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Congressional Black Caucus Science and Technology Brain Trust

“Curiosity, Confidence, and Commitment”

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

Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Ballroom A
Washington, DC

Friday, April 25, 2014

I am delighted to be here today with all these brilliant young people.

I grew up in Washington, DC and went to Roosevelt High School. I found Washington a wonderful place to be a child interested in math, science, or engineering.

First of all, my house had a yard where I could collect bees. I would catch them in jars with holes in the lids, and put them under the back porch. I experimented with them, seeing how the bees’ behavior changed when I fed them different foods. I noticed also that I could alter their circadian rhythm—or their daily cycle of rest and activity—by adjusting the time when I kept them in the dark and when I put them in the light. I figured out something very important that I hope you have figured out as well: Science does not require elaborate equipment in a laboratory. It just requires curiosity.

I also learned a great deal when, with the encouragement of my father, my sister and I constructed go-carts that we would race with our neighbors.

I soon realized that the key to winning was not driving well, but engineering a better cart. Engineering, by the way, is applying scientific knowledge to practical problems. I was using physics, or the science of matter and energy—to shape a streamlined go-cart so that resistance from the air was reduced. I also positioned the cart before the race to use gravity to make the car go faster. I gained a new confidence in my ability to solve problems; confidence is important in the STEM fields.

Two momentous events in the history of our nation supported my interest in science and engineering. First, in 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Brown v. the Board of Education that ended segregation in the public schools. This decision meant that I could attend the wonderful Barnard Elementary School right around the corner, and receive a much better education.

Second, in 1957, the Space Race began when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit. With space as the battleground, the United States and the Soviet Union each vied to lead the world in science and technology.

In 1969, with the Apollo 11 mission, the United States effectively won the race by putting first man on the moon. Interestingly enough, the engineers of Apollo 11 had to solve some of the same problems I had solved in designing a go-cart to minimize air resistance and to use the force of gravity.

Another result of the Space Race was a much greater focus on science and mathematics in the public schools, to educate the next generation of discoverers and innovators. So my teachers conveyed the incredible excitement of science and math to me every day. I absorbed that excitement, and it inspired me to become a theoretical physicist.

Does anyone know what that is?

Theoretical physicists think about the way the physical world around us works, and use math to describe one aspect of that world and to make predictions about what would happen in different circumstances. Experimental physicists then do the hands-on science in a laboratory to confirm or counter these predictions.

Let me offer you an example of the kind of work I did as a theoretical physicist, while I was at a remarkable place called Bell Labs. Does anyone here know what semiconductors are?

They are materials that can conduct electricity, but only under certain circumstances, so they are used to control the electric current in computers, cell phones, and many other devices. They are made by layering different materials that can pull each other in different directions and cause defects. After a great deal of thought and many draft equations—being a scientist requires commitment—I devised a theory of how to predict this strain, depending on the thickness of the layers. My theory led to the development, by other scientists and engineers, of the semiconductor lasers that allow CDs, DVDs, and the bar code scanners at grocery stores to function.

Though the world has changed since I was in middle and high school, you have many of the same opportunities I had. Because you are growing up in or near the United States capital, you, too, have the many museums of the Smithsonian nearby, where you can expand your knowledge about science and technology, and just about everything else under the sun.

How many of you have been to the Smithsonian? It is free of charge, so it is easy to visit again and again, though it might take a lifetime of visits to see all 137 million objects in the collection.

You, too, have teachers working very hard to convey their excitement about the STEM fields. I suspect you would not be here today without them.

Just as it did when I was growing up, the United States needs more young people to study math and science and to make careers in these fields. We do not educate enough scientists and engineers, compared to other countries, and compared to the jobs we are generating. If we are to close this gap, more women and more underrepresented minorities must become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists of all kinds. I want to thank Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and the entire Congressional Black Caucus for their remarkable leadership on this issue.

Finally, you, too, are going to school in a great age for science and engineering. Today, we are unlocking the secrets of life, to the point that scientists are considering how to revive extinct species such as woolly mammoths. We are gathering evidence about what the universe looked like when it was just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. We are creating computers so intelligent that they may soon make their own discoveries and innovations. And we continue to learn new things in space.

I lead a university called Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where we educate students to participate in scientific discovery and technological innovation.

Right now, someone who went to school at Rensselaer is an astronaut on the International Space Station. His name is Rick Mastracchio, and on Wednesday he took his ninth walk in space, to repair a computer outside the space station.

At Rensselaer, we do not develop just human astronauts, but also robot astronauts. A Rensselaer student wrote important pieces of the computer code for the first human-like robot developed by NASA, and sent to the International Space Station.

And a number of Rensselaer people are part of the NASA team that sent the Curiosity Rover to Mars. Curiosity found water on Mars. Does anyone here know why that is significant?

Right. Water is required for life, and this is the first sign that there could be life on other planets.

Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Any of you could answer that question for us, once and for all. You could change the world, while having the greatest possible adventure in your own life.

At Rensselaer, we expect our students and professors to change the world. Every one of them was once like you—a kid who loved science and math.

So, it you would like to join us on this great adventure of scientific discovery and technological innovation, you must learn all the science and math you can—and develop the three qualities I mentioned earlier:

  • curiosity
  • confidence, and
  • commitment.

Now, I would like to ask you a few more questions, and then I will answer any questions you might have…

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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