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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
RISE Symposium
(Research Internships in Science and Engineering)
University of Maryland - College Park

July 26, 2002

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Farvardin for that kind introduction. I am delighted to deliver today's luncheon talk.

It's always great to be back home at the University of Maryland, where I spent many years of my academic career. You know, I am really on "loan" to NSF - academe is my true home.

Let me begin by congratulating all of the RISE scholars for being accepted into the program. You are truly a special group of students. You've competed against exceptionally talented individuals from all across the nation, which is no easy task.

And the fact that you're here says a lot about you as students and as future leaders. NSF is committed to support the RISE program, and we are delighted to be able to help you.

RISE is one of the many NSF programs to attract talented people into the science and engineering workforce. It is an embracing and welcoming program to enhance America's domestic S&E workforce, which is why all American students are encouraged to apply. This year we had both male and female students apply, and of course, only the best were selected.

The RISE internship is an invaluable opportunity to prepare yourself to be one of the next generation of scientists and engineers. RISE offers you the chance to participate in the research process and contribute to exciting discoveries.

And I assure you, as one who has been able to spend her career doing incredibly exciting research, there's more excitement in store for you should you decide to make science or engineering your profession.

None of us ever knows how far, or how high we can soar. Trusting yourselves and your instincts to apply for this internship was just the first step, but it's the most important one to reaching greater heights.

And I encourage you to take the next steps to pursue graduate school and a Ph.D. There are wonderful careers and opportunities waiting for you, as well as chances to mentor and inspire the many others who will follow you.

I often speak about the achievements of early women scientists and their hard fought journey to successful science careers.

The history of underrepresented groups in science is filled with stories of triumph over adversity. And it is important to recognize those early pioneers, as well as current trailblazers; because knowing the past helps to change the future.

There have been many courageous and unabashedly persistent women and minorities who have worked to build a foundation for current and future discoveries in science and engineering. Many held the torch of leadership in discovery.

Some of the earlier pioneers include Mariah Mitchell, the most important woman scientist in America in the 19th century. The first woman astronomer in America, Mitchell calculated the position of a new comet in 1847.

Mitchell was also the first woman professor of Astronomy at Vassar College. She often promoted women astronomers who studied with her at Vassar and was an advocate for increasing women's salaries.

Of course, more than 150 years later, there's still a distance to go on that score and on many other fronts.

There were also contributions from women like Alice Evans, who studied the bacterial contamination of milk, and identified the organism that causes undulant fever in humans.

Evans persisted, despite the ridicule of the male leaders at the time, who refused to believe that milk could be the carrier of Brucellosis (undulant fever).

We all should be aware that Evans was a scientific revolutionary, whose work led to the elimination of undulant fever through the mandatory pasteurization of milk in this country (starting in the 1930s).

Not to be forgotten are the six women who were chosen during World War II to program the first large electronic computer - ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer).

The job title of the women at that time was actually "computer." (The old usage of the term "computer" referred to the people - usually women - who did the mathematical calculations. The term was appropriate because women were considered the means, the technicians who did the work and all too often the thinking as well.)

Unfortunately, these women were considered sub-professionals because of their gender, no matter how immense their intellectual and scholarly contribution.

Another terrific American is Clarence "Skip" Ellis, who in 1969 was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science (University of Illinois).

At 15, Skip supported his mother and four siblings by working the graveyard shift so he could go to school during the day. Although he was not allowed to touch the company's computer, he spent his free time reading the computer manuals and became a self-taught computer expert.

He won a college scholarship and was shocked to find he was the only African-American attending Beloit College! Life was tough: he was lonely and his classes were difficult because he was ill-prepared.

Skip studied constantly, aided by extra help from teachers and the constant encouragement of his family to "be your own person and follow your talents."

And this he did, receiving his BS degree as a double major in math and Physics, then his PhD in Computer Science, where he worked on the Illiac 4 Supercomputer.

His intelligence, persistence, and the changing times aided him in his successful career developing hardware and software at companies like IBM and Bell Labs, and now as a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

It helps to learn about those who preceded us. The stories of those who succeeded, despite the barriers, serve as both a motivator to others of what is possible and as a reminder to all of us of the distance still left to travel for underrepresented groups. Sometimes it takes seeing, hearing, and knowing what others have achieved to envision it for oneself.

While I don't consider myself a pioneer, my career has been helped by all of these role models. And hurdling over barriers is something to which I, too, certainly can attest.

For example, when I went to high school, girls simply were not allowed to take physics. More to the point, my high school chemistry teacher told me I would never make it in chemistry - because women could not.

That angered me, but also galvanized me. I had begun to see science as a way to understand the world and as a way to make my way in the world.

At Purdue University, many of my counterparts were majoring in home economics, learning how to make soufflés while I was learning how to balance equations.

We all need helping hands to aid our careers. I was fortunate when in my senior year at Purdue, I found the encouragement of a good mentor - Professor Dorothy Powelson. It was rare in those days, back in the fifties, to have a woman professor. (It was also the year that I discovered bacteriology - the term microbiology hadn't surfaced yet.)

Dr. Powelson opened the door, or should I say lens, and I became entranced by the microscopic world. That enthusiasm was an asset when encountering various roadblocks along the way.

For example, for my master's degree research, I counted 186,000 fruitflies to study cross-overs in the linkage map of Drosophila, the fruitfly. Fifty years later, now we have the entire genome of Drosophila sequenced! I wish I knew then what we know now - it would have made my graduate research a piece of cake.

Later, I did my doctorate in oceanography and for most of my professional life, I have combined these fields into interdisciplinary research on cholera. I would never have imagined that my cholera research would help women in Bangladesh to survive by using their Sari cloth to filter drinking water.

There are now many more women professors in biology. Yet, girls and women still have a long way to go to achieve equity in all phases of scientific and engineering education and careers. Engineering and chemistry departments still lack sufficient women and minority faculty members and role models.

One thing is certain, we can attribute the progress we all have made thus far to the trails that were blazed by those pioneering scientists and engineers. (And we are still breaking new ground, moving into leadership positions in the professions.)

It's also important to realize that just as the early pioneers, and I, have endured obstacles, so too will you. And I speak from experience when I say that for some of you, the road to success will not always be easy.

While times have surely changed, some things simply have not. The climate for women and minorities in science, for instance, is still chilly. And we continue to combat the notion that science is a man's job. (One would tend to believe it by looking at the stats.)

Women comprise less than a quarter of the total science and engineering labor force, but 48.6% of the college-degreed workforce. Here are some other statistics that further support the national need to recruit more underrepresented groups into the S&E workforce.

Underrepresented minorities constituted only 7% of the S&E workforce in 1999, but 24% of the U.S. population.

Overall, women earn over 40% of doctorates in the life sciences. But in the physical sciences and mathematics, women earn fewer than 20%. In engineering, they receive a little over 10% of PhDs.

And having mentioned salaries a moment earlier, in the 21st century women are still coming up short. In 1999, the median annual salary for women scientists (and engineers) was $50,000, about 22% less than the median salary for men ($64,000).

This does not bode well for a society that is knowledge driven and deeply rooted in science and technology.

The lack of women and minorities in science and engineering is especially critical when we consider that the demand for people with S&E training in the U.S. outnumbers the supply.

Degrees in engineering, physical sciences, math, and computer sciences are either static or declining in the U.S., while other nations are boosting degrees in all these fields.

And the increases in graduate enrollments in science and engineering that have occurred in the U.S. for the first time in a decade, indicate that the growth is almost entirely the result of higher numbers of foreign students. Since 1998, the number of "doctoral degrees" awarded in science and engineering has actually dropped 5 percent.

As the nation continues to grow primarily from a science and technology base, our science and engineering workforce must keep up with this fundamental realignment.

One way to address this problem is by broadening the participation of women and minorities in the science and engineering disciplines. Each of you is part of the solution.

With women and minorities still less likely than men to choose careers in science or engineering, we know that there is more work ahead to attract more into these fields.

The good news is that the academic employment of women with S&E doctorates has risen steeply over the past quarter century, reflecting steady increases in the proportion of women as holders of newly awarded S&E doctorates.

Still, we need to keep up the dialogue about the future of science in America and the role we all play in shaping that future. There is much that you can contribute to science, the nation, and our culture. If history is any indicator, society has already learned tremendously from women and minority scientists. they just haven't gotten the credit. We need to change that.

NSF is working on changing it as well. NSF is committed to building a scientifically savvy workforce, as well as a cadre of professional scientists and engineers. We know that in order to do that, we need the talent and skills of many more of our citizens.

That's why we've been focusing on diversifying the science and engineering workforce in our own way for quite some time. We also know that it's the right thing to do.

There are other NSF Programs for Gender Equity that are geared towards broadening the participation of underrepresented groups.

NSF funds gender equity research across the country, planting seeds in the form of pilot programs. One example, in Carson City School district in Nevada, focused on 10 Hispanic girls who barely knew English.

Within a year, they had learned English using a computerized tutor; learned to use computers; could make presentations about a Geographic Information System; and were being sought out by employers. Nevada's Department of Education has picked up the funding of the program.

There's also the Louis Stokes for Minorities program - an alliance program that targets the under-representation of minorities in science and engineering.

Now over a decade old, the program links two and four-year educational institutions with business, industry, and government and has produced well over 170,000 minority baccalaureate graduates.

On the other end of the NSF spectrum is our ADVANCE program, to spark system-wide changes that will foster a more positive climate for women to pursue and remain in academic careers.

We live in exciting times for science and our society. Science is woven into every aspect of our lives - from health to the economy.

Developments in fundamental science (chemistry, computational biology, mathematics) have enabled us to sequence the human genome, which opens up a new world of biomedical research and promises new diagnostics, prevention, and treatment.

We expect everyone to play a prominent role in all of these new developments, as well as to be major players in the emerging area of nanotechnology.

Nanoscale science and engineering promises revolutionary breakthroughs in materials and manufacturing, medicine and healthcare, environment and energy, biotechnology and agriculture, computation and information technology, and national security.

Scientific advancements have also led to a robust American economy and help maintain the U.S. position as the world's leader in science and technology.

To continue the economic momentum and the groundbreaking discoveries in science, we need the talents of all our citizens - that includes women and underrepresented minorities.

My vision for the future of science is for there to be a broader participation from a diverse group of Americans, and for us to continue along the path set by the early pioneers, by blazing new trails.

My vision is to see all members of the science and engineering workforce on an equal playing field, with equivalent salaries for equivalent jobs, and all recognized for their achievements. RISE is one step towards realizing this vision.

I know there are many exciting things to do in the world, and that not all of you will choose a science and engineering career. But if my career is any example of what can be, I would say it's not just exciting and invigorating, but it's fundamentally meeting the nation's need.

I encourage you to consider a life in the frontiers of the unimagined and help to make them happen.



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