Developing Human Resources

Research Training

In its stewardship role, NSF is responsible for ensuring the nation's supply of well-trained scientists and engineers. Until recently, graduate education and postdoctoral training have focused on developing technical excellence. Although excellence continues to be a requirement, it is no longer the only benchmark for successful professional development. If the scientists and engineers of the future are to meet the nation's changing needs, they must have a broader view of their professional opportunities, which extend to academia, industry, government, and the education sector. The next generation of U.S. scientists and engineers must be flexible and broadly trained if they are to be successful as professionals and as contributors to society's interests. To create this new approach to professional research training, NSF is working with Ph.D.-granting universities to create and promote new traditions of interdisciplinary teamwork.

NSF provides support not only for the instruments used to develop technical excellence in graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but also for tools that will create new standards in research training. As part of its support for the Science and Technology Center for Computer Graphics and Scientific Visualization, NSF provided funding for high-speed multimedia networking among the five universities involved in the Center (Cornell University, the University of Utah, Brown University, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill). Dedicated T1 lines (1.5 million bits/second) support simultaneous audio- and videoconferencing, remote control of interactive software demonstrations, and data and graphics sharing. These network links are used heavily for courses, seminars, workshops, and other interactions that allow students and faculty at each site to enjoy the benefits of activities at all sites. Each participating university contributes a different area of expertise, such as three-dimensional computer modeling, software-controlled machining, virtual reality, and computer graphics and rendering. The NSF-funded network provides graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with a training experience that is truly more than the sum of its parts and creates a model for distance learning at all educational levels.

Undergraduate Research Experiences

Scientific instruments can be catalysts for combining research and education. In many cases, the first chance that students get to actually do scientific research is during their undergraduate years. For most students, this research will take place in a library, but an increasing number of forward-looking colleges and universities are enlisting undergraduates into research teams traditionally limited to faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students. Meaningful research involvement adds depth and impact to the undergraduate experience, regardless of whether the student goes on to a career in science or engineering. Genuine research experience makes learning an active pursuit that combines instruction and inquiry. It helps create a citizenry that is scientifically and technologically literate and provides opportunities to advance to higher levels of scientific training. Research experiences can also validate an individual's curiosity and promote the habit of lifelong learning. The Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement Program in the Foundation's Education and Human Resources Directorate supports the acquisition of smaller instruments ($10,000 to $200,000) for use in instruction. NSF also enables undergraduate research involvement by providing, through the ARI Program, more costly state-of-the-art research instruments to faculty who involve undergraduates in their research efforts or incorporate research into their undergraduate courses.

NSF's Academic Research Infrastructure Program has provided support to upgrade the infrared telescope facility at the University of Wyoming's Infrared Observatory (WIRO). Infrared radiation provides important data concerning the structure and composition of other galaxies, because it penetrates the gas and dust that block the visible light emanating from parts of these galaxies. With modern instruments, infrared radiation can be analyzed to reveal the chemical composition and physical conditions in these galaxies and similarities and differences from our own. WIRO is used for innovative undergraduate educational programs that have brought many students into contact with research in astronomy and astrophysics.

Enabling the Discovery Process at Minority Institutions

NSF is active in its support of projects that will ensure the full participation of all groups in the science and engineering enterprise. Institutions with high minority enrollments are the leaders in promoting excellence in science and engineering within groups that have been underrepresented in these disciplines. These institutions have struggled with the lack of sophisticated facilities and instrumentation that would attract outstanding faculty and students. By providing modern instrumentation to minority institutions, NSF is developing the potential for excellence in all segments of our diverse population. The Academic Research Infrastructure Program has supported the acquisition of a state-of-the-art confocal microscope by the Department of Physiology at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM). Confocal microscopes use laser light to remove out-of-focus light from images. The microscope creates optical cross-sections at different levels of a sample, and computer image processing integrates these sections into a complete three-dimensional image. Confocal microscopy is being used at MSM to probe the structure of cells and the organization of biological tissue in a way that is impossible using conventional microscopes. This instrument has significantly increased MSM's research capabilities, allowing minority students and their faculty to probe basic biological questions and their implications for biomedical problems, including the processes of cellular breakdown and immunological response.