Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Converging Scientific Frontiers: Bioscience to Biocomplexity and Beyond"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
A Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on Genetics and Health:
Research Frontiers and Ethical, Economic, Legal, and Social Issues
A Symposium Co-hosted by
The Royal Norwegian Embassy through its Research and Technology Forum
and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Washington, D.C.

May 16, 2003

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.

Thank you, Charlie.

Good morning -- Ambassador Vollebaek, Prime Minister Bondevik, officials of the Royal Norwegian Embassy, representatives of CSIS, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to again participate in the discussions of the Norwegian Research and Technology Forum - as it opens "A Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on Genetics and Health."

Before I turn our attention to the subject of "Research Frontiers and Technological Convergence" -- I extend early holiday wishes to our Norwegian and Norwegian-American colleagues on the eve of Norway's celebration of its Constitution and Independence.

Norway, Canada, and the United States share friendship and cooperation, based in part on the common waters of our experience. Each nation's history has been shaped by their relationship with the Atlantic Ocean, and includes Arctic exploration.

[Slide: photograph of "the Fram" (polar vessel) with portraits of Nansen, Sverdrup, Amundsen]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

One of the most notable of the historic vessels that have launched scientific explorers toward future discovery is Norway's own "Fram." It carried not one, but three, leading polar explorers: Nansen [1893-96] and later Sverdrup [1898-1902] to the North Pole, and Amundsen [1910-1912] the first to the South Pole.

By the time the Fram returned home to Norway in 1914, it had become the ship that had traveled furthest north and furthest south. We know that "The Fram covered 84,000 nautical miles, a distance corresponding to two and a half times the circumference of the earth."

The word "Fram," which means "forward" in Norwegian, as I have recently learned, carries new and intensified significance for us.

[Slide - sequence of 4 images: Alvin, smart dust, terascale towers, genome spectrum]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Today, we use a greater variety of research transports, tools and techniques -- from deep ocean submersibles to smart dust to terascale computers and gene sequencing, but the direction is the same -- forward to research frontiers.

[Slide: Global connections]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

What has changed in our age of exploration is the unprecedented scale and pace of our discovery. In the past two decades, knowledge has exploded - and with it, the complexity of the problems we explore - and the potential for creating benefits to our global society.

[Slide: Earth]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

The great Sea of Knowledge that we explore and chart binds us together. The expansion of international scientific collaboration, and the increasing recognition that global challenges call for global solutions, pull us further forward, like the Fram.

[Slide: converging science]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

What has profoundly changed the nature of exploration in our age is the convergent nature of science itself. Where research meets and explores the unknown, the ideas and technologies of life science, physical science, and information science are converging.

At those fields of intersection and exchange, interdisciplinary research is accelerating and deepening our knowledge. We can now see connectedness in what were once considered discrete elements and systems.

[Slide: bioscience]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Bioscience has evolved to become the locus of convergence for many disciplines, drawing together information technology, the physical sciences, and the social sciences.

[Slide: biocomplexity]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Bioscience is further expanding - to include the dynamics of biocomplexity and its capacity for global contributions.

[Slide: And beyond]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Our leaps of circumnavigation can be thought of as: from bio to info to nano to enviro to cogno.

[Slide: Title slide]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I have titled my remarks for this symposium -- "Converging Scientific Frontiers: Bioscience to Biocomplexity and Beyond."

Fifty years ago, Watson and Crick revealed the structure of DNA, heralding a revolution in bioscience whose momentum continues to accelerate, at an exponential rate.

[Slide: Human genome]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

We have already witnessed the completion of the human genome.

The complete genomes of over one thousand viruses and more than one hundred microbes are currently available for viewing via the Internet.

Last month, an issue of Science magazine announced the oldest DNA ever found - 300 to 400 thousand years old, from plants in Siberia. DNA from wooly mammoth and musk oxen has also been found in sediment cores from the same area - enabling the study of ancient species and ecologies, even where no macro fossils or frozen samples exist.

From the tiny genome of the first bacterium sequenced, Haemophilus influenzae, with 1.8 million base pairs, to the 3.12 billion that comprise the human genome -- was a leap of enormous magnitude.

[Slide: Engineering biological muscle]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Completing the human genome project might have taken many more years to accomplish without the powerhouse of our newest computers and a battery of sophisticated computation tools.

[Slide: Arabadopsis thaliana]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

The same is true of work on plant genomes, like Arabadopsis thaliana, (and one of our favorite fish currently being sequenced, the salmon) -- work which holds much promise to improve nutrition and health worldwide.

[Slide: Internet]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Our new information and communication technologies have transformed the very conduct of bioscience research. They help us to handle the complexity as well as the quantity of data, enabling new ways to collaborate around the globe, and letting us visualize in stunning new ways. Thus, the revolution in bioscience has been advanced by the revolution in our research tools, strategies and methodologies.

[Slide: NSF's Priority Areas]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

The National Science Foundation has made a deliberate strategy to mark areas of converging discovery for special investment. We select these priority areas based on their exceptional promise to advance knowledge. They exemplify the power of working across disciplines, at the very frontiers of knowledge. Among these areas of revolutionary potential are information technology, nanotechnology, and biocomplexity.

[Slide: Oceanic convergence zones]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Much of the excitement of discovery today ignites at the interfaces between disciplines. As an oceanographer I draw a metaphor for this from my own research. In the sea, water-masses of different temperatures converge; gyres form, polynyas appear, upwelling occurs, and nutrients collect at the interfaces.

Convergence zones in the ocean may shift, appear and disappear, but they are often where the nutrients mass and where the fish and seabirds up the food chain concentrate to feast. Just so are the interfaces between physical science, engineering and biology, and now the social sciences: discovery foments in these "hyphenated" zones.

[Slide: Adaptive optics -- Blue Neptunes and cones in the eye]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Advances in one field today may well resonate in another. A new tool invented for a precise purpose may actually find service in many disciplines. Here in adaptive optics -- a striking consilience of astronomy with vision science -- the biological and physical sciences cross-fertilize in unexpected ways.

Adaptive optics sharpens astronomers' vision from ground-based observatories, as we see here in "before-and-after" pictures of Neptune. When used to look at the human eye, adaptive optics produced the first images-shown in red, green and blue-of cone arrangements in the living eye.

As an optometry scientist at Indiana University, Larry Thibos, put it, "The real breakthrough is the work of these clever astronomers. All we have done is steal their ideas and try to put them to use for vision science."

To encourage such exchange, the NSF-supported Center for Adaptive Optics brings together young students from astronomy and vision science. They visit each other's laboratories and are enriching each other's perspectives at a formative time in their careers. A key element to realizing the vision of a convergent future is educating a new kind of biologist-a multilinguist who can speak the languages of the multidisciplinary world.

[Slide: Digital particle image velocimetry]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Linkages have also paid off for bioscientists studying animal movement--this time borrowing techniques from engineers and mathematicians. Again, a new tool-in this case digital particle-imaging velocimetry-enables new insights. The idea is to visualize the physics of animal movement. This is done by tracking the patterns of suspended particles in the air or water disturbed by the movement. Laser light illuminates the particles, and the patterns are captured by digital cameras.

[Slide DPIV "2-D" View of Vortices]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

This is the technique in action. Note the vortices that appear around the fish's fin-the first time such forces exerted by limbs could be measured directly.

While biologists gain new vision thanks to engineers and physicists, the engineers draw upon biological inspiration for mechanical design. Might this study of the pectoral appendage-the fish's fin, analogous to the human arm--lead to better prostheses for humans? We could not even think about such possibilities becoming real without the convergence of disciplines.

[Slide: Computational bio--math/bio links]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Some convergence zones are especially rich. Where mathematical science and computational science meet biology, in the burgeoning field of bioinformatics, they serve as biology's new microscope -- illuminating otherwise invisible entities, and helping us to elucidate the structure and function of life forms and systems.

Math and computing shed light on bioscience problems that are too big (the biosphere), too slow (evolution), too remote in time (early extinctions), too complex (the brain), or exceed our capabilities in other ways. (I thank the National Computational Science Institute and Joel Cohen at Rockefeller University for framing the math-bio links this way.)

[Slide: Two types of networks, from Mark Newman]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Why does this connectivity matter? For one, human networks can influence the spread of disease, but only mathematics, not common sense, can reveal the complexities.

In this illustration from Newman's work, we see a core group of highly connected people on the left. On the right is a network with less of a central focus. Current strategy to control disease works well only in the network at right. However, human social networks tend to look more like the one at left.

This and other mathematical models can help us to confront SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Roy Anderson of the Imperial College, London, recently spoke on National Public Radio about how math models are helping to devise control strategies for SARS.

"The most important thing to bring it under Hong Kong," Anderson said, ".is to shorten the time interval between first appearance of clinical symptoms and when a patient seeks health care." Seeking care just two days earlier than the current tendency could make a significant difference, it turns out.

[Slide: University of Rochester images of carbon nanotubes -- standard diffraction limited microscopy and new near-field Raman microscopy technique]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Perhaps the ultimate in disciplinary convergence is the realm of the extremely small-nanoscience and technology-which is now opening to bioscientists. Here is an illustration: on the right are carbon nanotubes just a few billionths of an inch across.

This is the highest-resolution optical image ever made, and it was published just this past March, by a University of Rochester nano-optics team. Compare it to the blurry image on the left, created using standard diffraction limited microscopy.

In about two years, the team believes it will be able to image proteins, only 5-20 nanometers wide, that are in the membrane of a single cell. This could lead to such possibilities as designer drugs, repair of damaged cells, or spotting new disease strains.

[Slide: How we learn-brain image]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I come now to my final example of dynamic convergence - the study of human cognition. Research that spans disciplinary borders in the cognitive, behavioral, neuro, and social sciences has launched a renaissance in the study of human thought and action.

Of all topics of investigation, we perhaps know least about ourselves - how we learn, form strategies, make decisions, and take risks.

[Slide: 3-D images of brain activation]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Scientists at Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have created a powerful new technology for viewing the brain at work.

Using high-speed networks to link an MRI scanner with a supercomputer, they've made it possible to convert scan data almost instantaneously into an animated 3-D image showing which parts of the brain "light up" during mental activity.

Here you see a snapshot of the three-dimensional visualization that allows researchers to track in seconds what previously required a day or more to process.

New research on cognition is expanding our knowledge of memory and aging processes, and will eventually help us to design better learning environments.

[Slide: Biocomplexity spiral]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

These examples of interdisciplinary convergence and integration reflect that we are now engaged in a new vision of bioscience. Today's technologies allow us to delve into the structure of the very molecules that compose cells - and simultaneously, to probe the global system that encompasses the biosphere. This perspective will help us synthesize our knowledge across all disciplines and scales, and fits within a comprehensive framework that I call biocomplexity.

I use the term "biocomplexity" to describe the dynamic web of relationships that arise when living things at all levels interact with their environment. It is a way of thinking that has emerged from a lifetime of studying the interactions between climate and health, over my research career.

Early on, we used the term "ecosystems approach" to describe part of what we mean by "biocomplexity." Yet, ecosystems do not respond linearly to environmental change, nor do the pathogens that live in them.

I use a spiral, so evocative of life at every level, to underscore the point that understanding demands observing at multiple scales.

The spiral of complexity begins to unfurl at the most minute scale of the atom, and curves up through successive levels of life, through the cell, the organism, the community, the ecosystem. Complexity principles emerge at each level. The spiral curves both ways-outward, integrating the levels of life, and inward, back to the center.

Biocomplexity is a 21st century term, because only now do we have the tools -- optics, sensors, remote sensing, nanotechnology, information technology, genomics, and mathematics, among them - that allow us to take the measure of life on our planet.

Convergent technologies will produce new, even more powerful tools. With the insights drawn from multi-disciplinary research, and with a global perspective - for the first time, we are launching on a course to chart the design of our biocomplex world, including the dynamics of disease.

The infrastructure and models to understand infectious disease also enhance our abilities to confront bioterrorism, which is the subject of another whole speech!

With this perspective, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can connect -how we can apply the results of cutting-edge research to national needs; how we can better coordinate our efforts; and how we can build the needed infrastructure that will serve to predict and ultimately prevent disease.

[Slide: Earth]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I return to one of the initial images with which I began my remarks. It has been said that on Earth's blue planet we all live "by the grace of water." Certainly in today's knowledge-based, global economy, we recognize -- that the quality of our well-being and prosperity depends on the quality of our navigation of that metaphoric "Sea."

[Slide: Ship and Aldo Leopold quote]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

As the prophet of ecology, Aldo Leopold, counseled: we must "convert our collective knowledge of biotic materials into a collective wisdom of biotic navigation."

[Slide - Beverly Lighthouse]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I grew up, in fact, by the water, just a block from this lighthouse in Beverly Cove, Massachusetts. The lure of the Atlantic Ocean -- which touches the native coasts of the United States, Canada, and Norway - has continually called to my life's work in microbiology. This attachment to the sea also led to many hours serving as crew in sailing regattas with my husband.

In closing, I recall one of those sailing yarns now. It is said that one stormy night, the captain of a warship peered through the gloom--and he spotted a light, barely visible in the fog.

With a loudspeaker on the ship, the captain bellowed, "Unknown vessel, change your course to starboard!"

A voice across the water replied, "You must tack to starboard!"

Angrily the captain shouted back, "This is the ship's captain you are speaking to. You are in our path. Tack to starboard immediately!"

Again, a voice in the mist: "This is seaman first class Jones. Change course to starboard immediately!"

The captain bellowed his ultimatum: "This is a warship of the U.S. Navy. Tack to starboard or be destroyed!"

The voice replied, "Sir, this is a lighthouse!"

The sailing lesson here would be that sometimes a course change is vital. The leadership model would be to underscore that the economic and social prospects of all countries depend on the knowledge, experience, and foresight of those at the helm.

But the lighthouse, with its circular sight and steady beam, represents the breadth of vision that only advances in science and technology can bring. The converging fields and their emerging technologies are the new lighthouses of the 21st century as we further explore the wide waters of the life sciences, and their pull that gathers all science to converge.

Thank you.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic