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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Illuminating the New Science: Research and Education in the 21st Century"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Distinguished Visiting Professor Colloquium Series
Marymount University
Arlington, Virginia

October 7, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good evening. I am pleased to join you for the Distinguished Visiting Professor Colloquium.

My thanks to President Bundschuh and to the entire Marymount community for allowing me to be a part of your Colloquium series.

Marymount University is an exceptional institution that has provided experiences of educational excellence to both the Washington Area and to the nation. I'm glad that we are neighbors and partners in the Arlington community.

I am pleased to be back on a university campus. The campus atmosphere is always rejuvenating. I must remember that when I need to be re-energized, I only need to travel a couple of miles.

[Title slide]
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I've been invited to speak today on a science topic of my choosing. I've titled my remarks, "Illuminating the New Science: Research and Education in the 21st Century." I want to highlight the dramatic developments that are occurring in science and engineering and the connections these new discoveries are forging between disciplines. And, just as the sciences are evolving, so too must the way in which our students are educated.

Talking about science and engineering is central to my life, both personally as a researcher, and as director of the National Science Foundation.

And since we're in the same neighborhood let me take a moment to tell you a little about the National Science Foundation.

When thinking of how to define NSF's importance to our nation, I'm always prepared to say that NSF is about "progress." Then I remember the quote by the poet and commentator Ogden Nash. He said, "Progress may have been all right once, but it has gone on too long."

I want to register my strong disagreement with Nash. Progress is the life-blood of civilization. If we did not advance we would not remain robust and at the forefront as a nation. And with total candor, I can say that NSF is about progress.

Through sound investments in research and science education, NSF has helped to enhance the growth and development of our society, our economy, and, most of all, humanity.

NSF has been the steward of America's science and engineering enterprise for more than 50 years. We support the fundamental research that leads to groundbreaking advances in science, engineering, and mathematics. Congruent with this research mission, we support education initiatives in all of these fields. In fact, at NSF, research and education go "hand in glove."

NSF is a unique federal agency. We do not have a specific mission-oriented objective such as energy, oceans, biomedicine, or space. Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the connections between and among disciplines.

It is our job to keep all fields of science and engineering focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming generations of S&E talent - an important responsibility.

Our vision is clear and simple: Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation.

[People, Ideas, & Tools]
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We focus on three strategic areas to help us move towards realizing this vision. They are People, Ideas, and Tools. They're the stock in which NSF invests. Through peer review, we choose the most capable people with the most insightful ideas. And we have a strong record across all fields of science and engineering for doing just that.

NSF-supported researchers have collected over 100 Nobel Prizes since our founding in 1950. Our scientists have received recognition for work in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, and economics.

And we continually help break new ground through the research and education we support. Of course, none of this can be done without state-of-the-art tools. In this case - tools not only mean instruments, equipment, and laboratory facilities - but also overarching infrastructures such as networks and centers. These tools open up new vistas and frontiers for learning and discovery.

New discoveries eventually lead to new or emerging fields and the connections between them. That brings me to the focus of my talk for this evening.

[Knowledge has become the currency]
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Something new and exciting is happening in the 21st century. We are now in the midst of a new era of discovery, learning, and innovation. In the past two decades, our knowledge has expanded at a rapid rate, and the pace of science and technology has accelerated with it. New knowledge is now the principle source of wealth creation and new jobs in the U.S. and globally. This new knowledge-based economy has brought significant changes with profound implications for society. It has transformed the way we live, work, and educate our students, and it is moving us into a whole new threshold of capabilities.

[Nano, info, & bio]
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These new capabilities - nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology - have been called the power tools of the 21st century. At NSF, we have made it a deliberate part of our strategy to identify areas of exceptional promise for special investment. And we see these emerging areas as having the potential to catapult us beyond today's horizons. In fact, much of the excitement of discovery today ignites at the interfaces of disciplines.

Today boundaries between disciplines overlap and converge. Progress in one area can launch advances in another, and exchange among seemingly unrelated disciplines can also lead to unexpected developments.

Here's a surprising but illustrative example from astronomy.

[Adaptive optics: laser guide-star above Keck]
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Large ground-based telescopes have their views into space blurred by the earth's shimmering atmosphere. A technique called adaptive optics can correct for the distortion. Here a laser beam creates an artificial "guide star" for the technique.

[Blue Neptune - with & without A/O]
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Adaptive optics is an excellent example of unlikely scientific convergence - a striking consilience of astronomy with vision science. The technique sharpens astronomers' vision from ground-based observatories, as we see in these before-and-after pictures of Neptune.

[Cone Mosaic in human eye]
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Also a tool for looking into the human eye, adaptive optics produced the first images of cone arrangements in the living eye. Fundamental research to create a clearer view of the universe has spawned a new technology for the study of the human eye that could potentially benefit everyone.

[Ring Nebula]
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Here's another example. This is an adaptive optics image of the Ring Nebula, a halo of material milling around a star in the constellation Lyra. The image is clear enough to distinguish between different physical and chemical states of materials in the cloud. The different states are represented by different colors in the image. Adaptive optics helps correct for the fuzziness you would normally see due to atmospheric distortion.

The overlapping of disciplines is common in the emerging capabilities on nano, bio, and info.

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Nano science and engineering takes us down to the scale of phenomena at several billionths of a meter. That's only slightly larger than the average atom.

Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Today, we can now manipulate individual atoms at will. Nano capability means that we will be able to design and "customize" materials, products and tools atom by atom - everything from automobile tires to golf club shafts as thin as fishing lines. Scientists envision new resource-conserving products, manufactured by processes that are environmentally benign. Research is also underway on materials to generate energy cleanly and cheaply.

Nanoscale is the level at which the worlds of the living and the non-living meet. The implications of nanotechnology for biology and medicine are staggering - everything from the construction of tissue to new drug delivery systems.

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Nanodumplings are a remarkable example of developments in drug delivery systems. They are tiny spheres that mimic living entities, such as viruses, by their shape and size.

Engineered to avoid detection by the immune system, they show excellent promise for delivering drugs directly to a target site, or for gene therapy.

They could also be used to scavenge for unwanted substances, whether "bad" cholesterol in the body or pollutants from the environment.

[Polystyrene particles]
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At the University of Pittsburgh, Gilbert Walker and his team are investigating how the topography of an artificial surface influences where cells bind, and how the resulting distribution influences the way they communicate.

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The slide shows 100-nanometer polystyrene particles bound into the grooves of a "no-stick" surface. By studying how textured polymer surfaces organize particles that are deposited on it, we can learn some of the fundamental reasons for the failures of implants, such as artificial vascular grafts.

In the next twenty years, nanotechnology will influence every field and industry.

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Genomics and its offspring, biotechnology, are also transforming our future. The brief 30-year history of genetics has brought us from the exquisitely simple design of the double helix to the most precise identification of any human being. Sequencing the human genome has opened up a whole new world of biomedical research and potential miracles in diagnostics, prevention and treatment.

[Plant Genetics]
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We are all familiar with advances in plant genetics that allow us to engineer crops that are salt tolerant or drought resistant. Plant Genomics is a tool that holds fantastic potential to contribute to the well being of humanity and to the planet we call home.

[Arabidopsis - NSF press release]
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We've learned a lot from our research in this realm. In December 2000, a meager mustard weed called Arabidopsis made headlines, becoming the first-ever completely sequenced plant genome. This was the result of a joint effort by the United States, Japan, and the European Union.

Today, we call Arabidopsis the mapmaker for the plant kingdom, because we can use its genetic information to help decipher the genomics of 125,000 other plant species.

[Arabidopsis DNA]
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Unraveling the genome of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, opened new territory. It opened our eyes to methods to improve the nutrition and health of the world's population and the sustainability of the environment.

Let me give you just a couple of examples.

[Vitamin C pathway - orange & lettuce]
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A team of researchers at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute is using Arabidopsis to investigate the Vitamin C pathway in plants.

Unlike most animals, humans can't synthesize vitamin C, and thus have an absolute dietary requirement for this nutrient. Once the specific genes in the vitamin C pathway are identified, Arabidopsis can be engineered for higher levels.

Increasing vitamin C in plants would result in higher intake per portion of fresh fruit or vegetables. That would have a positive impact on human health worldwide.

[Rice genome]
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Last December, the international research community celebrated the completion of a deep draft (99.9% complete) sequence of the rice genome. Rice has been cultivated for more than 9,000 years and remains a major food staple for more than half the human population. Rice genes are similar to other cereal genes, thus the rice genome sequence serves as a scaffold and model for all other cereal crops. While rice feeds half the world, its relatively simple genome helps scientists understand the genetics of other plants.

Decoding the genome can lead to improved nutrition and aid in efforts to alleviate hunger throughout the world.

Less well known is the capability our new genomics toolkit gives us to explore biodiversity and ecosystem structure. For the first time, we have the ability to determine "what's out there," and to chart phylogenetic relationships from our own human evolutionary history to the smallest of living organisms.

Genomics offers unprecedented opportunity to begin to probe a microbial world that is almost a complete mystery.

The report pictured here stresses that "Genome-enabled microbial research holds enormous promise for understanding life at its most basic level."

[Richard Lenski: digital and bacterial evolution]
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In another merging of worlds a microbiologist, Richard Lenski at Michigan State, has joined forces with a computer scientist and a physicist to study evolution in action, using two kinds of organisms - bacterial and digital.

Here the two foreground graphs actually show the family tree of digital organisms evolving over time. On the left, the digital organisms all compete for the same resource, so they do not diversify and the family tree does not branch out.

On the right, the digital organisms compete for a number of different resources. Deep branches develop in that family tree over time.

In the background are round spots - actually laboratory populations of the bacterium, E. coli, which also diversified over time when fed different resources.

We recognize that biotechnology will have many applications beyond our current vision.

[Map of US computing]
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In a completely different realm, information technologies have touched and transformed almost every facet of our lives, our work, and our economy. The computer is so integral to our lives, we hardly remember what it was like before PCs. Computer technology has enabled us to communicate across the globe instantaneously, placing the knowledge of humankind at our fingertips.

Most recently, information technology has aided us in our watch for Hurricane Isabel. Using a supercomputer, scientists tested the nation's future Weather Research Forecast (WRF), one of three "Doppler on Wheels" mobile radars, to determine its skill at predicting Hurricane Isabel's intensity, structures, and track. The supercomputer calculated continuously as WRF zoomed in on Isabel, bringing into focus the storm's internal structure, including eyewall and rain bands. The result was a high-precision, two-day forecast. There is not a single part of any research field that has not been enhanced or influenced by information tools.

[Terascale computing]
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In fact, much of what we do today would be impossible without the powerhouse capability of advanced computing. We have now crossed the threshold of terascale computing that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities.

In the past, system architectures could only handle hundreds of processors. Now, they work with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly, they'll connect millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' to the Internet.

Crossing that boundary of one trillion operations per second launches us to another realm of frontiers. Information technologies will continue to power the new interdisciplinary science and engineering train.

At the exact opposite end of IT as a research tool is our personal use of the PC. It is becoming the backbone for our own personal organization. Many of us pay our bills electronically and organize the family budget and our taxes in folders on our PC. Today children in preschool are often more computer savvy than their parents.

[Cognition highlighted]
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Now a fourth area, equal in promise, turns this trio into a quartet - "nano, bio, info, and cogno." Cognition is the convergence of neuroscience and the social and behavioral sciences and is opening new windows on human processes of learning.

Research that spans disciplinary borders in the cognitive, behavioral, neuro, and social sciences is poised to launch a renaissance in the study of human thought and action. Of all the topics of our inquiry, we perhaps know least about ourselves - how we learn, form intentions, make decisions, and take risks.

[New technology in clinical applications]
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Scientists at Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have created a powerful new technology for viewing the brain at work.

Using high-speed networks to link an MRI scanner with a supercomputer, they've made it possible to convert scan data almost instantaneously into an animated 3-D image showing what parts of the brain "light up" during mental activity.

These visualizations allow researchers to track in seconds what previously required a day or more to process. The next step is making the connection between brain activity and human behavior - an area already under intense investigation by many researchers. Just yesterday, two researchers, one from the U.S. and one from Great Britain shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in two areas of MRI development.

Another illustration of this new research comes from an entirely different field of economics. The Nobel Prize in economics was awarded last year to Daniel Kahneman - a psychologist - for his pioneering work across the borders of cognitive science and economics, and to Vernon Smith for introducing experimental methods in economic analysis. Our understanding of the way we make the choices at the core of our consumer societies is beginning to change as a result of this research.

There is another long-term payoff from such research - one that is urgent and compelling. New research on cognition will eventually enable us to design better learning paths and environments, and devise more effective strategies to prepare the workforce for the complex 21st century workplace.

The National Science Foundation places a high priority on research that explores the way we learn. In fact, we are supporting a series of Science of Learning Centers that bring together psychologists and sociologists with neuroscientists, linguists, engineers, computer scientists, and others to open the mysteries of how the brain develops and individualizes in human beings.

With the explosion of our knowledge base in the last twenty-five years, it is imperative to better understand this capability which is the foundation territory of all other capabilities, both human and institutional.

Unlocking the learning process is the key to tapping the potential of every child, empowering a twenty-first century workforce, and maintaining our democracy.

From the last 30 years of research, we know that people, both young and old, absorb and assimilate knowledge in different ways, and in more than one way. So the NSF inquiry into the way we learn is at the center of everything we do as individuals, as a nation, and as a civilization.

This new science brings me to how research and education will change in the 21st Century.

As research becomes increasingly multidisciplinary, we must focus on ways to train the next generation of scientists and engineers so that they have the skills and capabilities necessary for the changing nature of science.

We need to prepare graduates to adapt to change and handle complexity. They must be literate across disciplinary boundaries not only as a skill for facing several iterations in their careers, but also as a way to develop the broader context for interdisciplinary work.

Yesterday, workers mastered a profession and worked within the limited walls of a single field. Today, careers evolve throughout a person's lifetime. Workers must gain diverse knowledge and skills and keep building on that base.

These new combinations of skills will help us to generate new frontiers, new products, and new jobs.

This points to the importance of educating students both broadly and deeply in a rapidly changing marketplace.

First, they need solid grounding in the fundamentals of their fields. Second, they need to have the analytic and synthetic skills to be able to understand and integrate new information.

This is not a dichotomous choice - between specialized majors and interdisciplinary education - or a sacrifice of breadth for depth or vice versa.

Practical experience with integrative curricula and undergraduate research opportunities indicates that we can have both.

Integrative approaches can both broaden students' perspectives and deepen their learning.

While students need research experience, the nation needs citizens who can understand science and make informed judgments on how it is put to use in society.

I cannot stress enough the primary importance of a scientifically literate citizenry. It is vital that the public has a better working knowledge of the science and technology that defines our very existence on the planet.

A citizenry literate about science and technology serves several goals. It gives the nation a workforce educated and trained to flourish in the increasingly demanding and competitive global marketplace. It promotes good judgment as voters make decisions on both issues and candidates. And it serves as strong defense against delusions of safety as well as threats.

The National Science Foundation has made a scientifically literate citizenry and workforce a major objective in all of our programs. We begin with teacher preparation and curricula for students in the K through 12 years.

Today, knowledge of science and technology is necessary for everyone, not just those who become scientists and engineers. We know that there is an ever-expanding need for technically skilled workers.

Our projections are that many future jobs will require technical knowledge and expertise. With the progress of society so dependent on science and technology, a workforce capable of directing a sophisticated economic engine will require most citizens to have an increasing knowledge of S&T.

We also know that the pace of change has accelerated and that life-long learning will be the new way of life for all workers. Universities will increasingly play a role in this new aspect of education. I know that at Marymount, you have led in this concept.

The "new science" of the 21st century is here. It has brought with it scientific developments and interdisciplinary connections that were once unfathomable. In order to continue the pace of discovery, we must all step up to these opportunities and demands to be able to partake and contribute to work in the new century. A Marymount education is a great step in the right direction.



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