Holden Thorp (ΦBK, UNC-Chapel Hill) is currently the editor in chief of the Science family of journals. He is also the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor at the Washington University in St. Louis, where he previously served as provost and executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.
As a child, what profession did you envision for yourself when you grew up?
I bounced around a lot. I grew up in the theater, so I imagined theater and music for a lot of my childhood. I was good at math, but I had no idea what you would do with that. When I took high school chemistry, I had a great teacher and loved it, so that moved me to pre-med, which is where I was when I went to college. A lot of students who love science end up being pre-med, and I think that is because most of us grew up in places where we didn’t have role models who were scientists, but we all had doctors, many of whom we admired.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
Definitely my undergraduate research. I was on track to go to medical school and changed my mind at the last possible second because I loved working in lab. My research mentor, Tom Meyer, also taught the inorganic chemistry class that made me want to join his lab. The logic and beauty of the periodic table still amazes me to this day, and inorganic chemistry is definitely the right part of chemistry for ardent lovers of the periodic table. Outside of science, definitely the big art history survey. I had an aunt who was a beloved art history professor at a small college, and the college class that I took brought together a lot of what I learned from her.
You’re currently Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). What does your job entail? What do you enjoy most about this position?
As Editor-in-Chief, I mostly oversee the editors who handle the research papers in the journals. We get a lot of papers and don’t take very many, so a lot of it is backing them up in their decisions. They are incredibly smart and knowledgeable, so it is an easy decision to do that. I also oversee the Insights section of Science
, which is some of the most important scientific commentary anywhere, and that includes the editorial page where I write now almost every week. The Editor-in-Chief used to only write about once a month or so, but with COVID-19, I have begun writing almost every week because there is so much going on related to science. I oversee the Science
news section as well, but that mainly involves just providing support to our News editor, as the Science
News section is editorially independent from the rest of the magazine. Still, I love journalism and getting to interact with our outstanding science journalists.
You previously served provost at the Washington University in St. Louis, and are still on faculty as the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor, holding appointments in both chemistry and medicine. What is your favorite part about teaching, or what has been your favorite course to teach?
Over the years, I would say general chemistry, although I haven’t done it in a long time. I find the history of how we came to know about atoms and molecules to be truly fascinating. It is stunning that Dalton, Mendeleev, Lavoisier, Curie, and others were able to work all of that out with so little to go on. When you teach the periodic table and the basics of chemical reactions, you have to go through how it is we know all of this, and that is very exciting to me.
You also have a background in the arts, including experience in theater and music. How do you feel this background has impacted you? What skills have you gained from the arts that you find valuable?
Growing up in the theater was extraordinarily good training for a lot of things. Doing a show on a deadline requires excellent time management, teamwork, and most important, making decisions about when things are good enough to move forward. When you’re preparing a show and opening night is a fixed date, you have to learn where to focus valuable time. If folks have paid to see a show, you’re obligated to give them the best one you can. As far as the intellectual part of it is concerned, I think the way that American history is intertwined with the great American plays of Williams, Miller, Inge, and Hansberry provides such an astonishing look at the interplay of politics and culture and that continues right on to Tony Kushner and the great writers of today.
Do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded, liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?
It has never been more important. If you look at most of the problems we are experiencing in today’s politics, it traces back to a failure to instill a curiosity about the past and appreciation for difference. These are fundamental ideas in a liberal arts education. Organizations like ΦBK need to do even more to promote this curiosity and appreciation.
What is your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your city?
I would say the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn. The sculptures are magnificent and historically very important, and the setting on the Mall is one-of-a-kind. It was a brilliant decision to make that site so important, prominent, and accessible. It says something good about the US that we took that piece of ground and devoted it to modern sculpture. But DC has a lot of gems, so it’s hard to pick one. The Vietnam Memorial is a special and important place, for example.
What advice do you have for young Phi Beta Kappa members?
Don’t be afraid of enjoying your mind. There are a lot of anti-intellectual messages out there, and a lot of people think these messages are new, but we have been struggling with this for a long time. My father was in the same ΦBK chapter that I’m in, and fortunately, I have his certificate still on my wall next to mine. He told me that when he went to the induction, he had to sneak out of the fraternity house because his brothers would have made fun of him for studying hard enough to get into ΦBK. That’s awful, and we’re seeing devastating effects of this as society shuns science and the liberal arts, leading to dangerous movements like climate denial, hostility towards vaccines, and a lack of appreciation for difference. Knowledge is our only path forward: be proud of your curiosity and determination!