Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
(Research Internships in Science and Engineering)
University of Maryland - College Park
July 26, 2002
Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Farvardin for that
kind introduction. I am delighted to deliver today's
It's always great to be back home at the University
of Maryland, where I spent many years of my academic
career. You know, I am really on "loan" to NSF - academe
is my true home.
Let me begin by congratulating all of the RISE scholars
for being accepted into the program. You are truly
a special group of students. You've competed against
exceptionally talented individuals from all across
the nation, which is no easy task.
And the fact that you're here says a lot about you
as students and as future leaders. NSF is committed
to support the RISE program, and we are delighted
to be able to help you.
RISE is one of the many NSF programs to attract talented
people into the science and engineering workforce.
It is an embracing and welcoming program to enhance
America's domestic S&E workforce, which is why all
American students are encouraged to apply. This year
we had both male and female students apply, and of
course, only the best were selected.
The RISE internship is an invaluable opportunity to
prepare yourself to be one of the next generation
of scientists and engineers. RISE offers you the chance
to participate in the research process and contribute
to exciting discoveries.
And I assure you, as one who has been able to spend
her career doing incredibly exciting research, there's
more excitement in store for you should you decide
to make science or engineering your profession.
None of us ever knows how far, or how high we can soar.
Trusting yourselves and your instincts to apply for
this internship was just the first step, but it's
the most important one to reaching greater heights.
And I encourage you to take the next steps to pursue
graduate school and a Ph.D. There are wonderful careers
and opportunities waiting for you, as well as chances
to mentor and inspire the many others who will follow
I often speak about the achievements of early women
scientists and their hard fought journey to successful
The history of underrepresented groups in science is
filled with stories of triumph over adversity. And
it is important to recognize those early pioneers,
as well as current trailblazers; because knowing the
past helps to change the future.
There have been many courageous and unabashedly persistent
women and minorities who have worked to build a foundation
for current and future discoveries in science and
engineering. Many held the torch of leadership in
Some of the earlier pioneers include Mariah Mitchell,
the most important woman scientist in America in the
19th century. The first woman astronomer
in America, Mitchell calculated the position of a
new comet in 1847.
Mitchell was also the first woman professor of Astronomy
at Vassar College. She often promoted women astronomers
who studied with her at Vassar and was an advocate
for increasing women's salaries.
Of course, more than 150 years later, there's still
a distance to go on that score and on many other fronts.
There were also contributions from women like Alice
Evans, who studied the bacterial contamination of
milk, and identified the organism that causes undulant
fever in humans.
Evans persisted, despite the ridicule of the male leaders
at the time, who refused to believe that milk could
be the carrier of Brucellosis (undulant fever).
We all should be aware that Evans was a scientific
revolutionary, whose work led to the elimination of
undulant fever through the mandatory pasteurization
of milk in this country (starting in the 1930s).
Not to be forgotten are the six women who were chosen
during World War II to program the first large electronic
computer - ENIAC (the Electronic Numerical Integrator
The job title of the women at that time was actually
"computer." (The old usage of the term "computer"
referred to the people - usually women -
who did the mathematical calculations. The term was
appropriate because women were considered the means,
the technicians who did the work and all too often
the thinking as well.)
Unfortunately, these women were considered sub-professionals
because of their gender, no matter how immense their
intellectual and scholarly contribution.
Another terrific American is Clarence "Skip" Ellis,
who in 1969 was the first African American to receive
a Ph.D. in Computer Science (University of Illinois).
At 15, Skip supported his mother and four siblings
by working the graveyard shift so he could go to school
during the day. Although he was not allowed to touch
the company's computer, he spent his free time reading
the computer manuals and became a self-taught computer
He won a college scholarship and was shocked to find
he was the only African-American attending Beloit
College! Life was tough: he was lonely and his classes
were difficult because he was ill-prepared.
Skip studied constantly, aided by extra help from teachers
and the constant encouragement of his family to "be
your own person and follow your talents."
And this he did, receiving his BS degree as a double
major in math and Physics, then his PhD in Computer
Science, where he worked on the Illiac 4 Supercomputer.
His intelligence, persistence, and the changing times
aided him in his successful career developing hardware
and software at companies like IBM and Bell Labs,
and now as a Professor of Computer Science at the
University of Colorado at Boulder.
It helps to learn about those who preceded us. The
stories of those who succeeded, despite the barriers,
serve as both a motivator to others of what is possible
and as a reminder to all of us of the distance still
left to travel for underrepresented groups. Sometimes
it takes seeing, hearing, and knowing what others
have achieved to envision it for oneself.
While I don't consider myself a pioneer, my career
has been helped by all of these role models. And hurdling
over barriers is something to which I, too, certainly
For example, when I went to high school, girls simply
were not allowed to take physics. More to the point,
my high school chemistry teacher told me I would never
make it in chemistry - because women could not.
That angered me, but also galvanized me. I had begun
to see science as a way to understand the world and
as a way to make my way in the world.
At Purdue University, many of my counterparts were
majoring in home economics, learning how to make soufflés
while I was learning how to balance equations.
We all need helping hands to aid our careers. I was
fortunate when in my senior year at Purdue, I found
the encouragement of a good mentor - Professor Dorothy
Powelson. It was rare in those days, back in the fifties,
to have a woman professor. (It was also the year that
I discovered bacteriology - the term microbiology
hadn't surfaced yet.)
Dr. Powelson opened the door, or should I say lens,
and I became entranced by the microscopic world. That
enthusiasm was an asset when encountering various
roadblocks along the way.
For example, for my master's degree research, I counted
186,000 fruitflies to study cross-overs in the linkage
map of Drosophila, the fruitfly. Fifty years later,
now we have the entire genome of Drosophila sequenced!
I wish I knew then what we know now - it would have
made my graduate research a piece of cake.
Later, I did my doctorate in oceanography and for most
of my professional life, I have combined these fields
into interdisciplinary research on cholera. I would
never have imagined that my cholera research would
help women in Bangladesh to survive by using their
Sari cloth to filter drinking water.
There are now many more women professors in biology.
Yet, girls and women still have a long way to go to
achieve equity in all phases of scientific and engineering
education and careers. Engineering and chemistry departments
still lack sufficient women and minority faculty members
and role models.
One thing is certain, we can attribute the progress
we all have made thus far to the trails that were
blazed by those pioneering scientists and engineers.
(And we are still breaking new ground, moving into
leadership positions in the professions.)
It's also important to realize that just as the early
pioneers, and I, have endured obstacles, so too will
you. And I speak from experience when I say that for
some of you, the road to success will not always be
While times have surely changed, some things simply
have not. The climate for women and minorities in
science, for instance, is still chilly. And we continue
to combat the notion that science is a man's job.
(One would tend to believe it by looking at the stats.)
Women comprise less than a quarter of the total science
and engineering labor force, but 48.6% of the college-degreed
workforce. Here are some other statistics that further
support the national need to recruit more underrepresented
groups into the S&E workforce.
Underrepresented minorities constituted only 7% of
the S&E workforce in 1999, but 24% of the U.S. population.
Overall, women earn over 40% of doctorates in the life
sciences. But in the physical sciences and mathematics,
women earn fewer than 20%. In engineering, they receive
a little over 10% of PhDs.
And having mentioned salaries a moment earlier, in
the 21st century women are still coming
up short. In 1999, the median annual salary for women
scientists (and engineers) was $50,000, about 22%
less than the median salary for men ($64,000).
This does not bode well for a society that is knowledge
driven and deeply rooted in science and technology.
The lack of women and minorities in science and engineering
is especially critical when we consider that the demand
for people with S&E training in the U.S. outnumbers
Degrees in engineering, physical sciences, math, and
computer sciences are either static or declining in
the U.S., while other nations are boosting degrees
in all these fields.
And the increases in graduate enrollments in science
and engineering that have occurred in the U.S. for
the first time in a decade, indicate that the growth
is almost entirely the result of higher numbers of
foreign students. Since 1998, the number of "doctoral
degrees" awarded in science and engineering has actually
dropped 5 percent.
As the nation continues to grow primarily from a science
and technology base, our science and engineering workforce
must keep up with this fundamental realignment.
One way to address this problem is by broadening the
participation of women and minorities in the science
and engineering disciplines. Each of you is part of
With women and minorities still less likely than men
to choose careers in science or engineering, we know
that there is more work ahead to attract more into
The good news is that the academic employment of women
with S&E doctorates has risen steeply over the past
quarter century, reflecting steady increases in the
proportion of women as holders of newly awarded S&E
Still, we need to keep up the dialogue about the future
of science in America and the role we all play in
shaping that future. There is much that you can contribute
to science, the nation, and our culture. If history
is any indicator, society has already learned tremendously
from women and minority scientists. they just haven't
gotten the credit. We need to change that.
NSF is working on changing it as well. NSF is committed
to building a scientifically savvy workforce, as well
as a cadre of professional scientists and engineers.
We know that in order to do that, we need the talent
and skills of many more of our citizens.
That's why we've been focusing on diversifying the
science and engineering workforce in our own way for
quite some time. We also know that it's the right
thing to do.
There are other NSF Programs for Gender Equity that
are geared towards broadening the participation of
NSF funds gender equity research across the country,
planting seeds in the form of pilot programs. One
example, in Carson City School district in Nevada,
focused on 10 Hispanic girls who barely knew English.
Within a year, they had learned English using a computerized
tutor; learned to use computers; could make presentations
about a Geographic Information System; and were being
sought out by employers. Nevada's Department of Education
has picked up the funding of the program.
There's also the Louis Stokes for Minorities program
- an alliance program that targets the under-representation
of minorities in science and engineering.
Now over a decade old, the program links two and four-year
educational institutions with business, industry,
and government and has produced well over 170,000
minority baccalaureate graduates.
On the other end of the NSF spectrum is our ADVANCE
program, to spark system-wide changes that will foster
a more positive climate for women to pursue and remain
in academic careers.
We live in exciting times for science and our society.
Science is woven into every aspect of our lives -
from health to the economy.
Developments in fundamental science (chemistry, computational
biology, mathematics) have enabled us to sequence
the human genome, which opens up a new world of biomedical
research and promises new diagnostics, prevention,
We expect everyone to play a prominent role in all
of these new developments, as well as to be major
players in the emerging area of nanotechnology.
Nanoscale science and engineering promises revolutionary
breakthroughs in materials and manufacturing, medicine
and healthcare, environment and energy, biotechnology
and agriculture, computation and information technology,
and national security.
Scientific advancements have also led to a robust American
economy and help maintain the U.S. position as the
world's leader in science and technology.
To continue the economic momentum and the groundbreaking
discoveries in science, we need the talents of all
our citizens - that includes women and underrepresented
My vision for the future of science is for there to
be a broader participation from a diverse group of
Americans, and for us to continue along the path set
by the early pioneers, by blazing new trails.
My vision is to see all members of the science and
engineering workforce on an equal playing field, with
equivalent salaries for equivalent jobs, and all recognized
for their achievements. RISE is one step towards realizing
I know there are many exciting things to do in the
world, and that not all of you will choose a science
and engineering career. But if my career is any example
of what can be, I would say it's not just exciting
and invigorating, but it's fundamentally meeting the
I encourage you to consider a life in the frontiers
of the unimagined and help to make them happen.