Family and faculty helped alumna ask the right questions

Jenny Reardon doesn’t just ask scientific questions; she asks questions of science itself.

“I’m a scholar of science, technology, and medicine.” Reardon said. “Another way to say what I’m interested in overall is, ‘why do people believe what they believe?’”

Reardon is currently a professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz, where she founded the Science & Justice Research Center (SJRC), whose mission is to encourage students and researchers in STEM disciplines to think about questions of justice in their work.

Reardon’s undergraduate career exemplifies these intersections. An honors student at KU, Reardon earned a Goldwater Scholarship while pursuing degrees in political science and biology. Her undergraduate research focused heavily on the environment, including the then-emerging hole in the ozone layer and its effect on plankton. She also learned how to sequence DNA in the early days of the genomics revolution in the laboratory of Sally Frost-Mason and Ken Mason.

Reardon’s time as a Jayhawk included participation in the University Scholars Program, which is administered by the honors program. Each scholar enrolls in an interdisciplinary spring seminar and is paired with a faculty mentor. Reardon was paired with Donald Worster, former president of the American Society of Environmental History and Hall Distinguished Professor of American History.

“I had a lot of great relationships with professors at KU,” she said. “But he's the one who told me about science & technology studies,” an interdisciplinary field that asks ethical and philosophical questions about science and technology, and one in which Reardon would later earn a doctorate from Cornell University. “[The field] was just forming, and he had a big impact on the trajectory of my career. I would have never known about that.”

Worster didn’t only broaden Reardon’s horizons — he helped narrow questions she’d long been asking. For a time, her father had been a Jesuit priest. As a theologian in a religious order with a history of challenging the Catholic Church’s views on science, he supported Reardon’s curiosity. She built a laboratory in the family basement and won the Grand Award in Environmental Sciences at the General Motors International Science and Engineering Fair at age 14.

Professor Worster was equally supportive of that academic drive. He would suggest both fiction and nonfiction works, like Catch-22 and The Fisherman’s Problem, that prompted deeper exploration of the ethics of discovery.

“I would go to his office after I was done working in the lab all day. And he would ask me questions like, ‘So Jenny, what is progress?’” Reardon said.

Reardon also credits former Honors director J. Michael Young, associate directors Sandy Wick and Mary Klayder for helping her to do the difficult work of straddling many intellectual worlds to help found a new academic discipline.

“There is no way I would be the person I am today without the support of Michael, Sandy and Mary, and the belief they had in me.”

In addition to her current work in the classroom and the research center, Reardon also sits on the Principles Working Group of the National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) Committee on Emerging Science, Technology, and Innovation and in April spoke at  an event for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS)   In these roles, she helps major institutions like NAS and NAM  create principles and practices that foster the development of scientific research in a more just way.

“There are a million different questions one could ask about the world and take a scientific approach,” she said. “So how do we make choices about whose questions are deemed of interest and of value? And who gets to martial the resources of this powerful institution of science to ask those questions?”

That access and support often come from mentors. At the SJRC, Reardon now offers space to explore just as her mentors at Honors did, all to help others discover how disparate topics might fuse and how seemingly unrelated voices may join in conversation — efforts inspired by her honors program experience.

“Initially I was struggling to bridge my interests between the natural and social sciences, and the humanities and the arts,” Reardon said. “People at honors helped me to do that and see that I could.”