Alice Huang: Passion, Freedom Are Crucial to Global S&T Progress

The old year was ending and a new one beginning, and Alice Huang was scanning the popular news media lists of the most influential people of 2009 and the decade past, hoping to see a scientist or an engineer. This year, she didn’t find one.

Incoming AAAS president. Alice S. Huang, a senior faculty associate in biology at Caltech, will become the president of AAAS on 22 February, when the association’s annual meeting closes in San Diego.

Though there are many worthy candidates, the lack of public recognition defines a crucial challenge for American science,

the incoming AAAS president said in a recent interview. Scientists and science teachers must do more to convey to the public—and to science students—the idealism, creativity, and passion that drive many breakthroughs.

Huang, a distinguished virologist now at the California Institute of Technology, described how the thrill of her own first discoveries inspired a career of research. But too often these days, she said, even excellent students lack that passion.

“We don’t focus on that when we first talk to people about science,” Huang said. “When young people come to me and ask for advice, I find that they’re very focused on ‘how do I get ahead, and how do I get the position I want?’ Somehow they’ve forgotten... the joy of living a passionate life. Every scientist I’ve met who is successful is indeed passionate about what they do.”

In Huang’s view, talking about passion and idealism is crucial for addressing challenges in health, energy, the environment, and other fields. It can help build public understanding of science and support for investment in research and development. It can help recruit more students into science and engineering, especially from the underutilized pool of women and minorities. Overseas, it can help drive home the point that a culture of freedom is critical to scientific advancement.

Huang knows her subject well—since earning her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1966, she has come to occupy an influential position at the juncture of research, education, and diplomacy.

As a graduate student, Huang discovered and characterized defective interfering viruses—viruses that have the potential to help control viral diseases in plants, animals, and humans. Her work raised the possibility that defective interfering viral particles could be used for disease prevention. Her postdoctoral work with David Baltimore at the Salk Institute and MIT on vesicular stomatitis virus led the way to Baltimore’s Nobel Prize–winning discovery of reverse transcriptase.

Huang spent 20 years on the faculty at Harvard Medical School; from 1979 to 1990, she also directed the Laboratories of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital in Boston. She was appointed dean of science at New York University in 1991, and in 1997 moved west to serve as senior councilor for external relations at Caltech. Today, she’s a senior faculty associate in biology there.

Huang is a past president of the American Society for Microbiology, and served from 2004 to 2009 on the California Council on Science and Technology. She has consulted on science policy for government agencies in China, Taiwan, and Singapore; at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, there’s a species of orchid named for her.

Born in the city of Nanchang in southeastern China, Huang came to the United States with her family as a young girl.

Her father had been bishop of the Anglican Episcopal ministry in Southwest China, but if not for his calling to the clergy, he told her, he might have been a doctor. Her mother was a nurse.

From age 7, Huang set out to become a physician. Attending parochial girls’ schools, “I had some wonderful teachers,” she recalled. “They understood why I was curious about things and gave me the tools to realize the answers to my curiosity.”

It was at Johns Hopkins that she was first exposed to scientific research, and that diverted her from medicine. But she was involved in medical research for much of her career, working on viruses, cancer, HIV, and other diseases.

She served on the AAAS Board of Directors from 1997 to 2001 and was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2000. She will succeed Nobel laureate Peter Agre as president when the AAAS Annual Meeting closes on 22 February; Agre will begin a 1-year term as chairman of the AAAS Board.

Huang sees AAAS and Science as strongly positioned to support the scientific enterprise on issues ranging from political manipulation of data to reducing laboratories’ paperwork requirements. She cited two priority areas for continuing AAAS efforts: supporting women and minorities, and international science engagement.

International science collaboration can propagate a scientific culture based on free inquiry and meritocracy, Huang said. “The unfettering of curiosity and freedom to ask questions in pursuit of scientific discoveries can become a subtle force for a freer society and less authoritarian governing system.”

In the United States, science must help women and minorities break through the glass ceiling to leadership positions. “They’re generally hired into the profession and not promoted in proportion to their numbers,” she said. “It’s a tragic loss of individuals who have the talent and capability and who really have the ability to contribute to our society.”