"Science as the Frontier and Frontiers within
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Howard University Lecture Series
On Graduate Education
March 6, 2001
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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
Tell those students to take more science and math courses
that will qualify them for careers in science and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.