Margaret Saha always loved science, but she didn’t set out to be a scientist.
“When I was younger, I never thought I could do science,” she said. “Why not? I just thought science was for the really smart people. No one in my family had attended college, so I didn’t know what was even possible. ”
Saha is Chancellor Professor of Biology at William & Mary. She not only became a scientist, maintaining an ambitious research program, but also became an evangelist of science, promoting the joy of discovery to young people. Her evangelism extends beyond the William & Mary students that she teaches in her classrooms and mentors in her labs.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recognized Saha’s longstanding contributions to the encouragement of science and STEM outreach by selecting her for membership in the 2021 class of AAAS Fellows. Saha’s citation notes that she is honored “for distinguished leadership in science education transformation at undergraduate institutions and for service to K -12 teachers and students.”
A press release from AAAS notes that the tradition of naming Fellows stretches back to 1874. Saha joins such notable historic fellows as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Edwin Hubble and Grace Hopper.
“AAAS is proud to bestow the honor of AAAS Fellow to some of today’s brightest minds who are integral to forging our path into the future,” said Sudip Parikh, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “We celebrate these distinguished individuals for their invaluable contributions to the scientific enterprise.”
Saha explained that she doesn’t want young people to follow her path to becoming a scientist, as it was one of the most circuitous routes imaginable. As an undergraduate, she pursued a history major.
“One of my history professors told me that if I majored in history, I could get a free trip to Europe,” she said. “So that’s why I majored in history. Not quite the right reason.”
She got her trip with a year-long fellowship, absolutely loved Europe, and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in history. Saha said that she loved teaching history, but she began to question her decision while doing research for her thesis.
“I was going out of my mind in the archives,” she said. “Trying to deal with these manuscripts! I knew Medieval Latin, but I couldn’t read the writing. I thought to myself that I’m literally going to have a nervous breakdown if I spend my life doing this.”
In one of her breaks away from squinting at ninth-century penmanship, Saha met a physicist who invited her to visit his lab.
“It was on a Friday night. And I saw all of these people arguing and talking about the science, knowing what they did could have all of these implications,” she said. “It just seemed so exciting, so incredibly social. So, I wanted to do that.”
Saha did that, but not right away. She finished her history Ph.D., then switched specialties from Medieval European to history of science, but soon ramped off into science itself.
“When I started my biology Ph.D., I was 33,” she said. “More than ten years older than everybody else. And I had a three-year-old and a one-year-old. I am forever grateful for the University of Virginia Biology Department taking a huge chance on me!”
Saha began her science outreach activities shortly after arriving at William & Mary in 1993, beginning with volunteering at the local schools where her five children were enrolled. She wanted to introduce her children and others to the wonders of the natural world, much like what happened in her own childhood.
“My father didn’t even finish high school. But he was always interested in astronomy, in geology, paleontology and in engineering” Saha said. “So in his very little spare time that he had, we did science and engineering experiments at a level that was really exciting.”
Her philosophy in science outreach begins with wanting to convey her excitement to the next generation, harnessing the innate curiosity of “a little kid in first grade and showing them how exciting science is — that you can do this all your life,” Saha explains.
“Or there’s an undergraduate who’s not sure if they’re good enough for science,” she said. “And I try to convince them: Yes, you can! You can even have a family – five kids, like me — and do science.”
Saha’s science outreach soon extended beyond the labs and classrooms of William & Mary. She has been a program director with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, helping to launch a slate of STEM-outreach programs. She was a first-cohort participant in HHMI’s SEA-PHAGES initiative, a bacteriophage-based research program. Saha continues to have a SEA-PHAGES class at William & Mary each year.
“From the beginning of SEA-PHAGES, we targeted students who didn’t necessarily have previous research opportunities,” Saha said. “We developed a cohort each year that we followed through to graduation — with great success.”
She also mentors William & Mary’s iGEM team, beginning in 2014, including the 2015 team that won the Grand Prize in the annual bioengineering competition that has been dubbed the World Cup of Science. The W&M team has medaled every year.
Saha has served on the review committee and is now a member of the executive committee of the Beckman Scholars Program. William and Mary has received numerous Beckman Scholar Awards. This award allows exceptional undergraduate students in chemistry and biology a 15-month mentored research experience.
And she continues to work with local high school science teachers, as she has done since arriving at William & Mary. She visits the classes, offering update courses, and invites the high school students to visit her labs.
A high school student taking Saha up on the offer is almost certain to meet one or more Saha-mentored undergraduates. The odds are good that the lab member has been a co-author on a peer-reviewed journal paper and/or presented at a national scientific conference — or will do so before they graduate. More than 200 William & Mary undergrads have worked and learned in Saha’s lab.
Saha says she hasn’t abandoned her first intellectual love and, in fact, loves teaching history and always wanted to teach a history of science course in which she would “show people how cool it is” through recreating some of the classic experiments that established scientific principles over the years.
“Science is for everyone,” she added. “It is so important in today’s society.”
But Saha already has a full plate, teaching William & Mary students in Developmental Biology, Phage Lab Bioinformatics, Research in Synthetic Biology and several other research-based classes, while maintaining an active and productive research program that includes 22 students under her mentorship. Plus there’s iGEM, SEA-PHAGES and all the volunteer work preaching the gospel of science throughout the K-12 community on the Virginia Peninsula.
“The beauty of this job is that the science and the education are one and the same,” Saha said. “They’re inseparable. They’re just inseparable. And that’s good!”
Joseph McClain, Research Writer