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Conversations with Maya: Gayle Wilson

Headshot of Gayle Wilson
Gayle Wilson, former first lady of California, 1991–1999, and an advocate for STEM education

Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of the Society for Science and Publisher of Science News, chatted with Gayle Wilson, an alumna of the 1960 Science Talent Search (STS) and an advocate for children’s health care and STEM education. She is the former first lady of California, a position she served in from 1991 to 1999. While first lady, Wilson helped found COSMOS, a summer program that connects high schoolers with prominent STEM researchers in the University of California school system. Wilson has also served on a variety of nonprofit boards, including the Society for Science’s Board of Trustees. She currently is a member of the Society’s Honorary Board. We are thrilled to share an edited summary of their conversation.

How did your participation in the Science Talent Search influence you? Do you have any memories you can share?

Looking back, it was a defining moment in my life. Did I know it then? No. But in hindsight, it was definitely a turning point in my life. It gave me the confidence and encouragement to major in science in college. My father had died of cancer when I was a senior, and I think that was the reason I decided I wanted to go to medical school. So, when I went to Stanford, I majored in biology.

One fun memory from that STS week in Washington, D.C., was the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill to have lunch with my congressman, Rep. John Rhodes. And because one of the other STS finalists was from Texas, we got to meet then-majority leader, Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Little did I know that years later I would end up back in Washington, D.C., married to a U.S. senator.

Fast forward to when I was first lady of California. Every year, I opened the California State Science Fair. In my remarks, I talked about my love of science, but I didn’t usually talk about being an STS finalist, where I was from or who my teachers had been. At one year’s fair, I shared that I went to North Phoenix High School in Arizona, and that my chemistry teacher, Mr. Brown, was the one who encouraged me to enter the Science Talent Search. After my comments, two of the science teachers in the audience came up to me and said they had become science teachers because of Mr. Brown. He obviously touched a lot of lives.

You studied biology at Stanford, graduating with Phi Beta Kappa honors. How was your college experience, and did you continue pursuing your research interest?

I didn’t pursue research in college. At the time, women were not encouraged in science majors, let alone medical school. I remember one of my Stanford professors saying to me, “You’re just going to take a man’s place in medical school.” Were there some women who went on in science? Yes. But it took a lot of motivation, determination and discipline for women in my generation to go to law school or medical school. I admire them, but I didn’t do it.

Your husband, Pete Wilson, served eight years as a U.S. senator, from 1983 to 1991, as well as two terms as the governor of California, from 1991 to 1999. What was one of your proudest accomplishments as first lady?

When my husband was a senator, I was encouraged to view the STS Public Exhibition of Projects at the National Academy of Sciences. I loved talking to the current STS finalists, and I also attended the Awards Ceremony each year, which brought back many fond memories.

In 1984, I met Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy, who was also viewing STS research projects. He later invited me to join the board of what became the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE). I was on the CEE board for 20 years. The Center runs a six-week program called the Research Science Institute (RSI) at MIT. At the time, it accepted 50 American students and 20 international students. I recall looking at the RSI and thinking that California might have one or two students accepted each year. And I was convinced that every high school in California had at least one student who would benefit from a program like that.

So, I talked to the California governor’s education adviser about what we could do in California. He said, “These are good ideas, Gayle, but there’s no money.” It took 13 years to launch COSMOS, the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science.

As first lady, I am most proud of my involvement with the creation of COSMOS. The enacting legislation was passed in 1998, and bless my husband, he put a million dollars behind it. It was then passed on to the State Board of Education to design and implement. The University of California stepped up and said they would host it. COSMOS started on two UC campuses in summer 2000, and it’s now on four campuses. This past summer, COSMOS hosted more than 1,000 high school students spread over the four campuses. Those students have joined more than 12,000 students as COSMOS alums.

That’s an amazing legacy.

Maya, it’s one thing to have an idea. It’s another thing to get it implemented, and it’s another for it to be sustained over a period of time. COSMOS celebrated its 22nd anniversary this past summer.

In the interval since you and your husband were at the center of public life, political and social divisions in this country have widened. With your experience working across the aisle, do you have any insights into what it might take to heal some of the divides?

I don’t have any particular answers here, Maya, but I’ll tell you what: Science should be nonpartisan. I have lobbied on Capitol Hill for Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I met with both Democrats and Republicans. The people I knew in Congress at the time didn’t see scientific issues as partisan.

What advice do you have for young people just starting out in higher education or their careers who are hoping to make a positive impact in the world?

When you are in college, get to know your professors. Don’t just be another student sitting in the back, taking notes. Engage your professors. Get involved in your school in some way. Be intentional. Have a purpose. Also, tell people what your aspirations are. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

Everyone has to find their own focus, and for me, it’s been STEM education, especially for high school students. That really goes back to when I was a finalist in STS as a senior in high school. I might have taken a completely different direction in college without that recognition at that time in my life, a recognition that told me, “You’re good at science. You should stay in science.” And I did. Although I didn’t go on in research or become a Nobel laureate, I’ve worked to ensure others will have that opportunity.

What books are you reading now and what books inspired you when you were younger?

I liked biographies when I was young. I specifically remember reading about Clara Barton and women in science. Today, I mostly read nonfiction. One of my favorite books is Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, which is about the history of blood typing and blood banking, and how AIDS got into the blood supply. (My STS project was about blood typing.) Two other books I highly recommend, both by Thomas Hager: The Demon Under the Microscope and The Alchemy of Air.

There are many challenges facing the world today. What’s keeping you up at night?

The decline of education in America. Getting a good education is indispensable for success today, and it has to start way before college. If you are not a proficient reader by third grade, you are going to have a hard time keeping up. Forty years ago, a national report called “A Nation at Risk” was published. It basically said that if a foreign country had designed our educational system, we would have considered it an act of war. I’m very worried about our educational system today, what our children are and are not being taught. Forty years ago, California had one of the best school systems in the country. Today, sadly, California’s education system ranks among the lowest in the country.