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New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame Awards

“Chance and Choice”

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

W Hotel Hoboken
Hoboken, New Jersey

Thursday, October 17, 2013

It is a very great honor to accept the Trustees Award from the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.

It is a particular pleasure because some of the most important and exciting parts of my career took place here in New Jersey. After three post-doctoral years at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab and the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, I had the great privilege of spending the next 15 years working on theoretical condensed matter physics at the storied Bell Labs. From 1991 to 1995, I also was a professor of physics at Rutgers University, where I had the satisfaction of teaching the next generation of discoverers, explorers and inventors.

It was in New Jersey, also, that I had my first public policy role. In 1985, Governor Thomas Kean asked me to become a founding member of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which worked to move innovations from the lab into the marketplace. I served on that Commission for ten years under three governors—and became keenly attuned to the economic value of translational pathways for promising scientific and technological ideas.

Throughout this period of my life, I was surrounded by many of the greatest scientific and engineering minds in the world, including Dr. Philip Anderson, who also is being honored tonight.

I am sorry that he could not be with us. Philip Anderson interviewed me when I was being considered for a position at Bell Labs. He blessed my being hired. I was at Bell Labs when he won the Nobel Prize.

The standard of excellence that he and other colleagues set at Bell Labs—and a competitive, yet collegial atmosphere there in which everyone, always, learned from each other—motivated me as I made my own contributions as a physicist. These included developing models for predicting the electronic and optoelectronic properties of strained layer semiconductors and other two-dimensional systems—which furthered the fundamental understanding of the types of materials used in optoelectronic devices such as the semiconductor lasers.

I mention this because Bell Labs proved over and over again that basic research is the route to technological innovation. When Dr. Peter Higgs of Higgs boson fame received the Nobel Prize in Physics last week, he said that he hoped that this recognition would lead to a greater understanding of the value of “blue-sky research.” Because the value of “blue-sky research” was a basic operating premise of Bell Labs, it became the place where the confirmation of the Big Bang Theory was made, and the birthplace of such foundational technologies as transistors and lasers.

Admittedly, the potential applications of “blue-sky” discoveries are not always immediately obvious, even to the investigators themselves. However, we cannot forget that it is in the quest for knowledge, for the sake of knowledge that new products, processes, and prosperity are generated.

Tonight, we are to a large extent honoring a particularly rich ecosystem for discovery and innovation that developed here in New Jersey, where expediting serendipity became a way of life. That ecosystem included distinguished research universities such as Princeton, Rutgers, and the Stevens Institute of Technology. It included the great Bell Labs, as well as a bounty of other corporate R&D operations, including in pharmaceuticals. And it included support for these endeavors from both the state and the federal government.

Nationwide, this same recipe—a vigorous three-way partnership among government, industry, and academia—drove much of America’s prosperity after World War II. As we strive to understand the universe and our world, and as we face the grand global challenges of today—in food, water, and energy security; in national and global security; in human health, climate impacts, and the allocation of scarce natural resources—that partnership is still essential.

Yet, there are stresses that threaten it. Many companies, finding it difficult to capture the immediate economic rewards of foundational breakthroughs, are far less focused on fundamental research than they were. Another leg of the important three-way partnership currently is threatened by federal budgetary concerns—and by underinvestment in basic research, particularly in the physical sciences. Universities, where the foundational work continues to occur, rely on government and, increasingly, corporate support, as well.

In the meantime, developing nations are launching on their own science—and engineering-based trajectories to prosperity, and investing heavily in scientific and technological education and research.

We do not want to lose our remarkable discovery and innovation ecosystem, so it is wonderful that we have the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame—to remind our leaders, in all sectors, of the central role that discovery and innovation play in our national life, and in the lives of people everywhere.

Of course, every successful discovery and innovation ecosystem requires the human capital to generate transformative ideas. The graduate students honored tonight represent the future of science and engineering in New Jersey, as do the students in the audience.

They do not face an easy path in their careers. They will encounter the vicissitudes of sometimes wavering public support and industry support. Some of them will become entrepreneurs, and will face the Herculean task of carrying their ideas across many valleys of death to success.

However, there always have been ups and downs in research in science and engineering. First of all, the problems are hard. The entire job of research, discovery, and innovation is thinking beyond what has been thought before, and given the caliber of our predecessors, that requires considerable intellectual horsepower.

Second, there is the inherent competition for grants, for prizes, for publication, for attention. However great the rivalry in order to do great things, collaboration as well is demanded. It always has been, but important questions and critical needs—at the intersection of the life sciences and engineering, of computational science and the physical sciences, and among many other fields of research—require collaboration.

There also are the personal struggles any person striving to do something new and difficult must face. There may be socio-economic challenges that have to be overcome, physical challenges, even gender challenges.

A recent New York Times Magazine story focused on the Physics Department at Yale, and documented the ways that young women studying math and physics still experience skepticism and belittlement, even from their classmates and professors. One would have assumed that we would have evolved beyond this point by now.

Yet, for all of us, our heritage—our legacy of family education, of socio-economic background, of ethnicity, of religion, of gender—is ours by chance.

Success, however, is a choice. Hard work is a choice. Tenacity is a choice. And the choices we make define our character.

When I was an undergraduate and still deciding on a major at M.I.T., a professor offered me this career advice: He said, "Colored girls should learn a trade." Of course, I was taken aback and hurt. But, I thought about my chances and my choices. Chance had made me the race I am. Chance had made me a girl. I readily embraced both. But, as for the choice of trade—I chose physics. And, I have been trading very well in that domain, and the domains springing from it, for these many years, now.

Chance is a two-faced chameleon. She/he always appears as both opportunity and obstacle. The anatomy of choice, on the other hand, is the ability to determine your fate by the selections you make. So, when I was faced with the options to give in to ignorance, or to go on to excellence, I chose the latter—I chose to persevere.

From the moment we learn to navigate the chances we inherit or encounter, our lives become the product of our choices. It is up to each of us to make the distinction.

Put another way, world-changers are people who take the hands they are dealt, and who, consistently, persistently, choose to act to better their odds. They understand very well that the selections they make determine the outcomes they will achieve.

Excellence in discovery and innovation is a choice. There is no question that the young scientists here today are far more likely to spend their careers in interdisciplinary collaborations than the scientists of my generation. Nonetheless, it is a personal standard of excellence that gives one the intellectual agility to leap over fences into other fields. Philip Anderson has been honored for being the great condensed matter theorist that he is. But he moved into the territory of particle physics in the early 1960s, and theorized about what was not yet called the Higgs mechanism, and people listened. Peter Higgs listened.

For all its inherent challenges, a life devoted to exploration and to expanding outwards the boundaries of human knowledge is an extremely satisfying life. It is an exciting life. I am sure everyone honored tonight would agree. It also must be said that scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—because of their curiosity, energy, and readiness to embrace the new—are excellent company! To be one of them and to be surrounded by them, as I have been throughout my career, is a joy.

I thank my husband and son for always being the wind beneath my wings. I thank my friends who are here; and I especially thank my colleagues from Rensselaer, who came down from Troy, NY to share this very special evening with me.

I want to end by expressing my gratitude to the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame for placing me once again in such excellent company—among the most distinguished scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs in New Jersey. They are truly world class, and I am proud to be honored with such a group.

Thank you.

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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