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The Inspiration of the Challenge

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Cedar Crest College Convocation
Allentown, Pennsylvania

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Good evening. Thank you.

It is, indeed, a deep honor to be awarded, and to accept, an honorary degree from Cedar Crest College. It is an honor, which I appreciate especially, because it is presented by a college that is devoted to the liberal arts and to the education of women. It also is an institution of higher learning in which science has a very special place.

My own career as a scientist resulted from a convergence of events that influenced my early education. The first was the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, whose 50th anniversary we recognize this year. This single decision, which declared that it was against the law of the land to segregate schools, enabled me to attend the local public school in my Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Once there, I was tested, assigned to an advanced track — essentially an accelerated program — and, my education unfolded accordingly.

The second event took place three years later on October 4th, 1957. This was the launch of the Soviet space craft Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. It was minute by today's standards — about the size of a basketball, it weighed just over 180 pounds, and its orbit around the Earth took 98 minutes.

Sputnik was a spectacular technological achievement, which took the American public by surprise, and quickly plunged the nation into new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. It was a direct challenge to our national capacity, and global standing.

The U.S. government responded, quickly, by rapidly expanding the U.S. space program, then in its infancy. Less than two years later, the United States launched Explorer I, carrying a small scientific payload. That equipment eventually discovered the Earthís Van Allen magnetic radiation belts, named after James Van Allen, the principal investigator.

But, the government also understood that if the United States were to be competitive — if the nation was to compete in space and in science, and to achieve primacy — we would have to have the scientists and the engineers, the mathematicians and the technologists educated, and prepared, to do it. That drew Congressional support for the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) instituted primarily to advance education in science, in mathematics, and, also, in foreign languages. As I graduated high school and began work on my advanced degrees at M.I.T., I received NDEA support, as did many others of my generation, making it possible for us to develop our talents, and to pursue, and to realize our interests in science and mathematics.

This convergence of events not only spurred the career of a lone African-American woman, it contributed, substantially, to the great scientific and engineering achievements of the past four or five decades. The development of life-transforming technologies including nuclear power, microprocessors, lasers and fiber optics, imaging technologies, high performance materials, the Internet, and space craft and exploration — are the tangible testaments to the value, and merit, of the investment the nation made in developing its talented young people. The discoveries and innovations that have been made by that generation have given the American people a measure of prosperity, health, comfort, convenience, and security like no other.

The challenge of Sputnik inspired an entire generation — and that generation, of course, included young women.

The world was not always ready for them, however. In the summer of 1961, as the nation watched the first astronauts — the Mercury Seven — prepare for the first manned space flights, another group was in training at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thirteen women, among the most accomplished aviators in the world at the time, passed the same battery of tests, undergoing the same physical and psychological trials, as they, too, prepared to become astronauts.

Their dream, however, came to an abrupt halt later that year when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) halted the program. It was a different era and a different time. Astronaut John Glenn, testifying at the 1963 congressional hearings held to determine if NASA was discriminating against women, said: "... the fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."

That was then.

Ultimately, of course, that "social order" changed, as the result of societal pressure, the civil rights movement, education, and the determination and perseverance of many.

In fact, as it happens, two days ago, Tuesday, January 28th, was the 18th anniversary of another space flight whose crew of seven was the first that was a real reflection of America — in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion.

This was the space shuttle Challenger, whose 1986 flight ended, tragically, 73 seconds after lift off. That event was the result of the destruction of "O-ring" seals intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through joints during the propellant burn of the rocket motor.

Most of you are too young to remember this tragic event. But, it seized the nation in much the same way as did the loss, last year, of the space shuttle Columbia.

One of Challenger's mission specialists was Ron McNair, a friend and colleague of mine. He, too, began his education in segregated schools, in South Carolina. Nevertheless, he went on to academic success, becoming valedictorian of his high school class, and receiving his undergraduate degree in physics at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. I came to know Dr. McNair at M.I.T., where he got his Ph.D. in physics, specializing in quantum electronics and laser technology. Later, in 1978, Dr. McNair was selected by NASA for astronaut training, one of the first three African Americans chosen for the space shuttle program.

Judith Resnick was another mission specialist aboard the Challenger. Dr. Resnick, an electrical engineer, had been the second woman, after Dr. Sally Ride, to orbit Earth. In 1984, as a crew member on the space shuttle Discovery, she conducted biomedical research, and helped to deploy three satellites into orbit.

The other woman aboard, Christa McAuliffe, was a school teacher, and the first civilian in space. Her mission was to communicate the wonder and achievement of space travel to children, encouraging them to "reach for the stars."

Christa McAuliffe was an inspiration to students, to teachers, and to parents, and served to illustrate the inextricable bond between education and achievement in the sciences.

Education stagnates without the discoveries and innovations that are developed by those who are trained in the sciences. Conversely, science cannot advance without continually refreshing our supply of bright students, who are educated in the sciences, in mathematics, and in technology.

This simple fact poses a major dilemma for the United States. The confluence of a number of new factors could have an adverse impact on the current and future space program, on overall national scientific achievement, on our nation's technological superiority, and ultimately on our national security.

I call this "the perfect storm."

As you may know, in 1991, several weather fronts assembled off the Northeast coast, creating a storm that could not possibly have been worse. Meteorologists termed the unpredicted event "the perfect storm." A book, and later a movie, told the story of the storm and a commercial swordboat with a crew of fishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was lost off of Newfoundlandís Grand Banks.

The United States faces a similar confluence of elements that are creating "perfect storm" — conditions that could affect our national scientific and technological capacity.

The scientists and engineers of the generation, inspired by the early achievements in space, will soon be eligible to retire. About 15 percent of the NASA engineering and scientific staff is already eligible to retire now; and over the next five years, that number will increase to 25 percent. The same conditions are pervasive throughout government, business, and industry. According to the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, although the number of trained scientists and engineers in the national labor force will continue to increase for some time, the average age is rising, and retirements will increase dramatically over the next 20 years.

At the same time, fewer and fewer students are choosing to study science. Engineering enrollments are flat. Computer science degrees decreased steadily between 1985 to1995. The only fields showing an increase have been psychology and the biological sciences.

For years, the government and corporate need for specialized science and engineering skills has been filled, when needed, by foreign nationals. But since September 11th, 2001, visa applications have declined dramatically and many foreign scientists are finding increased study and work opportunities in their home countries.

This confluence of factors leads the nation to ask some critical questions: Who will do the science? Who will be the next generation of scientists and engineers? How will the nation maintain an economy which has been driven by the discoveries and innovations of science and technology? And, how will the United States safeguard its homeland without the technologies needed to detect and to protect against terrorist threats?

Actually, this nation has a great deal of talent available to fulfill these needs. Tomorrow's scientists must and will, come from a new cohort of Americans — a "new majority" of Americans, made up of young women, like yourselves, and minority groups — all of whom traditionally have been underrepresented in the sciences, engineering, mathematics, and technologies. These groups make up nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population.

You are in the mainstream.

Tomorrow's science and engineering workforce must, of necessity, be built out of this "new majority." And you, of course, are a part of this group. I hope that this conveys to you how important you are.

Women are making big strides in education, medicine, and law, but their advancement in the sciences and the technological fields has slowed significantly, and has even eroded. In the early 1980s, women earned nearly 40 percent of the degrees in college level computer studies. Those numbers have eroded to about 20 percent now. Over the last 30 year, women have been awarded more than a quarter of the Ph.D.s in science, yet only 10 percent of full professors in science are women. Overall, women made up 46 percent of the U.S. workforce in the mid 1990s, but they held only 12 percent of the private sector science and engineering jobs.

Earlier this month, the President challenged the nation to pursue a renewed mission in spaceóto return to the Moon in a crew exploration vehicle and to create a lunar base there which, eventually, would become a platform for a human venture to Mars. As if to underscore his challenge, we have been fascinated, this week and last, with new photos sent back from the twin Mars rovers, Spirit in the Gusev Crater, and Opportunity on the planetís other side in the Meridiani Planum.

This is a tantalizing challenge. Could this new space possibility play a role today similar to that of Sputnik in 1957? Could it prompt the nation to renew its investment in the education of a new generation of scientists and engineers? We know, based on the history of the last 50 years, that this kind of investment pays real dividends, not only in the space program, but leads to the discoveries and innovations that will help us address the challenges of the 21st century and well beyond.

What are some of those challenges? What might you find yourselves called upon to tackle?

  • Would you like to solve the software problems that caused the loss of contact with robotic Mars rover Spirit? Or, analyze the cascade of photographs being sent by the Mars rover twin, Opportunity?
  • How about working on the development of vaccines to combat HIV/AIDS? Or, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)? Or now, the virulent new strain of avian influenza virus which suddenly is making an unusual leap to humans? Or, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad-cow disease) and its human variant — Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?
  • In Biodefense research, there is need for advances in the basic biology of little-studied pathogens for diseases including plague, anthrax, tularemia, botulism, and hemorrhagic fevers.
  • Though the sequence of the human genome is known, scientists acknowledge that more data is needed to make it meaningful and to help in discovering genes related to health and disease.
  • A research scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my own university, heading an international team of physicists, has provided the best evidence, to date, of the existence of a new form of atomic matter — the "pentaquark." The team used a different approach than others, which greatly increased the rate of detection. Could this contribute to understanding the laws and structure of universal matter in its most fundamental form? What will be the next developments?

The list of challenges is endless, incredible opportunities await, and the world needs your contributions. As you move through your studies, here at Cedar Crest, and go on to pursue advanced degrees, it is my hope and expectation that you will draw inspiration from these challenges.

And, it is also my hope that you will draw strength and courage from the women of the early space program who were determined to assure that the young women coming behind them would have the opportunities to make the exciting discoveries of the future.

And so, I urge you to remain inspired, to remain determined, to study hard, and to seek help when you need it. Find mentors and learn from them. And, as you progress, turn around, and help those who are coming behind you.

In a real sense, the space program of the mid-20th century inspired an entire generation of scientists, and the women of the space program paved the way for, and inspired, other young women.

Now, it is time for the ascendancy of a new generation of scientists comprising the "new majority." It is your turn now, and the opportunities exist to utilize your knowledge, your expertise, your interest, your enthusiasm, your energy, and your drive to succeed.

You will pave the way for the nation, for the world, and for the future. Good luck, and Godspeed.
Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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