"Prepared to Be Lucky"
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
University of Missouri-Rolla
December 21, 2002
Greetings to everyone. My very first order of business is--Congratulations to all of you! I'm honored to be with you today, and my gratitude to Chancellor Thomas for this invitation to address you.
I know that your families and friends here today, your mentors and parents, your faculty colleagues, all feel tremendous pride in you. As they shared in your educational journey, so they now share your joy.
The University of Missouri-Rolla, soon to be your alma mater, is sometimes described geographically as "being in the middle of everywhere." From such a vantage point at the center of our nation, one can see in many directions and enjoy the freedom to choose among many paths.
One of Missouri's favorite sons, Harry Truman, embodied that pragmatic perspective. To paraphrase Truman on giving advice, he suggested that first you find out what the graduates want. Then, he said, advise them to do it!
Each of you has already begun to "do what you want"--to set your own course by the degree path you have chosen. But your education here at UMR has also prepared you for the challenging, dynamic course of our nation's future.
You have been prepared to respond intelligently even for what is yet unimagined.
I am an engineer educated in one era, but during my career, I have had to comprehend and work in an entirely new era in my profession.
In this fast-paced world, social and technological change will also challenge you at every turn. You will shape it and it will shape you. My advice and experience is to embrace the challenge.
When we face challenges in our careers, luck may seem to play an inordinate role in successfully resolving them.
As philosopher Michael Pritchard of Western Michigan University points out, "Stories of heroism in science and engineering often seem to involve elements of luck."
On the other hand, not all luck is equal. The outcome really depends on what the hero is prepared to do. "In the end," says Pritchard, "...basic values, commitments, perceptions, imagination, knowledge, skills, persistence and perhaps even courage are crucial factors." He calls the sum of these qualities "being prepared to be lucky."
As graduates of UMR you have excellent preparation for facing unexpected challenges and turning them into opportunities. Thus, luck can be your colleague.
To insure this colleagueship, you have received a cutting-edge education, from a school committed to personal attention for every student, to hands-on learning, and to the latest tools for learning.
Your education has prepared you to solve societal and technical problems in concert--not in isolation. You are also prepared to adapt to a fast-paced future through life-long learning.
Significantly, a UMR education happens on a campus with a diverse set of disciplines. These dimensions, and their interrelationship, are ever more critical to engendering the good judgment that professionals need.
With such judgment we can jointly create solutions appropriate to the societal environment, while simultaneously being good stewards of our natural environment.
It is imperative for all professions to embrace the humanities and social sciences, so that we can exercise the leadership to ensure that technologies are used benevolently and not malevolently.
The history of this university exemplifies both preparation for success and a vision of societal engagement.
It is significant that your university was founded in 1870 as part of an extraordinary national vision for land grant schools: to harness education and research for the common good.
It is so important to keep focused on being part of the commonweal while you capitalize on your skills and talents, and as you build a good life for yourselves and your families. This integration is the essence of a successful democratic society.
As you all know, UMR was created as the Missouri School of Mines, responding to societal needs of that time, during the revving up of the Industrial Revolution.
Today we face another sort of revolution--in fact, multiple revolutions--and universities such as UMR understand the need to educate graduates to see and comprehend the world in its wholeness, its connectedness.
Today it is linkages that spark and energize our collective wisdom. Tools such as the Internet--fast becoming the connective tissue of science, engineering, education, the humanities and daily life--offer the potential to bring the wisdom of the world to everyone.
The history of engineering--in which your university has deep roots-- has been social as much as technical. The integration of knowledge is the very hallmark of the engineering profession.
Engineering can offer the versatility and flexibility needed in a dynamic and uncertain world. However, it is not enough to practice it well in isolation. We need the courage and understanding to bridge boundaries. Nature, in its great complexity, knows no disciplinary boundaries. To understand and embrace nature, we need to probe its interrelationships.
Our country has done a superb job so far at training individuals in specialized fields--in fact, we are world-class at pursuing this human-made construct. Now, we must also cultivate each student's ability to make the connections that reveal deeper truths.
Rob Stone of UMR--with a grant from the National Science Foundation--is exploring with his colleagues how to create an effort here called interdisciplinary engineering.
NSF's grant program seeks to invest in an integrative undergraduate engineering education, to make engineering attractive to students, to synergize curricula with modern engineering practice, and thus prepare students to handle the unexpected in their careers.
With this investment, NSF's engineering directorate seeks to stimulate imaginations and create foment in engineering departments across the country. This investment matches NSF's attempt to enable a bit of "intellectual disruption" at the frontier of science and engineering.
Here at UMR, for example, Rob Stone's project focuses on systems modeling and engineering design. Students will be able to assemble courses to support work at disciplinary boundaries, such as nanosystems, mechatronics or bioengineering. Here is a mechanism to encourage academic integration to flourish.
As Stone says, "Beyond disciplinary expertise, our graduates will be expert in knowing how to approach a problem strategically--and in finding resources to solve that problem.
"Our graduates will hit the ground running in today's interdisciplinary team settings."
We at NSF are excited about this approach to preparing students to be successful at resolving open-ended engineering challenges, which--after all--is a great aim of engineering practice.
As national policy, advice from the science and engineering community has identified several integrative frontier areas for investment to help the nation "hit the ground running"--contemporary areas of great challenge, and potentially potent outcome, that enable and cross all disciplines, and hold special promise for our future.
Collectively they impel us forward and establish new tools to power our economy and way of life.
At the interfaces of disciplines, they draw together researchers and implementers with diverse imaginations. These new areas and perspectives--encompassing the very fast to the very small, to the very smart, to the very connected, and to the socially-very-dynamic--will do much to define your world, in both professional and personal terms.
- One such area, the confluence of high-speed computers and communications--known as information technology--has already transformed the way science and engineering are done.
We imagine distributed tools--complex, sometimes one-of-a-kind facilities--shared and accessible from anywhere and at any time, thanks to robust computer-communications networks. This is becoming the reality of your workplace.
- Another area, nanotechnology, the realm of the very small, promises to revolutionize our lives in so many aspects.
We envision such benefits as computer chips faster by an order-of-magnitude, materials and fabrics that are more resilient, "silver-bullet" individualized pharmaceuticals, and automobile paint-coatings that don't require washing--to name just a few. Imagine what those don't-need-to-wash paints could do for water conservation.
- Biocomplexity, a third theme, traces the connections among life and the environment, integrating insights at every scale that aim at sustaining our planet.
For your generation, dilemmas such as environmental pollution or climate change may yield only to engineered solutions, yet they require insight from the humanities and social sciences as well.
- Enhanced cognition, a fourth area, focuses on our own species--seeking to discover more about how we think and learn, garnering startling new insights about our brain, enabling new approaches to both pedagogy at every level and smarter engineered systems.
- Now we are adding a new focus at NSF--the social sciences. Human and Social Dynamics, a fifth area, focuses on the realization that uncertainty and change are inescapable facts of life, and that engineering coupled with the social sciences and humanities bring great insights to bear.
Approaches that draw upon the knowledge of many disciplines, that link the social sciences and humanities to chemistry, physics, biology, engineering and so on, can reap insights from many scales. These complex insights can help us to anticipate the human and social dynamics that reverberate from these changes.
As the budding leadership for our nation, you will pursue these frontiers in a holistic way, not just to make a world that is more technologically capable, but a world more benevolent because of your efforts. Realizing new visions, you will lead us to a more gratifying existence.
In a world permeated by science and technology, engineers and humanists are facing challenges quite different and far more complex than those faced by the original graduates of the Missouri School of Mines.
With your preparation here at UMR, you will be-as the philosopher says--"prepared for luck"--prepared to enhance our nation's ability to learn and create in an uncertain but certainly exciting world.
Wisdom lies in knowing what to prepare for, but equally in preparing for the unknowable. Over time, and with your degrees firmly in hand, you will garner the wisdom not only to do things right but more importantly, to do the right thing.