate upon, debate and react to the Boyer Commission Report and to the concept of making undergraduate education more inquiry and research based.

Sigma Xi will have a unique opportunity to contribute to this discussion. One can only hope that the proceedings of the planned forum will help to shape in a constructive manner the future of undergraduate education.

(c) American Scientist

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