Passion Project

Inspiring Inspired Minds

By Heather Wood Rudúlph

The ARCS Foundation is celebrating 60 years of sponsoring the best young thinkers in STEM with the not-so-subtle mission of changing — and maybe saving — the world.

Chris Brent, pictured with a whistle that belonged to ARCS founder and first president Ann Russell Miller, passed down from president to president along with the ARCS gavel since the beginning of her chapter in 1970. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

On a cold October day in 1957, a hunk of metal the size of a beach ball became the first man-made object to orbit Earth. With Sputnik’s historic journey, the global space race was on, and the U.S. hunger for elite scientists never more ravenous. The Eisenhower administration — and Truman’s before it — made it clear that advancing scientific research and education was a top priority. How-ever, grants from the newly created National Science Foundation tended to focus on well-established scientists, bolstering research projects already in progress. So it seemed that while the whole world’s eyes were on the future, the young scientists who might lead us into it were overlooked.

It took a group of women to notice this discrepancy and do something about it. Using the model of consciousness-raising sessions that would launch the second-wave feminist movement a decade later, these women — philanthropists, homemakers, mothers — formed the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation, a national nonprofit of female volunteers that delivers grants to U.S. scholars in science, engineering and medical research. The first chapter started in Los Angeles in 1958 with focus on supporting young scientists still in college, those just formulating their own theories or daring to experiment beyond the limits of the classroom.

Today, the demands on science have shifted back down to Earth; specifically, how we are going to preserve it. The global population has surpassed 7.6 billion. Deforestation is stripping the planet of 18.7 million acres of forests every year. The United Nations recently issued a climate report that predicts catastrophic consequences — global food shortage, the extinction of coral reefs, and rising sea levels that will engulf coastal cities — as early as 2040. While the mission of ARCS has always been to support young scientists at the seed stage so that they have the opportunity to advance their discipline, the world, in fact, depends on their success.

Chris Brent, president of the Northern California chapter of ARCS, which is hosting a 60th anniversary celebration for the foundation during its scholar awards at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco on Nov. 7, believes these awards are no less than an act of public service.

“Federal dollars and other support for science is shrinking at an alarming rate, and the hardest time to get funding is when you’re young and unproven. Yet that’s when the mind is the freest and has the greatest potential for new thinking,” says Brent, a former IBM executive and second-generation ARCS member. “I’m most proud of the fact that after 60 years, ARCS has held tight to our mission of supporting the young science scholars who have the potential to change our world.”

It’s an ambitious mission that has made good on its promise. Over the past six decades and with 15 chapters across the country, ARCS has given $106 million to over 10,000 STEM scholars, encouraging the work of brilliant minds such as the renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; Barbara Jacak, who discovered the quark gluon plasma, which helps us understand how the universe evolved; and Stephen M. Lichten, who developed the first Global Positioning System that your smart phone today can’t live without.

Although ARCS was built upon the passions of its founding mothers (and the organization remains exclusively run by women volunteers)the beneficiaries have always been the best and brightest emerging scientific minds studying at top American universities. New scholars are working in fields such as astrophysics, breast cancer research, stem cell science, technological civil engineering and environmental sustainability, looking at ways to preserve resources, prolong the health and lifespans of all living creatures, build better cities and search for life beyond our meager little planet.

This year, Brent and the Northern California chapter sponsored 74 scholars from Stanford, San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz and UCSF, with grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000, and it aims to raise $1 million next year and beyond.

ARCS awards are unrestricted, which means recipients can use the money for new research materials and lab time, or to pay rent and child care expenses. For many, this means the difference between completing their research or being forced to delay or abandon it.

Samantha Dixon, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley studying dark matter and exploding stars, is five years into her research, which, in layman’s terms, involves measuring the vast universe of data that will help inform the discipline for decades to come. Without ARCS, she may not have made it past year one.

“I’d like to think that I would have been able to hack it on my own, but ARCS funding definitely made things much easier,” Dixon says. “ARCS took care of my living expenses, so I didn’t need to teach, freeing me up to focus on my classes. I also had much more freedom in choosing a research group, which allowed me to really dive into research without worrying about which project grant was paying my rent.”

Michael Ryan, a doctoral candidate at UCSF in the Department of Neuroscience, is studying neural activity in relation to Parkinson’s disease. He says that not only did the ARCS scholarship help him financially, but the vast network of alumni, scientists and donors made available to him and other scholars could also catapult his career.

“Having the ARCS scholarship has enabled me to spend each day in the lab, focusing on science and pursuing my goal of understanding how the brain generates movement,” says Ryan, who intends to start his own research lab upon graduation. “Having the means to travel and share scientific findings is a critical component of re-search, and the ARCS scholarship makes this step possible.”

ARCS donors are a mix of philanthropists, venture capitalists and wealthy business-people who understand their support may be the most critical investment of these young scientists’ lives — and also the one with the most impact. It is these fresh minds that will seek answers to the world’s most pressing problems, from incurable diseases to sustainable clean energy. ARCS helps excite potential donors by matching them with awards recipients so that they can follow their research, witness their progress and play a key part in the discoveries they will make.

“It can be a very profoundly personal experience,” Brent says. “I’m [funding] a scholar sponsorship this year in memory of my mom [Dorothy Simpson, who helped launch the Seattle chapter of ARCS]. She was a mathematician at heart, so I’d love to find a scholar with a math focus. Someone else might have been touched by cancer in their family, and they want to fund a scholar doing work in an area of cancer research. We do try to make a match if we can, because it’s an investment that has the potential to affect all of us.”


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