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History Plays Forward: Women in Science

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

Annual "Woman with a Voice" Women's History Month Luncheon
JPL's Director's Advisory Council for Women (ACW)
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be among such illustrious scientists and engineers, mathematicians and technologists — those in unique and special disciplines which push back the edges of human knowledge, and move humankind forward.

Could there be better company?

I feel a kinship with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Rensselaer has sent many alumni and alumnae to positions here, and, also, to positions with your NASA colleagues and private sector consultants. In the spring of 2004, a contingent from the JPL returned to the Troy campus as part of the Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) "Back to Campus" Speaker Series.

They riveted the campus audience with an exciting presentation of their work on aspects of the Mars Rover mission.

Of course, one of my predecessors, as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was George M. Low, a leading figure in the early development of the Space Shuttle, the Skylab program, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. He became President of Rensselaer when he retired from NASA in 1976, a position he held until his death in 1984.

The research foci at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have synergy with your endeavors. Rensselaer research has special emphasis in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology.

We take an approach to biotechnology, which is interdisciplinary and which sits at the nexus of the life sciences with engineering and the physical and computational sciences — concentrating on multi-scale computation, functional tissue engineering, biochips, biocatalysis and metabolic engineering, bioinformatics and computational biology, and integrative systems biology.

One synergistic example is the antimicrobial research being conducted at the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. There, Jonathan Dordick, Ravi Kane, and graduate students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have engineered a directed assembly monolayer for interactions between enzymes and single-walled carbon nanotubes, using surfactants. The enzymes are highly active and stable; the carbon nanotubes increase the stability of proteins and help deliver more protein at the surface interface; and the surfactants aid in the assembly at the interface. The resulting interfacial biocatalysis forms a transparent film-like coating, an independent and highly active enzyme system that could be lifted and applied to another surface. Potential applications could include environmental detectors, protective or antimicrobial coatings — an antifouling paint, for example — biosensors, and nanofabrication of other materials.

There are many more synergistic Rensselaer research endeavors which I could cite — in Terahertz imaging and sensing, modeling and simulations, and in origins of life research.

But I came to address the impetus for this address — National Women's History Month and the importance of women in science. To do so, I will set the context with a story. I will tell you a few of the mile markers on my own road to science. And, I will conclude with a quick primer on new national efforts to encourage women and minorities to study and succeed in these challenging arenas.

I often dream of a time when womenís history becomes "history"; when African-American or Hispanic history month becomes "history month"; when women engineers and men scientists become "researchers of achievement". I feel this acutely, myself, when adjectives precede my own accomplishments — as though being a physicist, or heading the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or leading Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were not of sufficient merit.

Yes, I think these distinctions are necessary — now. We are living through a time when paying special attention to unique histories is important. But, perhaps there will come a time when there is no need to note differences, no need for distinguishing adjectives, except as they relate to achievement. Perhaps, there will come a time when there will exist within human culture merely sincere appreciation of accomplishments.

Now, having said all that, while I am not a baseball aficionado, I did note last week that Effa Manley was the first WOMAN to be named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Effa Manley and her husband started the Eagles Negro League baseball team in Brooklyn in 1935, naming it after a local newspaper. The Eagles played in the Brooklyn Dodger's Ebbets Field. In 1936, the Manleys purchased the Newark Dodgers franchise and moved the Eagles to New Jersey. Effa Manley took over day-to-day business operations of the team, arranged playing schedules, planned the team's travel, managed and met the payroll, bought the equipment, negotiated contracts, and handled publicity and promotions.

She was a players' advocate — fighting for better schedules, better travel, higher salaries. She provided the Eagles with an air-conditioned, $15,000 Flexible Clipper bus, a first for the Negro Leagues. Concerned about what her players would do for employment during the off-season, she sponsored a team in the Puerto Rican winter leagues. When the Major leagues began recruiting her players, Manley lobbied the owners for more compensation for the players who left the Negro Leagues for the Majors. She used her team and position to advance civil rights, dedicating some games to causes such as "Anti-Lynching Day" at Ruppert Stadium in 1939.

She died in 1981. Her gravestone reads simply, "She Loved Baseball." Effa Manley will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, along with 16 Negro and pre-Negro League players.

Now, interestingly, Effa Manley was not an African American. Born to white parents, she was raised in a household with a black stepfather and half-siblings. Most people assumed she was a light-skinned African American, and she ìpassedî as black most of her life.

This story has a certain ambiguity, which is why I bring it up: She did not play baseball. She is the first woman named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which remains a gentlemen's game. Was she white? Was she black? Does it matter? . . . . "She Loved Baseball."

Perhaps this kind of a story foretells a future when achievement is recognized — unqualified — and for its own sake.

Regarding my own career: I am the beneficiary of the convergence of two historic events:

  • One was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, which outlawed the prevailing practice of racial segregation in public schools. My own life reflects its impact, and the movement toward social justice and civil rights which followed.

  • The other was the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the former Soviet Union, and the subsequent ìspace raceî between the U.S. and the Soviets for dominance in arms, and in space technology.

When I was in the early elementary school grades, public schools, in the District of Columbia where I grew up, were segregated. After Brown and desegregation, I was able to attend the local public school, instead of one miles away. There, I was tested, along with others, and placed in advanced classes, and my education began to unfold accordingly.

The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in October of 1957 caused a national furor, because a competitor nation had beaten the United States into space. The result was a new national commitment to, and emphasis on, science and mathematics. The nation invested heavily in science and engineering education, and in research. The ìspace raceî was really a defense-based "science race," and colleagues, here, who are my age will remember that young people were actively encouraged to study these subjects, and that grants and scholarships for the study of science and mathematics became more readily available.

I graduated valedictorian of my high school class and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where I studied physics and eventually received my doctorate. That background and my own interests have led me along an interesting career trajectory which has included a variety of leadership positions in higher education, in government, and in the corporate and financial sectors.

I am a classically trained theoretical physicist, with an original research specialty in high energy physics. I later moved to theoretical condensed matter physics, focused on the opto-electronic properties of layered systems. I moved from research at AT&T Bell Laboratories to a professorship at Rutgers University. There, I began to "teach" — in the classic sense — to "interpret" and interpolate — between the world of advanced physics and those who are interested in learning it. I, also, was drawn to public policy, where one role is to "teach," or, perhaps, to "translate" among seemingly disparate worlds — the worlds of technology, business, and the public — so that policy better serves science and technology, and the sciences and technology better serve the public realm.

These attributes served me well as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as they helped me to ìtranslateî between and among the various worlds of the Congress, the public, the nuclear industry, and NRC employees.

It also served me well in another aspect of my role in government, where I would make three observations.

First, I had the opportunity to make a global difference, using unique aspects of my educational background, and an inherent multi-cultural sensitivity. I was able to use the NRC Chairmanship to help the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and post-apartheid South Africa.

Here were countries newly responsible for sophisticated nuclear operations and activities — with Soviet era nuclear power plants, remnants of a nuclear weapons program — with no infrastructure to manage them (no indigenous human resources and no regulatory or legal framework). We had the opportunity to help create their infrastructure by training regulators, performing safety assessments, and drafting basic nuclear laws. We also worked to create a framework for shutting down plutonium production reactors inside of Russia and outside, and with the U.S. Department of Energy, create a nuclear materials protection, control and accounting system for non-proliferation.

Second, I discovered that we had little or no scientific expertise at the highest policy levels in our government — domestically or abroad. This is serious when dealing with nuclear issues, but also, the environment, space, disease, defense, clean water, civil infrastructure, etc.

Third, there were very few women in the nuclear arena, especially internationally.

These observations reinforce my resolve to change the face of science — to ensure the participation of women and under-represented minorities, i.e. the "underrepresented majority". This has helped to power my concern about what I call the "Quiet Crisis."

Allow me to explain.

There is a growing disquiet over the ability of the United States to sustain its competitive edge in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Other nations have observed the elements which have created our success. As their economies have grown in the global ecosystem, they have ramped up their investments in science and engineering research and development. They are investing in their own intellectual capital.

China recently announced it would to invest 900 billion Yuan by 2020 ($111.1 billion U.S. dollars) in annual research and development, or 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). This huge investment would make it one of the world's leading science powers, at least in terms of investment — bringing China even with the world's big two spenders in scientific research, the United States and Japan.

Also in Asia, although many think of India in terms of outsourced services and information technology, multinational companies are looking to invest in Indiaís burgeoning pharmaceutical industry. India, driven by a president who is a scientist, is building itself into another scientific superpower. It already has the highest number of FDA-approved drug manufacturing plants outside the US, and is marketing its research and development (R&D) advantages, with costs a fifth to a seventh of that in the United States and the European Union.

Meanwhile, our own Federal investment in basic research has declined by half, as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP), since 1970.

This is occurring at the same time that converging trends in the United States will have major impact on our global leadership.

Besides the long-term slide in science and engineering research investment, there are other converging trends:

  • U.S. immigration policies and new opportunities abroad have slowed the flow, to this country, of international students, scientists, and engineers — who have long been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.

  • There are not a sufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace the highly skilled science and engineering professionals who will retire in the next decade.

  • We have failed to excite and inspire our young people to achieve to the highest levels, as their middling scores on international science and mathematics examinations demonstrate.

  • Our national demographics have shifted. Young women and ethnic and minority youth now account for nearly two-thirds of the population. These youth traditionally have been underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology and today they hold only about a quarter of existing science, engineering, and technology positions. It is from this nontraditional group, this "new majority," that the next generations of scientists and engineers, also, must come.

I have referred to these converging trends as the "Quiet Crisis," and its impact can be observed most vividly in the growing need for national (and international) energy security.

Energy is, perhaps, the most critical issue currently facing humanity, where 6.5 billion people are pressuring the worldís capacity to generate power. By the year 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people, and their energy needs grow with their developing economies. Because of this, the stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless.

This challenge is the 21st centuryís reprise of "space race" of the 1960s and 1970s.

I believe we know that we cannot just drill our way to energy security. We will have to innovate our way to energy security. It will require major innovative advances in discovery, extractive, use, and transportation technologies for the remaining fossil fuel supply. It will require innovation in conservation technologies. It will require innovation and development of reliable and reasonably priced renewable energy systems. It will require innovation to develop other alternative energy technologies, including nuclear power.

Where, today, is innovation which might apply?

Nanotechnology is a wide-open field, with far-reaching potential. My own university is exploring nanoparticle gels, polymer nanocomposites, and nanostructured biomolecule composite architectures. Each research thrust is supported by multiscale theory and modeling, as well as extensive characterization efforts.

As applied in fossil fuel-related technology, an array of possibilities from nanotechnology research hold promise. Consider:

  • Nano-enhanced materials which provide strength and endurance to increase performance and reliability in drilling, tubular goods, and rotating parts.

  • Improved elastomers, critical to deep drilling, to improve high-temperature and high-pressure characteristics.

  • "Designer properties" to enhance hydrophobic or hydrophilic behavior, to enhance materials for waterflood applications.

  • Nanoparticulate wetting carried out using molecular dynamics, simulations which show promise in the use of solvents for heterogeneous surfaces and porous solids.

  • Lightweight, rugged materials which reduce weight requirements on offshore platforms, and more reliable and more energy-efficient transportation vessels.

  • Nano-sensors for improved temperature and pressure ratings in deep wells and hostile environments.

  • Nano-sensors deployed in the pore space via "nano dust" to provide data on reservoir characterization, fluid flow monitoring, and fluid type recognition.

  • Small drill-hole evaluation instruments to reduce drilling costs, and to provide more environmental sensitivity due to less drill waste.

Other smart materials and smart metals will provide predictable responses to known stimuli. Examples include:

  • Boreholes which respond to the presence of water through a change in diameter, imparting a "lifting response."

  • Pipelines which detect conditions under which undesirable materials might form, and which respond accordingly to avert a problem (for example: non-desirable phase changes such as ice plugs).

  • Pipelines which detect leaks and perform self-healing processes.

  • Noise-sensitive materials to eliminate noise and facilitate information transmission and reliability.

All of this suggests that smart nano-materials aligned with sensor technologies can facilitate intelligent responses of oilfield systems. What would be the impact if there were a wellbore system which ìrespondedî to loading conditions, if we could maintain an optimized borehole configuration to maximize rate and reliability, and have pipelines made of materials which responded to internal conditions on a real-time basis?

In these arenas, industry will want to align itself with universities, entrepreneurs, service companies, and government laboratories, specifically with enterprises already utilizing nano-applications, which may be leveraged. The opportunities for collaboration with universities, in particular, could and should go beyond collaborations with traditional petroleum engineering programs to include those with expertise in nanotechnology, advanced materials, multiscale modeling, and imaging science and technology.

Methane Hydrate

Alan Greenspan has described new energy sources and technologies, this way: "the unconventional is increasingly becoming the conventional." One example is methane hydrates. Methane, the chief constituent of natural gas, often is locked in ice, as methane hydrate, and generally is found in hostile, remote settings, such as the Arctic or the deep ocean. Once considered a nuisance because it clogs natural gas pipelines, methane hydrate's reputation has improved as scientists have discovered that it could be an astonishingly abundant new energy source.

Worldwide estimates of the natural gas potential of methane hydrate approach 400 million trillion cubic feet — a staggering figure when you consider the world's currently proven gas reserves at 5,500 trillion cubic feet. In fact, the worldwide amounts of hydrocarbons bound in gas hydrates are estimated conservatively to be twice the amount found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.

As you may imagine, there is great interest in unlocking this massive potential energy source, and both oil companies and universities are involved. Numerous studies are underway to characterize and describe the hydrates, and to determine how much is available at sites here and abroad. Yet, little is known about how gas hydrates can best be extracted and transported.

Traditional proposals for recovering gas from hydrates usually involve dissociating or "melting" the substances on site. Marathon Oil Corporation — and in the interest of disclosure, I am a Member of the Board of Directors of Marathon Oil — is exploring ways to produce and to ship stable slurries of natural gas hydrate crystals.

Proposed methods for gas hydrate production have not considered some recently developed advanced oil and gas production schemes such as in-situ combustion, electromagnetic heating, or downhole electrical heating. Also, advanced drilling techniques and complex downhole completions, including horizontal wells and multiple laterals, need to be considered.

If only 1 percent of the methane hydrate resource could be made technologically and economically recoverable, in an environmentally sound manner, the United States could more than double its domestic natural gas resource base. Congress has authorized funds for methane hydrate research and development, but has appropriated only limited amounts. It is interesting that one key program which was included in the President's recent agreement with India in the energy arena is deep ocean exploration, and drilling, especially as it relates to gas hydrates.

As with most promising new energy sources, gas hydrate drilling comes with its share of environmental concerns, including fears that drilling could release greenhouse gases, or trigger ocean landslides.

The innovations described, and myriad others, will make a difference in utilizing the planet's fossil fuel resources. But, no matter what period of time one chooses to believe the Earth's fossil resources will sustain us, we will need to innovate to discover and to use them — with the least possible environmental impact.

At Rensselaer, a considerable portion of research is devoted, as well, to hydrogen fuel cells, light emitting diodes (LEDs), photovoltaic architecture, modeling and simulation, visualization, and other energy-related technologies. Rensselaer is considering the formation of an Institute for Energy and Environmental Sciences, Innovation, and Policy; to be a platform for extended enterprise in this arena. This will build upon expertise we have developed over the last decade in each of the areas cited, and more.

I do not have the time, comprehensively, to review all of the research being done, but suffice it to say that people are working, as well, on conservation initiatives, solid state lighting, "smart highways," and wave power generation.

I would be remiss if I did not mention nuclear power in the category of energy alternatives. Nuclear power, which provides 20 percent of electricity generated in this country, and about 16 percent worldwide, is having a resurgence. This is being achieved through safer and more economical performance of nuclear power plants, and by technological innovations in new designs — which address safety and profitability concerns, and which are targeted to deal with issues of nuclear waste.

Much of growth in nuclear power generation is in Asia, with 17 out of 25 reactors under construction being there.

Several new designs are moving toward implementation.

South Korea is making progress with its System-integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor, or "SMART" pressurized water reactor. The Korean government plans to construct a one-fifth-scale (65 megawatt) demonstration plant by 2008, but has not announced a commercialization date for the full scale (330 megawatt) plant.

Among gas-cooled reactors, the South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which features billiard-ball-sized, self-contained fuel units, is well underway. Preparation of the reactor site at Koeberg has begun, and fuel loading is anticipated for mid-2010.

Innovative designs still in development employ modular cores which need refueling only every 30 years. New fuel configurations could reduce proliferation concerns, enhance control of sensitive nuclear material, and lessen infrastructure needs.

As you know, President Bush has included nuclear power, as well, as part of his energy security agenda, and has proposed a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) as part of that agenda.

These, and other innovations, are important because — to repeat — the reality is that we can no longer just drill our way to energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security — we must innovate the technologies that uncover new fossil energy sources, and improve extraction; the technologies that conserve energy, and protect the environment; and the technologies which provide sustainable, multiple energy sources.

But, the question remains — who will make these innovations?

These tasks, to be sure, require our highest creative and innovative capacities, and most of all they require human capital — bright, talented, inspired, engaged, highly educated people — who must be drawn from the complete talent pool — from the "new majority."

I have been calling for a national conversation on both the "Quiet Crisis" and energy security, and for the national will to take action. That conversation has begun, and action is under consideration.

In his State of the Union address, in January, President Bush outlined an "American Competitiveness Initiative" to sustain our national capacity for innovation. His call to action — along with recent bipartisan Congressional initiatives — is providing momentum for a new national emphasis on innovation.

There are few who disagree that this is a vital need. Every sector — corporate, academic, and government at all levels — has joined the growing chorus for a renewed national focus on America's capacity to innovate.

National leadership is exactly what is needed at this point. We must do all that we can to help make these proposals become reality, and to encourage others across the full spectrum of innovation.

But, the question remains — who will create these innovations? Innovation demands excellent human talent, and a lot of it. And, human talent is the element of which we are least assured, for the reasons I have outlined.

The growing chorus of sector voices and leadership at the highest levels has launched a national dialogue. We need, now, to ask, do we have the national will to do what is necessary to link policy proposals to budgets, ensuring real investment in all the components of innovation?

While the President has proposed investing in basic research and steps to encourage children to study mathematics and science, to be effective, we also must directly support those who pursue higher education and advanced graduate study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I see four additional policy opportunities to strengthen our innovation capacity:

  • First, making permanent corporate research and development (R&D) tax credits is important, but we can strengthen their impact by including special internship opportunities in the R&D definition to encourage hiring college science and engineering majorsówhile they are still students.

  • Second, policy incentives could be employed to strengthen the "intangibles" of innovation — for instance, how intellectual property and research results can be given more value, as a part of a corporate asset base.

  • Third, as recommended in the National Academies Report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and by the Council on Competitiveness, we should create portable, competitive innovation fellowships for graduate students, and innovation scholarships for undergraduates who pursue science and engineering careers. This would make a strong statement about valuing the work of scientists and engineers, and would encourage young people to commit to these critical disciplines, and make their study more accessible to a broader range of students.

  • Fourth, we should create a cadre of National Teacher Scholars in mathematics and science. One aspect would accelerate certification for mathematics and science teachers who hold degrees in mathematics, science and engineering, not in education.

Another aspect would hire these teachers on a twelve month basis through public/academic/ business partnerships. During summer, this cadre would assume positions in industry, government, and other professional positions, or pursue graduate degrees. Both endeavors continually would enhance the knowledge base of science and mathematics in public schools, and how it is utilized in real-world situations. These would bring leading edge ideas and technology, and excitement directly back to the classroom. These teachers would be compensated better and have a professional status commensurate with their educational backgrounds (like their peers in industry), and commensurate with the importance of what they do. Hiring them in summer positions should, as well, be part of R&D tax credit incentives for business, and part of the budget in government laboratories, as well.

As we do these things, pedagogy must change. First, it must change by reaching back to fundamentals - to ensure a competency of every student in the language arts and mathematics. One cannot do calculus if one cannot do trigonometry, algebra and geometry. One cannot do these subjects if one cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide. One also must be able to read, understand and articulate. One must develop more multi-cultural understanding and sophistication, as well.

Secondly, pedagogy must meet children where they are. It must adapt to the 24/7, fast-paced, technology- and media-rich world our children are growing up in. In other words, teaching must embrace technology to reinforce learning, and to help young people overcome learning difficulties. It must be infused with modern knowledge about cognition and learning. It must be interactive. It must be hands-on, minds-on, and inquiry-based.

In the process, children can be taught, and come to appreciate, the importance of continual and life-long learning.


This new national focus is encouraging, but we must see that it creates programs to recreate the excitement and the commitment which the nation exhibited after the launch of Sputnik.

And, this is where I call upon you for your help. If we are to see more women in science and engineering — indeed, if we are to see more scientists and engineers, period — we must remain watchful, that the new national concern translates into real programs with adequate funding and that every new program embraces the young women and ethnic minority youth who comprise the "new majority."

We must remember, too, that the "new majority" has few role models to emulate in mathematics and science, technology and engineering.

"Which is why your presence, here today, your celebration of 'Women with a Voice,' and of National Women's History Month, are so important. Your own educations, your occupations, your professional positions within JPL and its collaborators — indeed, all that you have achieved in your lifetimes — are imbued with added value when you become role models for those who follow. By building on our strengths, by conjointly bringing along the next generations, by investing our "social capital" in our "human capital," we create the future. History plays forward.

And so, I encourage you to add your voices to the national dialogue which is now engaged — the national dialogue which turns on three intersecting elements:

  • our national need and desire for continued global leadership and pre-eminence. It helps us, and it helps us to help others — worldwide.

  • the urgency of national, and global, energy security.

  • the need to tap the entire talent pool for the next generations of discoverers and innovators in all fields.

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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