EXTRAORDINARY: Thanks to what she took away from her first scientific conference organized by Gordon Research Conferences, Nancy Ryan Gray understands what drives people to attend and how she can use that knowledge to expand the organization.
PBN PHOTO/NATALJA KENT
By Robin Respaut
When Nancy Ryan Gray was a doctoral student at the Pennsylvania State University in 1983, she attended a research conference in New Hampshire with a crowd of scientists whose writings she had been studying avidly. The moment changed her life.
That particular Gordon Research Conference was focused on the study of large biological molecules, her area of specialty while earning her Ph.D. in fuel science.
“I walked into the first session and my mouth dropped open, because all the names that had authored all the papers that I was studying were standing there,” said Gray. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Gray has spent the past 10 years as president and director of Gordon Research Conferences, host of that eye-opening 1983 conference. GRC, based in South Kingstown, is a nonprofit that annually organizes hundreds of scientific conferences around the country and the world. The forums allow scientists to discuss frontier research in the fields of biological, chemical and physical sciences and related technologies.
Her work with GRC has earned Gray the designation of industry leader in social services for the 2013 Business Women Awards program of Providence Business News.
“She’s an extraordinary leader,” said Christopher Graham, a partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP, who nominated Gray for the award. “She runs an extremely efficient organization. She has an incredible attention to detail.”
Back in 1983, Gray spent her week at the conference engaged in discussions with scientists in her field of research, and weeks afterward, two Dutch scientists she had met there invited her to conduct research in Amsterdam for a year. “That changed my career in terms of the opportunities I had,” she said.
Gray went on to work as an industrial research chemist at Exxon Production Research Company in Houston. She later became membership director at the American Chemical Society. All the while, Gray attended Gordon Conferences.
“At one point, I was asked to be a speaker at a Gordon Conference, which, to my mind, was a huge accomplishment,” she said.
Then in 2003, Gray was offered to head GRC as the organization’s new director.
Since her arrival, GRC has increased the number of conference participants by leaps and bounds. Gray also has increased the number of conferences each year, and the average conference attendance has risen from 115 to 146. Under Gray’s tenure, revenue at the organization swelled from $23 million to $34 million annually. Expenses have been carefully managed, shifting GRC from a net loss to a net gain from operations. The staff held steady at 21 employees. In 2013 and 2014, GRC plans to hold 550 conferences and seminars from New England to Hong Kong.
“The conference has always been on shaky financial ground,” said Peter Stang, organic chemistry professor at the University of Utah. “Then comes Nancy Gray, and she expands it enormously. She put the organization on very secure financial footing.”
GRC submits more than 250 federal grant proposals a year. The organization brought in more than $2.6 million in federal money last year. It received $4 million from private industry. The money is channeled back to the conferences, by helping to cover the registration fees and the travel costs of some participants.
Over the last decade, Gray focused on two areas that she believed needed growth. One area was Asia, where this year GRC will host seven conferences. Last year, GRC incorporated in Hong Kong, creating the organization’s first-ever subsidiary.
Graham, Gray’s nominator, emphasized the importance of the conferences in current global conditions. “All of us in the U.S. are coming to grips that, given the strength of the Chinese economy and the investment in science and in developing technology, there is a huge resource in Asia for scientists who are going to be helping science get to the next level,” said Graham.
Gray’s second major change was to significantly expand the number of Gordon Research Seminars, oriented specifically for young scientists and students. They are scheduled a few days before a conference, so students have the opportunity to present their research and to feel more comfortable in the open discussion environment before the other conference attendees arrive.
“Young people are the future of science, and now they have a forum to present their latest results,” said Stang, the Utah professor. “It used to be almost impossible for a graduate student to attend. Now they are given an opportunity.”
Gray is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the American Chemical Society. •