The Society’s new leader, Maya Ajmera, has a habit of making things happen
Spend an hour with Maya Ajmera, and you begin to see opportunity everywhere. As she tells her life story, it becomes clear she has been seizing opportunities since she was a kid. Through the global organization she founded when she was only 25, she’s been creating opportunity for millions of young people around the globe for decades. She frames every venture in her life, including her new role as president and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News, as an opportunity just waiting to be developed.
As Ajmera sees it, these are exciting times in science education and science journalism. “Momentum is building — from universities, the business sector, even the White House — that we must aggressively engage young people in science, technology, engineering and math fields,” says Ajmera, who took the reins of SSP in August. With its long history of student science competitions and its 92-year-old magazine, SSP is poised to play an important role in fostering interest in and an understanding of science in people of all ages, she notes.
“Here at SSP, we have an incredibly strong foundation,” Ajmera says. “What’s next is to grow, to build our capacity so that we can reach even more people. We also need to ensure that the Science News family of media properties can continue to tell stories from the frontiers of science — something that’s increasingly rare in an age in which most newspapers have severely cut back on science coverage and few magazines have staff reporters able to do the type of in-depth, regular coverage Science News does. I really do see all of these challenges as opportunities for SSP to evolve and become a 21st century organization.”
The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest of the youth competitions run by SSP, is already global in reach. The competition brings in kids from over 70 countries. So it’s no surprise that Ajmera sees a global focus as a new opportunity for Science News as well. “People around the globe should be reading Science News, bringing science and scientific thinking into their lives.”
This appreciation of the possibilities, matched by the drive needed to bring those to fruition, is apparently a life-long habit born of “your typical, hard-charging family,” she says. Ajmera’s parents moved to the United States from India when her father enrolled in an electrical engineering Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa. Born in Iowa City, she grew up in North Carolina, where her father joined the physics faculty of East Carolina University. Her mother became one of the top-selling Avon representatives on the East Coast.
When a 13-year-old Ajmera needed to ask her father for a ride at night, it wasn’t for a sleepover, or a trip to the movies or any other typical teen activity. She needed to get to the lab, to turn the lights on over a pool of duckweed. She worked in the ECU lab of Prem Sehgal, a botanist exploring the life cycle of the duckweed Lemnoideae. Long considered a nuisance, duckweed is surprisingly high in protein and starch, giving it potential as both a food and biofuel.
“I had to count the duckweed three times a day, to measure the growth,” she recalls. “If I had failed to turn on the lights, I would have had to start again.”
It was the beginning of a love for science, says Ajmera, who also learned her first lessons in mentorship, scientific integrity and the scientific method in the botany lab. She became fascinated with the possibilities of science. That turned her into what she calls “a science fair junkie.” She participated in the North Carolina Science Fair and the NASA Space Shuttle competition.
Her passion for science also earned her a spot at the prestigious North Carolina School of Science and Math, a two-year high school boarding program. As a junior, Ajmera again created her own opportunity — she went to the west campus of Duke University and “started knocking on scientists’ doors.” Molecular biologist Vickers Burdett took a chance on her. With Burdett, Ajmera looked at the genetic determinants of tetracycline resistance in certain bacteria.
Ajmera’s work with Burdett led to her first introduction to Society for Science & the Public. At 17, she entered her research project into the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a competition run by SSP and now known as the Intel Science Talent Search. She became the first woman from North Carolina to make it to the honors group.
As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Ajmera continued to pursue a career in science, studying with developmental neurobiologist Margaret Hollyday, who was well-known for her investigations of cell death. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, Ajmera’s path took a turn in 1989 when she won a fellowship from Rotary International. The prize funded a year of study at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India, and Ajmera used the opportunity to travel throughout South Asia. “I had professors who told me, ‘If you want to understand people, get a backpack and start traveling,’ ” she says.
Those travels had an impact. “I saw home-grown innovations in people’s backyards. I saw adaptations we never heard about in the classroom or the lab, particularly in the social and environmental sector.”
Then came what she calls her “moment of obligation.” As she hustled through a crowded platform at the train station in Bhubaneswar, Ajmera saw a group of children sitting in a circle. At their center: a teacher, leading a class. “There were 50 kids, all learning to read and write,” she recalls. “They were obviously poor. They would work, beg, eat and sleep at the station; they had no time to go to school. So this social entrepreneur decided to bring the school to them, where they were, on the train platform.” Ajmera asked the teacher what it cost: $400 per year. In addition to their education, the children were also given clothing and food.
“I suddenly saw the world in a new way,” she says. “I asked, ‘How come I don’t see more train platform schools all over India?’ I imagined what a difference this would make. I imagined what a difference it would make if I could make this happen.”
Ajmera went on to earn a master’s degree at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. While still a graduate student, she raised $25,000 in seed capital and incubated the Global Fund for Children, a nonprofit designed to bring small amounts of capital to innovators focused on improving the lives of children “living on the edges of society.” Among its targets: refugee children, child laborers and trafficked children. Officially launched in 1997, GFC was one of the first nongovernmental organizations to foster scalability and sustainability in local community groups.
Today, GFC is a well-respected organization that has invested more than $37 million in 614 grassroots organizations in 79 countries.
At GFC, Ajmera founded an innovative children’s book publishing imprint. She also became a children’s book author, writing 20 of the more than 35 award-winning books put out by the organization. The books, which have a combined readership of 4 million, take children inside diverse global cultures with titles such as Children from Australia to
Since founding GFC, Ajmera has received many honors, including the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute in 2011, and this year the Rotary Foundation Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award. In 2011, after 18 years at the helm of GFC, she decided the organization needed fresh leadership. “I needed time to reflect and decide what I was going to do next.”
For the last three years, she has served as a visiting scholar at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and was named a visiting professor of the practice in public policy at Duke.
As an alumna of the Science Talent Search and an early reader of Science News at the local library, Ajmera kept up with SSP over the years. “Every six months I would go online and see what was happening,” she says. That’s how she learned about the search for a new leader for the organization of more than 60 people.
It’s no surprise that Ajmera was attracted by the opportunities of the job. “It’s an incredibly challenging time in the world of publishing and media, but I think of it as a time of innovation. There are great opportunities. I’m quite ambitious — I want to see more readers of Science News in every age group.”
With deep respect for the organization’s traditions, Ajmera also sees the potential for new programs, such as adult competitions. “I want to build on what we are known for,” she says.
Still, she recognizes that getting to the magazine’s 100th anniversary in 2022 will not be easy. “I was brought into SSP at a very challenging time for Science News. Doing high-quality science journalism is expensive, and my charge is to figure out how to make it sustainable, so we have another 100 years. I need our readers, alumni, partners and supporters to give me ideas, to find new ways to support this crucial part of our mission. We don’t want to cut back — we want to do more. That’s the challenge.”
If anything, Ajmera seems energized by such lofty goals. It helps that she feels she has landed in the perfect place to blend her love of science and her dreams of educating and improving lives. “I feel privileged and honored to be here. As Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford graduation speech, you can’t connect the dots looking forward, but you can looking backwards. Somehow this all makes sense.” —Monika Guttman