Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
September 25, 2000
Good afternoon. Many thanks to President McCardell,
faculty, staff, and the entire community here at Middlebury.
Being featured at this kind of forum is indeed an honor,
and it makes me feel very much part of this community.
You may have heard Washington DC described as 60 square
miles of confusion surrounded by reality.
I have appreciated the opportunity to travel with Senator
Jeffords over the past weekend for a brief hiatus
from the confusion.
While I was preparing my remarks, I was brainstorming
with my family about what I wanted to say in honor
of Middlebury's Bicentennial Celebration.
I could only imagine what my grandson, who's now two
and a half, must have thought about the conversation.
He probably thought, "That's really cool. It must
be just like a centennial-only with more legs."
For 200 years, Middlebury has remained preeminent among
the nation's liberal arts colleges. You have led us
all with commitment to diversity.
Most Americans don't know names like Alexander Twilight
and May Belle Chellis, but they should.
It's also clear that the new science center sets a
high standard for us all.
Bicentennial Hall embodies Albert Einstein's' metaphorical
words that, "The Temple of Science is a multi-faceted
All of us appreciate the need to give students a well-rounded
education-that includes, of course, the sciences,
but also math, history, literature, and the arts and
This educational approach results in thoughtful, insightful
leaders, with broad perspectives. It's just one more
reason for Middlebury to deserve our highest praise.
As you might know, NSF is also celebrating this year-its
50th anniversary as a wellspring for discoveries
in research and education.
In the spirit of this visionary legacy, I would like
to spend a few minutes exploring vital trends in both
research and education in science and engineering.
The first trend I'll discuss is the cross-pollination
of research disciplines-which is the driving force
behind many new fields and several key initiatives
at NSF. The second is the integration of research
And the third is the troubling divide occurring throughout
our society in various aspects of science and technology.
Today, I'll focus in particular on these issues in
relation to young women.
When we talk about research, we can all see the major
changes that have occurred over NSF's 50 years.
We've moved from a massive infusion into physics and
engineering to a recognition that all disciplines
must be nourished.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson
"We are approaching a new age of synthesis, when
the testing of consilience"-or the unity of knowledge-"is
the greatest of all intellectual challenges."
I would like to speak from personal experience for
a moment when reflecting upon how our enterprise of
science and technology has evolved over these decades.
I speak as a believer in the power of basic research
to improve lives, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes
as a result of directed leadership.
I have always been intrigued by complexity. Reductionist
science, dissecting the whole into the smallest parts,
seemed to me like clear-cutting a forest in order
to study one tiny seedling.
I have always been more interested as a biologist in
how it all comes together-intrigued by the mixture,
by the froth that makes life bubble.
I have spent more than 30 years studying cholera, a
terrible water-borne scourge that still kills thousands
every year in developing countries.
Today we have reached the point in our research where
women in Bangladesh are testing a simple filtering
system for their drinking water, using sari cloth
to remove plankton and particulate matter to which
the cholera bacteria are attached.
To get to this juncture took decades of study for us
to define the life cycle of the organism that causes
I have seen firsthand, in my research, the power of
meeting other disciplines more than halfway.
We gain a richness of vantage points at different scales,
such as the broad view provided by remote sensing
In recent years, satellite data have shown how global
environmental change influences the spread of cholera.
Further refinements to those techniques could help
us save thousands of lives a year.
They allow us to monitor and predict conditions conducive
to cholera epidemics. Without remote sensing, developing
models to allow proactive measures against the disease
would be difficult, if not impossible.
We are watching the interconnections deepen between
branches of knowledge-a process that will drive our
progress more than ever before. Where disciplines
meet, creativity thrives.
One new tool, the perspective of complexity, spans
all fields of study and all scales.
At NSF, one of our key current emphases is "biocomplexity."
It's an interdisciplinary view of the complex interactions
in biological and social systems-and between these
systems and their physical environments.
We know that ecosystems do not respond linearly to
environmental change. Tracing the complexity of the
Earth's environment is profoundly important to the
future of life on our planet.
When we look at our own species, we see a system as
complex as any, and the disciplines are converging
to chart it.
Learning how we learn-studying the cognitive biology
of the brain-is as compelling a research frontier
as we have ever seen.
We search for the common principles that underlie life
at every scale, from an individual to an ecosystem.
Another stage for the meeting of the physical and biological
worlds is the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale.
At this magical point on the dimensional scale, nanostructures
are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made
devices and the large molecules of living systems.
We are beginning to manipulate individual atoms and
molecules. We're beginning to create materials and
structures from the bottom up, the way nature does
NSF is now leading a major national initiative on nanotechnology.
This will change the way almost everything is designed,
from medicines to electronics to Tupperware.
As the disciplines draw together, the need to integrate
research with education is more urgent than ever.
That's my second theme-the linkage of learning and
Only through this synthesis will the knowledge at the
frontiers of discovery become available to everyone
who wants to learn.
We know that jobs requiring science and technology
skills are expanding, and all signs are that we'll
see that trend continue. The five fastest-growing
occupations today are in computing.
Undergraduate education is being transformed in the
process. NSF is very engaged in this arena.
- For example, our Research Experiences for Undergraduates
Program gives students a chance for meaningful
participation in active research.
- Our Research in Undergraduate Institutions supports
faculty research-the other side of the coin.
- Our Division for Undergraduate Education also
promotes links between science and student research.
Let me mention two ways NSF is working with the faculty
here at Middlebury. Andrea Lloyd and her colleagues'
project seeks to introduce a more mechanistic, experimental
approach to ecological issues.
This project moves ecology from observational studies
to laboratory experiments. The students "learn-by-doing."
They go to field sites, share their data, and, in
the process, gain an appreciation of ecology as a
broad and interdisciplinary science.
Another NSF award is helping to modernize a computer-controlled
telescope. It will give students the opportunity to
do more advanced spectral analysis.
And even more important, it will allow Frank Winkler
and his colleagues to reach into the greater community-providing
opportunities for local teachers and improving the
general understanding of science by the public.
This is just one way that information technologies
foster new connections of all kinds. The most powerful
of these connections may well be in education-especially
As former Cornell University President and National
Science Board Chair Frank Rhodes puts it,
"The new learning opportunities are going to involve
access from anywhere on earth, literally. It will
be knowledge on demand... It really changes the
culture of learning and teaching."
We all know that Web-based learning has
tremendous potential to broaden the reach of academic
Students of every age will be able to
earn credits and degrees without conforming to the
confines of campus schedules, without paying commuting
costs, and so on.
For many, IT provides the first opportunity
for education to fit into their lives rather than
trying to fit themselves into the rigid structure
of on-site learning.
We are also beginning to realize the potential
of fashioning a degree from courses handpicked at
several institutions. The potential of who can provide
an education has opened wide.
This is all to the good, as long as we
don't lose sight of the value of a campus setting,
especially when the leaves are starting to turn.
We all know there are benefits to an on-site
education that cannot be squeezed through a modem.
This compels us to think in a new way
about how undergraduate education fits into a lifetime
Our traditional education "stream"-that
is, K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels-has been
viewed as a series of disconnected stages in one's
life. It is not.
Those levels comprise a continuum, and
the chasms between them must be bridged.
Creating a seamless continuum requires
collaboration across the system. NSF's newest effort
is our program to place graduate teaching fellows
in K-12 classrooms.
We call it GK12 for short. Classroom teachers
get the chance to learn about the latest discoveries,
while graduate students can explore a career in teaching
by getting their feet wet in the classroom.
This program can help higher education
institutions re-think graduate education, perhaps
encouraging them to align multi-disciplinary education
with teacher preparation.
In this new world we cannot afford to leave large parts
of our population to languish in scientific illiteracy.
As E. O. Wilson predicts,
"The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers,
people able to put together the right information
at the right time, think critically about it,
and make important choices wisely."
This brings me to my third and final theme-the obligation
to bridge the various divides emerging in our use
of technology as a society.
I know that all of us here share a deep commitment
to progress for women and for all underrepresented
But, we all have lots of work to do across science
and engineering generally. Let's look to the latest
trends in information technologies to put this problem
in a realistic context.
We've heard a number of stories of how basic research-and
information technology-drive innovation. We also know
how critical innovation is to our economic growth.
As Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan said earlier
"we are now living through a pivotal period in
American economic history...It is the growing
use of information technology throughout the economy
that makes the current period unique."
Job growth is happening more rapidly in our economy
in areas that require training in science, engineering,
You may have seen the congressional report called "Land
of Plenty," issued by the Congressional Commission
on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science,
Engineering and Technology Development. This is the
The commission states this: if women, minorities, and
the disabled-two-thirds of U.S. workers-joined the
science and engineering workforce in proportion to
their numbers, the shortage in skilled S&T workers
"would largely be eliminated."
The commission warns that if our country continues
to exclude so many citizens from the new economy,
"our nation will risk losing its economic and intellectual
The report takes a comprehensive look at the full range
of issues. Let me just highlight a few findings, especially
those focused on the participation of women.
The percentage of women receiving bachelor's and master's
degrees in computer science has been dropping since
We see a downward trend for both men and women-but
it's been more precipitous for women.
The number of doctoral degrees has managed to remain
roughly flat, but only because of an increase of female
While numbers of women majors in such fields as biology,
physics, math, and even engineering are increasing,
the percentage going into computer science remains
The challenge is acute and troubling. Why are girls
avoiding computing careers?
The book Does Jane Compute? by Roberta Furger-which
cites NSF-supported research-should be essential reading
In subtle and unsubtle ways, Furger points out, girls
become discouraged early about computing.
The family computer is often located in the boy's bedroom.
Image is another problem: girls are turned off by the
stereotype of the white, antisocial, workaholic computer
Many computer games-often kids' first exposure to computers-also
They dislike the violent, repetitive, and sexist elements
of the games that are widely available.
Instead, they ask for identity games in which they
could create a character or build a world, with chances
to communicate and collaborate.
I recently learned that the Girl Scouts of America
have a new campaign in computing. They even have their
The numbers are 7 and 19 in binary code, which represent
"G" and "S" for Girl Scouts.
As part of the program which targets girls in grades
four-through-six, girls visit the San Diego Supercomputer
Center to learn about computing.
They surf the Web, create 3-D graphics, and talk with
the center's scientists and engineers.
That's the way to bring in computer science at an early
age-grades three and four-before girls get turned
off by science and engineering in general.
While we can celebrate many positive efforts to incorporate
more women into the prosperous mainstream of IT, anecdotal
evidence on why girls and women avoid the field just
A New York Times editorial entitled "Technology's
Gender Gap" highlighted the issue a few weeks back.
NSF will continue to invest in research on ways to
attract girls to learning science, technology, and
mathematics. We're gaining insights on how to change
our educational approaches.
We are focused on increasing women and minority participation
in science and engineering, and we look to Middlebury
College as a catalyst in this mission.
To strengthen our knowledge base will not only empower
us as a society, but also bolster our nation's prosperity.
It will take the threads woven by us all to create
this fabric of our collective future. I am confident
that it can be a masterpiece.
We are grateful for the past 200 years of contributions
Middlebury has made to our society. And as always,
we will continue to expect great things.
Thank you again for inviting me to join you.