Since its founding in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock, and other early American thinkers and leaders, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has been working with accomplished individuals from a wide spectrum of fields and perspectives to address challenges facing our nation and the world. More than 14,000 of those folks have become members of the distinguished honorary society and independent research center, and NCSSM is proud to say that three NCSSM alumni – Adam Falk ’83, Maya Ajmera ’85, and Rhiannon Giddens ’95 – are counted among them.
People are selected for the Academy for their expertise or accomplishments in defined areas and specialties. Falk, who was elected in 2019, and Ajmera, elected in 2022, were selected for their accomplishments in scientific, cultural, and nonprofit leadership in the area of leadership, policy, and communications. Giddens, who was also elected in 2022, was chosen for the Academy for her work as a performing artist in the area of humanities and arts.
For Falk, a theoretical physicist who served as the president of Williams College and is now president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – and serves on the NCSSM Board of Trustees – one of the most appealing attributes of the Academy is its holistic approach to discovering solutions to a wide range of issues.
“Some of the things that the Academy does exist in the intersection between science and the arts and the humanities,” he says. “That interdisciplinary place that it fits into is what makes it really special, and what really attracts me to the institution.”
The key to such an approach is the diverse cross-section of Academy members. “The breadth and depth of folks from academia to industry, to the arts, to sciences, to the nonprofit sector, to journalism, is what makes the American Academy of Arts and Sciences so unique,” says Ajmera, who today is the president and CEO of Society for Science, executive publisher of Science News, and founder of the nonprofit organization, The Global Fund for Children as well as a member of the NCSSM Foundation board. “I guess we’re considered to be well known in our fields, but when you look at all the different fields, you just go, ‘Whoa!’ It’s really just an incredible group of people.”
Falk’s selection to the Academy has provided him with a detailed understanding of the issues the organization is addressing, many of which align with the focus areas of the grantmaking organization he leads. Ajmera has been integrated into a number of committees where she is providing thought leadership, most recently on issues regarding artificial intelligence.
Giddens expressed her appreciation of the Academy’s honor with a sincere and creative post on Instagram.
“I have a love/hate relationship with accolades,” Giddens wrote. “If I receive one, what exactly does it mean? Am I a better person after the reception than I am before it? … So I looked up the Oxford Languages (powered by Google) definition of the word ‘accolade’ and there I found enlightenment. It’s the second definition of the word that really gets me excited.
2. a touch on a person’s shoulders with a sword at the bestowing of a knighthood.’
“So, gentlepeople at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, I will accept this gracious nomination into your storied and noble ranks … as a knight of the banjo, as a champion of unheard voices and hidden histories, and as a guardian of American personhood, to wit — those who have always been here and those who have come or been brought here are all representative of the American story.”
From their NCSSM teachers and programs, to the collective experience, Falk and Ajmera say they consider NCSSM a starting point for the professional paths they have followed.
“The teachers at NCSSM absolutely helped shape the person I am today,” Ajmera says. “The requirement that all students complete community service, which is often overlooked and taken for granted by so many students, was also impactful. So, too, was the school’s mentorship program. I truly believe the reason I lead the Society for Science today is because of all the extraordinary opportunities afforded to me when I was a student at NCSSM.”
“Rhiannon came out of NCSSM as a musician, and she’s a MacArthur Genius winner for her work in the arts,” Falk adds. “Maya started her career as a social entrepreneur. Later she combined that knowledge with her strong science background to find success in the business of science education, philanthropy and journalism. I have a science background, too, but I went into academic leadership. So what you see is that none of the three of us took a very narrow science or tech path through life, and now here we all are, having had the incredible honor of being invited to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And we were equipped, each of us, I think, by NCSSM to think in these much broader terms about what it means to make a contribution.”