Volunteer Profile: Carol Burns
Every year, while much of America looks forward to Halloween traditions, Hertz Fellow Carol Burns anticipates the end of October for another reason: the annual screening of Hertz Fellowship applicants.
For the past 10 years, Burns has spent Halloween weekend immersed in about 70 folios from a pool of more than 800 applicants, a volunteer task she regards as a special sort of treat.
As one of 15 screeners, her job is to help identify the 100 or so young scientists who will be invited to the first round of interviewing. The activity is more of a treasure hunt than a process of elimination.
“You’re not looking for the thing that knocks a candidate out of the running. You’re looking for something that makes a candidate special—that spark of creativity and intellect that comes through in the essays they write, letters of recommendation, or their role in a research project,” she said.
The opportunity to engage with Hertz Fellows has prompted Burns to volunteer with the foundation in multiple ways over the past decade.
“I just love talking to bright young scientists and engineers. It’s so uplifting to listen to these people who are going to solve some big problems—who really are going to save the world. They are not fazed by the magnitude of challenges. They’re just driven by science,” she said.
In addition to serving as a screener, Burns is a member of both the board of directors and the Fellowship and Programs Council and was named council chair in 2020. She has hosted events in Los Alamos, where she is executive officer to the deputy director for science, technology, and engineering at Los Alamos National Laboratory; led the Hertz Thesis Prize committee for the past five years; and served as a first-round interviewer for the fellowship.
“I don’t sweat anything as much as I sweat interviewing Hertz Fellow candidates. I might have to interview, for example, a biologist, a chemist, a condensed matter physicist, and a computer scientist. I study to interview,” she said.
“It’s a lot of work, but the fellows are worth it. It’s like a smorgasbord of cutting-edge work being explained by these terribly bright, excited individuals. How could you not love that?”
Her goal in every role is to keep the foundation moving forward, evolving and innovating to make what is good even better.
As head of the Thesis Prize committee, Burns restructured the process to incorporate subject-matter reviewers rather than have only selection committee members read each thesis, when they may or may not have expertise in any given field. The change has created a more robust and fair review process and provides a low-commitment, high-impact volunteer opportunity.
“Being a thesis reviewer is a really fun way to stick your toe in the water of volunteering for the foundation,” Burns said. “You get to review a thesis in an area that is relevant to you, by a Hertz Fellow you may have not yet met, who is doing some really exciting work.”
As chair of the Fellowship and Programs Council, Burns is hoping to engender fresh perspectives by rotating leadership of subcommittees. Early in the new year, she and the foundation’s president will create an ad hoc task force to address issues of diversity and engagement in the fellows population, with a focus on the number of underrepresented minorities, gender, and the range of schools and disciplines that fellows represent.
The power of the Hertz Foundation is in its community, Burns said. “The way we’re going to solve big problems now and into the future is by smart people working together across multiple disciplines.”
The power of the community is also invigorating and gratifying, exposing fellows to a breadth of thinking, she said.
“I encourage fellows to become involved, whether it’s participating in an Innovation Hour, agreeing to review a thesis, or mentoring a young fellow. By volunteering, fellows can find out how exciting it is to have access to a community of thinking and get an inkling of how powerful it can be.”