Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Design Your Future Day
Darrin Communications Center
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York
Saturday, March 20, 2004
Welcome to Rensselaer. It is an honor to be here with you — the exceptional young women who were selected by your teachers and guidance counselors to participate in this event. And, welcome, too, to parents, Rensselaer students, and alumni who are taking part in this day.
Design Your Future is a wonderful day in which you can explore science, engineering, and technology. And, you can meet other young women who excel in these important areas. I encourage you to take full advantage of the interactive workshops, while your parents are learning more about careers in these fields, as well as more about Rensselaer.
This morning I would like to talk to you about the future that awaits you, if you do choose a career in engineering, science, or technology. It is a future that you can design — a future that needs your knowledge, your skills, your creativity, and your innovative thinking. Already, you have committed to the study of science and mathematics — this is all too rare among young women in this country. In fact, women are underrepresented in these fields, to the detriment of higher education, as well as to government, business, and industry. You have the opportunity to change this, and to become part of the next generation that will make advances in the health, prosperity, safety, and security of this country — and the world.
I am sure that it has not escaped your notice that the fields you will explore today still are dominated by men. That is why your presence in them is needed more than ever. There, assuredly, will be challenges for you to face in your academic and professional careers, as women in these fields, but I believe our presence in traditionally male-dominated careers is crucial to our collective future. The same is true of other underrepresented groups, whom we need to encourage to pursue careers in science and technology-related fields.
I would like to tell you a little about my own background and career path. From a young age, I was interested in science and mathematics. As a young girl growing up in Washington, D.C., I was fascinated by the idea that the physical world around me contained secrets that we could unlock. And, science, when applied in direct experimentation, was the key to unlocking those secrets. I set about performing experiments of my own invention. One involved a three-year study of bees. I adjusted their habitats, their diets, and their exposure to light and heat, all the while keeping a detailed log of my observations. My laboratory was underneath our back porch, so you can imagine that my parents were very patient and supportive of my early experiences with the scientific method.
So, how did I get from underneath my back porch, to MIT, and then to the chairmanship of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and to the presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today? Let me distill this journey into several words: hard work, focus, determination, and perseverance. My natural, scientist's curiosity led me down a variety of paths, which crisscrossed, complimented each other, with each helping to prepare me for the next opportunity. The road was not always easy. But, my dream was to be a scientist, and I refused to allow anyone or anything to be an obstacle to realizing my goal. Science, in turn, led to fulfilling experiences in discovery, public policy-making, and in higher education. So, perhaps, you can learn from my own experience, that science opens doors to a variety of opportunities. Be prepared to walk through those doors to wonderful adventures.
Because I am an educator and a scientist, I have a special interest in the achievement of young women. The last 30 years have seen tremendous progress by women in education. In fact, most of the educational progress has been made by women. The number of women seeking post-secondary degrees has risen dramatically. In 1999-2000, women accounted for 56.3 percent of all students enrolled in institutions of higher education, and in the United States, women earn about 57 percent of B.A.s and 58 percent of master's degrees. Business Week terms this trend "a stunning gender reversal in American education."
But, although women almost equal men in law school and medical school enrollments less than a fifth of all engineering students are women. And, since the current engineering, science, and technology workforce is ready to retire, we are left to wonder: Who will work on our increasingly complex — and technological — challenges?
I work regularly with colleagues in higher education and in public policy to address this situation to increase educational opportunities which will bring more women and underrepresented minorities to these fields. You have a job to do, too. Pursue your interest in these fields — and, by the way, if you are interested in more than one — say you like both biology and engineering — then it is to your advantage to pursue them equally. As you learn more about research today — especially the work taking place at Rensselaer — you will see that these traditionally discrete fields are converging, informing, and strengthening one another, leading to exciting breakthroughs and innovations. Look for opportunities — like the one, today, at this event — to explore your interests, meet other women in these fields, and learn more about possible careers.
As I am sure you know, mentors are very important to your futures. You have found wonderful support from your teachers and guidance counselors. When you attend college, you may have to work harder to find a mentor. But do persist in this — a supportive mentor will guide you in your academic work, perhaps offer you an opportunity to do real research as an undergraduate, and will help you to plan for graduate school or a career. I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of this relationship to young women in the sciences and engineering.
Role models also are important. Fortunately, more and more women are coming to the fore in these fields. Let me tell you about two of them with connections to Rensselaer. Claire Fraser, a member of the Class of 1977, is a pioneer in the field of comparative genomics, which analyzes and compares genomes from different species. Her career is multi-faceted: She is president and director of The Institute for Genomic Research, in Maryland, teaches at George Washington University School of Medicine, and is a member of the National Research Council committee on countering bioterrorism and on domestic animal genomics.
At Rensselaer, Heidi Newberg, associate professor of physics, led a team which last year discovered a previously undetected ring of stars that encircles the Milky Way. This discovery, which made news across the country, promises to be an ideal place to study the mysterious "dark matter," which makes up most of the mass of the universe, and its role in shaping cosmic structures.
I am sure, as you move forward with your studies, you will encounter women like Dr. Fraser and Dr. Newberg, who are trailblazers in their fields, and who are role models for young women, like yourselves, with high aspirations in science, engineering, and technology. Seek out the people who will support and encourage your talent, and who will challenge you to aspire even higher.
There is so much for you to do. The AIDS pandemic and other emerging viral epidemics threaten people around the world. Major diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, continue to plague the United States, cutting short lives and putting stress on our health care system. The effects of global warming warrant more study and research, as well as ways to combat pollution and protect the environment. Safety and security, whether in our food supply, at the airport, or, now, on trains, continues to be a national priority. Our space program is at a crossroads, as it faces questions of national priorities and an aging workforce at NASA that, according to a government report last year, is one of the space agencyís most important challenges in the coming years.
Perhaps you could even invent a TV-DVD remote control which is easy for your parents to use!
As you can see, there is still so much to discover, so much to innovate, so much to create. You may have read that, just this week, scientists may have discovered the most distant object in the solar system, more than 3 billion kilometers farther away from the sun than Pluto. They have named it Sedna, after the Inuit goddess who created sea creatures of the Arctic. This is a remarkable discovery. And, it is a reminder that, no matter how much knowledge we claim, it is the drive to discover what we do not know that propels civilization forward. You can be part of this. You can be the woman who designs safer buildings, who discovers a cure for AIDS, who develops an alternative energy system that will save money and improve the environment. Perhaps you can harness the promise of wireless technology to make it more accessible and available to all. Perhaps you can discover the even more distant object in our solar system. There is so much to do. The time to start is now.
I would like to leave you with an ancient African proverb: "If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation."
Our mission is to provide you with the best education possible. But, it is up to you to design your futures. I hope the workshops and discussions today will inspire you and encourage you.
Now, the future awaits you. Enjoy your day.
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.