ARCS Northern California Chapter (NCC) reached a grand milestone in 2020—50 years of blood, sweat, laughter, and joy as members celebrated their “golden anniversary” on October 22.
It’s a milestone that almost didn’t occur, NCC Past President Donna Miller Casey remembers.
In 1970, ARCS Los Angeles Chapter members scheduled a meeting with her mother, Ann Miller. The women, who were part of the first-ever ARCS chapter, hoped to start a new chapter in San Francisco, and they wanted to speak with Miller and her friends about the ARCS mission.
Miller agreed to plan the visit—and then promptly forgot about it! “The night before we were to get together, my mom asked my sister to quickly call about 50 people to come to our house and learn about ARCS,” Miller Casey recalls. “After the meeting, we were all so enthusiastic about helping advance science that we jumped right on it.”
Early Years: Rain Dances, Fire Extinguishers, and Moon Rocks
One of the new chapter’s first tasks was to encourage participation of academic institutions and donors from the San Francisco Bay Area. The group visited University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where they watched hip replacement surgery and a breast cancer operation, both procedures still in their infancy stages in the early 1970s. They also toured UC Berkeley and experienced the university’s “Shaking Table” earthquake simulator.
Those visits fostered academic partnerships with UCSF and UC Berkeley, allowing the two universities to receive ARCS funding for students studying in the scientific disciplines. Today the chapter’s academic partners also include San Francisco State University, Stanford University, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz.
To accomplish its goal of making a national impact on scientific research, NCC needed to start by raising funds for local scholars. The first fundraising attempts included a rain dance during a drought in 1977, as well as the sale of fire extinguishers and smoke alarms to Bay Area homeowners! “We raised $6,000 to $7,000 for scholar funding, which was a great amount at that time,” remembers Miller Casey.
NCC member Bailey Meyer, who joined the chapter in 1975, says that while their fundraising efforts may have seemed “outrageous,” the events turned into an enterprising campaign for the chapter. “The fundraisers really captivated people,” she says. “More people became interested in what our chapter was accomplishing by awarding ‘excellence’ to academic scholars. It was extraordinary to award achievement to local students in those days.”
In 1976, NCC members seized an opportunity to promote scientific achievements by creating a local science exhibit that included a Moon rock and the Mercury space capsule—both provided by NASA. Known as “Science Wonderland,” the exhibit was visited by hundreds of Bay Area students, with NCC paying for each child’s transportation to the event.
The “Science Wonderland” effort later morphed into an NCC outreach program called “ARCS Sparks,” which involved local ARCS Scholars visiting Bay Area schools to encourage students to study science.
Forging Forward: Fundraising and Field Trips
Students weren’t the only ones taking field trips in those early years. According to Past President Linda Millard, the chapter held science outings and overnight excursions to the NASA Ames Research Center, for example, and members invited guests to join them. The trips were a huge success—raising money and bringing on board corporate donors and new members.
“We live in one of the innovation capitals of the world, so ARCS resonated with local individuals and corporations,” explains Past President Christine Simpson Brent. “Some of those companies and families from the 1970s are still friends of ARCS today.”
ARCS Scholars: NCC’s Crowning Achievement
In the early years, the Northern California Chapter awarded between $1,000 and $2,000 to a few scholars at a time. Those numbers have grown exponentially over the years. By 2020, NCC had funded $22.6 million in 2,824 Scholar Awards.
The Northern California Chapter was also one of the first chapters to award $1 million in a single year. “We’ve achieved that milestone for two consecutive years,” current President Jo Whitehouse states. “And we’re committed to do it again this year, despite the pandemic.”
Local scholars received the most benefit from NCC’s record-breaking efforts. Alumna Kim Polese became the founding product manager of Java in 1995. Two years later, she was named to TIME magazine’s list of “25 Most Influential Americans,” and in 2011 she was selected to join then-President Barack Obama’s Innovation Advisory Board. Polese now serves as Chair of CrowdSmart, a collective intelligence platform that helps investors identify promising startups. She is also a member of NCC’s Leadership Advisory Council.
In 2015 two former NCC scholars were inducted into the ARCS Alumni Hall of Fame. Barbara Jacak, PhD, an ARCS Scholar from UC Berkeley in 1975, is currently Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Nuclear Science Division and a Distinguished Scientist Fellow with the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Shannon Brownlee, MSc, an ARCS Scholar from UC Santa Cruz in 1982, is Senior Vice President of the Lown Institute and Co-Founder of the Right Care Alliance, a network dedicated to organizing the movement for better healthcare. She is also an award-winning journalist.
“Our scholars are the nation’s future,” Linda Millard remarks.
Jo Whitehouse agrees. “The scholars are the chapter’s crowning achievement. I call us ‘ARCS Angels’ because we’re angel investors in young scientists who haven’t proven themselves yet, but we’re helping them on their road to success.”
Honoring the Past, Celebrating the Future
The Northern California Chapter commemorated its 50 years of success with a virtual birthday party in October. The commemoration recognized 31 members emeritae for more than 30 years of dedication to advancing science in America.
Several of those long-time members described what they value about ARCS. Three key messages emerged: supporting the work of outstanding young scholars, learning about advancements in science, and developing lasting friendships.
“Our scholars are the ‘minds of the future,’" Whitehouse says. "We look forward to the next 50 years—investing in young scientists, keeping the STEM pipeline full, and advancing science in America.”
The totality of the chapter's 50-year legacy was summed up by Whitehouse, quoting new member Kendra Kramlich: “We need to support science as if our lives depended on it—because they do!"