Making a Difference

Carr Thompson Retires

When Carr Thompson started at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in March of 1977, she was one of two employees. The foundation was dependent on the Burroughs Wellcome Company (USA) since its assets—about $7 million at the time—were directly tied to the company’s profits and losses for the year.

Today, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund employs 24 full-time professionals.  It is a major independent foundation with $750 million in assets, about $35 million of which it gives away every year to support scientific research and education.  And Thompson has seen it grow all along the way.

As she says, “it’s been such an exciting career pathway, to be a part of an extraordinary organization.”

After more than three decades at the Fund, an organization she describes as a privilege to be a part of, Thompson, senior program officer for the Fund, has made the decision to move to Atlanta with her family.

The move will cap a successful career overseeing the Fund’s science education and diversity in science programs, including the Student Science Enrichment Program, Promoting Innovation in Science and Mathematics, the Career Awards for Science and Mathematics Teachers, Singapore Math Pilot, and Underrepresented Minority Postdoctoral Enrichment Program.

Suffice it to say, her absence will be felt.

“Carr has been a friend and colleague for longer than my tenure at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund,” said Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center. “I have watched her work on many boards, committees, working groups, et cetera. She is a force for children and education in North Carolina and in the U.S.”

Thompson certainly leaves big shoes to fill. Her schedule throughout her last weeks was full as she continued to make presentations, prepare for board meetings, and field calls about her impending departure. People have asked, ‘When do you sleep?’

“This is a dream job for anyone who is passionate about educating children,” Thompson says. “When you have an opportunity to serve North Carolina in this way and even the greater good, helping to improve science education not only in North Carolina but nationally … it’s such a rewarding career pathway.”

This is the theme coursing through Thompson’s exit interview: Gratitude.

One gets the sense immediately of the importance Thompson places on her work, the satisfaction she has harbored as part of such a successful and impactful organization, and the genuine thankfulness she has for being able to lead so much of it.

Thompson’s accolades are numerous. She helped develop the white paper to establish the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center; helped develop the North Carolina Grassroots Museum Collaborative; expanded the North Carolina Project SEED program statewide, and developed the Singapore Mathematics Pilot for elementary students.

She has led or been a member of a multitude of boards including the STEM Funders Network, North Carolina Network of Grantmakers, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, North Carolina Central University Foundation, the North Carolina Center for Afterschool Programs, and the National Science Resources Center now called the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

Thompson has a bachelor’s degree in business administration  from North Carolina Central University and management certification from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is married with four children and five grandchildren.

John E. Burris, president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, calls Thompson the institutional memory of the organization and says she has provided guidance not only to the staff but also to anyone who has asked for it.

“She has led the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s commitment to science education, and has kept the Fund focused on N.C. and thus made certain that we maximize the impact of our efforts,” said Burris.

Thompson has led not only a greater awareness of the importance in diversity in the teaching and research community, Burris said, but she also has taken the lead in establishing a program to provide post-doctoral fellows from underrepresented minorities with additional support to enhance their careers.

Thompson describes her career at the Fund as memorable. One moment in particular was pivotal in the development of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s future and her own professional trajectory.

The year was 1996, after the Fund had become incorporated as an independent entity separate from the pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome Co. that had been its namesake. Until that time, the foundation had focused almost exclusively on funding basic research at the postdoctoral level and above. That year, the Fund’s leadership decided to expand the focus to include support of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at the primary and secondary levels. This opened up opportunities to help build the pipeline of young people across North Carolina pursue STEM education and career interests, Thompson said.

“For many, it is hard to understand the impact of basic research on our daily lives,” Thompson said, but with the expanded focus on hands-on education for primary and secondary students, “you can immediately see teachers being well trained in STEM education and having resources to teach quality science and mathematics in their classrooms, you can immediately see students better understanding what quality STEM learning is all about and the relevance this learning brings to their lives.”

“Focusing on STEM education forced me to get really involved in studying the North Carolina education landscape, including informal and formal education systems,  public policy, and research.  The Fund’s initial investment in science education began in the informal learning environment with the establishment of the Student Science Enrichment Program to engage scientists and science teachers in working with primary and secondary students in out-of-school time programs.  With a committed Board, it was soon recognized that advancing teachers was pivotal to the overall process of STEM learning.”

As it turns out, Thompson was a natural. Over the years she participated in and spearheaded a number of programs that began with policy and resulted in impact on the ground level, in classrooms and lecture halls across the state.

When the Fund began a partnership with the Public School Forum of North Carolina, Thompson said, that “was the start of something exciting.” The Fund helped create an infrastructure to educate policy makers and address education issues.

It provided funds for the North Carolina Institute for Education Policymakers to undergo fact-finding missions to learn more about best practices in science and mathematics education in the United States and around   the world. To date, it has been the support system by which policymakers, business, and foundation leaders, teachers and other education stakeholders have traveled to destinations all over the world to study excellent education methods. Participants have visited a number of countries including England, South Korea, China, India, and Singapore.

One of the more memorable learning from the world examinations, Thompson says, was the Fund’s 2008 delegation to Singapore, a tiny nation that boasts some of the highest mathematics and science test scores in the world.

“The trip to Singapore stood out to me and others,” she said.  “This is a wow, we need to have staff development and training for North Carolina teachers align with the education they receive at the university to better transition effective learning in the classroom, a more  seamless process.  Students learned math and science by focusing on mastery, rather than quantity of materials emphasizing problem solving. Other elements include focusing on skill building, concepts, processes, attention to students’ metacognition, and positive attitudes towards numbers and how they are used. It wasn’t simple but it was simplified for students to understand the purpose and importance of numbers, which is the most important part.”

The trip to Singapore resulted in the creation of a North Carolina pilot program where eight elementary  schools across  the state have seen a tremendous shift in the learning culture, advanced teacher training, and rigorous learning for students. Already, Thompson said, officials and teachers in those schools have been enthusiastic about the progress students are making.

“It’s the wisdom and the understanding that surfaces,” Thompson said. “These children are going to be ready for pre-algebra at 5th grade. And my challenge to my successor is that their middle schools are ready for them.”

Thompson said she has considered it a privilege to head up the categories and areas of focus for the Fund’s expanded support of primary and secondary education.

“I will always remember why we’re here as a nonprofit foundation, what our mission has been over time, the many mentors who have crossed and influenced my path, and the fact that the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is a STEM education force in North Carolina and beyond,” Thompson said. “We have helped build an effective infrastructure consisting of strong institutions, partnerships, and networks that will continue to ensure that every child can be successful in the world of STEM education. This is beyond any one individual. Therefore, I thank the many who have and will continue to make a difference for our children. .”