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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Science as the Frontier and Frontiers within Science"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Howard University Lecture Series
On Graduate Education
Washington, DC

March 6, 2001

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

I am honored and delighted to be a speaker in Howard University's Millennium Lecture Series. Today, leaders in the arts, sciences, education, humanities, and professions call Howard their home.

Howard has long provided educational experiences of excellence to both the Washington Area and to the nation. I am very proud to be here.

Dr. Swygert follows in a long line of distinguished presidents. The school has its own chapter in the history of U.S. higher education, from the early post-Civil War period to the present.

The Colleges of Medicine, Law, and Arts and Sciences date back to the University's very beginning in the late 1860s.

As a longtime resident of Washington, my connections to Howard are much more personal. I cheer when the Bisons win in any sport. I have esteemed colleagues, former students, and cherished friends among the faculty and staff. We go back a long time.

Over the years, I have given several seminars in my discipline of microbiology/molecular biology.

I've also been struck by Howard's unique relationship to the nation. It's a partnership unlike any other. It is the Capital's university and thus the nation's university.

Every citizen can proudly boast its leaders past and present. But for me, Howard is part of my home. I come here today with feelings of camaraderie and affection.

I was invited to address the topic, "New Frontiers in Science," which I am always happy to do. However, I want to begin by talking directly to those of you in science and engineering, as faculty, post docs, graduate students, or undergraduates.

I have framed my remarks around two ideas: Science as the Frontier and Frontiers within Science.

I know this was billed as a lecture, and lectures usually last an hour or at least 50 minutes. Let's break that rule. I'll promise to speak for around 30 minutes, if you promise to ask me your toughest questions. So let's begin.

The title of a recent report indicates your importance to America's future. It's called Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology.

The report provides the findings of a Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development.

It issues a clarion call, a warning. We're making some strides toward including everyone in the general workforce, although we still have a long distance to travel.

As these numbers make clear, we're more diverse, and getting more diverse.

For even bolder contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that over the next decade, the labor force growth rates of minorities will more than triple the overall growth rate.

But we're not making any progress in changing the composition of the science and engineering workforce. These professions look the same as they have for generations, mostly pale and male.

In a report hot off the press, just 3 weeks old, we hear another warning. In Road Map for National Security, we learn about how inadequacies in our research and education system imperil our national defense.

We know that the general workforce is headed in the direction of more inclusion. But the science workforce looks mighty exclusive. This is dangerous for the nation.

We need the talent of every worker in order to compete and prosper. Historically, the nation has looked to Howard for leadership. Today, I am here to talk about leadership for the new century. We are looking to you once again.

As both faculty and students in science and engineering, you serve as role models and mentors for others to join your ranks.

Science is the frontier of human progress. The imagination, ideas, knowledge, and innovation that generate our nation's progress will come from you. You will settle that frontier.

Contemporary society is increasingly rooted in science and technology. We need many more scientists and engineers to continue that momentum. And even our daily existence is ever more dependent on science and technology.

These trends mandate that our general workforce must be educated, trained, and capable to run this complex societal engine.

And, our science and engineering workforce must continue to grow too. That growth will come from expanding the pool of science and engineering talent.

That expansion must come from The Land of Plenty, our mostly untapped potential of underrepresented minorities and women - America's "competitive edge" for the 21st century.

By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects, that the terms minority and majority will be almost meaningless.

This poses a formidable challenge, but one we can meet. The general workforce already reflects more gender equality, and racial and cultural diversity than ever before.

We still have a long way to go but we are reaching out and cashing in on the talents and skills of many more of our citizens.

The science and engineering workforce does not show that same trend toward a more balanced representation. On the left, we see greater balance in the total workforce. On the right, we see the skewed balance of the S&T workforce.

Science and engineering may be the frontier of human progress, but its current explorers only skim the surface of the nation's deep pool of diverse strength.

Why is this especially troublesome now and for the future?

The pack of nations with high tech economies continues to grow. They present growing competition for U.S. products and services in the world market.

At the end of World War II, when I was growing up, exports from many of today's competitor nations were often trinkets and paper decorations. I remember little umbrellas made from ever-so-thin toothpicks and painted paper.

Now, most of us probably own a highly sophisticated electronic or automotive product from one of those nations. Our homes and offices are filled with first-rate technologies and commodities from around the world. Keep your eye on those paper umbrellas.

Although the U.S. often leads other nations in a specific field of science or technology, that lead is usually temporary. There are always nations that excel at imitation and application, rather than innovation.

Remember the Avis rental car commercials. Number 2 always tries harder. Well we know they often catch up and then surpass number 1.

The U.S. had a clear lead in information technologies a decade ago. Now competitor nations are aggressively investing in IT and diminishing our 'first-on-the-street' lead.

Another, concern:

Except for the life sciences, enrollments and degrees in U.S. science and engineering are declining. An economy rooted in science and technology cannot sustain itself without a growing cadre of scientists and engineers.

But there's yet another report just out. It's called U.S. Competitiveness 2001 and it tells the story. " ...the trend lines [are] in the opposite direction [down], even though demand for technically trained talent [is] rising."

Graduate degrees in engineering, the physical sciences, and math and computer sciences are either static or declining. Other nations are boosting degrees in all these fields.

This chart depicts the story. The ratio of science and engineering degrees to the college-age population in European and Asian countries is higher than in the United States.

If you ever had any question about the nation's need for science and engineering talent, this should provide the answer... and it's huge! In fact, I hope it will encourage you to go to local secondary schools and encourage students.

Tell those students to take more science and math courses that will qualify them for careers in science and engineering.

The National Science Foundation is committed to building a scientifically savvy workforce and a cadre of professional scientists and engineers for the 21st century.

The advancement and success of your careers are important to us. You are a significant part of the nation's competitive edge.

Further evidence:

Increasingly, new technologies are science based. We know this from the growing number of science references listed on the cover page of patent applications.

So unless we have a growing cadre of scientists and engineers and funding to support their discoveries, we will diminish our capacity to create new technologies.

These are reasons to make you understand how essential you are for the nation's prosperity.

In fact, these are reasons to spread the word to others - nephews and nieces, freshmen students on campus and high school kids in your neighborhood. Tell them that science is the bedrock of today, the frontier of tomorrow, and the future of civilization.

Encourage them to take math and sciences courses. Tell them some of the exciting things that scientists are discovering. Convey to them the passion you have for your own work.

Science is not just about prosperity. It is about mining the deep, untouched veins of knowledge that still elude us. It is about finding solutions to human problems of hunger, disease, environmental degradation, and social equality.

Although science is humanity's frontier, there are also new and burgeoning 'frontiers within science.' They are multitude and they are nothing short of amazing.

As students and faculty in science, you know them well. Let me touch on a few on my own and on NSF's high-excitement list.


A few weeks ago, scientists reported the sequencing of the entire human genome. We've come a long way from the Watson and Crick discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953.

Before that, no one knew the word biotechnology, no less envisioned the multimillion dollar industry that emerged. Similarly, we knew nothing of gene therapy, or genetic profiles for diseases.

With completion of the sequencing, we've learned some fascinating and promising things, as well as some unexpected and even odd things.

For instance, the genome is lumpy, wildly diverse with areas that are sparse as desert and others that are dense as New York City's population.

The human genome count is considerably lower in the number of genes than we expected, as you've probably heard from the media coverage. Not 100,000 but 30,000.

Human genes can make more proteins than genes of other organisms. The average human gene can make three different proteins. And human proteins are more architecturally complex than those of other organisms.

It turns out that all of us, anywhere and everywhere in the world, are 99.9 percent identical at the DNA level, and most of our genetic differences show up among all ethnicities and races.

There is no scientific basis for precise racial categories. This clearly makes ethnicities and race more social, and cultural, and even environmental.

There's even a piece of trivia about all this. The issue of Nature magazine that announced the genome results has a depiction of many, many faces - and among them are Watson and Crick.

When compared to other mammals, the genome results make us recognize, like it or not, our strong similarity to other living creatures. But it also raises important questions about what makes us unique among living things.

We now have the complete genome for the fly, the worm, a common mustard plant called Arabidopsis, and ourselves. We can literally sequence all life at its most intricate and intimate level.

In sequencing a genome, we unveil a schematic of the plant's operating mechanisms. It's on the molecular level - at the invisible scale of cellular activity.

The DNA sequence reaches into the depths of the internal functioning of a plant's systems - like how it makes seed and how it uses sunlight.

What then can we do with this new knowledge? The sequencing of the lowly mustard weed has already taught us that a great deal of the plant genome is much like the human genome. That has a way of dismissing one's arrogance.

There are all kinds of genetic gymnastics that we can perform in plants, and these will likely have application in areas like medicine and pharmaceuticals.

Less than a week ago researchers funded by the National Science Foundation announced new findings from work on this common plant that sheds light on the process of aging. It's not the 'fountain of youth,' but we're fascinated ... and hopeful.

It seems that the tips of plant chromosomes are sealed or protected by telomeres. These are like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces.

For the past decade, researchers have been looking at telomeres in humans in relation to cancer and aging.

We know that over time, the telomeres in most human cells break down or fray like a worn shoelace tip. And telomeres hold the prescription for how many times a cell can divide.

So this recent team of researchers created an Arabidopsis mutant without functional telomeres. From that work, they could discern that plants, unlike animals, can survive and endure even without the telomeres.

In essence, the plants could absorb tremendous genomic abuse and still carry on.

We hope that what we learn about cell division from plants will shed light on cell division in humans, and especially on the ability of cancer cells to divide so rapidly.

With the explosion of knowledge coming from genome work, we will also have to confront many ethical, moral, and legal questions.

The science community can be rightfully proud of expanding the genomic frontier, but all citizens will be responsible for weighing in on the ethical and moral questions. That will keep all of us even busier in our careers.


Biocomplexity is a contemporary term for the way the planet functions as an integrated and interacting unit.

It is the study of the complex interactions in biological systems, including human beings, and between those systems and their physical environments.

Much of modern science, up to now, has pursued a reductionist approach. We developed knowledge and understanding by taking things apart - separating the components.

We count them, we describe them in detail, and we scrutinize each section. There's nothing wrong with this. Hundreds of years of this careful activity have brought us the bounty of today's scientific knowledge.

It is a treasure trove built from human curiosity and intellectual persistence. As faculty and students you represent the next wave of explorers.

The new perspective of biocomplexity overarches this vast accumulated knowledge to integrate it across disciplines and scales. It builds a new understanding.

We all know the old cliche, 'for every action there's a reaction.' This is never truer than in living systems and their environment. From this point of view, we have come to recognize the impact that humans have on every aspect of planetary life.

With new insight from biocomplexity, we will be able to build a more sustainable future for all life while protecting the fragile habitat that sustains it.


Another hot term is nanotechnology. It has a sense of familiarity even for those who are not interested in science and engineering.

The colloquial term 'nanosecond' is pervasive in our vernacular speech. Even elementary school kids use it in their banter.

Here's NSF spelled out in molecules by scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois.

We know nano indicates small, but how small? Nanoscale refers to things at the molecular and atomic level; they can be either natural or man-made.

Nano means a billionth. A nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles. Light travels just over a foot in a nanosecond.

This work should be familiar to many of you because Howard is a key member of the National Nanofabrication Users Network (NNUN).

Although we have only recently been able to see things at this nano level, they have occurred in nature and in humans since the beginning of time.

It was not until 20 years ago that we could see a cluster of molecules on a surface. With IBM's invention of the tunneling/scanning microscope, a hidden world became visible.

But to see was just the first step. What measure of small is nano, and what can we do with this capability? Nanoscale is three orders of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made devices. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter.

Let's look at it another way. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Individual atoms are a few tenths of a nanometer.

To use another comparison, DNA molecules are about 2.5 nanometers wide. Biological cells, such as red blood cells, have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers.

Natural meets artificial in this nanochip created by Stanford University engineers and scientists. Nerve axons can regrow through the tiny grate in the center of the square, a silicon membrane.

The chip then modifies and distributes the impulses, simulating the electrical activity of a normal nerve synapse.

Another illustration is these micromachined needles developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The tips can pierce skin easily and without pain - a novel new method for drug delivery.

For comparison, this pair of images takes us from in vivo to in silico. On the left are the tiny structures of the eye of a fly.

On the right are the artificial structures: the same micromachined needles with sharp tips of less than a micrometer across.

Microelectromechanical systems are now approaching this scale. The prospect of what lies ahead is nothing less than thrilling. We are on the frontier of being able to connect machines to individual cells.

Nano capability means that we will be able to 'customize' products and tools atom by atom - everything from automobile tires to golf club shafts as thin as fishing line.

Of more interest to the students among you will be the nano expertise to be able to cram the recording of a thousand CDs into the space of a wristwatch.

Nano bridges multiple disciplines: physics, engineering, chemistry, materials science, and more. It will impact and influence every field and industry in the next twenty years.

Genetics, biocomplexity, and nanotechnology are just a glimpse of the excitement in science today. Every field is burgeoning. It's a spectacular time to be in science.

Science is the frontier. All nations want to explore and exploit its vast territories for knowledge, for wealth, and for the general well being of society.

In this quest, our nation will need every citizen and worker to participate. If we are going to make America's workforce the best in the world, we will need the highest contributions from everyone. But many of you, as the next generation of scientists and engineers, will be the leaders. Your professors will soon pass the torch to you to carry on work at the frontier.

Howard has always been a leader, and we are counting on that continued leadership. It has been an honor to be here today. And now I'm ready for your tough questions, and some easy ones too, I hope.



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