As a scientist and a leader, Willie E. May is powered by the opportunity to be part of something greater than himself.
“I wake up each morning eager to help others, and especially young people, be a small part of humanity’s striving to understand nature and create a better world,” May told members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ahead of the organization’s 2023 election, in which May was a candidate for president-elect.
This February, AAAS members chose May—a chemist who led the National Institute of Standards and Technology and now spearheads research and development for Maryland’s largest historically Black university—for the role. May will be AAAS president-elect for the next year, followed by 1 year as AAAS president and 1 year as chair of the AAAS Board of Directors.
May reflected that he has always been seen as a leader, going back to his childhood in Birmingham, Alabama, where sports—especially baseball—reigned supreme. Though not always the best player, May always ended up captain on the teams he played on, he told AAAS this month.
“People thought that I was a team player and that I would sacrifice my self-interests and make the best decision for the team. We usually won,” he said.
Every steel mill and coal mine in segregated Birmingham had its own baseball team, and May’s father imagined that being a star player for one of those teams could be a ticket to success for his son. “It might be a way out” of the projects, May said.
Despite the young May’s athletic interests and talents, his mother disagreed about his path to success. She felt that college would be her son’s best ticket—and she was right.
As a high school student, May received advanced instruction in chemistry from a teacher who took summer refresher courses at a nearby university, then came back and taught his coursework to a handful of top students. When May got to Knoxville College, he was already well prepared in the subject, so he figured pursuing a degree in chemistry would give him a competitive edge.
Over time, chemistry “became part of who I am as a human being,” May said.
After he graduated at the top of his class, he weighed several graduate fellowship opportunities before pursuing a job at the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Several years later, he transferred to what was then the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which promotes US innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology. He found NIST to be a “scientific meritocracy and a deeply rewarding place to spend a career.”
“Every job I had at NIST, and I worked at every level of the organization over my 45 years there, I thought I could see how I was a part of a bigger movement,” May said.
May has received a host of awards that recognize his leadership and his research. (He earned his PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has focused his research on trace organic analytical chemistry and physicochemical properties of organic compounds.) He has received awards from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, the American Chemical Society, and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, among many others. AAAS has recognized May, too. He was elected as a Fellow in 2019.
Yet two accomplishments loom large over all the rest, he said. May identified the second-proudest day of his professional life as the day he was sworn in as under secretary of commerce for standards and technology and director of NIST. The proudest? The day he was selected as a member of the NIST “wall of fame.”
While becoming an under secretary is no easy feat—May was nominated by President Obama in 2014 and confirmed by the Senate to the role without any dissenting votes—“being selected to join the NBS/NIST Gallery of Distinguished Scientists and Engineers by a jury of my peers meant a whole lot more to me,” May said.
Upon his retirement from NIST, a serendipitous opportunity came his way, one that offered him a chance to give back. The call from Morgan State University, a public historically Black university in Baltimore, came the day after his late mother came to him in a dream and asked him how he was going to pay back the people who made sacrifices so he could succeed in his career.
The new role felt like destiny, May said. Since 2018, he has led Morgan State’s Division of Research and Economic Development, where his role involves boosting the university’s research vitality by creating and supporting research initiatives, building and expanding partnerships with external partners, and exploring the commercialization of innovations from the university’s research. One of his major goals is to promote Morgan’s ascension to tier 1 research university status by the end of the decade.
“I know I’m a part of something bigger than I am, and I have a responsibility to treat it that way,” May said.
It’s a place where May can make a difference in service of the greater good—much like he sees his role at AAAS. Among other duties, the AAAS president identifies key priorities for the organization. For May, trust in science is top of mind. Science affects every part of our lives, from public health to economic prosperity, and public trust in science is critical, he said.
May noted that AAAS has the opportunity to be a force for good by organizing and mobilizing scientists and communicators to respond to scientific misinformation, engage in meaningful discourse, and communicate scientific findings accurately and accessibly—findings that ought to inform policy decision-making.
“We may not always have the facts,” said May, “but it has to be our constant quest to define what those facts are and make decisions accordingly.”
Said May, “I believe in the AAAS mission. There’s work to be done, and I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and do that work.
This article originally appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the April 27 issue of Science.