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Photo of Cora Marrett

Dr. Cora Marrett
Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation at "Ground Zero"
for the 21st Century Science & Technology Workforce

Opening Keynote Address at the
Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students
St. Louis, MO

November 9, 2011

Thank you Dr. Gates, I am delighted to address this conference. On behalf of the National Science Foundation, thank you.

The theme of meeting, "Increasing Diversity to Improve Global Scientific Competitiveness," melds with the commitment of the Foundation to cultivate all of the nation's talent in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics -- or STEM.

Following last year's conference, New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples gave this as the message he gleaned: "To preserve its economic future, this country needs to get many more American students --especially more minority students -- excited about science." He found that excitement in the participants and the program.

With such a preview, how could I have said no to the invitation to join the 2011 conference?

The issue of U.S. global competitiveness continues to be a top-priority for the country and across the federal government. The emphasis appears in the directions science funding agencies -- the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, for example --have chosen.

Sobering statistics help account for the emphasis on competitiveness. Consider information Staples has compiled. It indicates that the United States ranks 21 out of 30 developed nations on student achievement, as measured by international science assessments. He continued: We rank 27th among the developed nations in the percentage of college graduates with degrees in the sciences or engineering.

But this is no time for reviewing discouraging statistics, for this conference shows faces of encouragement, of not just a belief in possibilities but experiences with success.

Instead, I offer three take-home messages -- particularly to the undergraduate and graduate students assembled here. First, the global arena is an inviting one. This message alters somewhat the theme of the meeting. Recall that theme: "Increasing Diversity to Improve Global Scientific Competitiveness." Such a message has been used as a call to action by business leaders, elected representatives and, yes, an organization such as the National Science Foundation.

But what might such a message mean to many of you here, who are not yet in the seats of influence you will someday occupy?

I suggest that it should encourage you to look beyond the borders of this nation for opportunities and challenges.

Yes, your pursuit of the biological and behavioral sciences should indeed improve the competitiveness of the United States. But, if you pursue international research experiences and opportunities, you will contribute substantially to your own development as scientists and that of the nation.

Let me elaborate a bit. Global competitiveness requires a science and engineering community that moves easily across borders, taking advantage of developments at the frontier of knowledge, wherever those developments are found. Experiences at the frontier of science are rewarding, both professionally and personally.

The second take-home message follows from the first. It is this: Success demands perseverance. How many record books report on those who started but did not complete the race?

Third, think of the National Science Foundation as your cheer-leading section, a body that applauds the strides you're making. We cheer you, given our determination, our path-breaking attempts to broaden participation in the science and engineering enterprise of the nation.

Let me recount a story of someone on an educational path like yours. This is someone who understood the personal and intellectual rewards of advanced STEM education, the essence of my first take-home message. Dr. Jagger Harvey began as an NSF Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

He took his fellowship to the United Kingdom --Norwich and Cambridge, specifically -- where he undertook research on plant viruses. Ultimately, he made significant progress on anti-viral treatments for plants.

His interest in plant genetics, international development, and Africa led him to the Biosciences eastern and central Africa [BecA] Hub1 at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a Research Scientist.

He recently served on one of the review panels for NSF's BREAD program, or, "Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development." He is building his career as a biologist both in the United States and in Africa. He's making a difference through his dedication to science in service to human health and well-being.

Examples abound that illustrate the importance of perseverance, of persistence.

Let me mention the work of two students who participated in the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program that NSF sponsors. Timothy Downing, a UC Berkeley student, went to Japan to study induced pluripotent stem cells, out of his interest in the regeneration of the spinal cord.

Tim is an outstanding scientist, and it was his involvement in college football that inspired his research on peripheral nerve damage and the disabilities that result. He engineered nerve conduits in rats by seeding neural crest stem cells to repair sciatic nerves. The process accelerated regeneration and shows potential for the engineering of tissue for medical application.

Let me turn next to Sook-Lei Liew. She traveled to China for an opportunity to conduct research examining the role of experience on neural networks. She used functional magnetic resonance imaging to explore how experience changes neural activity patterns when people view familiar or unfamiliar socially relevant actions.

One of the questions she explored was: What happens when we try to understand why someone is doing something?

She scanned brain activity of participants as they observed videos of either racially familiar or unfamiliar actors performing familiar or unfamiliar gestures. Her surprising finding: Different regions of the brain were involved in trying to understand unfamiliar in contrast to familiar actions.

The processes she observed about how sense-making took place have wide-spread implications. They give clues, for example, about how a person in an unfamiliar environment may seek to interpret an unknown, culture-specific gesture.

Through her journey to a different setting and her perseverance, Lei Liew is now a published author.

Still other cases could be cited. But there is abundant room for accounts centered on those assembled here.

Let me turn now to my third message: Your success matters greatly to the National Science Foundation.

The Foundation has embraced fully the aspirational statement by President Obama to the National Academy of Sciences in 2009. His statement: "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before. We . . . need to work with our friends around the world . . . ."

Earlier this year the President called on the nation to "out-innovate" and "out-educate the rest of the world . . . ." But note his call for cooperation "with our friends around the world."

The National Science Foundation recognizes that wasting talent is not an option -- not if we are to meet the economic and other needs of the country, in competition and alliance with others across the globe.

But, NSF does not provide the education, it does not conduct the research. Rather, it relies on institutions of higher education to enable the education and, in most cases, the research.

NSF realizes its goals through the actions others take. It should not be surprising, then, that we are more than willing to be the cheer-leaders for those who have found intriguing the wonders offered in the worlds we inhabit, those we engineer, and the ones we create through our behaviors.

Let me switch gears and mention a few points about the return on investment to the nation and to you, as an individual, as you pursue science.

Two weeks ago, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce released a study, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It shows that, on average, 65 percent of those who hold a bachelor's degree in STEM will earn more than those who hold master's degrees in other subjects. Sixty-three percent of people with associate's degrees in STEM earn more than bachelor's degrees in non-STEM occupations.

This study, based on NSF and Census data, shows that professions heavily dependent on skills learned in STEM fields are the second-fastest-growing occupational group in the country, after health care. STEM jobs are also among the nation's best-paying occupations.

Another particularly exciting finding of the Georgetown study is that for women and underrepresented minorities, STEM is the best equal opportunity employer when income is considered.

Not everything is about salaries, of course. Preparation in STEM widens options. In fact, increase in options, and the flexibility and agility allowed make STEM careers especially attractive.

And there is no shortage of possibilities, of areas ripe for innovation and advancement.

The grand challenges we face now with some seven billion humans living together in earth's thin biosphere will demand serious attention at the interface of behavioral and biomedical science. Some of you will want to consider working on innovation and advancement at the frontiers of science. Others might consider probing the contributions of information technology developments to the matter of health. An initiative, SMART Health, crosses the boundaries of several agencies and is designed to transform access to and participation in the individual's health care management.

In closing, let me again recast the theme of the conference. The focus on competitiveness need not imply hostility, chauvinism, or strife. To be competitive can mean to be prepared, to be qualified. In our increasingly interconnected world, such preparation and qualification might be honed on the international stage. I take my leave, assured that I see before me people determined to go boldly to settings -- intellectual and territorial -- often unexplored or underexplored.


1. BecA Hub is an initiative developed within the framework of Centres of Excellence for Science and Technology in Africa and was launched in November 2010. It aims to increase access to affordable, world-class research facilities and to create and strengthen human resources in biosciences and related disciplines in Africa. Hosted and managed by the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, the BecA Hub provides a common biosciences research platform, research-related services and capacity-building opportunities to the region and beyond. (Return to speech)