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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"From Glass Ceiling to Crystal Ball: A Vision of Women in Science"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Cambridge, Massachusetts

April 9, 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.

[title slide]
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Thank you, Paula, for your introduction. I would also like to thank Laura Roskos and Phyllis Strimling for inviting me to join you at Radcliffe this evening.

It is a pleasure to be part of your lecture series, and I am especially grateful to everyone for graciously accommodating the changes in my schedule.

My talk tonight is called "From Glass Ceiling to Crystal Ball: A Vision of Women in Science."

However, before launching into my main theme today, I would like to tell you just a little bit about what happened earlier today at the National Science Foundation.

We presented the NSF budget proposal for the coming year.

As you know, agencies across the government are facing constraints this year, but I will not spend time on the details here, except to say that NSF has been chosen to take the lead in math and science education.

A centerpiece of the FY2002 budget request is an initial $200 million of $1 billion over five years for a new Math and Science Partnerships Initiative, part of President Bush's education plan.

The initiative is focused on links between higher education and K-12 education. This is an area that needs a great deal of effort--the integration of research and education. The new partnerships will bring us closer to that goal.

It's a pleasure to be here tonight, on what is also familiar turf. For me, Cambridge is pretty close to home. I grew up in Massachusetts, in Beverly, a stone's throw from the ocean.

My mother still lives in the family home just a block down the road from this lighthouse in Beverly Cove.

I have very fond memories of sailing in regattas in Marblehead, and my husband and I have raced in the Nationals for our two-man dinghy class in Marblehead several times.

Not all memories of the past are as warm, yet some of them do bear upon our topic tonight, which is my reflections on women in science and engineering.

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 souffles while I was learning how to balance equations.

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.

She opened the door, and I became entranced by the microscopic world. That enthusiasm was an asset when encountering various roadblocks along the way.

For my masters degree, for example, I counted 186,000 fruitflies, studying crossing-over in the linkage map of Drosophila, the fruitfly. Now we have the entire genome of Drosophila sequenced!

Today, no one would ever say outright that they would not "waste" a fellowship on a woman--like I was told in the 1950s. Yet girls and women still have a long way to go to achieve equity in all phases of scientific and engineering education and careers.

The problems are highly complex and not all solutions are clear. That is why I prefer to discard the metaphor of the "glass ceiling" as too fragile to bear the weight of what we need to learn and change.

Instead I will offer the crystal ball as a symbol of being able to see our way through and beyond established strictures that keep girls even today from taking flight though the discovery of science and engineering.

This new metaphor presents us with clearer vision and a multitude of futures.

[bullet slide]
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Knowing the past often helps when we want to change our future. Women have a long and distinguished history in science although we still do not learn much about past pioneers.

It is eye-opening to bring to light even a few of these poorly known stories. Some of these women's lives actually border on the tragic. Then we'll look at where women stand today in mathematics, science and engineering, from elementary school up through the labor force.

Mathematics as a gateway to science and engineering deserves special mention. Then I'll cite a few examples of programs by the National Science Foundation to attract girls and women into these fields.

Finally, I will explore some trends that are transforming science and engineering, and suggest how women may be shaping some of these changes.

Some of you have probably read or heard of the scientific bestseller, Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel. NSF's National Science Board has given its public service award to Sobel this year for her book.

As we read Maria Celeste's letters to her father, the eminent Galileo, the dynamic personality of his daughter is revealed. She copies his manuscripts for him and takes avid interest in his scientific inquiries.

We can speculate how Maria Celeste--with all her intelligence, energy, and perseverance--might have succeeded in science herself in a later era that would not have consigned her to the life of a cloistered nun.

[Alice Evans in her lab]
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Jumping several centuries to our own, we find women who accomplished much in science, but whose stories are seldom told.

One is Alice Catherine Evans, who studied the bacterial contamination of milk, and identified the organism that causes undulant fever in humans.

At a time when bacteriology was in its infancy, she challenged the wisdom of her scientific peers, triggering enormous controversy in the medical and dairy communities.

Unfortunately, Evans' work extracted a heavy personal toll. She contracted undulant fever while doing her research and suffered its effects for two decades.

Her pioneering work led to the near-elimination of undulant fever through the mandatory pasteurization of milk in this country, starting in the 1930s.

Another example is Rosalind Franklin. History now inextricably links the names Watson and Crick with the revelation of the structure of DNA. How few have heard of Rosalind Franklin.

Her x-ray studies revealed critical evidence of DNA's helical structure, but she never received the full credit she deserved. Her early death prevented her work from ever being considered by the Nobel committee.

That work, which was "purloined" by Jim Watson--to use his own words--helped him to win his Nobel Prize.

Another woman who did receive the Nobel Prize--Barbara McClintock--nonetheless suffered from scientific isolation during her career. McClintock won the Nobel for her discovery of "mobile genetic elements."

Through her studies of corn, beginning in the late 1940s, she proposed the existence of transposons--genes that can change position, carrying other genetic material along. McClintock's discoveries had huge significance for biology and medicine.

On a personal note, I can recall a college professor of mine muttering that he was forced to teach us McClintock's findings on "jumping genes," but that he did not believe the theories of this "crazy woman."

Other forgotten females in science and engineering were the six women chosen to program the ENIAC--the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer--during World War II. ENIAC was the first large electronic computer.

The job title of the women was actually "computer." (The old usage of the term "computer" referred to the people--usually women--who did mathematical calculations.) However, they were considered sub-professionals because of their gender.

One of the women, Jean Bartik, worked on the ENIAC at the age of twenty. Looking back, she recalls,

"We lived and breathed computers. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I had never been around so many brilliant people in my life...We had no manuals for ENIAC. We learned how to program by studying the logical block diagrams. What a blessing. From the beginning I knew how computers worked."

[science proficiency of boys and girls]
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It helps to learn about those few who preceded us. Others with stories worth remembering include astronomers Jocelyn Bell and Henrietta Leavitt, and physicist Lise Meitner.

Even today, however, far too many girls and women fail to even cross the threshold into science and engineering. We know that obstacles and stereotyped cultural conditioning begin to appear very early in life.

In a study of young children reported in the recent book Athena Unbound, a four-year-old boy told researchers that "...only boys should make science."

Part of the problem today lies in what I call the "valley of death" in education: grades 4 through 8, when girls are discouraged--in subtle and not so subtle ways--from pursuing science and engineering.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a gender gap in science proficiency as early as age 9. We can trace this through ages 13 and to age 17, when the gap has widened further.

There has been little change in this trend over two decades. In a moment I'll describe a few of NSF's gender equity programs for those ages.

No doubt many of you have heard the term "leaky pipeline." It's an apt phrase for the loss of women in science and engineering throughout higher education, and continuing in academia, through the route to full professor.

[percent of bachelor's degrees earned by women, 1975-97]
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It is interesting that between ages 25 and 34, the typical American female is more educated than her male counterpart. Women now earn more than half of all college degrees, and over half of those in the life sciences. Well over 40% of math and chemistry bachelor's degrees also go to females.

But some developments are deeply disturbing. For example, the percentage of women receiving bachelor's degrees in computer science has been dropping since the mid-1980s. We see a downward trend for both men and women--but it's been more precipitous for women.

[U.S. doctorates: women]
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If we take a closer look at doctorates earned in the United States by women, we see a divergence among the disciplines. Women now earn around 40% of all doctorates. However, this differs greatly by field.

In the life sciences, women earn over 40% of doctorates. But in the physical sciences and mathematics, women earn fewer than 20%. In engineering, they receive a little over 10% of PhDs.

[MIT graph and quote]
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A couple of years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a close and courageous look at women on its science faculty, releasing its study in 1999.

Introducing the report, MIT president Charles M. Vest wrote, "I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance."

As the study began in 1994, the MIT School of Science had only 15 tenured women, versus 194 men.

The subsequent study, which took much determination and effort, found that women science faculty had been "marginalized" throughout their careers, facing discrimination in salary, awards, space, and other parameters.

We look forward to following MIT's response to the report as it evolves. All of us can benefit from the lessons emerging at MIT.

[U.S. workforce, 1997]
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Our problem is larger than the institutions of higher learning. In more than 400 job categories in our economy, women are found mainly in only 20 categories.

Women comprise less than a quarter of the total science and engineering labor force. The S&E workforce looks very exclusive. This is dangerous for the nation. We need the talent of every worker in order to compete and prosper.

[Land of Plenty]
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Some of you may be familiar with the report called Land of Plenty, issued last year by the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development.

The commission calls diversity our country's competitive edge. The commission states this: if women, minorities, and the disabled--two-thirds of U.S. workers--joined the science and engineering workforce in proportion to their numbers, the shortage in skilled S&T workers would "largely be eliminated."

However, if our country continues to exclude so many citizens from the new economy, the report warns that "our nation will risk losing its economic and intellectual preeminence."

[Mathematical knot with quote about importance of math]
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At this point I want to highlight the key role of mathematics. Mathematics is the single most important factor leading to a career in science and engineering.

The American Association of University Women has recommended that states should make algebra and geometry mandatory for all students. These are the "gatekeeper" classes for college admission and later study in math, science and engineering.

[Poster: woman and line, I am a mathematician]
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We know that we have been able to narrow the gender gap in mathematical performance for young women, which is a hopeful sign for the future and also evidence that the gender gap in performance is not a genetic gap.

The National Science Foundation supports a number of programs to improve girls' math participation and performance.

For example, we have partially sponsored a series of striking science posters by artist Pamela Davis Kivelson, including some that use creative, visual means to promote the power of mathematics to young people.

One shows a young woman with the legend, "I am a mathematician." Another idea to consider, perhaps--suggested by one of our program officers--is a campaign called "Math for Moms."

Biologist E.O. Wilson writes that "...mathematics seems to point arrow-like toward the ultimate goal of objective truth." Given the accelerating cross-pollination of mathematics and science, it's not a mere coincidence that Wilson is a biologist.

Indeed, mathematics is the ultimate cross-cutting discipline, the springboard for advances across the board. Mathematics is both a powerful tool of insight and a common language for science.

As a biologist I find the burgeoning two-way traffic between biology and mathematics especially exciting. Not only is mathematics revolutionizing biology, but biology begins to foster new paradigms in mathematics.

The information science of life edges ever closer to electronic information science. Advances in understanding life may lead to new algorithms and new modes of computing, notably biological computing.

However, our country's world leadership of mathematics is fragile. We have been relying on overseas talent and have not been attracting enough U.S. students. In the meantime, NSF's role in support of mathematics has become ever more important.

We provide about two-thirds of federal academic research support, and our share is growing. In fact, a key feature of our budget investment this year is $20 million for interdisciplinary mathematics.

It will expand our support for fundamental research in mathematics to the entire spectrum of science and engineering in our portfolio.

[San Diego Girl Scouts: collage]
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NSF has a number of other programs that target girls and women in math, science and engineering at all ages.

An excellent program in San Diego intervenes early, focusing on teaching about computing and science to minority girls in grades four-through-eight. The program is led by the San Diego Girl Scouts and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Girl Scout adult teachers have now trained about 5000 girls on computers. The program is being expanded to Houston. The girls' entire families get into the act on Family Nights for hands-on computer learning. Parents and siblings learn from the girls.

[Carson City gender equity]
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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.

[ website]
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Computer games--often the first exposure kids have to computers--are one factor that can turn off girls. They dislike the violent, repetitive and sexist elements of the games that are widely available.

They ask for identity games in which they could create a character or build a world, with chances to communicate and collaborate. NSF has funded a game called "Josie True," an Internet adventure in which a girl travels back in time to rescue her inventor-turned-teacher named Ms. Trombone.

The journey includes science, math and technology games.

[ADVANCE: bullets]
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On the other end of the NSF spectrum is our newest flagship program to address the low numbers of women in science and engineering: ADVANCE.

The program intends to spark system-wide changes that will foster a more positive climate for women to pursue academic careers.

ADVANCE seeks to bring more women into science and engineering, but is not limited to women. Clearly, men need to participate in these changes, and they are eligible for all three types of awards.

  • Fellows awards give those who had limits to their career advancement--perhaps because of raising children, other family needs, or related factors--a chance to jumpstart the continuation of careers.

  • The second type of award, for institutional transformation, supports institutions that define effective approaches to drawing women faculty into the upper ranks.

  • Leadership awards, the third type, recognize contributions toward increasing the participation of women in academic science and engineering careers.

The NSF program manager for ADVANCE, Alice Hogan, emphasizes that the program sends the message that NSF values and rewards the hard work needed to change the conditions for women in science and engineering--and gives participants an opportunity to make a real difference over the long-term.

[total NSF support for women researchers]
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I should also underscore that NSF's largest investment in women scientists and engineers is through all our other research and education efforts.

NSF support for women researchers has tripled over the past decade to approach 500 million dollars.

[sunspot shot]
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Let me broaden our perspective now, looking back into that crystal ball as a wider lens to scan the entire spectrum of discovery in science and engineering, which we want to open to the participation of all.

We have entered the Age of Knowledge and we need to transform our educational system into one of lifelong learning so that everyone benefits.

New tools are broadening our vision in every discipline. In just one very current example, we are able to look at our sun, and we are seeing the largest group of sunspots in a decade.

The sun has an 11-year cycle; right now it is in the phase of high activity called solar maximum. The sun's activity fosters geomagnetic disruption, and we have reached the point of being able to predict these effects, now called space weather.

The sunspot areas have been erupting in just the past couple of weeks, disrupting radio communications and low-frequency navigation signals on Earth.

We are graced to be alive at a time when science and engineering are extending our vision to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, back to the time of the Big Bang.

At the same time we can peer down into the most minute scales of life, decoding the blueprint of life for our species, the human genome, and learning the secrets of life for all our fellow travelers.

The scientific tool most familiar to me as a microbiologist is, of course, the microscope. It is the tool that represents an approach that much of modern science has followed up to now: to seek understanding by taking things apart into their components.

To be sure, this strategy has given us the lion's share of scientific knowledge to date, but it has been a reductionist approach.

As science and engineering grow ever more interwoven, we fashion new, more integrative tools. We watch our fields intersect increasingly with one other to forge new frontiers at every scale, from quarks to stars.

Only through mapping and nourishing these linkages can we truly reflect and probe the wholeness of the world that we study. The days are gone when a discipline could go it alone. Now, the entire enterprise must progress as a whole.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

On another frontier, the border between astronomy and physics, researchers are listening for gravitational waves. The LIGO Project, short for Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory, is the largest project NSF has ever supported.

LIGO is searching for the waves produced by colliding black holes or collapsing supernovae. If these ripples in the fabric of space-time are recorded, they will open up a new window on the universe.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

These explorations are not taking place in isolation. LIGO, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and CERN, the European accelerator laboratory, will ultimately be linked together in the Grid Physics Network (GriPhyN).

This computational grid will tie together resources from the United States and Europe. Many disciplines share a similar need for widely dispersed users to access and use a massive data set.

These include projects on the human brain and genome, to those who study astronomy, geophysics, crystallography, and satellite weather, to consumer spending and banking records. These latter uses require advances that preserve consumer privacy as well.

[adaptive optics: Neptune]
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Another example of blending boundaries is the refinement and application of a technique called adaptive optics. Large ground-based telescopes, it turns out, have their views into space blurred by the earth's shimmering atmosphere.

Some are being fitted with adaptive optics to correct for the distortion.

[AO: blurry "E"s ]
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We're now applying adaptive optics to human vision. So far tests have shown that adaptive optics doubles the sensitivity of the eye in low light.

[Oldest microorganism]
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Our new vistas also extend our concept of life. Even in the most extreme environments on our planet, in ocean vents, within the deepest mines, and in the seeming wastes of Antarctica, we are finding life, thriving and abundant.

The oldest living organism found so far, a 250 million-year-old bacterium, was described last fall.

It was found entombed in salt crystals 850 feet down in the Permian Salado Formation in New Mexico, by Russ Vreeland, a former student, and his colleagues. Needless to say, we never imagined life to survive in pure salt.

[bees and nanosensors]
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Our tools give us insight on the smallest of scales. Foremost among them are nano-science and technology, whose applications are only limited by our imaginations.

At the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale, we see how nanotechnology is being used to understand the Earth's biodiversity.

Researchers have developed microscopic nanosensors that are carried like ordinary pollen on the body of a bee. A bee collects the sensor, called smart dust, and carries it throughout its normal daily activities.

When it returns to the hive, a sensor plate downloads the data collected by the sensor. The result is a map of the bee's itinerary: where it traveled and which flowers it visited.

[Women at water source]
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Only integrating information from many scales will lead us to deeper discoveries. In my own research, I have spent more than 30 years studying cholera, a terrible water-borne scourge that still causes thousands to die every year in developing countries.

My work on the environmental factors associated with cholera epidemics would be impossible without the power of computing.

At the same time, our research continues at the scale of the village, where women in Bangladesh are testing a simple filtering system for their drinking water. They are using sari cloth to remove plankton and particulate matter to which the cholera bacteria are attached.

[cholera, SST]
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Remote sensing and computing have helped us to delineate the patterns in the incidence of cholera. Its occurrence is related to environmental factors, whether in the Bay of Bengal or off the coast of South America.

Sea surface temperatures, chlorophyll concentrations, and sea surface height are all elevated when cholera appears. It is our ability to integrate insights from many levels that leads us to the threshold of predicting cholera epidemics.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

There are many such examples. To unravel the complexity of life on our planet, we must chart the ribbons of interconnections between cells, organisms and ecosystems, past and present.

A new term for what we study is biocomplexity. We are at the brink of being able to observe complexity at multiple scales across the hierarchy of life. To understand the interlocking systems of our planet is our only hope to sustain them.

A celebrated astronomer and a member of our National Science Board, Vera Rubin, speaks about the evolution of galaxies--a term we might associate more with the study of life.

She returns often to her theme of connections. In an interesting cross-fertilization of vocabulary, she speaks of a galaxy as an ecosystem.

In her view, we should be looking for life on other planets by looking for planets that have a hot molten core. The core generates the Earth's magnetic field, which ultimately gives us the ionosphere that enables and protects life.

[galaxy picture]
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The frontiers of science and engineering today seem endless, yet we need the participation and perspectives of all to probe as far as we might in every direction.

When we consider how to attract women and minorities to science and technology, we begin to reexamine our assumptions about education across the board, from kindergarten to lifelong learning.

The process to achieving a doctorate today can take twice as long as it did when I worked on my PhD--and the degree-holder now emerges even more specialized than in the past.

We need to change our thinking about how we educate those who will carry out the research of the future, in a world of science and engineering that is moving toward international networking, collaboration with multiple disciplines, study of complexity, and integration of perspectives.

I suspect this is a world that could welcome the perspectives of women more warmly than have the cultures of science and engineering of the past, and be the better for it. Thank you.



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