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Alice S. Huang: In Research, Passion and Freedom Are Crucial to Global Progress

On a recent trip to China, virologist Alice Huang read about a surprising survey of Chinese youth: When asked to name the heroes of the 20th century, many of them listed Albert Einstein. Back home in the United States, as the old year gave way to the new, she scanned her newspapers’ lists of the most influential people of the year and of the decade, hoping to see a scientist or an engineer. But there were none.

Though there are many worthy candidates, the lack of public recognition defines a crucial challenge for American science, the new AAAS president said in a recent interview. Scientists and science teachers must find ways to convey to the public and to science students the enormously important contributions made by science—and the idealism, creativity, and passion that drive many breakthroughs.

“It is not in the public’s mind that science as a profession can be exciting and very rewarding and a lot of fun,” said Huang, now at the California Institute of Technology. “We don’t focus on that when we first talk to people about science.”
Alice S. Huang at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego. [Credit: Karras Photography/AAAS]

 

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Alice S. Huang at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego. [Credit: Karras Photography/AAAS]

Among students, she 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.”

For Huang, it is a crucial idea, tying together many of her own longtime interests and concerns. Talking about the passion and idealism of science can help recruit more students into science and engineering, especially from the underutilized pool of women and minorities, she says. It can help build public understanding of science and support for investment in research and development. Overseas, it can help reinforce the point that a culture of freedom is critical to scientific advancement.

Taken together, all of these help shape a climate in which societies can more effectively deal with global challenges in health, energy, the environment, and other fields.

[Read a Q&A with new AAAS President Alice S. Huang.]

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.

She 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 counselor 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 2004-2009 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.

She served on the AAAS Board of Directors from 1997 to 2001 and was elected a AAAS Fellow in 2000. She succeeded Nobel laureate Peter Agre as AAAS president when the association’s annual meeting closed on 22 February in San Diego. Agre now begins a one-year term as chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors.

How Teachers Nurture a Child’s Curiosity

Huang says that. to understand her own background, it is important to understand her parents’ background.

Her father was orphaned at age 12 and adopted by American missionaries who were in China at the time. The family came back to the United States, and he attended the University of Pennsylvania and then the Philadelphia Divinity School, following in the footsteps of his adopted father. He later returned to China, where he married and had a family; he became a bishop of the Anglican Episcopal ministry, serving Yunnan and Guizhou provinces in Southwest China.

Alice was born in the city of Nanchang in southeastern China, but when she was a child, her family was forced to leave the country and return to the United States. As refugees, their lives were difficult. Her father had to make a living by asking his old divinity school classmates to give him an adjutant bishop’s job. Her mother became a nurse to help make ends meet.

Her father used to tell her that, were it not for his calling to the ministry, he might’ve been a doctor. Perhaps that was an influence on his daughter. From age 7, she set out to become a physician. Attending parochial girls’ schools, “I had some wonderful teachers,” Huang recalled. “They understood why I was curious about things and gave me the tools to realize the answers to my curiosity.”

She began her undergraduate work at Wellesley College, but transferred into an accelerated M.D. program at Hopkins.

It was there that she was first exposed to scientific research, and the effect was so powerful that it diverted her from medicine. 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 post-doctoral work with David Baltimore at the Salk Institute and MIT on vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) led the way to Baltimore's Nobel Prize-winning discovery of reverse transcriptase.

“When you can advance a step—rather than just having an experiment that totally messes up and you can’t take any steps at all—that’s exciting, no matter how small that step might be,” Huang said in the interview. “Of course it traps you into wanting to do that again and again. It’s almost an addiction that research scientists have.

“You want to be able to make some sort of prediction or test of a model and then to be able to do the experiment to show it’s correct or not correct. You follow your nose in that way. You never really fully answer a research question. You’re always moving on to the next step. You’re always led to ask another question.”

U.S. “Not Using All the Brainpower…We Have”

Huang remained involved in medical research for much of her career, working on viruses, cancer, HIV, and other diseases. And yet she was drawn to other issues in other spheres, from the university level to state, national, and international policy.

The role of women and minorities in science and technology has long been a focus of her energy. Too often, she said, they face a school or workplace environment that breeds discouragement; that hurts not only them, but the entire nation. When they drop out of the science and engineering workforce or are bypassed for promotions, “it’s a tragic loss,” she said.

“Although we’re a much more open society now than we were 20 years ago, and despite the hiring of many more minorities in the professions, they’re not promoted in proportion to the numbers who are there,” she said. “This can be very discouraging to people who have worked hard and realize they’re capable of doing the job, and yet they’re never tapped to do it.”

She continued: “If you look at the top universities in the United States, the percentage of women science faculty is generally at 30% or lower, and most are hovering in the teens.  If you look in biology—where I know the numbers a little better—we know that the number of Ph.D.s produced is nearly equal for males and females.
 
“That improvement, in the past three or four years, has really accelerated. However, when you look at the rate of improvement, it becomes apparent that even at these hiring rates, there still would be three or four generations before there would be real equity in the numbers of women and men in professorial positions.

“There are a whole variety of other reasons that women and minorities drop out of science,” she said. “And of course the reason for each group might be quite different. But there are some common threads as well. I don’t purport to know all the answers. I think it’s easier to look at the numbers that say: ‘Hey, there’s something here that tells us that we’re not using all the brainpower and all the capability that we have in this country.’

“The world is more and more competitive and if we’re to maintain our leadership status in science and technology, it’s important that we make use of every available intellect that we have.”

Science as a Subtle Force of Freedom

In her extensive foreign experience, Huang has built awareness of the increasing science and technology competition that will confront the United States in the decade ahead. International science cooperation helps to advance science while building closer ties between nations. But, she added, the science enterprise will falter unless nations find ways to cultivate researchers with strong imaginations and give them the freedom to do their best work.

“Interacting internationally through science is one of the most powerful tools we have toward working for peace,” she said.

But the challenges vary depending on a nation’s culture, she said. In an earlier era, German science had a “‘Herr Professor’ structure in which junior professors were hired to work on the projects of the older professors,” she explained. “And that was for a career, not just as a postdoc. German science may have been even better if their system had not taken hold.

“It’s a bad development in our own country that we’re actually making the training period longer and longer. Young scientists who do two or three different postdocs, they’re working on projects that were initiated by their professors…. Out-of-the-box thinking comes from young people, but they have to be free to use their time to think about those issues rather than fulfilling responsibilities to their older professors.”

In some Asian nations, Huang says, a lack of freedom could inhibit the full flowering of scientific capacity and innovation.

“I think the doing of science and success in science offers a challenge to those countries that want to copy what the United States has done and want to be successful in innovation,” she said. “I’m beginning to recognize that some countries probably will never be able to, because the society itself is not one that promotes openness and curiosity.

“When I see how scientists actually work and how successful scientists function, they have to be in an open society where ideas are shared and they are free to test their ideas. If we value curiosity and inquisitiveness, freedom is necessary to be able to do good scientific research and respond to one’s curiosity in the most effective way. If there are controlling influences or if there is a fear of questioning authority, then habits of inquisitiveness are not developed.”

That’s one area where the sort of science diplomacy pursued by AAAS and other science organizations can play an important role—conveying in discussions or by example the importance of intellectual freedom.

Science diplomacy is not only “a way to make life better for people in other countries and providing opportunities for individuals in those countries to better themselves,” Huang said. “It’s also terribly important in promoting science as a culture, a way of doing things, a way to a free society.”

The Role of AAAS: Educator, Guide, Bully Pulpit

Huang had an association with AAAS long before she was elected its president. She has seen the positive impact achieved by the association and the journal Science in their education and diversity initiatives, their career resources, and their growing engagement in international science.

There are other, less visible, areas where it should continue and perhaps expand its engagement, she said. Some are nitty-gritty issues, unlikely to capture headlines, but still highly important to the nation’s S&T enterprise—easing bureaucratic burdens and enhancing efficiency to reduce the costs of research, for example.

“It’s not just the expense,” she added, “but also the burdens of scientific research, unnecessary burdens…One of them is the amount of paperwork. The difficulties of getting grant monies, and the short periods for which grant monies are given out, especially to young scientists. I always remember a Yale colleague of mine saying he only did the chancy experiments when he became tenured. He was afraid to do them when he was untenured because he had to publish every year and so he could write another grant application in two or three years’ time. It was only when he had the security of being tenured that he felt he could he could do the more exciting and demanding types of experiment.”

Other examples seem small, “but there are so many of them and they end up being very costly to research,” she said. “Not just financially costly, but costly in terms of the time and energy and drive that could have gone into science rather than into paperwork. There’s also the necessity of logging hours, monitoring animals that one has on a daily census, and other things like that. We need strategies for making science more easily done and enjoyable.”

Other issues, however, are broad and socially significant—but because of cultural or political sensitivity, they’re not always issues that individuals or small groups of researchers can undertake. That’s where AAAS can play a significant role, speaking for U.S. science and sometimes serving as a sort of bully pulpit, she said.

“There are some basic human principles of morality that, in doing science and promoting science, cause us to face some complex issues, especially ethical choices and dangers that advances in science can bring,” Huang explained. “I think AAAS, as an organization, can take on some of those issues, fostering discussion and forging consensus for the decision-makers.”

Even if the issues are controversial, AAAS “has the clout of a huge membership,” Huang said. “It is not totally dependent on government funding like many individual scientists. And it represents science across-the-board, on issues that are important to different interest groups among scientists. Those are the areas that AAAS needs to look at in the future.”