The 98-year-old Society for Science & the Public publishes the nonprofit science magazine and site Science News, and runs several STEM competitions for students. Its current president and CEO is Maya Ajmera, who previously founded the grant-making nonprofit Global Fund for Children. We talked to her about her work at both organisations, her science background, her messy desk, and how she relaxes.
Name: Maya Ajmera Location: Washington, D.C. Current gig: President and CEO of Society for Science & the Public, Publisher of Science News Current computer: MacBook Pro Current mobile device: iPhone One word that best describes how you work: Multitasker
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
Funny enough, much of the work I do today touches things I was involved in from a young age. As a kid, I was always interested in science. I actually grew up watching my father read Science News and soon after I started reading it. I started working in a botany lab when I was in 7th grade, went to a high school geared towards science and maths, competed in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (one of the Society’s competitions) and finally majored in neuroscience in college.
I began to steer more toward public service and developing my passion for expanding opportunities for young people after college when I received a fellowship that allowed me to travel across South and Southeast Asia. During those travels, I had a moment of obligation after watching children get educated on a train platform and I was ultimately inspired to start the Global Fund for Children (GFC), an organisation dedicated to supporting innovative community based organisations serving the most vulnerable children and youth. I built GFC from the ground up and spent 18 years leading it.
So, when almost five years ago I was asked to lead the Society for Science & the Public and take over as Publisher of Science News, everything clicked. The Society is a nonprofit organisation focused on promoting the understanding and appreciation of science and the vital role it plays in human advancement. We are best known for world-class science competitions and our award-winning science journalism, Science News, and providing grants and resources to teachers, schools and other innovative nonprofits promoting education and STEM.
Lastly, I am a children’s book author. I have been writing and co-authoring children’s books for over twenty years. Some of my favourites are Children from Australia to Zimbabwe, Faith, To Be an Artist, and Be My Neighbour. The next book out this summer is Back to School. This creative outlet has kept me sane.
Looking back, it’s amazing to me that I’m lucky enough to lead an organisation that had such a profound impact on my own interest in STEM growing up. I understand what it means to be a young person who’s excited about science fairs and STEM learning because I was one. That, along with the nonprofit leadership and entrepreneurial skills I’ve gained throughout my career, helped me shake the dust off and energize a nearly 100-year-old organisation when I started in my current role.
Take us through a recent workday.
My workday involves meetings. Strategy meetings. Fundraising meetings. I also deal with loads of emails.
We are currently gearing to host the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and maths competition for high school seniors, and the majority of the organisation is focused on this. My day involves discussions and meetings on everything from logistics around my speech at our awards gala—we are using a new teleprompter system—to the students’ visits to Capitol Hill to our Board of Trustees meeting, which takes place the day after the Science Talent Search.
I also squeezed in a meeting about the Society’s upcoming Centennial celebration as well as a meeting about our search for a new sponsor for the International Science and Engineering Fair, which is the largest international science and engineering fair for high school students.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
I can’t live without my calendar. I absolutely need my New York Times and Washington Post app to read the news on the metro or when I take Lyft.
My WhatsApp is important because it keeps me connected with my extended family in India and a group of friends that I love. I rely on Spotify to unwind and listen to classical music. My weather app and stock market apps get checked a few times a day.
Oh, and I love my Orangetheory fitness app, too. I also follow several individuals on Twitter and I am trying to get used to tweeting myself but have not focused on it as much as I should.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have an old wooden desk, which matches our building. The Society is in a very old brownstone, and it’s been our home for a very long time. (The Society will be turning 100 soon.) The building is old and it needs work, but my office has a lot of natural sunlight, which is very important to me.
My desk also has way too much paper on it. I wish I could be paper-free, but I’m not. Call me old school.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
I use Lyft to commute to work sometimes because it allows me take phone calls that I couldn’t do while taking public transit. As a CEO who also serves on two non-profit boards, teaches a graduate seminar at Johns Hopkins University and is the mother of a 6-year-old, I need help to get things done. I’m lucky enough to have a housekeeper and a nanny, and I use Instacart. I recognise how lucky I am to have these privileges. It is something I constantly feel uncomfortable about.
Take us through an interesting or unusual process you have in place at work.
I have chiefs who all run their departments and report directly to me. Every two weeks we meet for one hour to get top-line reports from each team and to discuss any other organizational business. It’s very efficient, and a good way to ensure that all my chiefs have visibility into other departments, especially given that we are spread across multiple buildings.
I also have 15-minute one-on-one face-to-face meetings with each chief once a week if we are both in the office. It gives me the chance to check in on any pending issues but also just to check in personally. I try to be available to my team members at all times and try to make quick collaborative decisions.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I cannot live without my executive assistant. She’s my scheduler, and I can rely on her to make sure things get done. I also rely heavily on my chief of staff, who handles all the special requests I receive and helps to determine what is important and needs my attention. For example, I was recently invited to speak at the STEM Ecosystems Conference in New Orleans, and a lot of thinking needs to go into that presentation. It’s a hands-on STEM presentation for 400 attendees. My chief of staff is taking the lead on that project. She also supports and manages our board of trustees. She is a vital member of the executive team.
On a personal note, I would not be able to do my job if I did not have our nanny who has been with my daughter since she was four months old. Even though my daughter is now a kindergartner and goes to school, our nanny is still a very big part of our lives. My husband is also an incredible partner and we try to split our household responsibilities equitably. I do the grocery shopping every Sunday. He gets our daughter ready for school in the mornings and lets me sleep an extra 20 minutes before I join them downstairs in the kitchen. I also work with a trainer once a week which really helps to ease any stress. I can’t wait for the spring weather to start jogging a few times a week.
I am grateful to have a group of people to support me, giving me the opportunity to have the career I have.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I have a little black notebook that I carry with me everywhere. At the end of the day I write down all the things I need to do the next day. At this point, I have dozens of notebooks, and I can look back and know what I did for the past decade or two.
How do you recharge or take a break?
During the day, I like walking around the office and saying hello to my colleagues. If I’m taking a longer break and the weather is nice, I take a walk outside. We used to have a Starbucks close to the office. It recently shut down. My colleagues and I are still in shock.
When I am home, I am focused on my six-year-old daughter. We talk about our days. She is really into playing card and board games. She and I love playing Trouble together.
I also enjoy reading. I’ve got a pile of New Yorkers on my nightstand where I have articles flagged to read. Sometimes before bed, I’ll just watch TV to zone out – some of my guilty pleasures are the new Murphy Brown, Madame Secretary, Homeland, Grey’s Anatomy, The Crown, and This Is Us. I have also binged with my husband a few great series like Homecoming on Amazon or The Bodyguard on Netflix.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I am currently reading Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Steve Jobs’s daughter. Because I’m teaching a course at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I’m also doing a lot of reading to keep up with the newest innovations, policies, and thought leadership going on in international development involving children and youth.
I also recently read Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All, which I would highly recommend. I would also recommend reading the biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, which was really good. I love biographies.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
I would love to see a few alumni of the Society’s science competitions answer these questions: Feng Zhang, who pioneered the development of CRISPR; Sheel Tyle, founder and CEO of the venture capital firm Amplo; Divya Nag, who works on special projects at Apple; Hayley Bay Barna, co-founder of Birchbox and Partner at First Round Capital and Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, founder and CEO of Instrumental, a manufacturing technology company.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Stay away from people who suck the passion out of you. Stay away from people who are naysayers. You want people to challenge you, but you should stay away from people who say, “You can’t do this. This can’t be done.”
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
I want to make sure that every young person in the United States has a chance to become a scientist or engineer if that’s what they’re passionate about. Access to education, and specifically access to quality STEM education, is so dependent on where a child grows up, and I want so badly to change that. I’m proud that the Society has made strong steps towards solving this problem through our science competitions and also through our outreach and equity work, but we have a long way to go. I’m prepared to keep fighting.