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Women and Science: The Talent Imperative

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

Association for Women in Science
A National Conference for Women in the STEM Disciplines
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Thank you for inviting me to speak to this distinguished gathering of women scientists.

Your presence here, this evening, is a continuing and sustaining affirmation that women do science and engineering.

This spring, the National Academy of Sciences elected 19 new women members — the largest number of women scientists ever selected for Academy membership in a single year. With their election, women's membership in the National Academy of Sciences rises to 187, or 9 percent of the academy's 2059 members. Seventy-two members are elected each year. Membership is considered one of the highest honors in American science. The Academy, a private organization, chartered by the United States Congress, to provide advice to policy makers, has signaled, in recent years, that it is interested in electing more diverse members.

This naturally begs the question: Are the women and diverse scientists "out there?" The answer is: of course.

The truth is that high-level scientific research and innovation is done by people — by individuals — not by genders.

  • Dr. Claire Fraser, President and Director of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) leads research teams which have sequenced the genomes of several microbial organisms which cause anthrax, Lyme disease, syphilis, tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis, pneumonia, and ulcers, among others. Her work has helped to initiate the era of comparative genomics, and has put TIGR at the forefront of the new field of microbial genomics — which is likely to be the foundation for the treatment and prevention of disease in the 21st century.

  • Annie J. Easley, a mathematician and computer scientist, was a key member of a group of software developers who wrote the codes used for the Centaur, a high-energy rocket used to launch space vehicles and communication satellites, most recently the spacecraft Cassini in 1997. She developed and implemented computer code used in NASA energy projects, and to determine the life use of storage batteries, such as those used in electric utility vehicles. Her computer applications are used to identify energy conversion systems offering improvement over commercially available technologies. Her work set the technological foundations for today's shuttle launches, as well as for the launches of communication, weather, and defense surveillance satellites.

  • Dr. Marlene Belfort is an internationally known molecular geneticist whose research examines introns — segments of DNA which interrupt genes and can disrupt the flow of genetic information. A distinguished professor of biomedical sciences at the University at Albany, Dr. Belfort's laboratory has made major contributions to unraveling the structure and function of introns, creating opportunities to exploit their properties for use in biotechnology and medicine. She holds patents for the use of introns and inteins in biotechnology and medicine. Both elements can be used to facilitate protein purification; while inteins, which are found in critical genes of human microbial pathogens, are promising targets for development of novel antibiotics. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • Dr. Ellen Ochoa is an electrical engineer, researcher, innovator, astronaut, and the first Hispanic woman to travel in space. As a doctoral student at Stanford, and later as a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, Dr. Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. She is a co-inventor on three patents for an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method for noise removal in images. As Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Branch at Ames, she supervised teams of engineers and scientists in the research and development of computational systems for aerospace missions. Her technical assignments in the Astronaut Office include serving as crew representative for flight software, computer hardware and robotics, Assistant for Space Station to the Chief of the Astronaut Office, lead spacecraft communicator (CAPCOM) in Mission Control, and Acting Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office.

Against this backdrop, women scientists now run major, leading research universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), the University of Michigan, Princeton University, four campuses of the University of California (U.C.), and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And, the U.C. system-wide Provost is a woman and a scientist.

These are consummate scientists and engineers — talented individuals whose brilliance and whose discoveries have advanced knowledge, and whose work and leadership are essential to the American innovation enterprise. The fact that they are women is beside the point.

Or, perhaps, it is the point.

There are gains, but not parity.

For example, on university faculties, the proportion of women on the tenure track in science and engineering, which ranges roughly below 10 percent nationally, has not kept pace with the increasing proportion of women earning doctoral degrees in these fields.

Often, when women or minorities come together, we look at statistics, or situations that show the problem, and we talk about equity. Too often, we are "preaching to the choir," although in some places, the choir's minds wander. Here, I would like to place your deliberations into the broader context of what I have defined as "The Quiet Crisis." Thanks to Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, this is getting more play. I also would like to talk about the pipeline: how to make it more robust; how to maintain it.

Today's scientists and engineers, whose imaginations were captivated by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, and the space (also known as science) race, are beginning to retire, and will retire in greater numbers over the next 20 years. The ready flow of talented international scientists and students to our laboratories, design studios, and campuses, to which we have turned in the past for specialized talent, is slowing, as other nations invest in their own education and research enterprises, and as globalization offers employment at home, or elsewhere. Furthermore, overall enrollment of American students in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering has declined.

The net is that the American innovation enterprise, which has fueled our economic growth, our standard of living, and our national security, may soon lack the critical mass of scientists and engineers to create the next innovations upon which our health and wellbeing, our safety and security, and the economic engine of new industries will be built.

Just as the "Quiet Crisis" has built over time, it also will take time to correct the trends creating it. It takes several decades to create a scientist or an engineer, as you know. To create a new, robust cadre of scientists, we must draw upon the talent extant in all our young people, and the majority of them — the new majority — now comprises young women and underrepresented groups. And, we must start when they are, at least, in middle school, and we must see that they are fostered, encouraged, and mentored through the years of study and preparation. We do not have time to lose.

But — how do we make this happen?

For the past few years, I have been involved in several public-private collaborations to address this issue. One is BEST — Building Engineering and Science Talent. BEST was launched under the auspices of the Council on Competitiveness in September 2001. Its goal was to redress the demographic imbalance of the U.S. technical workforce highlighted in a report — a national call to action — by the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development.

Over three years, Blue Ribbon Panels completed a national search for the most effective programs aimed at broadening the nationís base of talent in science, engineering, and technology. Panels examined K-12 and higher education programs which had demonstrated effectiveness and longevity. A third panel examined the diversification of the workplace. I chaired the Higher Education Panel.

The process was careful and exhaustive. We identified programs with sound, demonstrated results in engaging young women and underrepresented groups in the study of science, engineering and mathematics, and in keeping them in the pipeline through higher education, advanced degrees, and into employment in these fields.

From these programs, we derived a comprehensive set of principles of effectiveness which can be applied and scaled at each level. They are detailed in the report.

What has happened since release of the reports in the spring of 2004 is interesting and encouraging.

The U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy have engaged BEST to evaluate their portfolios of diversity programs. Together these agencies employ some 50,000 scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in national laboratories [not in the uniformed services]. They do not need to be persuaded to the importance of diversity. Because they must hire only American citizens, they are aware of the approaching "Quiet Crisis," and are anxious to make their educational outreach programs as effective as possible. Already, these branches of the military are having difficulty filling highly specialized positions, and they know that they will be further constrained in the future unless they act decisively now — to enlarge both the pre-college and higher education talent pools.

Evaluation of Naval research enterprise programs is completed. The findings are beginning to resonate at the national level, with the Navy committed to making their scholarship, internship, and research partnerships with universities much more productive in broadening our base of talent. Evaluation of the Army's educational outreach programs begins in October.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), itself, also has engaged BEST to help scale up an innovative Materials Science Program — Materials World Modules developed at Northwestern University. This hands-on, interdisciplinary program has been field-tested by 35,000 middle and high school students across the country. It has achieved gains in knowledge with students from all groups. The program has a design component which enables DoD engineers and scientists to partner with classroom science teachers. As such, it is a model which taps a huge, under-utilized asset for education — our incumbent technological workforce. The DoD is planning to demonstrate that thousands of science and engineering-based organizations can make a difference by aligning around programs which are proven to work.

What else is happening?

BEST also is focusing on system-wide improvements in specific communities, with particular focus on closing the achievement gap in math and science education. In San Diego, the first such community, the goal is to address the mismatch between the region's prominent science and engineering-based higher education institutions and the K-12 school system which prepares students for college. The local economy's high-tech opportunities do not mesh with the low educational achievement and underperformance in the public school system there.

The disparity limits both educational and professional opportunities. The belief, however, is that high achievement is possible for all students, regardless of economic standing or cultural background. The challenge is to move beyond isolated successes, involving select groups of students, to make gains in system-wide achievement.

BEST, in concert with The San Diego Foundation (TSDF) and others, applied the BEST "effectiveness principles" to identify programs at the K-12 level which warrant investment and expansion.

The plan is to invest in and to expand existing programs with demonstrated success, such as:

  • The "Sweetwater Compact" which guarantees entry from California's largest 7-12 unified school district to San Diego State University, for all high school students who complete its rigorous college-prep course requirements before graduation.
  • AVID, an "untracking" program, placing previously underachieving students with high academic potential in the same college preparation academic program as high-achieving students.
  • A third program targets elementary school teachers, equipping them with the knowledge and classroom skills to implement California Math Standards through well-designed professional learning days, elective courses, and voluntary leadership opportunities.

This is only a sample. Bolstering programs which work, across the San Diego County public school system, expands impact, builds a culture of success, and increases the numbers of students ready for college level science and mathematics.

BEST's larger vision is to create the nation's first collaborative of metro areas to meet the talent imperative in science and engineering. Until now, the impetus to build capacity in technical fields has come from three loosely connected sources: government interest in developing skills that are at a premium; private sector interest in strengthening its human resource base; and local interest in creating high-value educational and workforce opportunities.

The potential of a community-based initiative lies in integrating these interests. Metropolitan regions provide a platform for aligning local, state, and national agendas. The challenges of K-12 math and science education, post-secondary education in technical fields, and workforce needs intersect in and around the nation's urban centers where demographic forces are changing the face of America.

BEST also is seeking other foundations willing to invest similarly in other communities.

The BEST principles — in this case the principles for application to programs in colleges and universities are worth noting.

  • Institutional Leadership: Leadership supporting a broad commitment among administration and senior faculty to shared values, goals, and programs which increase participation among the targeted populations and among all students.

  • Targeted Recruitment: Instead of attracting only the best available students and faculty from underrepresented groups, exemplary programs establish, sustain, and improve a feeder system across the educational spectrum. This demands exceptional institutional investment and commitment, as well as active participation by program graduates.

  • Engaged Faculty: These are faculty who view positive student outcomes as a critical measure of their own performance — and, are rewarded accordingly. Although research and entrepreneurship still are important, they do not replace an ongoing commitment to developing student talent.

  • Personal Attention: These programs value personal attention at every stage of higher education and are committed to meeting studentsí individual learning needs, and include mentoring and tutoring.

  • Peer Support: Peer support which enables students of diverse backgrounds, levels, and interests to interact with each other routinely and intensively. The process enables undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and junior faculty to provide mutual support, guidance, and advice for each other, creating an atmosphere of "family responsibility."

  • Comprehensive Financial Assistance: Financial packages which combine merit and needs-based support and include scholarships, loans, and grants encompassing more than tuition and fees, providing students the freedom to focus on coursework and professional development, enhancing retention rates.

  • Enriched Research Opportunities: Exemplary programs extend research experience beyond the classroom, including summer internships and other research opportunities, connecting students to the world of work, mentoring, and career options.

  • Bridging to the Next Level: Too few educational institutions acknowledge that they are part of an education-workforce continuum. The best ones build corporate relationships and help students develop the personal skills that enable them to transition into the workplace or to pursue further study as a natural extension of their academic experience.

  • Continuous Evaluation: Effective programs practice continuous evaluation of themselves about process and outcomes, asking what is being achieved? Do outcomes measure up against goals? How does our program compare to others? What is our impact on who is participating in science and engineering nationally?

These, obviously, apply primarily to higher education situations, but, with adjustment and adaptation, I believe they hold value for, and may be applied in, a variety of contexts.

There are other elements which contribute to advancing toward the goal of smoothing the road to science, mathematics, and engineering achievement for women as well as underrepresented groups. We are present in one of them today. We need the very best institutions for young women — with Smith College one of the best examples — institutions which create the climate for young women to thrive and achieve and to prepare themselves and each other to apply their talents in these fields, and in others.

We must learn the lesson of the importance of recognition for women scientists from the story of Lise Meitner, now considered one of the most significant women scientists of the 20th century, but who was consistently ignored and denied recognition during her lifetime.

In 1945, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission. In doing so, they overlooked physicist Lise Meitner who collaborated with him on the discovery, and was the one who provided the first theoretical explanation of the fission process.

Receiving her doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1906, Dr. Meitner went to Berlin to study with Max Planck, where she began collaborating with Otto Hahn on radioactive substances — he doing the chemistry, and she, the physics. By 1937, Dr. Meitner and Dr. Hahn had identified at least nine different radioactive elements. However, with the rise of Hitler, she fled to Sweden, continuing her collaboration with Dr. Hahn by correspondence. Meeting clandestinely in Copenhagen in 1939, Dr. Meitner and Dr. Hahn planned a new round of experiments on a uranium product they thought was radium. The experiments provided evidence for "nuclear fission."

Nuclear fission was an unexpected phenomenon. It took Dr. Meitner careful study of the data and exceptionally creative thinking, breaking free of conventional preconceptions, to offer a theoretical physical explanation for fission in a report published in January 1939. The implication that nuclear fission could produce a weapon, electrified physicists of the day, and set in motion actions to bring the technology to the United States, leading to the Manhattan Project, and ultimately the winning of World War II.

The Nobel committee ignored Dr. Meitner's role, awarding the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dr. Hahn in 1944 for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.

Thankfully, recognition for women scientists has improved, especially with the National Academy of Sciences induction of 19 new women this year, but perhaps not enough in the intervening 61 years since Dr. Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize.

What are the other things can that we do? There has been, too long, a belief that somehow natural forces would affect the needed change — that simply the changing demographics would bring more women and underrepresented groups proportionally into the sciences. But, this is not happening. Making real change will require concerted effort at changing mindsets — from one end of the pipeline to the other, and changing the culture of science, as it is practiced.

We need to understand, develop, and implement family-friendly policies in our universities, our laboratories, and our institutions — policies which will benefit women, and men, and families, as well. We do this at Rensselaer.

We need to mentor and nurture young women, not just in K-12 education and college, but throughout their whole careers, as men have been mentored and nurtured, establishing and maintaining networks and support systems. We are building and have intergenerational peer support and mentoring systems at Rensselaer. We must identify and allow opportunities for women to advance in the ranks, so that there are more women in leadership. At the same time, we must make certain that young women do not impose glass ceilings upon themselves by failing to set their sights to the highest levels.

The price of advancement for women in science, perhaps, is similar to the price of liberty — eternal vigilance — and action. Talent, from every source and from all sources, is imperative for the innovation which gives us the ability to resolve the 21st century challenges which are unfolding. And, it may well be that recent ire over the notion that women do not possess the innate ability to do science has raised the issue to hyperconsciousness, and that which may well augur change. It cannot hurt to have bright women, at all levels, challenged to rise to their innate talent.


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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