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Diversity in Context: New Perspectives for Science, Discovery, and Innovation

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Seattle, Washington

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Thank you for inviting me to present this "Perspectives in Science" seminar. It is an honor to be among such a distinguished group of scientists, and to learn more, first-hand, about your important work.

I understand that you have a commitment to collaborative, international research, and to mitigating the urgent global public health scourges. I have little doubt that the future of medicine, and the future of global public health, lie with research institutions such as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

I understand, too, that you have a strong commitment to diversifying your institution at every level. I know that increasing diversity, especially at the faculty and leadership level, is a very special challenge. I hope to offer some new perspectives on how to think about this challenge.

It is always instructive to begin with the big picture. My point, here, is that while it seems — especially to those of us in the sciences — as though we exist in an increasingly reductivist world, actually, our world is more and more integrated; though we may not always, fully, comprehend that integration.

Our world is flat and integrated, and yet it is, also, asymmetrical, and unstable.

The movement toward global integration is rooted in human motivations as old as history — the urge to explore, to discover, to trade, to gain new knowledge, to experience new cultures. For centuries, countries have sought the means to do these things better, accelerating the movement of people, technology, information, and ideas. The advances in transportation, and in communications technology, have greatly facilitated trade and information exchange, and, truly, are interlinking the planet.

With the advent of fiber optics, PCs, cell phones, and wireless broadband, countries, commercial enterprises, and even individuals have gained a level of access to one another that has leveled the playing field as never before. The development of "flat world protocols" — work flow software, supply-chaining, in-sourcing and out-sourcing, seamlessly connected Web applications — has opened up a universe of equality in which anyone with the necessary ingenuity and motivation can compete, regardless of ideology, ethnicity, gender, or geographic location.

We have made great strides, globally, since the 1960s. Average life expectancy has increased from 37 to 67 years; child mortality rates have been halved; small pox has largely been eradicated and the incidence of polio is greatly reduced; fertility rates have been reduced, so that, today, there are 3.5 births per woman in developing countries, rather than the six in the 1960s.

In that same time, science has improved crop yields so that grain production has tripled. Scientific discovery and technological innovation have enhanced energy production, transportation, and information technology, which itself undergirds nearly every other sector — from financial markets to national security.

As a consequence, the world economy has expanded by a factor of seven.

Except that the world is more asymmetric than ever before, and the imbalances are as serious and as threatening as any pandemic.

From 1950 to 2000, the world population rose from 2.5 billion to 6 billion people, and may top 9 billion by mid-century. Water use has tripled. The demand for seafood has increased fivefold. The number of automobiles grew from 53 million in 1950 to 539 million in 2003. We are only just beginning to comprehend the environmental impact on the planet of this phenomenal growth.

Global distribution of wealth, consumption, and opportunity remain severely disproportionate. The wealthiest 20 percent consume 80 percent of the resources. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people die every day from malnutrition, contaminated water, or diseases which would be easily preventable or treatable if their living standards were on a par with the developed world. Two-fifths of the world's population lives on less than $2 per day. One in four has no access to modern energy services. Nearly one billion people are illiterate. More than 850 million go to bed hungry. For these individuals, the opportunities afforded by globalization and flat-world protocols have little meaning.

All the while, advances in communications and media coverage make the asymmetry highly visible.

The convergence of technological advances, on the one hand, and asymmetric development, on the other, can produce unprecedented instability. Old rivalries, including ethnic and religious tensions, which sometimes simmer for decades, can result in conflicts, especially when asymmetries in status or life prospects are exposed. These tensions can be made worse by poor governance practices, whatever their root, which can lead to the repression of civil liberties, human rights abuses, and the breakdown of social institutions. In many cases, poor governance can exacerbate the asymmetry of living standards.

I believe that we well understand that global asymmetries, if not redressed, always will come back to haunt us. We can no longer separate our selves — and what we do — from the entirety of the whole.

I believe that addressing the mounting global asymmetries requires new interdisciplinary approaches and new tools, which will assist us in meeting these challenges. The revolutionary changes which have been taking place in biological research are one example.

New interdisciplinary fields such as nanotechnology, computational biology, and bioinformatics, available to, and driven by, scientists and those of us who work to understand the unknown, offer great promise — new insights into the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases; enhanced food production; possible new energy sources; and perhaps even climate change mitigation.

At Rensselaer, we are taking an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to important problems by marrying our traditional strengths in engineering, computation and information technology, modeling and simulation, and nanotechnology with the life sciences.

With this, we have a uniquely focused approach to biotechnology and bioscience to address important problems related to human health and welfare. We have created, and are creating, world-class platforms to support this work. We are hiring many new faculty, bringing fresh ideas and new directions to our research — 180 new faculty in the past seven years.

Two and a half years ago, we opened a new facility — The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. The work of the center is built broadly around four Constellations of faculty in: Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, Systems Biology, Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, and Computational Biology and Bioinformatics. We, also, have hired faculty across a broad front in biology, biochemistry, biophysics, biomedical engineering, and chemical and biological engineering.

Next month, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will open its Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) — which will be one of the world's most powerful university-based, supercomputing center, and one of the top 10 supercomputing centers of any kind in the world. This $100 million partnership with IBM, and New York state, was announced last year.

The CCNI will operate heterogeneous supercomputing systems consisting of massively-parallel Blue Gene supercomputers, Power-based Linux clusters, and AMD Opteron processor-based clusters. This diverse set of systems will enable large-scale, leading-edge computational research in both the scientific and technological arenas. The hardware and software configuration will provide 80 Teraflops of computational power with associated high-speed networking and storage.

So, what are our faculty doing with these unique platforms and tools?

One Rensselaer faculty researcher is studying — through simulation — protein aggregation, which can kill nerve cells in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

An amyloid-beta — the protein which aggregates in Alzheimer's disease — is pared down to a peptide a 1/6th the size of the natural protein, the essential segment responsible for clumping. Alone, amyloid-beta can adopt a variety of different conformations, but when more molecules are added, they aggregate, making the shape less flexible. So, with a hexamer, a clump of six peptide chains, only a few configurations are possible. To study protein behavior, and to watch it react to different scenarios, means multiple frames of atomic-level description.

The system is represented by coordinates of the atoms in a computer which predicts what will happen next — although in very slow motion. Each step represents two femtoseconds.

Based on the size and charge of individual amino acids, and on interactions with surrounding media, a "jockeying" occurs, and the protein assumes a three-dimensional shape. In simulation, the progress of knowledge comes from a balance between theory, computation, and experiments. Predicting that shape — the protein-folding problem — is the challenge.

Speed has been a limiting factor in this research. The Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations opens a whole new window — and researchers are excited at the prospect of simulating the molecular dynamics of an entire cell, for example.

Another Rensselaer research team, in conjunction with the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health, is working to describe a mechanism to explain how an intein — a type of protein found in single-celled organisms and bacteria — cuts itself out of the host protein and reconnects the two remaining strands. The intein breaks a protein sequence at two points: first the N-terminal, and then the C-terminal.

The team hopes to harness the complex biological reaction to develop a "nanoswitch" which could be used for applications from targeted drug delivery, to genomics and proteomics, to sensors.

The protein cuts itself and joins the pieces together in a predictable way, but, to use it as a nanoswitch, better control of the reaction is needed. Because the reaction may be sensitive to environmental stimuli, the process could become more than just a two-way switch between "on" and "off."

The researchers revealed the details of the reaction mechanism by applying the principles of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics has been understood and applied to problems in condensed matter physics, among others. In such systems, symmetries can sometimes make calculations smaller and easier, even without strong computational power. But with the latest generation of supercomputers and new, efficient mathematical tools to solve quantum mechanical equations, now, even biological systems, with enormous numbers of atoms, lend themselves to these calculations.

For this project, researchers used computing facilities at Rensselaer's Scientific Computation Research Center (SCOREC) and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the future, they expect to use the CCNI.

Yet another Rensselaer research team is collaborating in proteomics, studying the structure of why proteins fold and unfold, and occasionally misfold. The research could lead to early detection of diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) and Alzheimer's.

While biochemical analysis methods are cumbersome, one researcher has adapted a common laboratory method into an assay, to identify and to separate kinetically stable proteins. Collaborating with a biologist with expertise in computer modeling, they developed a high-throughput assay capable of identifying the kinetically stable proteins. Using this method, it is now possible to screen an entire organism — as they have done with the bacterium E. coli. The result is a list of kinetically stable proteins with known 3-D structures. Biocomputation analysis is seeking common features which may be responsible for kinetic stability. It is hoped that new understanding may lead to designing proteins for industrial use — for a kind of natural nanotechnology.

Of course, Rensselaer is, by no means, alone in utilizing transformative tools. I know that many of you access them in your work, as well. And, these are only a few examples of how we can rapidly advance, and enhance our efforts to alleviate some of the imbalances and asymmetries of our world.

What these examples illustrate is that diversity of thought and diversity in how research, itself, is organized are key to meeting the challenges.

We must ask, however, who is going to do — to continue — this transformative, innovative research? Who will follow in your footsteps, in the footsteps of Rensselaer engineers and scientists, and others like them elsewhere?

Carrying out the extensive research and technological innovation on a scale which the global challenges present, requires two consistent investments — investment in human talent — i.e. in the "intellectual security" of a robust American science and engineering workforce, and, investment in research and development (R&D).

Several forces are converging to create a situation which we must face head on.

The cohort of scientists and engineers who brought us atomic energy, jet and rocket propulsion, space and communications technologies, television, computers, semiconductors, microchips, laser optics, fiber optics — and, indeed, mass immunization and control of infectious disease, diagnostic technologies, organ transplantation, molecular genetics, genomics, and rational drug design — the scientists who made these discoveries, and the engineers who drove the innovations, are beginning to retire.

And, at the same time, we are no longer turning out sufficient numbers of new scientists and engineers to replace them.

The ready flow, to the U.S., of talented international scientists and engineers, and graduate students is slowing. Although we have seen some arresting of this trend in the past two years, the underlying affect had been developing for a decade, and was exacerbated by tightened U.S. visa policies after September 11, 2001. At the same time, other nations are investing in their own education and research enterprises, and globalization offers their citizens more opportunities at home, or elsewhere.

U.S. demographics are shifting dramatically. There is a "new majority" — comprising young women, and the racial and ethnic groups, which, traditionally, have been underrepresented in science and engineering. These young people — even the brightest among them — often, are not specifically encouraged to take the preparative coursework which would enable them to pursue a science or engineering degree at the advanced level — even though their enrollment in higher education is increasing.

Yet, if we are to build a future cohort of scientists and engineers, this is where we must look.

These converging factors define what I have been calling the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because it takes decades to educate a biomolecular researcher or a nuclear engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries and innovations create the new industries and initiatives which keep our economy thriving, improve our health, maintain our standard of living, enhance our security, and help to mitigate the scourges that breed suffering and global instability.

It is a major challenge to our entire education system — K-12 and higher education — to reach out to the "underrepresented majority", to inspire and encourage them, and to help them stay in the pipeline. This must occur against the backdrop of encouraging all (and I do mean all) of our young people to take on the challenge of science and advanced mathematics — in primary and secondary school, and to consider science, engineering, and related majors in college, and beyond. Our paramount mission must be to educate all of our students through high school, and into, and through the university to graduation, and on to doctoral or professional study.

There is, yet, another factor in the "Quiet Crisis," one which I suspect touches many of you directly.

Much of the rise, in the last decade, in U.S. federal support for basic research has been driven by increases in support for biomedical research. Over the same period, support for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, until very recently, has been in decline.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) support for biomedical research has plateaued. The examples I spoke of in biotechnology and the life sciences demonstrate that the future scientific discoveries will depend on the conjoining of disciplines. Many of the most important problems, and the most important advances, are inherently interdisciplinary, combining the physical sciences, engineering, and the life sciences. Therefore, support for research and development must be across a broad spectrum of fields.

Moreover, since research and education potentiate each other, lack of support for basic research has a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

I have been calling for a national conversation, and for national leadership, on the "Quiet Crisis" to address our nation's capacity for innovation.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities all have recognized these trends and warn of the consequences if we fail to act. The national conversation is engaged. Last month, more than 270 business and higher education leaders signed a petition calling on Congress to act quickly on critical legislation which promotes U.S. competitiveness and sustains U.S. innovation leadership.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate aimed at helping the United States maintain its competitive leadership in science and technology. The authors of these bills hope to make our country more competitive in the global marketplace by increasing federal basic research investments and strengthening educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and in critical foreign languages — for students of all ages. Supporters are hopeful this legislation can be passed soon. However, there are many issues competing for Congress's attention.

I believe now is time to move from proposals to action ... as leaders and scientists, we must be more involved in the processes of our government. We cannot leave this to others. I urge you to support these efforts and to urge Congress to turn the innovation and competitiveness rhetoric into reality.

Addressing the "Quiet Crisis" cannot be left to our national leaders to handle alone. There is much which can be done in every institution, in every university, in every sector, and at every echelon — as long as there is an acknowledged focus at leadership levels on the importance of increasing diversity.

At Rensselaer we have invested in a variety of pipeline programs to encourage young people's interest in science and mathematics. We host "Lego-robotics" programs in local middle schools in conjunction with their math and science teachers and offer teacher training for K-12 mathematics and science teachers.

A team of Rensselaer professors and students, in conjunction with the local Children's Museum of Science and Technology, and sponsored by the National Science Foundation, developed the Molecularium Project, an interactive learning program for very young children which uses molecular dynamics simulations to teach basic information about atoms, and spark their interest in science.

At annual events such as Black Family Technology Awareness Day and Exploring Engineering Day, young people and their parents spend a day in hands-on workshops, learning about science and engineering, essential education steps and opportunities for young people interested in careers in science, engineering, and technology. Another program, Design Your Future Day, is especially geared for high school girls — to spark their interest in these careers.

Rensselaer hosts after-school, weekend, and summer educational and research experiences for hundreds of middle school and high school students in a comprehensive effort by area school districts, colleges, and businesses to improve academic performance and to increase the number of high school graduates prepared for postsecondary education.

Of course, there are not enough faculty, administrators, upper-class, and graduate-level students of the "new majority" sufficient to serve as role models and mentors to encourage nontraditional students, and to mark career paths for them.

To encourage and mentor students from diverse backgrounds, universities must engage a diverse faculty, and research facilities and laboratories must redouble their efforts to diversify. This is a challenge, nationwide — and, it is a kind of "Catch-22" — institutional change, against a back-drop of possible backlash against those for whom the institution is changing.

Some institutions are stopping the tenure clock, instituting gender-bias training, implementing policies to make academic careers more family-friendly for women and men, and examining the full career spectrum to find out where and how the academic system might be made more welcoming of diversity. Columbia University is spending $15 million to recruit more female and minority professors, using the funds to hire a "critical cluster" of diverse faculty, and to change the process and culture surrounding faculty searches, recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion. Harvard has committed $50 million over the next ten years toward expanding diversity among its faculty.

At Rensselaer, as we have hired more faculty and administrators under our university strategic plan — The Rensselaer Plan — we have begun a university-wide initiative to encourage equal representation of female educators in influential, high-ranking positions. Through the implementation of faculty advancement coaches, pipeline searches to recruit senior women from industry or national labs, mentoring programs, and faculty workshops, the program seeks to support women along the academic career path from junior positions toward tenure and full professorship. The program is called RAMP-UP (Reforming Advancement Processes through University Professions), and is funded by the National Science Foundation. It is expected that RAMP-UP will serve as a national model for advancement reform at other universities and institutions.

Revising underlying administrative policies and programs to encourage and support women and underrepresented groups is a concomitant requirement. As one example, we recently implemented a graduate student maternity leave policy enabling a graduate student to keep her scholarship until she returns from childbirth leave to her research program.

A university, by its nature, has a great many facilities and options for action at its disposal. But, every institution can marshal its own resources in the most effective way for its mission.

Whether efforts such as these succeed depends, as we know, on the degree to which the highest levels of the university are committed to implementing meritocratic practices supporting diverse faculty and students institution-wide. I think we can all agree that increasing diversity is key to the future of scientific discovery and innovation.

To address national and global challenges, we must tap the complete talent pool — both genders, multiple ethnic groups, and cultures. We do not know from whom the next great idea will come. Therefore, we cannot overlook one-half to two-thirds, or more, of our population, and expect to succeed as a society and as a global leader.

The bottom line is that in a global discovery and innovation ecosystem, diversity is a cardinal value. Corporations, in large part, do not need convincing. Many multi-national companies have developed policies to assure the hiring of people whose gender, race, cultural background, and intellectual diversity reflect the constituencies, communities, and global marketplaces, which they serve, and whose unique perspectives enhance collaborative endeavors.

Similarly, a nation's economic health requires that it acknowledge the value of diversity and suffuse that value throughout its institutions and interrelationships. If one accepts the premise that innovation is key to global competitiveness, economic strength, and security, one must understand the essential link of leadership to innovation, and of innovation to the creation and sustenance of a talented multicultural workforce — especially a science and engineering workforce. It is imperative that the talent and intellectual prowess which exists among people of all colors, religions, and creeds, be welcomed and encouraged.

A global perspective — seeing our individual endeavors within the total context — is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Within this context, diversity for science, for discovery, and for innovation is imperative.

Without innovation, and without our creative employment of the diversity which makes up our world, we fail — as a nation, and as a world.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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