Interviewed by Susan Straight
July 20, 2020
Maya Ajmera is the president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News. The Society is best known for its world-class science competitions, award-winning journalism, and outreach and equity programs. Maya was also the founder of The Global Fund for Children, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable children, and has written more than 20 children’s books.
Maya, it’s so great to be with you today.
It’s really great to be with you, Susan. Thanks so much for having me.
Your career direction was partly inspired by seeing a small group of children attending class on a train platform in India. What kind of innovative approaches to education are you seeing now, during lockdowns and social distancing?
Everything has gone virtual. You’re seeing a lot of innovative things going on around the world. I’m incredibly excited about how technology has become very creative during this time. I’ll also say very honestly, it doesn’t take the place of being in a classroom and learning from a teacher. Even though we’re doing that virtually, it isn’t the same as being there in person. Let’s hope our extraordinary scientists out there in pharmaceutical companies, the NIH and everywhere else are coming up with the therapeutics and vaccines we need to fight COVID-19.
What are some of the most important things science centers and museums do (and could also do) to address social inequities?
One of the things I learned at the Global Fund for Children is that you meet children where they are instead of them coming to you. Science centers and museums can have a way of reaching children by going into the communities in a safe way. There’s a great example of one of our STEM Action Grant recipients, BioBus in New York City. It’s an old bus equipped with science equipment and it goes into the neighborhoods and children come on the bus and do science experiments and learn from the scientists about research and doing science projects. To me, it’s about meeting children where they are—can science centers and museums do even more of that?
What opportunities and challenges do a global pandemic present for the Society’s work?
The International Science and Engineering Fair that was supposed to happen in May, brings together 10,000 people and high school students—2,000 of them from 80 countries and territories—competing for over $5 million in awards. We had to go virtual, but as a result, we brought over 18,000 people together. Kids love to talk about their science; they love to talk about their research. And that’s incredibly important.
Also, I’m the publisher of Science News (the magazine founded by E.W. Scripps nearly 100 years ago) and our newsroom has been working 24/7 on COVID-19 reporting as well as other science reporting. We’ve seen our digital numbers go through the roof due to the hunger for evidence-based science reporting right now.
But we’ve got to do more because living in a global economy and knowing the incredible issues that are facing us from climate change to the pandemic to another pandemic in 10 or 15 or 30 years, we have to have a workforce that’s prepared for the future.
What hopeful progress do you see for achieving greater social justice in STEM education as well as broadening science participation?
One of the things that was very important to me when I came to the Society for Science & the Public in 2014 was that every young person in this country could dream about becoming a scientist or engineer, if that’s what they wanted to be. We’ve created several programs in the social justice space where we get young people of color really interested in science and engineering. Science News in High Schools is in 5,000 high schools in the country—over 60% of them are Title I schools—reaching nearly 5 million kids. We have a mentorship program called the Advocate Program, where we support teachers and mentors to coach underserved young people through the science competition process. We also have a grants program, working with teachers across the country too. But we’ve got to do more because living in a global economy and knowing the incredible issues that are facing us from climate change to the pandemic to another pandemic in 10 or 15 or 30 years, we have to have a workforce that’s prepared for the future. And that workforce is going to look very different than it does today because of the extraordinary diversity in this country. Diversity makes us strong; we just have to do our part to make sure that STEM education is strong in this country.
In what ways do students participating in the Society’s competitions engage the broader public in science?
We have three competitions: Broadcom MASTERS (middle school), the Regeneron Science Talent Search (high school), and the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (high school). At these competitions, kids have to be able to talk about and defend their science projects and explain the implications of their research in our greater society. That’s an important life skill for these young scientists and engineers.
What are you currently working on—or what’s your next big project?
Our next big project is the Regeneron Science Talent Search—the most prestigious STEM competition in the country. We are going virtual. There will be a public exhibition of projects on Saturday, July 25. It is open to the public, as is the awards ceremony.
Learn more about science centers and public engagement in science.