An Alchemy of Disciplines
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Materials Research Society Annual Meeting
December 2, 1998
I have titled my talk "An Alchemy of Disciplines,"
to highlight this field's extraordinary aptitude for
making unexpected, imaginative and fertile connections
What I see in the future for science and technology
draws strongly upon your experience and practice over
We all know that the interdisciplinary nature of materials
is central to its character.
We also know that materials science has been at the
vanguard in using the power of computing to drive
research. Science and-increasingly-society profit
from your example in harnessing information technology.
The importance of your leadership will increasingly
This interdisciplinary outlook, amplified and firmly
underpinned by information technology, will pervade
the future of science. Allow me to look at both themes
just a little bit more fully.
To provide a context, let's begin by taking stock of
where we are right now-and how quickly we are moving.
It's not hyperbole to say that discoveries bolstered
by materials research have spurred breakthroughs in
every sphere of the global economy.
As Philip Ball writes in his book, Made to Measure,
"We can make synthetic skin, blood and bone. We can
make an information superhighway from glass. We can
make materials that repair themselves, that swell
and flex like muscles, that repel any ink or paint,
that capture the energy of the sun."
In this very exciting and rapid-paced world of materials,
innovation is key. I'd like to draw your attention
to a recent report by the Council on Competitiveness,
a high-powered group of industry, university and government
The report, "Going Global: The New Shape of American
Innovation," reminds us that "innovative capacity
plays a dominant, and probably decisive, role in determining
who will prosper in the global arena."
The pace of change is quickening. As the Council notes,
"The technology cycle times, particularly in information
technologies, are so rapid that few industry executives
are complacent about sustaining leadership...Countries
are leapfrogging generations of technology within
the span of a single decade."
Leadership in this era of what has been called "technology
churn" can shift quickly if innovation slows.
It's no secret that one reason for the power and foment
of materials research is its porous boundaries. There
is no better refutation of the archaic distinction
between fundamental and applied science than the field
It is a superb example of the seamless fusion between
basic science and technological advancement.
Take materials themselves. It is the surfaces and the
interfaces that offer the most intriguing possibilities.
Similarly, at the junctures between the biological,
the physical, and the social sciences, the greatest
progress can be made in understanding our world. This
is where the advances in coming years will be most
striking. The breadth of the materials field itself
mirrors the complexity of nature better than the rigid
channels of traditional disciplines.
I envision a sort of disciplinary alchemy. This concept
is captured by Stanley Ovshinsky, president of a company
called Energy Conversion Devices. He is quoted in
the Council on Competitiveness report. "We turn chemists
into physicists and physicists into materials scientists,"
he says. "We don't allow any differentiation by disciplines,
which are not nature-made but man-made."
The biomaterials area, in particular, encapsulates
new linkages. An NSF working group on interdisciplinary
macromolecular research stated it like this: "The
three billion-year-old laboratory of evolution by
natural selection is sure to suggest new routes to
improved materials properties and performance."
The parallel worlds of physics and biology are on a
fortuitous collision course-indeed, they've already
We are sure to reap greater things from this union
than from either world in isolation.
As we know, by looking at biological substances as
materials, certain principles begin to emerge. Almost
all biologically produced materials are composites.
Life creates structures with different-length scales.
And it uses templates to control its processes with
a precision unknown in synthetic production.
We do know we have not yet discovered the ideal materials
to repair the human body. Medical devices have been
designed up to now using the substances at hand.
An interdisciplinary approach might instead target
new materials specifically for biological systems.
The blending of physical, chemical, and biological
approaches opens up new vistas on sensors for diagnosis,
selective membranes, even the manufacture of tissues.
NSF can play a strong part in supporting the science
behind these innovations.
The merger goes both ways. Take drug delivery, for
example. A drug-now untargeted and unprotected when
ingested in the body-could be "packaged" or surrounded
with receptors that could bind to cancer cells, or
other unwelcome invaders.
The biologists and physicists who do this sort of research
require a common language. To travel freely between
disciplines, we can no longer afford the luxury of
speaking in the tongues of our own individual fields.
These esoteric languages are unintelligible even to
the researcher in the next department, not to mention
the person who lives down the street.
To cross disciplinary boundaries, we need to be able
to speak with great clarity to one another, to develop
a common language, a "scientific Esperanto."
This is not just an academic issue but a societal and
economic one as well. Industry executives say that
university training has become more specialized and
highly "stove-piped." They stress the need for graduates
who can speak across disciplines.
We need to reach out much further than this. Many of
you may have seen the wonderful Web site called "Macrogalleria."
The site bills itself as "the Internet mall where
you netsurfers can learn all kinds of nifty stuff
about polymers and polymer science."
The higher the level in the mall, the more complex
are the concepts conveyed.
Another example is Bob Chang's Materials World Modules.
With these, students in middle and high school test
and make their own materials, from biosensors to food
Designing materials lets students learn science and
math through real-world tasks.
Let us now turn to an area of stunning technological
advancement whose future is central for our science,
our societies, and our economies.
This is information technology, a field where materials
have already played a sweeping role. The development
of the computer, in fact, has been called a "benchmark"
for the revolutions in both information and materials.
You may have seen the recent preliminary report by
the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee
(PITAC). It noted that federal investment in information
technology has reaped a "spectacular return."
President Clinton often cites the fact that one-third
of U.S. economic growth in the 1990s can be credited
to the IT sector.
At the same time, PITAC concluded that the United States
is gravely underinvesting in long-term research in
information technology-calling federal support "dangerously
PITAC recommended that NSF coordinate federal support
for computing research. For our part, we are strongly
committed to playing a leadership role in this cooperative
We have a strong record in the key areas of information
technology research, from software to the human/computer
interface, from scalable infrastructure to the framework
for high-end computing.
The NSF would forge the strongest possible links between
information technology and fundamental research in
science and engineering.
This makes sense because we have the most comprehensive
research jurisdiction of any federal agency or department.
With all disciplines represented, with cross-disciplinary
work a primary goal, and with a solid record in developing
both the Internet and supercomputing, NSF is the natural
While we advance research in this sphere, we must also
employ information technology in the same way that
a rich mix both defines and blends the ingredients
in a good stew.
Investing in information technology will provide a
super stock, including everything from materials research
to biotechnology, from global change to advances in
agriculture. This will be one of the most important
ventures NSF can launch in the coming years.
Let me share some reflections from my own research
on how this can work. These experiences have shaped
my thinking about the links between disciplines and
about information technology.
In the 1960s I was working on my PhD thesis at the
University of Washington. I was the first to use computers
to classify marine bacteria, or for that matter, any
bacteria in the environment.
I wrote the classification program for the IBM 650
Over time, we were able to show that the disease-causing
strain of cholera is the same species as harmless
Now, we can follow the pathogenic strain by satellite
because of its natural association with plankton-and,
ultimately, mitigate the devastation of this disease.
We could not even begin to hope for that without the
power of information technology.
There are many such instances where information technology
has let us combine and process massive data sets from
diverse fields, at almost lightning speed.
But while we make plans for advanced information technology
research, our entire society is frenetically embracing
the technology in pratical ways-PCs, pagers, cell
phones, e-mail, even palm pilots.
In the social sciences, there has also been wide discussion
about how computers have been able to decouple work
from any particular location.
We also know that many private sector managers can
have more frequent contact with their counterparts
on the other side of the world than with the worker
in the next cubicle.
The implications are profound. An Atlantic Monthly
piece on the computer and the economy recognized this,
noting that: "In the end, the primary payoff from
advances in information technology may not be in new
and better goods and services but in new and better
Why engage in such discussion when what matters is
cutting-edge research in information systems? Because
both elements matter-making plans and the life you
lead while you are planning.
The National Science Foundation is likely the only
federal institution involved in research at both ends
of that spectrum.
For example, social scientist Rachelle Hollander, head
of NSF's Ethics and Values Studies Program for the
last 25 years, was recently highlighted as one of
ten "Information Age Heroes" in a Los Angeles Times
As she says, "Information technology has the ability
to transform the social as well as physical landscape,
perhaps even beyond what the automobile has done.
We need to understand those implications at least
as much as the more narrow technical parameters. We
need to know how this technology can affect what it
is to be a person, a community, a society."
Materials science has had an equally powerful impact
on society. The science writer Ivan Amato, in his
book called Stuff, links some of the seminal
points of human history to breakthroughs in understanding
He suggests that we are approaching another such turning
point now. "The practitioners of materials research,"
he writes, "are coming to a point where they are gaining
the ultimate level of control over the material world."
And he continues, "...contemporary materials science
is likely to have as profound an effect on posterity
as did that original act of materials engineering
in eastern Africa's Rift Valley, where the sound of
stone against stone first snapped into the Paleolithic
We need to integrate our science-whether the insights
and impacts of materials research or of information
technology-into our societal understanding.
Materials will certainly continue to play a seminal
role for us, as much of the rest of science mines
this field for its wisdom.
We will look to your continued alchemy-your ability
to blend disciplines, to forge international networks
based on information technology-to help show us the
Thank you very much.