From Global Fund for Children to Society for Science: A Maya Ajmera Interview chats with Maya Ajmera, Society for Science President and CEO, about the upcoming Broadcom MASTERS event.

Maya Ajmera. (Image courtesy of Society for Science.)

Maya Ajmera. (Image courtesy of Society for Science.)

Broadcom MASTERS—the premier STEM competition for middle school students in the United States, founded and produced by the Society for Science—is being held virtually from October 22–28. The students’ projects will be showcased on Broadcom MASTERS’ ProjectBoard page from October 26, where visitors will be granted 24/7 access along with the ability to provide feedback within a collaborative environment. (Full disclosure: ProjectBoard is developed and owned by had the pleasure of a virtual rendezvous with Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science and publisher of Science News. In addition to being an award-winning author of over 20 children’s books, Ajmera is the founder of the Global Fund for Children, which has helped nearly 10 million children in 80 countries.

Ajmera with her first book, “Children from Australia to Zimbabwe.”

Ajmera with her first book, “Children from Australia to Zimbabwe.” Could you tell us about yourself and how you got here?

Maya Ajmera: I’m the daughter of Indian immigrants, brought up in Eastern North Carolina. I was a typical Asian kid. I was told I was going to become a doctor. But my father was a physics professor, and I grew up watching Nova, reading Science News. I did a research project in botany lab starting in sixth grade, did a science fair. Then I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, competed in the Science Talent Search and was honored as one of the top 300 projects.

I went on to college, majored in neuroscience. (My senior thesis was published in brain research.) I was on my way to get my MD–PhD, but I got a fellowship that allowed me to travel from Thailand to Pakistan for a year. And it’s there that I had my moment of obligation, where I saw children learning how to read and write on a train platform. It’s there that I had the idea to found the Global Fund for Children.

So I put off the MD–PhD, got my master’s in public policy. At the age of 23, I founded the Global Fund for Children, which puts small amounts of capital into really innovative grassroots organizations around the world, educating the most vulnerable young people. I built that for 17 years, then went on to academic life for three years, and eventually got a call to lead the Society for Science.

It was interesting. I had told them, “I’ve not done science since college.” But they said, “Well, you’re an alum. You work with young people and you did publishing.” (I started a publishing venture at the Global Fund for Children.) And here I am, leading the organization since 2014.

Tell us about Broadcom MASTERS.

Let me first tell you that we’re celebrating our 100th birthday [at the Society for Science]. We were founded in 1921 by E.W. Scripps and William Ritter, because they were very worried about what they were reading in newspapers. Misinformation, disinformation. Three-legged Martians. They said, we need to create a new cadre of journalists out there that provide evidence-based journalism. So they created Science News, which has been around for 100 years. It’s a magazine and digital media group that provides up-to-date science discoveries and innovations.

In 1942, the organization also felt that they needed to really look at the next generation of talent. They created the Science Talent Search, which was then called Westinghouse but now the Regeneron Science Talent Search. In 1950, they created the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)—which ProjectBoard was very instrumental in on a virtual basis. That’s our largest pre-collegiate STEM competition in the world. [Check out ISEF’s ProjectBoard page.]

Then, 22 years ago, we founded the middle school STEM competition. In the first 10 years, it was sponsored by Discovery. The last 10 years has been the Broadcom Foundation, or Broadcom MASTERS. It’s the premier middle school STEM competition in the United States where middle schoolers compete at our affiliated science fairs throughout the country, and the top 10 percent are nominated to compete in Broadcom MASTERS.

Those top 10 percent then have to put in a major application form; we get about 2500–3000 applications a year. This year, I think the numbers went down but the quality was very high. Of those, let’s just say 2500 applications out of 8000 nominees, we then bring a group of scientists and engineers together. We lock them up in a room for 4 or 5 days—these days we lock them up in Zoom. They go over and select the top 300 young scientists and engineers in the country, and we announce that. Then they go through a whole other process and cull this down to the 30 top finalists.

In a normal year, those 30 finalists would be coming to Washington, D.C., where they would be not only judged on their projects, but on something that’s very unique to Broadcom MASTERS—and that’s team challenges. We want to see how young people work together in teams, how they solve challenges, how they communicate, how they deal with problem-solving. And so, we provide three challenges to them, and they are judged for that. That plus their project pushes them forward for the prizes that they may get.

The top prize is the $25,000 Samueli prize. Then there are several $10,000 prizes, from the Samueli Marconi prize to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Health Advancement prize, the DoD STEM prize, the Lemelson Foundation for Invention prize. We also give team awards and prizes for the best math, best engine technology, best science, etc.

What’s even more fun is this year, we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary of Broadcom MASTERS. So we’re doing a whole series of alumni events for our Broadcom MASTERS pool. They’re going on to do amazing things with their careers. Now we’re starting to see, in the last 20 years, many are starting companies. They have gone on to graduate schools, they’re in academia, some are just starting college, and some are still in middle school. It’s a wide range.

This year’s Broadcom MASTERS finalists. (Image courtesy of Society for Science.)

This year’s Broadcom MASTERS finalists. (Image courtesy of Society for Science.)

Just dialing back a bit to how Science News was started. Currently, the world is quite polarized and things are often becoming politicized—is Science News going through challenges associated with that?

We are enjoyed by both sides of the aisle because we write what is factual. We look at the data, we look at the science and we report. I’ll give you an example. The whole controversy around hydroxychloroquine, for using that as a drug for treatment of COVID? We did a scientific story on it. Is it possible? Actually, it’s not. And the story said that—but we took it seriously. In the White House, they actually used that story as saying, “We’re not completely crazy.” And I think we don’t brush things off based on politics. We just hit it head on. That’s just not in our mindset, frankly. We report on science and engineering.

So, why is middle school such an important time for students?

Boy, is it a time of change socially, emotionally, physically. [The students] are at a real inflection point. Especially girls and kids of color are making choices that are going to affect them in high school and college. We feel like if we can capture their energy and enthusiasm now, that’s a great thing for their path moving forward in high school and college.

One of the things a lot of people ask is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always ask, “What problem do you want to solve when you grow up?” If you think about that—about a problem you want to solve when you grow up—that kind of leads you down a path of “What do I need to learn to be able to solve that problem?” So, it’s just an interesting way to look at the world, I think. But for the Broadcom MASTERS kids, this is a very important time in their growth and development.

In your opinion, what is the importance of research projects for STEM students in their careers?

Well, I was a science fair kid and I did research and did my project. To me, there’s skills that take you very far.

One of them is not being afraid of failure or making mistakes. When you do science and engineering, and you’re doing research, you’re going to fail constantly, because your experiments aren’t going to work. But actually, those things that don’t work actually give you more answers than they don’t.

Second is being able to communicate your work and being able to defend it. So, great writing skills.

Three, finding a like-minded group of individuals that care about the same things you care about. As we heard from our science fair kids, “I found my person” or “I found my people.”

How do you believe COVID-19 has impacted STEM students and their projects?

I actually think disruption and hardship creates and drives ingenuity. We’ve been amazed at the projects that have come through from young people. One might say they’ve had more time on their hands, because we’ve seen a lot more tinkering going on in one’s own home. Kids looking at data, kids learning how to code, kids learning artificial intelligence. There’s one project about fisheries and how to count the number of fish, especially with climate change, and [the student] used artificial intelligence to be able to predict that. That’s just ingenious to me.

The other thing that I find really interesting is, many of the students tend to target their projects on things that are close to them, things that they have a personal interest in, things that have affected their family or their community or their country.

This is the first article of a two-part series. Stay tuned for our second Broadcom MASTERS story, which will dive into some exciting student projects from this year’s event!