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Photo of Kathie L. Olsen
Credit: Sam Kittner/kittner.com

Dr. Kathie L. Olsen
Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

"Transforming Life at the Boundaries of Disciplines"

33rd International Conference on Infrared, Millimeter, and Terahertz Waves
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California

September 15, 2008

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.

[Slide 1: Title]
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Good morning. I'm delighted to be here with such a distinguished international audience and with my two-co-speakers, Mike Griffin1 and Charles Elachi2. I want to thank Dr. Elachi for his inspiring presentation on why we do science, and congratulate NASA, JPL, and Caltech for their foresight in choosing the topic for this conference. I also want to thank Dr. Siegel3 for his introduction and for his leadership in sponsoring the conference.

The topic--Terahertz for Life--fits well with the mission of the National Science Foundation. In proposing the establishment of NSF, Vannevar Bush said that basic science is essential to the economy, to national security, and to health and well-being. terahertz technologies are addressing all three.

To provide a context for how the institutions and programs represented here today interact and complement each other, I want to provide a very short description of one of those connections. Then I will move to the body of my remarks.

The National Science Foundation has enjoyed many successful collaborations with NASA in exploring the universe. You're likely to hear about some of the undertakings in the infrared and millimeter range this week, such as the imaging of the cosmic microwave background from Antarctica--the BOOMERANG project.

NSF's ground-based observatories and NASA's spaced-based satellites, like the Hubble Space Telescope, complement each other. For example, examining objects from the ground at submillimeter and terahertz frequencies provides details--such as the physical conditions of certain molecules in space--not observable at optical wavelengths.

[Slide 2: Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter ARRAY (ALMA)]
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Interferometer techniques allow us to examine details at even higher resolution.

Ten antennas have been delivered to Chile to be part of our newest interferometer, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array. ALMA is being built by an international coalition that includes NSF, and will operate at wavelengths of 0.3 to 9.6 millimeters. With its 54 twelve-meter antennas in place, ALMA's sensitivity, resolution, and imaging capability will surpass existing instruments in the millimeter and submillimeter range--one of astronomy's last frontiers.

We passed a milestone this summer when one of the antennas was moved with a special transporter, pictured here, that will allow us to rearrange the antennas within the array. By changing the configuration, ALMA will be able to "zoom" from an angular resolution the same as the Hubble Space Telescope at optical resolution--to 10 times greater.

Like all state-of-the-art telescopes, this one is sure to provide breakthroughs in research and instrumentation that will benefit many fields besides astronomy.

[Slide 3: Transforming Life at Disciplinary Boundaries]
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All of our projects contribute in some way to learning about life, its origins, the way it evolves in response to the environment and the impact living organisms have on the planet. In many cases, what we learn transforms the way we humans think, work and operate.

I've titled my talk today, "Transforming Life at Disciplinary Boundaries." We are all in the business of transforming life--through science, engineering and technology.

Specifically in terms of the life we know best; the conduct of science is changing the fastest at the disciplinary boundaries, where today's research questions are largely concentrated. Our life is changing through new technologies, communications capabilities, explosions of data, unprecedented computing power, and the creative ideas of a new breed of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers.

Each of us contributes to some aspect of this endeavor--by changing the way people live, work, think and perform.

[Slide 4: Expanding our Toolbox]
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A conference like this gives us the opportunity to find out where our respective goals connect and explore what knowledge and insights others here might shed on our projects and problems.

I'm not an expert on infrared, millimeter and terahertz waves. You are the technical and technology experts, and I know that you are an extremely capable community.

What I do know is that by expanding our toolbox to more fully employ these regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, we expand the opportunities for solving the world's most vexing problems. I know, also, that we will have to work closely together to solve those challenges. NSF, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy hosted a joint workshop on terahertz science in 2004, where we began to explore the opportunities for working together and sought a bottoms-up perspective from the community on how best to do that.

In science, we are always looking toward the future and even framing the future. When we peer out over the horizon today, we can anticipate the areas of research that will benefit most from the tools and capabilities you are developing.

[Slide 5: Physical Sciences and Engineering + Life Sciences]
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From my vantage point, connecting the physical sciences and engineering with the life sciences opens up endless possibilities for understanding and transforming life.

Many of us are dipping into the waters of transforming life as we know it. However, our specialties are often so narrow, we have difficulty communicating with the person next to us. Sometimes, we speak entirely different languages.

I foresee that the next generation of transformative research will require enhanced integration of many skills and disciplines. Connecting and communicating will become more important than ever.

We are seeing it already. Biologists are consulting materials scientists to develop nano-scale devices. Advances in chemistry and physics require computation and simulation. Atmospheric scientists need algorithms to process and model their data.

In the government, it is our mandate to determine where federal investments can make the most profound impact. In order to do that, we must step back and look at the big picture. We are charged with identifying the intersections among disciplines that will advance the scientific frontier, and helping people make those connections.

[Slide 6: Neuroscience Connections]
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My own specialty is neuroscience, a field that has exploded with new research as the result of connections made especially in the last few years, such as:

  • The marriage of neuroscience and informatics
  • Computational neuroscience
  • Neuroeconomics
  • Brain-computer interface

The more I read about infrared, the more I believe it could open up a new window into the brain, just as it has done for the universe.

[Slide 7: Life Science Connections]
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Looking through a wide-angle lens, we can glimpse how the larger landscape of the life sciences has exploded to make infinite connections with other fields and disciplines.

As a neuroscientist, I was the first biologist to serve as chief scientist at NASA. This gave me the opportunity to explore how to protect and preserve life, employing technologies based on biology that were adaptable, evolvable, and self-repairing. As Dan Goldin4 once said, "Mother Nature holds all the best talents."

[Slide 8: Astrobiology: Search for Life in the Universe]
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I was thrilled to be in a position to help shape the nascent field of astrobiology, which spanned a gap between the biological and physical sciences and engineering.

Biologists have long explored the origins of life on Earth. Astrobiology broadened the scope of the query to encompass a larger question: when and where did life first begin? Now, biologists and their collaborators were free to employ a research platform unconstrained by Earthly limitations--though still fettered by manmade technology.

[Slide 9: Revolution in Life Sciences]
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In recent years, the scientific community has experienced somewhat of a revolution in its research on living systems:

  • Recognition that the complex systems of life are non-linear, multi-scale, and difficult to predict.
  • The scope and scale of experiments, instrumentation, and measurement has exploded.
  • Knowledge is processed and used in new ways, employing computational data analysis, statistical modeling, informatics.

My personal journey brought me to the National Science Foundation. Here I have the opportunity to see, firsthand, how the entire research and development community can contribute to answering questions about life and its many transformations.

The National Science Foundation is unique in that it can bring to bear the necessary scientific, computational, mathematical and engineering disciplines to explore complex biological systems. And NSF can foster connections that will raise the integration of the physical sciences and engineering with the life sciences to a whole new level.

[Slide 10: Revolution in Life Sciences: Frontier Research Areas]
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Frontier research areas of interest to NSF that are emerging from this revolution in the life sciences are:

  • Synthetic biology--which provides the potential for solving problems in energy, the environment, medicine, materials, and computing; expands the borders of biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, mathematics and engineering
  • Regenerative biology--employs a similarly diverse set of skills, and offers the promise of organ replacement or supplementation, and stem cell research
  • Reverse-engineering the brain

These are very exciting prospects, and they remind us of the endless possibilities for pioneering research and instrumentation at the interfaces of disciplines.

[Slide 11: NSF's Mission]
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It is nothing less than exhilarating to be in a place where I oversee connections among so many fields of science and engineering.

Most federal agencies have specific missions, such as advancing space science, finding new energy sources, or protecting the environment.

The National Science Foundation, with its overarching mission, is unique among federal agencies. We support all fields of fundamental science and engineering, and our goal is to continually move NSF funding to the newest frontiers.

[Slide 12: And so much more!]
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Our broad mandate allows us to forage at diverse frontiers, wherever they arise, and to make pioneering investments that take risks but have the potential for enormous returns. NSF-funded research has the potential to revolutionize existing fields and catalyze the creation of new sub-disciplines. We are always striving to increase the benefits of research to society.

[Slide 13: Partnerships]
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NSF provides opportunities for partnerships that advance the research. A very important area in talking about partnerships is the interdisciplinary nature of the people who work together. They often have different cultures and ways of approaching things, different requirements, and different styles.

Communication is important, and sometimes just taking a minute to review how other people approach things can help move us forward. One of our aims at NSF is to facilitate that communication among disciplines.

[Slide 14: The Purpose of All This: TraNSFormative Discoveries]
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NSF's goal is nothing short of supporting transformational research--that's research that requires thinking outside the norm; that is less predicable in its course and outcome.

[Slide 15: NSF Opportunities for Transformative Research]
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We provide a variety of opportunities to generate transformative results:

  • Unsolicited proposals
  • Projects outside the normal merit-review system through EAGER (EArly-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research)
  • Cross-directorate initiatives, such as Physics and Living Systems, and Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation
  • Large-scale centers, such as Science and Technology Centers, Engineering Research Centers, and Physics Frontier Centers
  • Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer

[Slide 16: International Collaboration]
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For those of you visiting from abroad, as you meet with U.S. scientists, engineers and educators, we encourage you to explore the opportunities to form partnerships. NSF's international programs offer opportunities for putting complementary strengths to work on common projects and problems.

Some examples of avenues for collaboration are:

  • Partnerships for International Research and Education
  • International Research Fellowship Program
  • Developing Global Scientists and Engineers
  • East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes
  • International planning visits and workshops

[Slide 17: Partnerships For International Research and Education: PIRE]
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We are especially proud of partnerships that combine research with the development of globally engaged scientists and engineers.

We encourage student participation in all NSF-funded projects, and especially in those of an international nature.

[Slide 18: Integrating Research and Education]
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Education is the complement to our research mandate. By integrating education into NSF-supported research, we help ensure that every field, no matter how new, has a skilled workforce available to carry out frontier research and education.

As we delve into terahertz research--one of the newest frontiers--each of us assumes responsibility for preparing young people to take on the challenges of transforming life and working at the junctions where disciplines intersect.

NSF's task--and all of yours--is to provide hands-on opportunities for students to learn, conduct research, and train on real equipment, alongside professional scientists and engineers.

Just as we have a variety of mechanisms for funding transformative research, NSF places equal emphasis on meeting the needs of educators and students across the country.

[Slide 19: IGERT: Leaders and Catalysts]
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NSF has funded frontier terahertz research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Brian Schulkin, one of the Ph.D. students on the Rennselaer team, is a genuine success story. He won a $30,000 prize for developing a hand-held terahertz spectrometer.

Brian was an IGERT trainee--a participant in NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program. This program provides broad, interdisciplinary training to Doctoral candidates. IGERT trainees often become leaders in their fields and catalysts for change at the boundaries of disciplines.

[Slide 20: Terahertz Workshop]
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NSF-funded researchers are encouraged to organize and participate in workshops and conferences, at home and abroad. These are vital opportunities for identifying the emerging frontiers; and to learn, network and make connections.

As I mentioned, NSF co-sponsored a workshop in 2004, with the Department of Energy and NIH, to explore the emerging opportunities in terahertz science. Perhaps you were there.

That workshop helped shape the exciting possibilities for applying terahertz capabilities to understanding and controlling organic molecules, starting a new book on the transformation of life as we know it. At this conference, you will undoubtedly write another chapter.

[Slide 21: Terahertz at NSF: Potentially Transformative Research]
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To capitalize on the emerging technologies, NSF has increased its investments in terahertz research, especially in our Chemistry and Physics Divisions and two of our Engineering divisions.

Our research investments encompass semiconductor devices and detectors, materials characterization and testing, terahertz radiation and propagation characteristics, and systems for spectroscopy, sensing and imaging. Medical and homeland security applications are prominent in many of our projects.

One thing that characterizes all of these areas is the fusion of disciplines needed to advance each concept to a level where it contributes to the transformation of the way we live, work, think, and operate.

[Slide 22: Engineering Research Center for Subsurface Sensing]
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The Engineering Research Center for Subsurface Sensing is a fine example of how advances in one field may be applied to many others. This Center, led by Northeastern University is developing sensor technology to see "below the surface" of everything from living cells and tissues to the ocean depths. The center is using terahertz imaging as a complement to x-ray imaging for rapid threat detection.

[Slide 23: Science and Engineering Evolve ...]

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A conference like this one is ideal for asking the interesting questions, developing strategies for research and education, and forming partnerships to carry out those strategies.

As science and engineering continue to evolve, we will find answers that will likely lead to even more questions across the boundaries of disciplines.

[Slide 24: "Vision is the art of seeing the Invisible"--Jonathan Swift]
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As Jonathon Swift said, "Vision is the art of seeing the invisible."

Thank you again for inviting me to share my vision with you today. I look forward to our dialogue.

1 Dr. Michael Griffin, chief administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (Return to speech)
2Dr. Charles Elachi, director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and vice president, California Institute of Technology. (Return to speech)
3Dr. Peter Siegel, professor, Physics Department, California Institute of Technology. (Return to speech)
4Daniel Goldin, former chief administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1992-2001. (Return to speech)



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