It started with a lunch meetup in 2002. This gathering launched the Pittsburgh chapter of ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) Foundation, which is now celebrating two decades of impacting scientific research in the region. ARCS Foundation’s mission is to advance science and technology in the United States by providing financial awards to academically outstanding students who are US citizens studying to complete degrees in science, engineering, math, technology and medical research.
Jeanne Berdik was running the workforce education program for the Pittsburgh Technology Council and Catalyst Connection in the late 1990s when she first heard about the ARCS Foundation’s interest in starting a Pittsburgh chapter in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. Upon Berdik’s retirement a few years later, she was ready to give the initiative a shot.
In late 2002, Berdik invited a small group of women to lunch to meet Dr. John Anderson, then Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Carnegie Institute of Technology and Vicki Griffin, ARCS Foundation National Chair of New Chapter Development. And so, the Pittsburgh chapter was born, with 61 charter members – 21 founders, along with an additional 40 friends recruited over the next six months.
Fast forward to September 2004, when ARCS Pittsburgh funded its first scholar award, which was given to Elisabeth Gilmore. She received her Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy and Chemical Engineering at CMU and is now an Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering at Carleton University in Canada. Since its founding, ARCS Pittsburgh has made annual and endowed funding commitments in excess of $3.8 million to 185 of the best and brightest doctoral STEM students at CMU, University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University.
This funding not only provides financial support for students’ education, but also recognizes their academic achievements and potential. Moreover, since ARCS Pittsburgh’s funding is unrestricted, it alleviates the students’ financial burdens, and enables them to focus on their research and pursue groundbreaking discoveries without the limitations of funding constraints.
ARCS history begins in 1958, when a small, but ambitious group of women in Los Angeles grew alarmed about the United States falling behind in the space race against the Soviet Union.
“They took it upon themselves to express to a friend of theirs, who happened to be the president of CalTech at the time, about how they were extremely upset about this Sputnik thing,” Berdik explained. “They asked him, ‘What can we do about it?’ He said, ‘Get your friends together to support the best and brightest of American scholars, so that they complete their degrees and go on to enhance America’s capacity for leadership and innovation in science and technology.’ So that’s what they did!"
“Since 1958, that group has grown to 15 chapters in cities and states across the country. It’s still a comparatively small organization of approximately 1,300 members – a small women’s STEM organization, led and managed by women volunteers.”
This makes it even more remarkable that between 1958 and 2023, the ARCS Foundation nationally has given 20,538 Scholar Awards to 11,512 talented students – a total of $131,428,619 in funding. Since results count, it is important to note that collectively, ARCS Scholar Alumni have started 1,800 new businesses and been awarded 3,600 patents.
But money isn’t the only tool that ARCS Pittsburgh uses to support young scholars. Berdik noted that many young scholars are so focused on their research, that they often miss opportunities for collaboration or to learn more about the city where they are studying.
“We provide opportunities for our students at Pitt and CMU to network together,” Berdik said. “I think that sometimes they are so focused, and their programs are so demanding that they don’t have the opportunity to get a sense of the world around them. There was a time years ago when I said something to one of the ARCS scholars about the mayor. The scholar asked, ‘The mayor of Oakland?’ And I said, ‘No, Oakland is not a city!’
“We want to make the students more aware of where they’re living and working. So, they get invited to the symphony, or the public theater or an event downtown, or are given tickets to a Steelers game. That way, they get a better sense of the community, and may want to settle here.”
As ARCS Pittsburgh celebrates its 20th anniversary, Berdik acknowledges the Children’s Museum’s 40th anniversary and the women-led connection between the two.
“What is not widely known is that a number of the women who founded ARCS Pittsburgh were the same Junior League of Pittsburgh members who founded the Children’s Museum 20 years earlier,” Berdik said. “That Junior League thread links both organizations. Women leadership and, in particular, the volunteer leadership of Pittsburgh’s women, has contributed a great deal to the Pittsburgh community. And they don’t get a lot of celebratory feedback because they don’t publicize what they do.”