MBL and Woods Hole Offer Selby
a Lifetime of Inspiration

Cecily Cannan Selby
Cecily Cannan Selby

Cecily Cannan Selby has wondrous memories of her childhood summers in Woods Hole in the 1930s and ’40s. Her father, Robert Keith Cannan, was Professor of  Chemistry at NYU School of Medicine. Each summer he took a lab at MBL,  bringing his wife, Catherine (“Katie”), a Latin teacher, and Cecily to their summer home on Gardiner Road. Selby remembers bicycling barefoot around the village with her friends, collecting specimens on the beach, reading in MBL and Woods Hole Public libraries, and a home filled with lively conversation among scientists, artists, philosophers—all kinds of inquisitive people.

Cecily says that her lifelong dedication to science literacy for all, and closing the “two cultures” gap between sciences and arts and humanities, was born in Woods Hole. In promoting “equal opportunity” in access to science and to all modes of human inquiry, the science-friendly village of Woods Hole is her model for the “community organization for science literacy” she is now busy promoting.

Selby’s father usually brought several medical students with him to MBL, and one became her lifelong friend: Jonas Salk. “Jonas once told me that he was just a poor boy from the Bronx going to medical school to get out of the ghetto, until my father brought him to Woods Hole. There, Jonas said, ‘I discovered research, and there was no turning back,’” Cecily recalls. In her father’s lab, Salk worked on the formaldehyde reaction with protein, a mechanism he later incorporated in his design for the first polio vaccine.

Like Salk, Woods Hole and MBL made a lasting impression on the young Selby, as she also chose a career in research science. After earning her A.B. in physics at Radcliffe College and a Ph.D. in physical biology from MIT, Selby worked as a research biophysicist at Sloan-Kettering Institute and at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she conducted the first electron microscopic studies of skin and oncological viruses.

After marriage to a physician and the birth of three sons, Selby transitioned her professional work to education, eventually becoming Founding Dean at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and most recently Professor of Science Education at New York University. In the early 1980s, Selby co-chaired the landmark  National Science Board Commission on K-12 Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education.

All the while, Selby never forgot the diversity of scientists and the intermingling of science and society that she absorbed during her Woods Hole years. In 2000, accepting the Radcliffe Institute’s invitation to develop a program in gender, science, and society, she began to focus on how the public—and particularly teachers—think about science.

“I decided that advancing diversity within science requires public understanding that the different personal characteristics of different scientists can add value to science,” Selby says. “If you believe that a ‘scientific method’ of observation and measurement governs science, then it does not matter WHO is doing science. However, if you understand that science is an inquiry, you know that different people asking and answering questions in different ways is good for science—as it is for any inquiry. The scientist can engage personal values, interests, and culture in choosing the questions to ask, the hypotheses to follow, and the observations to make. Personal perspectives may be used in science’s processes, but not in evaluating the evidence that scientists pay attention to and share: scientific evidence.”

Selby’s Woods Hole roots have grown in depth and breadth over the years.  She and her second husband, the late James Stacy “Spike” Coles, a physical chemist and trustee of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), bought a house in the village where Selby lives every summer. She serves on the MBL Board of Overseers and the WHOI Board of Trustees.

Selby has decided to honor MBL with a charitable bequest, to help sustain MBL as a place where scientific discoveries, careers, cultures—and communities—are grown.

“Growing up in Woods Hole was glorious for all of the ‘MBL children,’” she says. “For me, it meant forever after associating science with the culture, people, and sea air of Woods Hole.”

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