Sudip Parikh, Ph.D., has helped shape U.S. science policy in the U.S. Senate, and has also served as a senior health care executive for a large nonprofit organization that manages several federal research facilities. Earlier this year, the 46-year-old structural biologist became the new CEO of AAAS. He joins AAAS at an important period, during an election year and as the 171-year-old association pursues its mission to advance science and serve society in changing times.
We sat down to chat with Dr. Parikh about his vision for AAAS as well as his social media presence, the last good book he read, what he values about AAAS Members, and more!
Check out the interview with him below and join us in welcoming Dr. Parikh to AAAS.
Your Twitter bio (@sudipsparikh) says you are an optimistic scientist – which is fantastic! How do you maintain your optimism?
It may sound strange but, experience. Most would probably say experience would make you less optimistic, but I’ve worked in government, in the Senate, and also in industry, and what I’ve found consistently was people trying to do the right thing. People generally have their heart in the right place, trying to make the right decisions. It’s a good foundation upon which to build a better world.
What’s the last book you couldn’t put down? And what are you reading now?
Over the holidays, I reread “Candide” by Voltaire. It’s about 100 pages. It’s the fastest moving little book and so relevant, it’s like it could have been written last year. It describes the human condition in a way that is transcendent of time and place. You can read the whole thing in one setting.
Now, I’m reading Flannery O’Connor’s great short stories. Southern literature is always good!
Dr. Parikh, your career has touched on many different sectors. As a scientist who worked at the intersection of science and policy, what do you wish most scientists would know about the U.S. government?
Depends on the level of U.S. government, but I’d say that scientists and science supporters should know that elected officials are accessible. Also, as scientists, it is our responsibility to engage, to avail ourselves of what is possible. A lot of policy is not controversial – that’s good – and it’s possible to come to an agreement that works and uses science in the best way. Not using that accessibility from our elected officials is not doing half our jobs as citizens and as scientists.
What do you wish the U.S. government would know about scientists?
One thing elected officials think is that scientists only want to do something because they get money out of it, and they are somehow biased stakeholders. With few exceptions, we know that this is not the case, yet some politicians still think that scientists practicing in fields like climate change and oceanography are incentivized to say the climate is changing negatively and that humans are the cause solely to get more grant money. This is a misconception that is harmful to science and to our society. I think is an imperative of AAAS to help rectify this situation and improve the perception of science and scientists with all of our elected officials.
We’re following your Twitter handle and notice you often speak out on important topics, such as increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM as well as on the issues women in STEM face. Why do these issues matter to you? What would you like to see the scientific community do to address these problems?
I think this is really important on a personal level as the father of two daughters and also a son. I see the experience my friends have had for 20 years, over 20 years actually, and many of my scientist friends have had terrible experiences I have not had. These experiences have hurt them as people, and in their careers, and if they hadn’t had to go through harassment or dismissal for example, the trajectory of their careers and lives would be different. I didn’t see how this impacted my friends years ago. When I speak out about these things today, it’s because I know there are people, good people, who still don’t see the problem because they haven’t had the conversations with their friends yet.
If there is anything where it’s easy to be on the right side of history, it’s speaking out on these topics. AAAS has already been ahead of the policy and we have to continue to create a culture where inclusion is valued, and harassment is not tolerated. AAAS will advocate for safeguarding the scientific ecosystem for diverse voices and inclusivity to leverage the power of all great minds.
What strategies or leadership theories do you personally follow? How does that incorporate into your style as a leader?
There are a lot of leadership phrases and buzzwords out there. What I am focused on is seeing what makes an organization succeed. I’m one person and I will help in making decisions, particularly when it comes to executing on new ideas and creativity. And that means I will work to create a culture where it is okay to have conversations. Sometimes indecision is worse than making the wrong choice. We need to move forward and empower people to make mistakes.
That also means drawing on our members. They have voice and creativity; and at AAAS we have the benefit of being the good guys – a non-profit organization that is for science and for the good of society. We must constantly think about what scientists need to do their work, but also how to help all the people who benefit from science – which is everyone. I’m adamant that we need to create not a monopoly, but an ecosystem that is advancing society through science.
AAAS has been around for more than 100 years. Why do you think this organization continues to be so relevant? What opportunities do you see for growth?
Our association is 171 years old. I want to make this an organization where William Redfield, the first president, would recognize the mission and values, but he wouldn’t recognize the technology, the structures and concepts for what we do. For example, the ways we can and will share information with Congress now and in the future. Redfield may have identified the way we recognize the achievement of science, but not the ways we are relevant in the 21st century.
When kids think of science, they are looking at Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and we will be there, too. We want to be relevant and talk about what it is to do science in a global world. We can be a part of sharing science in a way that is accessible and relevant all over the world.
This last question for you is a bit fun! Which three scientists would you most like to share a meal with? And what would be the meal – would you cook it or do takeout?
I would start my selection of the three scientists with Ben Franklin, he’s my favorite founding father, he’s a Renaissance Person and great American, with this wonderful personality. He was also an inquisitive scientist. I’ve read some of his letters describing his experiments – and you can almost see the twinkle in his eye when reading the words on the page.
For the second choice, I love physicists, especially those in the field of quantum mechanics, so I’d pick from Erwin Schrödinger, Richard Feynman or Paul Dirac.
My final dinner guest would be Ada Yonath. She is a long-time scientific leader who I am certain overcame a lot to achieve her scientific successes. She determined the atomic-resolution structure of the ribosome, a biological structure that is key to life on earth. The implications of that structure were far-reaching.
For what we eat, it would have to be something Franklin would like, something new to him. Something like Thai food or sushi!