MN VOICES | Eric Jolly: Public science leader, private man of faith


Dr. Eric Jolly’s eyes still showed his fatigue from a whirlwind work trip to Germany, but when it came time for him to show off some of his favorite things in the museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota president promptly perked up and transformed into teacher mode. He giddily zoomed through the Cell Lab, where children can don lab coats, gloves and goggles to study their saliva’s enzymes. Then he raced through the basement-level vault, where volunteers and scientists probe ancient fossils, and where other carefully cataloged treasures wait in metal cabinets to be explored. 

Jolly enjoys taking special guests through the vault, which sports shelves of prehistoric pottery and dozens of nearly six-foot-long hunting spears stored upright against one wall. Though their shafts were mottled with age, the sharp tips looked as if they could still easily pierce the flesh of a charging beast.

“The Secret Service did not appreciate that I brought (former First Lady Laura Bush) near those,” he admitted, glancing toward the weapons.

Since Jolly took over the Science Museum’s top spot nearly six years ago, he has proudly shared this Twin Cities gem with visiting public figures, such as the former First Lady. This spring, St. Mary’s University awarded him the Hendrickson Medal for Ethical Leadership, giving Jolly props for sharing his love of science with a much wider and more diverse audience. 

Lindsay McCabe, executive director of the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership, said that Jolly-whose science career spans decades-has reached people in the Twin Cities community and far beyond.

“Jolly is being recognized for his leadership skills and tireless work to make education more accessible throughout the state,” McCabe said in a press release. “As president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, he embodies the philosophy that science is an essential literacy for civic and economic participation.

“On a broader scale, Jolly is a national leader in developing and delivering education for culturally diverse populations and is a highly acclaimed public speaker and author.”

Jolly played a big role in a dialogue-provoking exhibit about race. He has worked in Indian communities (his first language was Cherokee), and to promote math and science careers for women and other underrepresented groups. He helped develop a curriculum for teenagers after 9/11. All of these projects-and many more across the country, according to the Hendrickson Institute folks-have Jolly’s positive imprint on them.

In between sharing his favorite museum spots and darting off to yet another commitment, Jolly reflected on how he started loving science and what keeps him moving forward.

When you were growing up in rural Rhode Island and Oklahoma, was there ever one particular moment where you realized you wanted to be a scientist?

There were a lot of impressions along the way, and it was more that I looked back one day and realized, “Oh, I am a scientist!”

But I do remember early on, when I was in kindergarten, a cold winter day. And these were the times when peanut butter came in glass jars with metal lids, not the plastic. And the kindergarten teacher filled two now-cleaned peanut butter jars with water and sealed them tightly and put one inside the door to the classroom, and one outside the door to the classroom, exposed to the elements.

It froze that night, and when we came back to school, the one outside had exploded! And when you’re 4 years old, that’s about the coolest thing in the world. And we got to try and understand why, and that was the beginning of my love of science answering that wonderful question why.

Do you consider yourself a religious man at all today?

I consider myself a very spiritual person.

So your belief in science, and in the scientific method, can coexist with your faith?

Oh, absolutely.

Can you talk at all about that? Because for some people, that’s not possible.

Sure. (Jolly pauses for a moment to think.)

I respect everyone’s level of comfort with how they recognize their god, but for me, I can believe in a God so powerful that I cannot conceive of it. And therefore, my science and the mathematics-which is the language of discovery that the Creator has allowed us to have-is a wonderful way to answer that question of “why?” that humans are born with.

Can we also say that God did other things that literalists might want to have (happened)? Yes, because I don’t want anyone limiting my God to that which I can conceive of. And so spirituality and religion is an act of faith, and faith is not in conflict with the act of creating knowledge. That’s a human endeavor, and so I’m very comfortable with both. They work for me.

Where are your favorite places to go to get in touch with your spiritual side?

Outdoors weaving a basket. That is one of the most settling things I can do, and I am particularly fond of New Mexico. I have my retirement property there, in the middle of the woods. It has bear and elk on it. It has no home or water or electricity yet, but I take a photo out of my drawer every so often and I look at it, and I say, “That’s where I’ll go when I’m finally ready to just live a slower life.”

Which may never happen – which is why there’s no home, no water, no electricity on the property.

So when do you think you may retire?

Oh, I don’t know if I’ll ever actually retire. I hope that whenever I’m done with whatever my next challenges are-most of them are going to be here, at the Science Museum of Minnesota, because I’m planning to stay for a very long time-but as long as they let me stay, I’ll be here. But I hope that when it’s time for me to retire, I can find an office in a university somewhere where I can pontificate to graduate students.

What else is important for readers to know so they can understand who you are and what makes you tick?

What makes me tick? (Pauses again to think.

It’s a profound desire to leave a footprint. And this is a pretty wonderful world, and I have enjoyed every minute of life. And I hope that when I’m done, you can look back and say that it mattered that I walked on this Earth.


You can come and celebrate Dr. Jolly’s accomplishments on Wednesday, April 28 at the Hendrickson Institutes’s Forum 2010. The event will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis.

Tickets and reservations are required for entry, and are on sale now for $25. (Discounted ticket prices are available for Saint Mary’s students and faculty members.) To purchase tickets or receive more information about the Forum, call (612) 238-4517 or visit