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April 23, 2008
An Interview with New Executive Director Jerome F. Baker
Jerry Baker, Sigma Xi's new executive director, has broad experience as a researcher and administrator. He comes to Sigma Xi from the Federation of Animal Science Societies, where he was chief executive officer. He has also been a faculty member at Texas A&M University, the University of Georgia and the University of Nebraska. He began his new duties April 14, 2008. For more about him, see the news release on his appointment.
When did you first become interested in pursuing a research career?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in science. I had a phenomenal chemistry teacher in high school, and that experience led me to major in biology and chemistry as an undergraduate. I knew that I wasn't going to be satisfied with just a bachelorís degree, even though I wasn't certain at the time which field I wanted to pursue.
I took courses in environmental science, ecology and plant genetics. I was intrigued with the idea of helping to improve food production and safety. I grew up on a farm and had cattle and horses. In high school, I even rented some land to farm. When the time came for graduate school, I decided on Texas A&M and animal genetics. After getting my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to work at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska.
Who influenced you along the way?
The first time I presented a paper at a scientific conference I met USDA-ARS geneticist Gordon Dickerson. He was a widely respected and very interesting man who stayed active late into his life. When I finished presenting my paper, he stood to ask a question, as he had of other presenters. And he had asked some hard questions. But it turned out that the question he had for me was a simple one. I gave the answer and gained a lot of confidence. I later went to work with him as a postdoctoral research fellow.
Youíve been a Sigma Xi member since 1990. What has the Society meant to you?
I knew I wanted to stay in academia and began my career at Texas A&M University. Then an opportunity came up at the University of Georgia to focus on research and manage their beef cattle units, which allowed me to get into management.
I was inducted into Sigma Xi at UGA, and what really struck me was that the members of the Sigma Xi chapter there represented a wide spectrum of science and engineering. This was important to me, because I wanted a bigger perspective. We all belong to societies relevant to our disciplines, but we canít really succeed off by ourselves. Itís important to broaden our point of view, and that is a real strength of Sigma Xi.
My first experience with a cross disciplinary project involved a computer simulation program for beef cattle genetics. I knew Fortran, but not all the tricks. I worked with someone from the computer science school. That kind of collaboration has become more and more common.
Science in general has become more interdisciplinary. The University of Minnesota has introduced the idea of a multiple author thesis. All of this is very much in keeping with the history and traditions of Sigma Xi, perhaps best embodied by its magazine, American Scientist.
Could you talk about your work with other scientific societies?
When I became a board member for the American Society of Animal Science, I gained a new appreciation for how scientific organizations work. I had been involved on various committees, but the importance of board service made an impression on me. I began to understand the different perspectives that people bring to the table. An active board provides an important opportunity for the exchange of ideas, always with an eye toward the mission and vision of the society. Itís my impression that thatís very much true at Sigma Xi.
In my former position with the Federation of Animal Science Societies, there were three founding societies, plus nine others, for which we offered leadership and management services. I attended approximately 20 board meetings a year and helped several groups get back on track financially. There are only a couple of ways you can do that, either through dues or programs and products. You canít market yourself like a for-profit company.
When I took over at the federation, there were budgetary problems. We looked at what we did well and how we could capitalize on that. By taking in clients, in our case other societies, we could spread the costs among all involved.
We canít do that at Sigma Xi. But we can re-engage our chapters and emphasize the important role that our members play in the life of the Society. A membership reactivation program involving peer-to-peer contact may be the most effective approach we can take. If Sigma Xi members will make an effort to contact colleagues and urge them to reactivate, that could go a long way in turning our membership decline around.
Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi is the international honor society of research scientists and engineers, with more than 500 chapters at colleges and universities, government laboratories and industry research centers. Membership is by invitation, in recognition of research potential or achievement. Over the years, more than 200 Sigma Xi members have received the Nobel Prize. In addition to publishing American Scientist, the non-profit Society awards hundreds of grants annually to student researchers and sponsors a variety of programs that support science and engineering.