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Departing APS CEO Kate Kirby Looks Back

APS News talked with Kirby about her time at APS.

Published Dec. 1, 2020

Over the past twelve years, Kate Kirby has been with APS as Executive Officer (2009–2014), and then following reorganization of the Society's governance structure, as the first Chief Executive Officer (2015-2020). Kirby will step down as CEO at the end of 2020 as her replacement, Jonathan Bagger of the TRIUMF Laboratory in Canada, prepares to assume the role in January.

Before joining the staff of APS in 2009, Kirby was Director of the Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics from Harvard/Radcliffe College and her PhD from the University of Chicago. From 1988 to 2001, she served as an Associate Director at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, heading the Atomic and Molecular Physics Division. Her research interests lie in theoretical atomic and molecular physics. Kirby is a fellow of both APS and AAAS.

APS News talked with Kirby about her time at APS. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to be Executive Officer at APS?

When APS was looking for someone to succeed Judy Franz as Executive Officer in 2008, I was asked by APS President Artie Bienenstock to chair the search committee. After an extensive search process over five months, our top candidate suddenly had to withdraw and the committee was back at square one. As committee chair, I was calling around and pursuing leads. Judy had, appropriately, stayed out of the search process but I decided I needed to get her input. I said "Judy, you know this community better than anyone. Whom should we be approaching about this position?" And she replied: “I’m looking at her." So, she spent the next hour and a half telling me what a great job it was. She is really the one who convinced me to step down from the committee and apply for the job.

The governance structure at APS was quite different then. How did that change?

When I became Executive Officer in 2009, it was as part of a triumvirate—three co-equal operating officers: Executive Officer, Editor in Chief of the journals, and Treasurer/Publisher. Gene Sprouse (Stony Brook University) was Editor in Chief and Joe Serene (Georgetown University) was Treasurer/Publisher. The three of us worked very well together.

But for a long time, the APS Presidential Line—the elected leadership of APS—had been concerned about this unusual structure in which no one person was responsible for everything. They recognized that the operating officers were getting along well, but they felt the leadership structure wasn't right.

In 2013, then-APS President Michael Turner and the rest of the Presidential Line initiated a process together with the Board and several consultants, which they called “corporate reform.” This resulted not only in a CEO model for staff leadership, but also updated the APS’s Articles of Incorporation (to conform to DC laws) and clarified roles and responsibilities for the two APS governing bodies—the Council of Representatives and the Board of Directors.

Kate Kirby

The reorganization into a new structure was voted on and approved by the membership in 2014, and you became the first CEO of APS in 2015.

I was actually interviewed and offered the job in December 2014 and then started in January 2015. The Board charged me with transitioning the organization to this new leadership structure. My first challenge was to establish a senior executive team to work with me collectively to lead the staff at our three offices in College Park, MD, Ridge, NY, and Washington, DC.

As a result of the reorganization, we had established a separate role for an elected Treasurer who provides “the eyes of the Board” on the finances of the organization. APS publishing and finances had grown sufficiently large and complex that it was important to call on professionals outside the physics community to shepherd these critical areas. It was also important to combine and integrate the information technology across our offices.

Apart from the governance reorganization, what are some of the biggest changes at APS during your time as CEO?

Early on, I felt that we really needed someone from the industrial physics community on staff who could reach out to industrial members, find ways to engage them better, and give industrial physics more visibility in the Society. Our first Industrial Fellow Steven Lambert and his successor as Director of Industrial Engagement, Dan Pisano, have been doing that for APS.

Over the past ten years, we've built up our programs in education, diversity, and careers, thanks to the excellent work of Monica Plisch (Director of Programs) and Ted Hodapp (Director of Project Development) and their teams. APS was asked to support volunteer activities, such as the very successful Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. The APS Bridge Program was started while I was Executive Officer and has been going now for over seven years. Its goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who obtain a PhD degree. Supported by the National Science Foundation, we are now leading a coalition of other societies within the physical sciences to establish similar “bridging programs.”

I am pleased that over the last ten years we have started new journals: Physical Review X (PRX), Physical Review Applied, Physical Review Fluids, Physical Review Materials, Physical Review Research, and PRX – Quantum. These journals are increasing the publishing options that we provide for the physics community and expanding our footprint into new areas of physics.

You were also involved in leading the creation of a new Strategic Plan for the entire organization.

By the end of 2017, with a senior management team that was working well together across the whole organization, I decided, together with the Board, to undertake a strategic planning process focusing on the entire APS. That had never happened before. When you have a plan that spans the entire organization, it is easier to align all parts of the Society. With the involvement of the membership and APS staff, it was completed in a record time of 10 months and was approved by the Board and Council at the end of 2018. The APS Strategic Plan: 2019 is a high-level document and succinct, only eight pages. It serves as a useful guide that also articulates our Mission, Vision and Values.

How is APS coping with the coronavirus pandemic?

I never anticipated that I'd be spending my last year at APS “zooming” from home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or in London, England (where one of my daughters has just given birth to her first baby). I think APS staff, together with our elected leadership have done a fabulous job at responding. We are continuing operations, doing them differently, but still serving the community. We are continuing to put out our journals, pivoting to hosting our meetings virtually, pursuing our advocacy in support of physics and science generally, and offering a lot of additional programs and webinars in a totally virtual environment.

The Strategic Plan has proven to be helpful in identifying important priorities during COVID-19. One of those areas clearly has been serving our young people who have been badly affected in terms of their progression through graduate school and their postdoctoral training. Suddenly departments aren't hiring, students and postdocs aren't able to present research at in-person meetings, and opportunities seem to have dried up. It's been a rough time for our cohort of early career physicists and we've been trying to help by providing professional development resources and information. They are such an important part of APS, as they are our future.

Overall, the APS is very fortunate. The Society has strong finances and we have great people involved in the organization. I am confident that we will be able to emerge from this unprecedented time in good shape.

What are you most proud of as APS CEO?

I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to establish a great relationship and partnership between the elected leadership, the governing bodies of APS, and the Senior Management Team. This has enabled us to make some good decisions during a rough time. I was pleased that we were able to decide to cancel the March meeting during a critical time period. This was a joint decision of elected leadership and management. It would have been dangerous to do otherwise, as the meeting could have easily been a super-spreader event.

Another thing that I care deeply about is diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is woven into the fabric of our strategic plan. This is such an important issue for us as a physics organization, for us as a physics community, and for our society generally. It's going to take a lot of effort on the part of all of us to change physics to be more welcoming and inclusive. I'm proud of the things that we've started as an organization to try to address a number of these issues, but I think there's a lot more to do.

It has been a tremendous honor and a pleasure to serve in this position. I have so many people to thank because one can't do this alone: our members who devote so much time and effort to the work of the Society; and our APS staff who are terrific and whose commitment to excellence enable us to achieve so many of our goals. I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people.

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