Maya Ajmera MPP’93 founded the nonprofit Global Fund for Children (GFC) when she was a student at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. It grew into a thriving global organization, investing over $50 million in innovative grassroots organizations serving the most vulnerable children and youth in the world, which also includes the imprint Global Fund for Children Books.
In 2011, Ajmera decided to make a change. “GFC was rocking along — we were awarding around four million dollars a year in small grants,” she said. Despite the incredible success of the organization, Ajmera felt it was time to move onto the next chapter in her life. “Founders shouldn’t stay forever, and I felt strongly it was my time to move on.”
While it was not easy to leave, the next three years were “an extraordinary time” for Ajmera. She was named the inaugural Social Entrepreneur in Residence for Duke and a visiting professor at the Sanford School. She served as a visiting scholar and professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She had time for academic reflection, working with young people “on the edge of doing great things,” and for more personal things.
“I was writing, teaching and I had a baby girl,” she said.
During these three years, Ajmera also wrote her first academic book, Invisible Children: Reimagining International Development at the Grassroots. “This book is about what I learned at GFC, and about the importance of proximate leadership, leadership by people closest to the problem,” she said. Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016, the book has been used in the classroom at several esteemed colleges and universities.
At the end of that period, Ajmera stepped into an exciting new role that in many ways was a return to her roots. She became the President and CEO of the Society for Science (The Society) and Publisher of its award-winning magazine Science News.
“I was a science kid,” she said. As a teenager brought up in eastern North Carolina, she had a passion for scientific research and was a regular reader of Science News. In high school, she competed in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which the Society ran. She was named one of the top 300 student-researchers in the nation.
In 2014, the Society for Science was seeking a new direction and new leadership. The Science News Media Group was in trouble. Maya says it was a challenge to take on the role of President and CEO at the nearly 100-year-old institution, especially as a woman of color.
“I have to give the board credit. They told me to think of myself as the founder, and the license to change the things that were broken,” said Ajmera.
She set about making changes using a social justice lens, creating a suite of new outreach and equity programs, including conferences for middle and high school research teachers, providing mentors to underserved students to encourage them to enter science research competitions, STEM Research Grants for teachers and microgrants for innovative community-based STEM nonprofits. She also spearheaded the effort to find a new sponsor for the Science Talent Search, securing a $100 million-dollar sponsorship with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.
From her connections with the Sanford School, both as an alumnus, a visiting professor and a member of the Board of Visitors, Ajmera had learned how journalism as a field had been changing, with evidence-based and local journalism shrinking. She saw that the science coverage was also dwindling, with science beats being cut and fewer journalists with a background in science in newsrooms.
“What does that mean for society, to not have those stories reported?” she asked. “Science matters.”
That was a need that Science News could help fill. With a commitment to creating a more scientifically-literate society, Ajmera decided to distribute stories from the magazine for free to local and community newspapers. She also expanded access to the magazine through a program she developed called Science News in High Schools, ensuring that teachers and students had access to the latest in-depth reporting on science research. To date, 5,400 high schools are enrolled in the program with over 17,000 educators and over 5 million students having access to Science News and accompanying resources. These number are only growing.
Ajmera attributes the success in turning around Science News to the practice of “hiring brilliant people and getting out of the way.”
Her commitment to diversity in her staff proved to be a strength when the pandemic hit. The in-person science fairs scheduled for the spring of 2020 were cancelled and soon moved to an online model.
“Women are good at pivoting,” she said. “Women lead in collaborative ways. I didn’t close my door then; I let them know we were all in it together and trusted the team to figure it out.”
It was a massive team effort to move from an in-person global science fair to a virtual competition, she says. Ajmera and her team also quickly realized that virtual programming also allowed them to expand the reach of the student science research and their programming more than ever before. With a click of a button, people were joining them from countries all over the world. In 2021, nearly 2,000 students took part in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest precollegiate STEM competition. The young researchers were selected through a series of four video interviews with over 1,200 judges which equated to over 7,000 video interviews in five days. The Society awarded $5 million dollars to an inspiring group of teen scientists and engineers.
“More than 150,000 people came to ISEF’s virtual platform. It will always be a hybrid event now,” she said.
The magazine also pivoted to provide more stories on COVID-19 research, to meet the demand for evidence-based information, by launching a Coronavirus Update newsletter.
Ajmera’s leadership of the Society drew national recognition, as she was awarded the 2020 Public Service Award from the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation.
“Public service has always been a life-long passion of mine, from the time I launched the Global Fund for Children to more recently launching a suite of outreach and equity programs at the Society for Science,” Ajmera says. “I’m honored to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall, Alan Alda and Ira Flatow--past recipients of the National Science Board Public Service Award.”
We look forward to seeing what new projects and initiatives Ajmera brings to the forefront in the new year.