The Role of Disciplinary Societies: A Disciplinary Society President's Perspective

James M. Gentile
Dean for the Natural Sciences
Hope College

Ten years ago my phone rang and I heard the voice of someone named Jeanne Narum. She is the Director of the Independent Colleges Office in Washington, DC, and she had a proposal for me. "Come to Washington, DC" she said, to spend a few days talking together with four or five other individuals in her office, and we would solve the nation's ills relative to undergraduate education in science and mathematics. Well, the enthusiasm in the voice and the positive vibrations that permeated our conversation captivated me, and I uttered those fatal words "Sure, I can do that." Thus it was that I was introduced to Jeanne Narum, and ultimately to something that has come to be known as Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL).

I was a new dean at the time of this historic invitation. I also was, and still am, active in research in the field of environmental mutagenesis, with a special emphasis on finding ways to do significant research while concomitantly training undergraduate students for future careers in science. I was still trying to feel my way along as a novice administrator and feebly attempting to balance my administrative responsibilities with my more serious interests in research and teaching. I had yet to find the "hook" that could tie the faculty and programs that had a home in science and mathematics at Hope into a strong community that had a common focus geared toward enhanced student learning. PKAL provided that focal point of effort that, in my opinion, has underwritten any successes that we have achieved as an institution in the fields of science and mathematics.

My focus and energies as a dean have always been geared toward my colleagues on the faculty. I strongly believe that as faculty grow and develop so does the curriculum and all other facets of science and mathematics programs, including infrastructure. The perspectives, opportunities and challenges put forth by PKAL served to stimulate faculty thinking and conversation on our campus. From these efforts came curriculum reform and pedagogical changes that have enhanced all aspects of our intellectual endeavor. What has the role of PKAL been in all of this? PKAL has forced us to work together as a community to ask questions and to seek answers. We have sent teams of faculty and administrators to numerous PKAL meetings throughout the past ten years. While the primary intent for these efforts was, of course, to solve the particular problem at hand (e.g., reform of first-year physics courses, establishing a research-rich curriculum, planning for a new science facility, etc.) these extended opportunities to work and think together brought faculty members together and catalyzed thinking in a manner that far exceeded the original intent and plan. "Possibility thinking" entered the pictured and the majority of the time a "PKAL group" came to me with not only wide-eyed enthusiasm to address an issue, but also a framework of a coherent plan on how they wanted to proceed.

To building upon the national PKAL effort I took the privilege of modeling PKAL initiatives on our campus. When we looked at curriculum issues within a given department, we included ?team members? from outside the boundaries normal established by that department. This served to broaden perspective and open the envelope of thinking in new ways. Young faculty members who were selected by PKAL as F21 connected with outstanding colleagues from other institutions, bringing back to our campus unbounded enthusiasm and countless innovative ideas of how we could move forward in all that we elected to do.

As this enthusiasm and conversation was building a strange thing happened. Unique partnerships formed. More mature colleagues mentored newer faculty members in some of the traditional ways, but simultaneously these more mature faculty were positively challenged and mentored by these young faculty. My role in this was simple: keep the conversation going, and when the question "Why couldn't we try X?" was chummed onto the water, I echoed the response I learned from Jeanne Narum and other PKAL colleagues "Why not?" What I also learned was to then suggest that they put their ideas down on paper, had a colleague or two read those ideas (again, community building) and then it was my task to find some resources to help these folks seek an answer to whatever question or issue they posed.

What has come from these efforts? Well, frankly, the fruits of our efforts are numerous. We now have a new core curriculum in science (for majors and non-majors alike) that celebrates interdisciplinarity and focuses on hands-on learning. By working from and with the enthusiasm of excited faculty members we have helped several maturing faculty to become reinvigorated in their teaching and scholarly activities. We have developed several new initiatives at the interface of disciplines, resulting in joint academic appointments for faculty and joint facility centers for programs. And we are now prepared to break ground on a new science facility to allow us to carry our program through to the future. How has all of this happened? I wish I could say that it was because I was such an outstanding dean. But that is certainly not the case. Rather, it happened because (in my opinion) PKAL gave us opportunity, gave us a framework and reference for our discussions, challenged us to think out of the box, and modeled for us at the national level the community we needed to be here on our campus. PKAL thus made my job as a dean quite easy. I learned how to take advantage of the talents of strong faculty colleagues, I learned that a little bit of money could go a long way, and I learned that an investment in faculty, and in the community in which they work and live, is perhaps the longest-term and best investment possible to catalyze a program.

I never have regretted saying yes to that initial call from Jeanne Narum. In fact, I have yet to learn to say no to her and to PKAL....and I hope I never do say no. Saying no might mean I am too complacent and smug, and imply that I have already "learned it all." PKAL has pushed me, has pushed my faculty colleagues, and has pushed us as an institution. And I am deeply thankful for all those gentle shoves.

I think it is now time for EMS and other scientific societies to answer "Jeanne's call." I think we (the majority of scientific societies, including EMS,) are a bit smug in envisioning that it will be "….business as usual" relative to the future work force in scientific research, relative to the public's understanding of what it is we are doing and why it should be supported, and relative to a funding base from governments that will continue to grow. Unless scientific societies take proactive action to promote education not only for future scientists, but also for a public sector that will have to live in a technologically enriched world, in the future we will find a continuously dwindling supply of scientists and growing skepticism in the public sector.

The discussions we are now having at the National Research Council Life Science Board underscore the concern I note above and our recent conversations have raised the specter of the loss of vitality of some smaller scientific communities and areas of study (because they will ultimately be consumed by under the label of "interest groups" in larger scientific groups). One does not have to have too far a stretch of the imagination to envision that EMS, as strong and committed a group as we are, may indeed run a future risk of identity crisis in this manner as one envisions growth of genetic toxicology (and related) research in larger groups such as AACR, SOT, ASM, and GSA.

It is my belief that EMS and all scientific societies must take charge of their own destiny by finding more ways to promote opportunities for education of future members through endorsement of (and participation in) aspects of the education enterprise for both graduate and undergraduate students. Involvement with groups such as PKAL is one such step that could make a difference and I encourage EMS to find ways to join other scientific societies as they link with PKAL and other similar organizations.

In closing I want to thank the members of the EMS Awards Committee for selecting me for the prestigious Alexander Hollaender Award and I want to thank the EMS for giving me the opportunity to grow as a scientist and educator within the strong community of scholars that exists in our society. I want to see us to continue go grow as a society and I think that by taking the initiative in educational outreach we have the opportunity to control our own future in that regard.