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Why Science Labs Love Older Scientists

3 who continue doing important work well past age 65

By Diane Eastabrook

It’s been quite a year for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His leadership through the pandemic has made Fauci perhaps the nation’s most trusted voice on COVID-19. Time magazine included him on its list of 100 Most Influential People in 2020 and the National Academy of Sciences recently awarded Fauci its highest honor, the Gustav Lienhard Award.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Dir.   |  Credit: Courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Quite impressive for a man who’s just two months shy of his 80th birthday.

The physician and immunologist may seem like an anomaly, but in the world of science he isn’t. Many of the nation’s leading research laboratories and universities are teeming with scientists well past the age of 65 who continue to make enormous contributions to their fields of expertise.

"The longer they stay around, the more they can mentor the new field and faculty that are coming along.”

The National Science Foundation says about 13% of the doctoral scientists and engineers working in the U.S. are 65 or older. At some universities and national laboratories, the percentage is even higher. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for instance, says a fifth of its research faculty is over 65.

The number of 65+ Black and Hispanic scientists, however, is fairly small. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented among those in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs with professional or doctoral degrees.

Why Some Older Scientists Continue Working

Many older scientists stay on the job for reasons ranging from greater flexibility to do their work, ongoing funding for research projects and just an inherent love of science.

“They want to keep discovery going and they want to continue to be in that intellectual life,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Joseph Coughlin, Director of MIT’s Agelab, says the dedication and deep institutional knowledge older scientists have is invaluable to research centers.

“In their head is the theory and the legacy of what they’ve learned. The longer they stay around, the more they can mentor the new field and faculty that are coming along,” says Coughlin.

Here are three of these impressive scientists:

Sallie “Penny” Chisholm: Researching the Ocean’s Smallest Microbe

Chisholm, a 72-year-old biologist, has been enthralled by a tiny aquatic microbe that she and a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute discovered in the Atlantic Ocean in 1985.

Sallie “Penny” Chisholm, MIT
Prof. Sallie "Penny" Chishom, MIT biologist

They found Prochlorococcus to be the most abundant organism in the ocean and responsible for about 10% of all ocean photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunlight into chemical energy.

“Really, we’re fundamentally trying to understand what makes Prochlorococcus tick,” says Chisholm.

She and her team first cracked Prochlorococcus’ genetic code. Now they’re investigating how the microbe might help in the development of sustainable fuels.

“The earth operates on solar energy, so understanding Prochlorococcus’ design could help us design artificial photosynthetic machines,” explains Chisolm.

She admits that at some point she’ll have to “pack it in” and retire. But, Chisholm says, “I’m not there yet.”

Chris Quigg: Exploring the Universe and Beyond

Two years ago, theoretical particle physicist Chris Quigg, now 75, retired from Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.

Well, he sort of retired.

After nearly 50 years at Fermilab,the nation’s premier particle physics laboratory, Quigg became a distinguished scientist emeritus there. While Quigg no longer draws a salary, he still keeps an office onsite and consults almost daily with younger scientists.

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Chris Quigg, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; Dr.
Chris Quigg, distinguished scientist emeritus, Fermilab

“In academic life, the number of positions is restricted,” says Quigg. Even if you’re doing great work at a hundred and five, if you don’t step aside, some promising young person might not have a chance.”

Quigg is one of 66 emeritus scientists at Fermilab, which uses high-powered atom smashers to study matter and the forces behind it.

Kate Gregory, Fermilab’s chief operating officer, says the experience older scientists bring to the lab helps younger colleagues “think about both the big questions in physics and the process of scientific research.”

As an emeritus, Quigg says he now has more time to focus on one of those big questions. He’s been collaborating with scientists in Europe on a particle known as the Higgs Boson. It was discovered in 2012 and could be linked to the Big Bang Theory about the creation of the universe.

Quigg is also writing a book he hopes will make physics exciting to the average person — or, he says, at least “give them fun stories to tell at cocktail parties.”

Dr. Haig Kazazian: Finding Jumping Genes

A few years ago, retirement beckoned to Kazazian, but those plans were quickly shelved following a call from the National Institute of Health.

“I was going to stop just before my eightieth birthday,” says Kazazian, who’s now 83. “ But then I got another four years of NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding. So, I said ‘Okay, I’ll keep going.'” (Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, is 70, and as Next Avenue has written, his agency is considered by some to be one of the best employers for older workers in America.)

Dr. Haig Kazazian/Geneticist, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Dr. Haig Kazazian, geneticist, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

A professor of genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kazazian is renowned for his research into retrotransposons or jumping genes — pieces of DNA that can move from one place in the genome to another.

Jumping genes sometimes, but not always, cause mutations, resulting in disease. Kazazian’s research has focused on mutations in hemophilia and cancer.

He credits his long career partly to his success getting research funded. “I have a good reputation. When they review the grant, they know who it is and have faith,” says Kazazian.

Dr. David Valle, director of Johns Hopkins Institute of Genetic Medicine, estimates only about one in 10 grant applicants receives funding from the NIH. He agrees that experience matters in the application process, making accomplished scientists like Kazazian invaluable to research universities.

Kazazian recently completed his last, and final, research project. But he emphasizes that he’s not retiring.

The geneticist will be editing two scientific journals, serving on a screening committee for the National Academy of Sciences and writing a book about the field that continues to excite him.

Photograph of Diane Eastabrook
Diane Eastabrook is a Chicago-based journalist. She has reported for Al Jazeera and the PBS Nightly Business Report. Read More
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