62 Students Inducted into Sigma Xi Science Honor Society

Veronica Burnham, Staff Writer

Science students and faculty alike crowded the Science Center atrium this past Monday, May 2, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Sigma Xi.

Described as the science-research version of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi is an international science research society with over 60,000 members worldwide and a chapter in Oberlin since 1973. An annual meeting is held each year to honor new student nominees, or “Associate Members.” This year, 62 Oberlin students were inducted into the program.

According to Dennis Hubbard, Oberlin Sigma Xi Chapter President and Associate Professor of Geology, students must be nominated by current members of Sigma Xi who work in the same departments of research.

“These students must have the potential to make a significant contribution in the future,” says Hubbard. “What we look for is a valuable contribution to research; students tackling an original problem and taking some ownership of the work by themselves. At this point, the faculty thinks of the nominee as a colleague, not a student, which is a critical thing.”

In addition to the 62 student nominees, five Oberlin College faculty members were also inducted into the society: Assistant Professor of Mathematics Jack Calcut, Biology Lecturer and Lab Instructor Katherine Cullen, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Tracie Paine, Assistant Professor of Geology Amanda Schmidt and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Camille Washington-Ottombre.

This spring, Sean Decatur, Dean of Arts and Sciences, agreed to offer a subsidy for untenured faculty who are inducted into Sigma Xi, paying for each member’s first few years of membership in return for active service to the society. Established in response to the concern that the monetary fee — $100 per year — might discourage some of the younger faculty from considering membership, this subsidy is meant to serve as a signal of the College’s support of active scientific engagement by both faculty and students.

Likewise, each student receives a subsidy covering the cost of their first year of membership from the department that nominated him or her. “We want to send a message to the students that we value them as colleagues, value their investments, and that the College as a whole is behind them,” remarked Hubbard.

Apart from its significant anniversary, this meeting was a particularly special occasion, as Jane Bennett, the current Secretary/Treasurer of the Oberlin Sigma Xi chapter, was recognized for her dedication to the program. Serving as Secretary/Treasurer for 25 years, a full 20 percent of the entire history of the organization, Bennett, according to Hubbard, “basically runs the [Oberlin chapter of] the organization.”

Bennett was presented with a plaque from Sigma Xi as an award of recognition for her quarter-century of valued service to the College and its students. “I was quite honored by the award presented at the annual banquet this year,” remarked Bennett. In addition to the variety of administrative duties she continues to perform for the Chapter, Bennett commented, “As I’ve done this for so long, I also serve as the collective memory of the group.”

The students and Sigma Xi faculty were treated to dinner at a banquet financed by Sigma Xi, and the night was drawn to a close with a speech by Paul Sears Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics David Orr. In his talk, he emphasized the problems of climate change, overpopulation and science illiteracy that will be facing young graduates as they move into careers in the sciences. He urged them to become part of the solution, asking, “How will you do your own work in science?”

“My speech tonight had been about choices facing science in general and you in particular,” said Orr in his speech to a room full of near-graduates. According to their mission statement, Sigma Xi hopes “to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering and promote the public’s understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition.”

On the basis of their nominations, it would seem that there are at least 62 graduating Oberlin students who have shown the capacity to answer Sigma Xi and Orr’s call and do just that.