Despite serving as the Southern Arizona Research Science and Engineering Foundation’s first CEO for the last decade, Kathleen Bethel assumed only a handful of people would show up to her retirement party. But when the party got started Monday, June 24, the SARSEF offices were flooded with guests, a far cry from Bethel’s prediction. 

“I’m just shocked,” she said. “It’s amazing.” 

While the nonprofit has encouraged local students to participate in science, technology and engineering since 1955, Bethel served as its first CEO starting in 2009. SARSEF saw tremendous growth during her leadership, particularly in the realm of educational outreach.

“As the first CEO of SARSEF, I consider myself a master scientist,” Bethel said. “Watching SARSEF grow, and leading the changes that made it even better, I performed my very best experiment.”

At her celebration, letters lined the office walls from former colleagues and students, detailing how Bethel affected their lives. One such letter came from a University of Arizona student who participated in SARSEF’s science fair both in eight grade and in high school, and was inspired to pursue a science major because of it. 

SARSEF started as a science fair, and the fair continues to be one of the foundation’s largest annual endeavors. At the science fair, the top 2,000 projects and 5,000 K-12 students from Southern Arizona meet for a weeklong competition at the Tucson Convention Center. Each year, more than $100,000 in scholarships are awarded. 

Under Bethel’s leadership, SARSEF grew to include other science events, such as the Arizona STEM Adventure, high school mentoring programs and outreach programs impacting 36,000 students annually. Although she’s led the organization for a decade, Bethel said she is not concerned about the foundation’s future without her at the helm.

“SARSEF has been around for 65 years,” she said. “So, luckily, I think we’ll be fine.” 

When Bethel announced her plans for retirement in May—citing her health as one of her reasons for stepping down—SARSEF’s board of directors opened up the application process for a new CEO. At the celebration on June 24, it was announced SARSEF’s deputy director Liz Baker would take the helm. 

“They’re obviously huge shoes to fill,” said Baker, who has served as a SARSEF board member for eight years. “Not only was Kathleen the first full-time SARSEF employee and CEO, but she really propelled us beyond being only a science fair.” 

While Baker plans to continue Bethel’s goal of promoting diversity in science, she also has some plans of her own. 

“I want to continue the trajectory she set, but a mission I also want to focus on is making sure our outreach includes really high quality research,” Baker said. “I’m looking for ways to make sure teachers get to implement research in their own classrooms.”

The retirement was actually Bethel’s second. She started her career as a school teacher in the 1970s, eventually serving as a principal in the Sunnyside Unified School District, and as an administrator at the University of Arizona College of Engineering. Bethel retired from Sunnyside before transitioning to SARSEF.

“There are no words I can say about how much Kathleen has meant to SARSEF over the past 10 years,” said SARSEF board chair Betsy Bolding. “However, I did write something and it ended up being 671 words.” 

Bethel’s career is one filled with lore and memorable scenes, which her co-workers and friends shared in spades at the celebration. This included the story of when Bethel was initially chosen as CEO. According to Baker, the SARSEF board of directors picked Bethel as CEO while she had “stepped out of the room for about five minutes.” Bethel also has her own stories, such as when her dedication to encouraging women in science was solidified. Bethel recalls attending the SARSEF fair awards in 2008, and she heard a young girl ask why all the award winners were boys. 

Supporting girls to enter the science field was one of Bethel’s main goals upon becoming CEO. During her tenure, the numbers of girls participating at the SARSEF Fair increased by 83 percent. The students who participate in the SARSEF fair are now 54 to 57 percent female. 

During Bethel’s reign, SARSEF also quadrupled its budget and increased the number of students served by 47 percent. In 2009, when Bethel started, SARSEF offered no scholarships. Bethel now facilitates 22 scholarships, including 12 from the UA.

“Every decision she’s ever made has been for kids,” said Brooke Meyer, SARSEF director for education. “She’s a leader, she’s never been just a boss.”

Even SARSEF’s offices expanded from a single room at UA to an office suite with multiple rooms and a science lab. The number of individual donors and corporate grants to SARSEF also increased tenfold from 2009 to 2019. 

“She has one of the highest rates of success for grant writers in the city, and she wasn’t even trained in grant writing,” Baker said. “That just shows her passion… She never thought she’d be a CEO, but our growth under her is a testament to her leadership.”

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