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Q&A: Cyndi Atherton on the draw of science philanthropy

28 November 2017

Sleuthing for potentially brilliant research ideas to fund turns out to be a fun cultural shift after a decades-long lab career.

Now that Cyndi Atherton is the one giving out money rather than asking for it, she says, “people are always glad to see me.” The director of science at the Heising-Simons Foundation loves her new career in philanthropy: “You can talk to people about something that is just a glimmer in their eye, at a point where they are passionate and very excited.”

Cyndi Atherton
Credit: Catherine Walker

Before moving into the science-funding business, Atherton logged more than two decades at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There she compared the roles of natural and anthropogenic emissions of ozone and other chemicals in the atmosphere. She contributed to the Fourth Assessment Report put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007.

In 2008 Atherton went to work for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a private funder of environmental conservation, patient care, and science that’s most known for its strong support of the Thirty Meter Telescope project. “I hadn’t been aware of science philanthropy, but I felt a calling,” Atherton says.

In 2013 she joined Heising-Simons, based in Los Altos, California. Since it formed in 2007, the foundation has awarded grants totaling more than $263 million in the areas of climate and energy, human rights, education, and science.

PT: What propelled you into science?

ATHERTON: There were a lot of positive experiences, but I think my real love for science came in the eighth grade. I had a wonderful teacher. Her name was Dorothy McIver, and she had a real hands-on approach. She was, I believe, the first African American teacher in the predominantly white town of Sierra Vista, Arizona. She had a passion for science, and she was an inspiring person. And she brought in really cool people to talk to us. It demonstrated that you could do science and still belong socially, not be an outcast.

It was in her class that I won the grand sweepstakes award at the science fair. We had learned how to make batteries in science class. At home we had about 25 guinea pigs, and I had a lot of chores associated with them. I decided to try guinea pig poop for my battery. I crushed it and put in water to light a light bulb. I think that is what won me the grand award—anyone can use lemon juice or tomato juice. I beat out some of the ninth graders. That was a confidence booster.

PT: Where did you go for your undergraduate studies?

ATHERTON: That was funny. I went to my high school physics teacher and asked for a letter of recommendation for MIT. He said he would write me one, but he made me promise that I would also apply to Caltech. I grew up in a small town in Arizona, 10 miles north of the border with Mexico, and I had never heard of Caltech. But when I visited, I could see myself going there.

I had a great adviser at Caltech, Glen Cass. That was transformational for me. I worked on a project with him where we looked at the effects of ozone on artists’ materials. We placed material in an ozone chamber and then looked at the damage. We put a wood block print from my adviser’s house in the chamber. It basically destroyed the colors, and Cass’s wife wanted to kill me. But it did make the cover of Environmental Science and Technology.

PT: After you graduated with a degree in engineering and applied science, you went to Lawrence Livermore. What did you do there?

ATHERTON: This was in 1986, and it was at the very early stages of global computational climate models. It was really interesting work. There was a year when I dropped my work to 20 hours per week and drove to the University of California, Davis, three times a week for classes to get a PhD in atmospheric science. Once I passed my qualifying exam, a lot of what I did for work went into my thesis. There were a couple of kids in the middle—I was eight months pregnant when I took my oral exams.

My niche was tropospheric ozone, which is a pollutant. It is formed when hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen react in the presence of sunlight. We did a lot of work trying to model that globally. I participated in the early days of the IPCC reports. It was fun. We all convened in Norway and stayed at the same hotel where the Nobelists stay. It was a thoughtful, passionate group of people doing global modeling.

PT: When did you become aware of global warming?

ATHERTON: In the early 1990s. I remember going to a high school reunion, and one of my classmates, a Navy SEAL, asked whether the global warming stuff was true. I remember telling him, “Yes, you need to believe it; the science on it was rigorous.” I don’t think he wanted to talk to me very much longer.

PT: How did you make your career switch?

ATHERTON: I volunteered as a parent chaperone on a three-day junior high trip with 125 band students. One of the other chaperones was a career counselor. By the end of the trip, I asked if he could recommend books on switching careers. The day after we got home from the trip, I told the guy I wanted to start coaching sessions.

PT: Why philanthropy?

ATHERTON: I was enjoying a lot of things I was doing outside of work that tended to be more service oriented. It wasn’t out of the blue so much as an alignment with my volunteer efforts. I probably stayed at the lab for a couple of years longer than I might have just because I enjoyed the people I worked with.

I would look at job listings every night, and I saw a posting for the Moore Foundation. It was the marriage of science and philanthropy. Half of that job was to oversee the foundation’s very large commitment to Caltech. I thought I’d never see that combination of science and philanthropy. And this job was with my alma mater, so it would never be more comfortable to make the transition. I used to tell my kids, if you get hit over the head with a two-by-four, pay attention. Here, I felt, how can I not do this? Everything is falling into place!

PT: What were your other responsibilities at the Moore Foundation?

ATHERTON: We funded early seed things, things that were harder for a federal agency to fund. A lot was figuring out what fit the bill for the foundation.

Philanthropy can fill a role in this early-stage stuff, where it’s just a hint of something. Philanthropy can take a chance on someone early in their career, someone who may not have a huge track record, but you think they are going to do brilliant things. Philanthropy can take a chance on projects that seem wildly unbelievable in terms of bringing together, for example, neuroscience, quantum mechanics, and biology.

In philanthropy you ask the question: If money were no issue, what would you love to work on? What is the next burning thing you would do? I find people generally cannot answer in real time. They need about a week to chew on it, pull it together. It’s different from applying for federal grants, where researchers have been tailored to say, “What’s the next incremental thing I can do in my research?”

I was surprised by just how creative the job was, and how much I enjoyed the creativity. I love matching people with projects and projects with people.

PT: Why did you move to Heising-Simons?

ATHERTON: I saw a job posting for the Heising-Simons Foundation and realized they were moving into more traditional science foundation work. I thought that we might be able to co-fund grants. When I emailed the executive director, she said, “We need to talk!” I found out they were getting ready to build a science program and were looking for someone to drive that.

I had lived on the cusp of Silicon Valley for 30 years, and I had never had the experience of working at a startup. I thought, “This is probably my one chance to get into science philanthropy at the startup phase.” It was another one of those occasions―if you get hit over the head by a two-by-four, you realize, oh, this could work out.

PT: How do you identify ideas that could really be worth funding?

ATHERTON: You stay current on the literature. You have a science advisory board. You do a lot of your own intel. You have relationships with administrators at universities, so that you can say, “If you ever come across a wacky idea that seems valid, but you know there is no way it’s going to float, you should contact me.” You have a dragnet out there.

PT: What are some examples?

ATHERTON: After looking at literature, I talked to the founders, Mark Heising and Liz Simons, and we decided we were interested in whether the axion could be a plausible solution to what dark matter is and what physics might be beyond the standard model. I went to a couple of workshops. I talked to people. I identified someone who had senior status and was even and thoughtful. I asked him questions: What is the goal? How many groups are doing this? What is the time frame? A few really creative people were asking how you would look for axions if you didn’t do it through microwave cavities that resonate at certain frequencies. What other outside-the-box ways are there? So we held a roundtable for axion dark matter and eventually funded work in this area.

As another example, we did a roundtable on paleoclimatology. After a lot of ground sleuthing, we brought together two different communities that don’t really talk to each other: meteorology data assimilation people and paleoclimatologists. The paleo people have proxy data from 55 million years ago, but from only a few sites on Earth. And they know a lot about temperature and CO2 but nothing about data assimilation. The data assimilation people had looked only at shallow times—going back about 25 000 years, and we asked them to go back 55 million years to the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. That’s a giant leap of faith. You go from using ice cores to proxies, such as foraminifera or pollen.

By the end of the morning, the paleo people were saying, “How do we sign up? How do we join with the data assimilation people?” That launched a set of projects to use observations and computer models to develop a better understanding of climates in the deep past to inform future climate predictions.

PT: What other interesting projects are you working on?

ATHERTON: Here at Heising-Simons, I expand a little bit beyond research science. Our new area is women in physics and astronomy. In giving grants, we couldn’t help but notice the gender inequity. We wondered whether there was a niche we could fill. This was another one of those times when being in a private foundation means you can swiftly act once you have gathered the information.

We are going to spend roughly $3 million a year over the next five years on a series of strategies to increase the percentage of women in physics and astronomy in the US. We are hoping to empower individuals, improve cultures within departments, create networks and support systems, and curate and disseminate data and best practices. The networks are a chance for women to have colleagues that they can draw upon in the coming 30 or 40 years of their careers.

PT: What skills and qualities do you most need in your new career?

ATHERTON: Curiosity, humility, communication. You have to be able to explain the uniqueness and novelty of scientific work not only to scientists but also to others, to lawyers and financial people. I engage in a lot of interactions with people on visits and on the phone. Having been holed up in a lab for 20-plus years, it’s a cultural shift.

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