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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Our Scientific Future: Turbulent, Convergent, Emergent"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Plenary Lecture - 2002 FDA Science Forum
Washington, D.C.

February 20, 2002

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.

Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Dr. Schwetz, for your introduction. I feel very much at home here among all of you through my work with FDA in the past and my service on the science board.

I hope we can begin thinking today about new and dynamic ways that our two agencies--FDA and the National Science Foundation--can join forces in areas of common interest.

I'm especially pleased to help set the tone for this year's science forum because your theme--"building a multidisciplinary foundation"--resonates deeply for me, both personally as a researcher and as director of NSF, an agency that supports all facets of science and engineering.

Fundamental research in all fields is one of the pillars of strength and prosperity of our country.

A hallmark of such research is that results arise in unexpected places. Our support contributes to the wellspring from which research and development emerge.

Research and its applications ultimately comprise common ground, the territory shared by the FDA and NSF. It is this solid ground of research that must form the foundation for the decisions we make about technology in society.

[title slide]
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I have entitled my talk "Our Scientific Future: Turbulent, Convergent, Emergent." The backdrop of this slide shows a simulation of turbulence--actually supersonic turbulent flow around a red giant star.

Physical turbulence has long resisted physicists' attempts to model it; we simply have not yet evolved the mathematics that describes how such patterns emerge.

However, almost anytime we take an airplane flight we realize on the most visceral level the need for progress in these kinds of analyses.

Through the convergence of physics, math, information technology, and engineering, such understanding is beginning to emerge.

Exchange among seemingly unrelated disciplines, often turbulent and even cacophonous in practice, can lead to an unexpected harvest of insights. Today I'll illustrate that reality using some particularly vibrant research areas that NSF has chosen for focused investment.

In the wake of September 11, turbulence of another sort has been set off in our nation, with ramifications, as we well know, across the world.

At Federal agencies, our missions are now viewed with an explicit goal of increasing national security, although security in its deepest sense these days reaches far beyond intelligence gathering and defense.

In a fundamental way our security rests upon maintaining our position at the forefront of discovery.

Convergence means not only the meeting of disparate disciplines, but also the integration of science and society. As Federal scientists we should be front and center in working to expand public scientific literacy--itself another dimension of true national security.

Emergence is a term I have borrowed from complexity science to capture how the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

I suggest that the increasingly complex tapestry of science and engineering should call forth similarly fresh and unconventional partnerships among institutions supporting research.

As federal agencies we must become nimble, resilient and interconnected, just like the science and engineering we seek to encourage.

[the perfect spiral galaxy]
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Today all disciplines overlap and converge at an accelerating pace. Progress in one area seeds advances in another. I would like to use astronomy as an example, because it represents those sciences usually seen as offering little practical value.

This astonishingly symmetrical image, the "Perfect Spiral Galaxy," echoes across the frontiers of scale. Called "the most versatile of nature's patterns," the spiral is both a metaphor and a means for convergence.

In the realm of medicine, the spiral appears once again. We've recently learned that electrical activity in the heart can assume spiral patterns, which can lead to the fibrillation that precedes a heart attack.

[adaptive optics: laser guide-star above Keck]
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Another spin-off: Large ground-based telescopes have their views into space blurred by the earth's shimmering atmosphere. A technique called adaptive optics can correct for the distortion. Here a laser beam creates an artificial "guide star" for the technique.

[Blue Neptune: with and without A/O]
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Here's a result: adaptive optics refines our view of the planet Neptune.

[colorful cones in the eye]
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The Center for Adaptive Optics, based at the University of California-Santa Cruz, is now applying adaptive optics to look at the human eye.

It's been known for two centuries that our vision employs three kinds of cones, but here adaptive optics has produced the first images of cone arrangements in the living human eye. It turns out--as we see here--that two human eyes with normal color vision have strikingly different arrangements and proportions of cones.

Many disciplines share another quandary: an avalanche of data. Astronomical data doubles every year or two, but discoveries do not keep up. High-energy physics, genomics and neuroscience are all experiencing the data deluge.

I'll now show a brief animation of a proposed solution for astronomy: a National Virtual Observatory.

[NVO animation: 1 min. 36 sec.]
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We will see here how a networked system might bring data from all wavelengths, and from ground and space-based telescopes, to an international community of astronomers. Much of the data now languish unused, and it is estimated that many rare astronomical events are missed.

Here we are watching the network at work--the integration of data from different wavelengths and from different telescopes, both in space and on the ground.

The virtual observatory will ultimately change the way science is done; for example, it will bring together the "separate wavelength cultures" and it will bring science to desktops around the globe.

Ultimately we see a new astronomical discovery in action.]

[NEON map]
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The astronomers' idea has an echo in the world of biology--a cutting-edge ecological network.

This is NEON--the planned National Ecological Observation Network--a schematic portrayal of an array of sites across the country furnished with the latest sensor technologies.

The same themes emerge--research collaboration across great distances, shared instrumentation, and integrating across a range of scales--in both the physical and biological sciences.

[instrumenting the environment]
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Here's an imaginative rendition of a NEON site fully instrumented (with apologies to the artist Rousseau). Networks such as NEON require state-of-the-art sensors of every kind.

Such a site will measure dozens of variables in organisms and their physical surroundings. This, in fact, is a biological "early warning system."

All the sites will be linked by high-capacity computer lines, and the entire system will track environmental change from the microbiological to the global scale. A network such as NEON can also serve to monitor invasive species or disruptions from an attack of bioterrorism.

[artificial nose]
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Let me give you just a glimpse of the sort of sensor that NEON might employ. We call it an "artificial nose." This diode, described in the December issue of Science Magazine, can "sniff" the tiny electrical currents produced when molecules interact with metal surfaces.

The discovery ushers in a new field: chemo-electronics. Again, physical science provides the platform for the biological realm.

[word bullet slide: IT, nano, math, biocomplexity]
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I will turn now to a brief survey of four "emergent and convergent" technologies that exemplify the power of working across disciplines.

These are information technology, nanotechnology, mathematics, and biocomplexity. Such technologies have been called the "power tools" of the next economy.

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Information technology has transformed the very conduct of research. We have already seen how IT, including visualization, helps us handle the quantity as well as complexity of data, and enables new ways to collaborate around the globe.

Today a personal computer is as fast as the supercomputer of a decade ago. But we look beyond, to a grander scale--the Teragrid, which will let resources be shared between widely separated groups.

Just one example, researchers have manipulated virtual cellular structures with more than one million atoms.

As Fran Berman, director of the National Partnership for Advanced Computing, predicts, in the near future they (researchers) should be able to examine structures with "tens of millions of atoms, and begin to understand the fundamental forces that drive cellular functions."

[nano collage]
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These images portray another emerging frontier. They look as if they came from the brush of an artist dabbling in abstract expressionism, but all are actually glimpses of discoveries at the nanoscale.

At the dimension of the minute, the very small, matter behaves in mysterious ways, with staggering possibilities to transform our larger world.

Progress in many disciplines converges at the nanoscale. This is the magical point at which the worlds of the living and non-living meet.

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Nano systems may indeed transform drug delivery. An example is the "nanodumplings" pictured here--tiny spheres that mimic living entities, such as viruses, by their shape and size.

Engineered to avoid detection by the immune system, they show excellent promise for delivering drugs directly to a target site, or for gene therapy.

They could also be used to scavenge unwanted substances, whether "bad" cholesterol from the body or pollutants from the environment.

[math: fractals, leaf, Jackson Pollock]
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Another new frontier: fundamental mathematics. It engenders concepts that often turn out to be just the right framework in seemingly unrelated areas.

Here the fractal concept--called the fingerprint of Nature--holds firm across scales and fields. We see a river drainage network, the network on a leaf, and even a painting of Jackson Pollock, all of which reflect the statistics of chaos. Fractal sets are also a goldmine for medical modeling--of lungs or networks of blood vessels.

[damaged and restored photo]
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We move from painting to a new concept, engendered by mathematics, called the "inpainting" of images. This is a damaged photo, and we see how inpainting has restored it by using information from the surrounding, undamaged area. Andrea Bertozzi at Duke University and colleagues1 borrow from classical fluid dynamics to propagate "fill in" lines.

[super resolution: eye close-up]
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A quick example of the same technique, employed here for "super resolution."

One of the eyes from the woman's photo is magnified and then sharpened with inpainting.

[facial recognition illustration]
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It's not a far leap to imagine the application of this technique, drawn from mathematics, to facial recognition applications that are related to national security. Yet the deep mathematics underlying the application were not originally developed with airport security as the application!

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My fourth emergent area is biocomplexity, a term I have coined to describe the study of the complex interactions in biological systems, including humans, and between biological systems and their physical environments.

We know that ecosystems do not respond linearly to environmental change. We also know that understanding demands observing at multiple scales, from the nano to the global.

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The ecology of infectious disease is an important focus for our biocomplexity studies this year. A good example is work on Chagas disease, an infection caused by a protozoan parasite and a disease that afflicts rural populations of Latin America.

We see the parasite, Trypanosama cruzi, in an infected droplet of blood.

Using a mathematical model of all inhabitants of a village house-the humans, dogs, bugs--researchers were able to show that keeping infected dogs out of human sleeping areas greatly reduced the incidence of this debilitating disease. Insight emerged only after the ecology had been unraveled.

[picture of cover of "The Microbe Project"]
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Microbial genomics is another focus for our biocomplexity program this year. Genomics offers unprecedented opportunity to begin to probe a microbial world that is almost a complete mystery.

It will have immediate payoffs, too, such as the sequencing of anthrax is proving. Incidentally, the interagency group supporting The Microbe Project has representatives from both NSF and FDA.

The report pictured here stresses that "Genome-enabled microbial research holds enormous promise for understanding life at its most basic level."

[Richard Lenski: digital and bacterial evolution]
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In another merging of worlds under the biocomplexity rubric, a microbiologist, Richard Lenski at Michigan State, has joined forces with a computer scientist and a physicist to study evolution in action, using two kinds of organisms--bacterial and digital.

Here the two foreground graphs actually show the family tree of digital organisms evolving over time. On the left, the digital organisms all compete for the same resource, so they do not diversify and the family tree does not branch out.

On the right, the digital organisms compete for a number of different resources. Deep branches develop in that family tree over time.

In the background are round spots--actually laboratory populations of the bacterium, E. coli, which also diversified over time when fed different resources. Biocomplexity brings insight to the in vivo, even when drawn from the in silico.

[Tree of Life]
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This has been just a sampling of new research with multifaceted implications for society--for our security, our economy, our future.

We glimpse the unity underlying research, and the need to weave together our efforts.

The "Tree of Life" we see here--a project to construct a universal tree for all 1.7 million named species of living organisms--represents that new mindset.

Just as integral to our progress is yet another dimension of the complex kaleidoscope of science and engineering today.

No matter how spectacular the research frontier, we need to make yet another connection--not just across the disciplines, but in a linkage with the public.

We have the obligation to convey the excitement of research as well as basic scientific knowledge to strengthen the society that surrounds and supports us.

Both our economy and our national security depend upon this outreach, more urgently now than ever before.

[schoolyard LTERs]
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I will showcase just a couple of ways that NSF is working to expand public scientific literacy.

Here we see children learning about their local ecosystems, each tied to a site in a network for long-term ecological research across the United States and even in Antarctica.

Knowledge about the environment can lead to more informed decisions later in life.

[schoolyard LTER paintings]
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At the Niwot Ridge LTER in Colorado, a teacher inspired her students to paint watercolors based on learning about the ecosystem.

In these paintings, now being published as a book, third graders express their concepts of the mountain ecosystem that supplies their water.

Scientific literacy so often begins with a spark of excitement, which can be kindled in childhood or even as an adult. It's been said that "we do not know how we know," but that is beginning to change.

Some of you may have caught the series currently on PBS called "The Secret Life of the Brain" -- funded in part by NSF--which chronicles the dazzling insights into the brain offered by neuroscience in the past decade.

A top-notch website about the brain backs up the series, and I encourage you to visit it.

Here is a simulation that lets you click on different parts of the brain and rotate them for viewing in three dimensions, while learning about associated functions.

[composite of slides from the talk]
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What does all of this mean for us as Federal scientists? It has become our task to converge and collaborate, to respond to the emerging complexity of science and engineering and its next generation of discoveries.

The aftermath of September 11 lends urgency to our missions, which will rely on new partnerships to secure our homeland in ways we are just beginning to fathom. I welcome your suggestions on how NSF and FDA might work together most effectively in this brave new world. Thank you.



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