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James Turner: 5 things about a senior scientist

AAAS Fellow James Taylor recently retired from the federal government after more than 37 years of service. (Photo: James Turner)

James Turner
AAAS Fellow
Washington, D.C.

Background: I recently retired from the federal government after more than 37 years of service. As a member of the Senior Executive Service during most of this time, I managed programs in Magnetic Fusion Energy, Nuclear Weapons Safety and Nuclear Non-Proliferation. I was deputy director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and director, Office of International Affairs and Senior Adviser to the NOAA Administrator. Prior to entering federal service, I served on the physics faculties at Southern University and Morehouse College. My degrees are in physics from MIT (Ph.D.) and Johns Hopkins (B.A.). My time is now spent directing programs to attract middle-school students (particularly minorities) to STEM careers. I am married with five children and three grandchildren.

Question 1: Why did you become a scientist?
Answer: When I was a child, I always admired my father's interest and superior ability with math and science. So to please him, I applied myself in those areas. After a few years, I found that I shared his love for STEM. I was in the honors program at a Jesuit high school that was quite rigorous and demanding. That experience, my personal sense of satisfaction, and my parents' nurturing of my ambitions "sealed the deal."

Question 2: What are you most proud of in your work?
Answer: I managed projects in two nuclear-closed cities in Siberia valued at a total of $1 billion—for the permanent shutdown of Russia's last three weapons-grade plutonium production reactors. Besides the plutonium production, these reactors posed a nuclear safety risk [given] that the reactor involved in the Chernobyl accident was an improvement in design from [those] production reactors. The project at one site required international financial participation to get started. A State Department colleague and I were able to raise more than $30 million from several nations to enable the start of construction and avoid schedule and cost concerns.

Question 3: Tell us about a hobby or passion outside of work.
Answer: My passion is to attract more minorities and women into STEM careers. Since 2011, I have directed an effort aimed at middle-school students, since studies indicate this is the weak point in the pipeline. We have STEM-focused events with hands-on opportunities for the students. We also work with parents (particularly those with non-STEM backgrounds) to provide advice on how to nurture their child's interest and to combat "STEM-phobia." We also work with teachers to provide materials to supplement their work in the classroom. I practice what I preach with my three grandchildren; once they are 3-years-old, they get nothing but science books, games, projects, experiments, activities etc. from "Gramps."

Question 4: Tell us a story about your childhood.
Answer: My sister and I were blessed with the best parents ever. They instilled in us that family, integrity, honor, and education were to be valued. Our family motto was "veni, vidi, vici." In the 9th grade, I encountered adversity for the first time with real problems in algebra. My father went with me to see the headmaster and successfully argued for me to remain in the honors class. Thanks to my parents' support and confidence in me, I finally "got it." At graduation, I won awards for the highest math grade in the honors class and for excellence in math and science.

Question 5: Share a lighthearted story.
Answer: Every Thursday afternoon [at my] Jesuit high school, confession was mandatory. One Thursday, I was very frustrated and in a fit of brazen honesty I told the priest that some of these sins we heard about sounded interesting—but because we had so much school work, I did not have time to try any of them. He chuckled and still gave me five Hail Marys.

Representative Image Caption
AAAS Fellow James Taylor recently retired from the federal government after more than 37 years of service. (Photo: James Turner)
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