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Reaching Toward the Infinite

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

Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)
Denver, Colorado

Friday, September 30, 2005


As I begin, I congratulate the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) upon receiving the 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, which recognizes the SACNAS array of mentoring activities, and those which provide students with numerous opportunities to strengthen their presentation skills, to build self-confidence, and to network with scientists. With nearly 3,000 members, SACNAS has created a powerful tool which is focused on you and your futures.

This award — and more importantly, the SACNAS mission — is essential to a topic I speak of frequently — I call it the "Quiet Crisis". The "Quiet Crisis" is the real danger that our nation stands to slip in its global leadership, because we are not producing the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists upon whom our national capacity for innovation rests. There are a variety of reasons for this. But, the solution is that these critical, future professionals must come from among the groups of young people — the young women and the scholars from racial and ethnic groups — who, currently, are underrepresented in these all-important fields. Demographic shifts have determined that it is from the talent extant in this "new majority" that our future STEM professionals will come.

And, that would be you. There is much for you to do in this regard, but I am getting ahead of myself.

I have addressed several conferences, in the past year. One focused specifically on supporting minority scholars in completing their doctorates and in guiding them to academic careers as tenure-track and tenured faculty. Another focused on women of diversity in college and university leadership positions. A third was the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students — some of you may, indeed, have been there last November. It, too, much like SACNAS, is focused on inspiring, guiding, and supporting women and underrepresented groups in careers in the academy, in biomedical research, and in leadership.

Why is this important? There are several reasons — each with equal weight.

First and foremost, of course: It is your right and your privilege to pursue careers which challenge and excite you. For those of us who successfully have navigated these waters before you, it is both our privilege and our obligation to do everything we can to help you pursue those interests. That is why we are here.

Another reason is that science and technology research hold enormous promise for the relief of human suffering. And, many of the worst scourges affect minorities disproportionately.

Let us look at the incidence of AIDS, for an example. Although Hispanics make up about 14 percent of the population of the United States and Puerto Rico, they account for 18 percent of the more than 886,500 AIDS cases diagnosed since the beginning of the epidemic. By the end of 2002, nearly 88,000 Hispanics had died with AIDS.

Among people given a diagnosis of AIDS since 1994, a smaller proportion of Hispanics (61%), compared with whites (64%) and Asians/Pacific Islanders (69%), were alive after 9 years.

However, the proportion of surviving Hispanics was larger than the proportions of surviving American Indians and Alaska Natives (58%) and African-Americans.

There is another important reason to encourage you in your studies. Our current cohort of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists is aging and will retire soon.

In addition, fewer students are choosing to study these subjects, and the number of international students coming to the U.S. to study and to work has declined. This is due, in some measure, to the visa tightening policies instituted after September 11, 2001, but, more importantly, to new opportunities for the best and the brightest to study and to work in their home countries, and in other nations around the world. These are the forces which comprise the "Quiet Crisis."

We must replace this workforce, because it is essential to our national capacity for innovation. Innovation is the engine which keeps our economy strong and growing. The innovations of the last century became entire industries, employing millions, providing health and well-being, quality of life, and security.

We know that diversity is desirable and valuable, enabling, informing, and accelerating innovation, which is so essential to American competitiveness in a global economy. The experience of diversity creates skillful leaders, sparks creativity, brings differing ideas and perspectives to bear on a problem, and gives enterprises a unique ability to function with corporate partners and consumers in today's global market. This is something which increasingly is being recognized and acknowledged, especially in the corporate sector.

Demographic shifts mean that by mid-century, nearly half of the U.S. population will be from ethnic minority groups, and, of course, half will be women. So a new cohort of scientists and engineers must, of necessity, come from groups which, traditionally, have been underrepresented in the sciences.

Although women are rising in numbers in academe, both they and underrepresented minorities have yet to realize their full potential, to become the researchers, scholars, educators, role models, and mentors for future generations.

So, how will we get from here to that future?

It is embodied in the title I have given this presentation, "Reaching Toward the Infinite." It is a phrase used in reference to astronaut Dr. Franklyn Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican-American, and astronaut John Bennett Harrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Each has had brilliant careers with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I speak about them shortly.

I chose this title because you are positioned to be major players in the next, greatest technological revolution in human history. You will be there, you have the capacity to reach toward the infinite, and it is important for our future that you do so.

What will this "reach toward the infinite" bring us? The promise of science and technology is world-changing, and we fully expect that your work, in the future, will yield incredible advances in every field. Research, today, is pushing the edges of the envelope — an envelope whose edges you will define.

Let me illustrate.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, on top of the human devastation it inflicted, it knocked out about 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity. The U.S. Department of Energy says four oil refineries — Chevron's Pascagoula, Mississippi, plant, and three in Louisiana: ConocoPhillips plant in Bell Chase, Exxon Mobil's Chalmette plant, and Murphy Oil's plant in Meraux — will be out of commission for months. The disruption of key energy systems sent gasoline prices soaring into uncharted territory, and gave sharp focus to our energy future and our energy security.

In mid-September, just before Hurricane Rita came through, most Gulf of Mexico oil drilling and refining facilities shut down, preemptively.

The resulting oil and gas crunch, with concomitant soaring prices, has been a lesson for us all.

We no longer, simply, can drill our way to energy security, we must innovate our way to energy security — innovation in the discovery and extraction of fossil energy sources, innovation in energy conservation, and innovation in the development and use of alternative energy sources.

And, what will that look like? What technologies are under consideration?

I will not attempt to review the full spectrum of energy technologies currently under consideration, but I will examine a few. You, already, may be working on some of them.

For example, hydrogen has been much touted as an important future fuel. Hydrogen is the most abundant element and, in liquid form, has been used to propel NASA space shuttles and other rockets. Hydrogen fuel cells power the shuttle's electrical systems. Among the emissions, water is reprocessed for the crew to drink. Use of hydrogen as a fuel does not create greenhouse gases.

However, hydrogen does not occur naturally as a gas, but is combined with other elements. Gaseous hydrogen, to be used as a fuel, can be made by separating it from hydrocarbons by applying heat, which is usually generated by fossil fuel (or by electricity, again usually generated by fossil fuels) in a process called "reformation." Hydrogen, for use as a transportation fuel, generated by this method, is three to four times as expensive as gasoline, and the reformation process still generates greenhouse gases. Hydrogen, also, can be created by combining zinc with water in the form of steam which strips the oxygen from the H20, leaving hydrogen. The challenge for industrializing this procedure, however, lies in finding an inexpensive way of turning the resulting zinc oxide back into metallic zinc so that the material can be recycled.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, have created a solar tower laboratory in which 64 mirrors track the sun, focusing its rays into a beam with a power of up to 300 kilowatts. The beam heats a mixture of zinc oxide and charcoal. The pure carbon reacts with the oxygen in the zinc oxide, releasing the zinc, which vaporizes, and is, then, extracted and condensed into powder. The process does not produce greenhouse gases.

The powdered zinc can be used in zinc-air batteries in a form of electrochemical cells which show promise of exceeding performance targets set by the U.S. Department of Energy for battery power and energy density in electric vehicles. Free of moving parts and external tanks, the cell operates at room temperature and is simple to construct from readily available materials. The new zinc-air battery could be easily renewed at service stations and give electric vehicles the same driving range as gas-fueled vehicles, while eliminating exhaust pollution. But, whether or not the economics of this method will reduce the cost of producing hydrogen for fuel is yet to be determined.

In another example, fusion has long captured the imagination as a source of virtually unlimited energy — if it could be contained, and controlled. Efforts to create nuclear fusion, using strong magnetic fields or large lasers to contain the plasma in which the fusion occurs, so far have failed to produce more energy than they use.

One Rensselaer researcher is looking into sonofusion, a new form of nuclear fusion. In sonofusion, deuterated acetone, in which hydrogen is substituted with deuterium, is placed in a flask. The rapid contractions and expansions of a piezoelectric ceramic ring on the outside of the flask send pressure waves through the liquid. At points of low pressure, the liquid is bombarded with neutrons, creating clusters of bubbles. These bubbles greatly expand during the low-pressure conditions, and then, as the pressure begins to increase again, they implode, sending shock waves toward the center of the bubbles. This creates very high pressures and temperatures in an extremely small region of the collapsing bubbles. Careful measurements show that deuterium atoms located there have fused, releasing additional neutrons into the liquid and creating tritium.

The research team first announced successful sonofusion in 2002 in the journal Science. Their paper was met with skepticism. But, two years later, the team announced that it successfully had duplicated its results using more sensitive instrumentation. At least five other research groups, now, are trying to reproduce the results, and one recently announced independent confirmation.

Although the amount of energy being produced with sonofusion is extremely small, researchers hope that the process can be scaled, successfully. A recently formed consortium, including Boston University, UCLA, the University of Mississippi, the University of Washington, Purdue University, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Rensselaer, is exploring the potential of sonofusion.

Although more research is needed, if sonofusion reactors ever are able to produce usable quantities of power, the process might become a major energy source which operates without the radioactive waste that is produced by nuclear fission reactors, or the greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

I spoke earlier of the AIDS/HIV scourge which is affecting Latinos and Native Americans disproportionately. What kinds of progress can we expect?

One of the greatest challenges in treating HIV infection is that the HIV virus continually replicates and mutates, leading to drug resistance. Fuzeon, a groundbreaking HIV/AIDS drug which received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in March 2003, shows promise in helping patients to overcome this resistance to many of the more commonly used anti-retroviral drugs. Fuzeon interferes with the action of a protein on the surface of the HIV, which allows it to gain entry to cells which protect against viral, fungal, and protozoal infections. These cells normally orchestrate the immune response, signaling other cells in the immune system to perform their special functions. They are also the virusís preferred target because they have a docking molecule called "cluster designation 4" (CD4) on their surfaces. Destruction of CD4+ lymphocytes is the major cause of the immunodeficiency observed in AIDS, and decreasing CD4+ lymphocyte levels appear to be the best indicator for developing opportunistic infections. Fuzeon inhibits the ability of the HIV virus to fuse to immune system host cells, inhibiting viral replication, and helping to restore the patientís natural defenses.

Fuzeon was the first HIV/AIDS drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in seven years. It was developed by a team at Trimeris, a biotechnology company, which developed the drug in partnership with Roche Pharmaceuticals — a team which included several alumni of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

But, HIV/AIDS patients, and their advocates, point out that Fuzeon costs between $30,000 and $40,000 per patient per year, putting it out of reach of HIV/AIDS patients without health care coverage.

In another example, pharmaceutical researchers are looking throughout the world for naturally occurring organisms and systems which they hope will lead them to new frontiers of drug development. For instance, in areas of high biodiversity, organisms which cannot flee their predators — plants or coral, for instance — are evolutionarily predisposed to develop high toxicity. Biologists are learning that such substances may lead to the development of drugs useful in treating human disease.

Testing the harvested material, or "pond scum" — called "cyanobacteria" — requires equipment which relies on radioactivity — equipment which, often, is difficult and expensive to import to developing countries.

Eduardo Ortega, a parasitologist at Panama's Institute for Advanced Scientific Investigations developed a new testing method which tags a parasite's DNA with fluorescent stain. Then, the parasite is incubated with cyanobacteria. If the cyanobacteria under study have no effect, the fluorescence will increase as the parasite reproduces. If the fluorescence does not increase, researchers know that they have found bacteria with potential for development as a pharmaceutical.

This method is being used to "prospect" for organisms which have activity against malaria, dengue fever, and Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by the bite of the sandfly. These vector-borne infectious diseases are emerging, or resurging, in developing nations, as a result of genetic changes in pathogens, insecticide and drug resistance, and shifts in public health policy from prevention to emergency response.

In a different kind of example, researchers at Harvard University, now, are able to perform nanosurgery on an internal part of a single cell, without disturbing the rest of the cell. Nanoscale lasers, using pulses measured in femtoseconds (a thousandth of a trillionth of a second), are directed through an epifluorescent microscope. Focused on a tiny point within a cell — the mitochondria, for example — the high-intensity beam can remove a cell portion with such precision that other parts of the cell, just one-millionth of an inch away, remain unaffected.

This research team has used the technique on the skin cells of mice, which bear a strong resemblance to human cells, and has been able to cut the connecting fibers between two nerve cells in worms which enable their sense of smell.

Our greatest limit is the current level of knowledge about how the body works. Employing this technique may help us learn more about the complicated network of functioning parts and fibers which make up the internal workings of cells. By isolating physical structures of cells — and, changes to them — we may come to understand their role in ailments such as heart disease or diabetes.

A year ago my own university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, opened a new research facility which ranks among the world's most advanced. It is focused on the application of engineering and the physical and information sciences to the life sciences. The core research facilities contain laboratories for molecular biology, analytical biochemistry, microbiology, imaging, histology, tissue and cell culture, proteomics, and scientific computing and visualization. Rensselaer research teams, which include graduate and undergraduate students, are engaged in interdisciplinary research across broad fronts.

Recent advances in chemistry and screening techniques make it possible to identify large numbers of promising compounds, known as derivative libraries. Yet, subsequent testing to evaluate each compound is expensive and slow. The current process for developing a single new therapeutic drug can take many years and cost as much as $1.7 billion. The resulting bottleneck in drug development has attracted considerable attention among researchers advancing more efficient, affordable processes. For example, Dr. Jonathan Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann '42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer, leads a research team developing tools to synthesize and screen promising compounds rapidly, to identify those most suitable for development as potential new drugs. Dr. Dordick and his research team use novel techniques that will, if successful, generate completely new compounds, accessing a whole new range of molecules, and expanding molecular libraries.

Dr. George Plopper, assistant professor of biology at Rensselaer, has been researching "bone spackle," an engineered tissue which, one day, may be used to help bone injuries heal faster and stronger.

Dr. Plopper, and his graduate students, have been working with adult human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC), which have the specialized potential to become one of three forms of connective tissue — bone, cartilage, or fat. Adult stem cells are extracted from banked bone marrow samples and then grown in the laboratory.

They are researching when stem cells begin the transformation to bone, as opposed to turning into cartilage or fat. Someday, these engineered bone cells could be directly injected into the site of a bone injury. Or, in the form of a paste, the cells could serve as a bone "spackle," spread onto the ends of fractured bones, or used to fill in a crack. Similar to a skin graft, applying this veritable jumpstart of bone cells would mean that healing time should decrease significantly, or could strengthen the attachment of hip or knee replacements, and may even be able to repair the painful degradation of bone ends which occurs in severe arthritis.

These examples show that the life sciences and information technology (IT), coupled with the convergence of microsystems and nanotechnologies, are closely aligned with global and societal priorities, are important for human health and welfare, and, are primary drivers of economic growth. These fields will dominate the future.

And, you are part of that future. Indeed, you are that future.

Pushing new knowledge in these and other fields will transform how we think of our selves, what language we use, what we think our capabilities are, and will revise our sense of what is possible and what is impossible. The impact on our society, on the world, and on how its people interact with each other will be huge. You are positioned to be a part of this change, this challenge, this societal dialogue.

This is not unlike the technological revolutions of the past. The advent of a light weight internal combustion engine enabled transportation by automobile and aircraft, and ultimately led to space flight — completely transforming how we live, where we live, how we think about the world — not to mention how swiftly disease is able to cross national boundaries. Those technologies transformed our concept of ìthe standard of impossibility."

The Internet and telecommunications technologies have transformed our lives, in our lifetimes, changing how people communicate, and even how parents and children relate to each other.

This is why I said earlier that you are part of a tremendous technological revolution.

But, as recent as this, it is old news.

You are sitting on top of the new news. Discoveries in all fields of science and technology push back the "frontiers of impossibility" causing us to rethink what it means to be human; to examine how we relate to the natural world — indeed, the very nature of nature, if you will.

As scholars in these disciplines, you will be making not only the discoveries of the future, but changing the world and shaping the cultural dialogue, as well.

When one strives to achieve, it is always helpful to know that achievement is within reach — that it can be done. We all need role models. When I was younger, Dr. Ernest Everett Just, one of the most highly respected scientists of his time, was a great inspiration to me. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1907, earning a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago in 1916. He taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. from 1909 until his death in 1941. His summers of research studying the fertilization of the marine mammal cell at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, received international acclaim. He wrote one of the most important text books of the 20th century, Biology of the Cell Surface, published in 1939. Dr. Just's life, work, and example became a banner for me to follow.

You will have your own heroes whose banner will lead you. Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz may be one. Or, astronaut and naval test pilot John. Bennett Herrington.

Dr. Chang-Diaz built rocket ships out of cardboard boxes when he was a child and watched the sky for hours, after the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. He "reached toward the infinite".

That signal event planted the seed of adventure and discovery in Franklin R. Chang-Diaz and set him on a path to a brilliant academic career. Moving with his family to Hartford, Connecticut, he received a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut in 1973, and a doctorate in applied plasma physics and fusion technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in 1977. [. . . which happens to be my own alma mater.]

Dr. Chang-Diaz became an astronaut in 1981, the first Hispanic astronaut in the United States, and spoke Spanish from space on his first mission in 1986. In the intervening years, he flew six more missions — the last one in 2002 — logging more than 1,600 hours in space.

For the last 12 years, Dr. Chang-Diaz, also, has been the Director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. Dr. Chang-Diaz has researched plasma rockets since 1979. The plasma rocket engines would propel the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetic Resonance (VASIMR) propulsion system which is expected to reduce the required space travel time. It is assumed that today's chemical-based rockets would make one-way travel time to Mars take about 10 months. With VASIMR, it would reduce travel time to just four months.

The engine uses hydrogen fuel and ion cyclotron resonance heating to create ionized plasma — basically a controlled hydrogen explosion caused by plasma in a chamber — which is forced into a nozzle directed by magnetic fields. The three-stage plasma rocket engine can achieve variable specific impulse and thrust at maximum power and can be used to achieve continuous acceleration.

Astronaut and U.S. Navy Commander John Bennett Herrington, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, was the first Native American in space.

Born in Wetumka, Oklahoma, Cmdr. Harrington grew up in Texas. After an unsuccessful attempt at college, he joined a survey team in the Colorado mountains, where he discovered an aptitude for mathematics and for solving real-life problems. He returned to college at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and received a degree in 1983 in applied mathematics.

Drawn by the skies, he, then, joined the U.S. Navy, receiving his commission from Aviation Officer Candidate School. He has logged more than 4,000 flight hours in more than 30 different types of aircraft. He holds a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and in 1996, NASA selected him as an astronaut. Cmdr. Herrington flew as a Mission Specialist aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour in November 2002, delivered the Expedition Six crew to the space station, and returned the Expedition Five crew, which had been in orbit for five months.

During the mission, Cmdr. Herrington exhibited spectacular skill on a space walk with astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, a native of Spain — assembling and repairing the International Space Station. They installed a 45-foot 14-ton girder called Port 1. The structure's 300 feet carries power, data, and temperature controls for the station's electronic command post.

During the spacewalk, Cmdr. Herrington honored his heritage by carrying eagle feathers, sweet grass, arrowheads, and the Chickasaw nation's flag.

Cmdr. Herrington left NASA this month for Rocketplane Limited Inc. of Oklahoma City, where he will serve as Vice President, Director of Flight Systems, and Chief Test Pilot for the XP Spaceplane. Rocketplane designs and builds state-of-the-art, reusable spaceplanes to train civilian astronauts, and for spaceflights with innovative scientific experiments and payloads to sub-orbital space and beyond.

It is easy to see why Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz and Cmdr. John Bennett Herrington are known for "reaching toward the infinite." For both of these role models, the sky, literally, is the limit.

Now, it is your turn. Now, it is your turn to take your talent, and the trust and investment which has been placed in you and in your future, and turn it toward the infinite.

When one reaches toward the infinite, everything is possible.


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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