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Stretch Your Wings and Fly to the Sky

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

Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students
Dallas, Texas

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Thank you for inviting me to speak, this evening, as this exceptional event gets underway. It is a privilege to be among the talented scholars, distinguished scientists, illustrious faculty, and academic leaders gathered here. The collaborative sponsorship — of government science agencies, universities, professional societies, and the corporate sector — describes a powerful coalition with a common interest — and, that interest is you and your future.

I have addressed several conferences, this fall. One focused specifically on supporting minority scholars in completing their doctorates and in guiding them to academic careers as tenure-track and tenured faculty. Another focused on women of diversity in college and university leadership positions. This conference joins with the others in responding to a like need — inspiring, guiding, and supporting women and underrepresented groups in careers in the academy, in scientific research (in this case biomedical research), and in leadership.

Why is this important? There are several reasons — each with equal weight.

First and foremost, of course: It is your right and your privilege to pursue careers which challenge and excite you. For those of us who successfully have navigated these waters before you, it is both our privilege and our obligation to do everything we can to help you pursue those interests. That is why we are here.

There are other reasons: Biomedical research holds enormous promise for the relief of human suffering. And, many of the worst scourges affect minorities disproportionately.

African-Americans make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population but account for 39 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed since the beginning of the epidemic. By the end of December 2002, more than 185,000 African-Americans had died with AIDS.

Hispanics make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population but account for 18 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed. A total of 88,000 Hispanics had died with AIDS by the end of 2002.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, cardiovascular disease has been the number one killer in the United States, every year, [except for 1918 — the year of the world-wide flu pandemic in which some 20 million to 40 million people died.] Nearly 2,600 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, for an average of one death every 34 seconds. In 2001, cardiovascular disease caused the deaths of 48,939 black males and 56,821 black females. The rate of heart disease per 100,000 population is 43.5 for non-Hispanic blacks, while it is 18.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites, and 10.3 for Hispanics.

There is another important reason to encourage you. Increasing the proportion of diversity in the sciences is critical because our national innovation workforce (the current cohort of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists) is aging and will retire soon. Fewer students are choosing to study these subjects, and the number of international students coming to the U.S. to study and to work is dropping. This is due, in some measure, to the visa tightening policies instituted after September 11, 2001, but, perhaps more importantly, also, to new opportunities for the best and the brightest to study and to work in their home countries.

We must replace this workforce because it is essential to our national capacity for innovation, which keeps our economy strong and growing. But, our demographics are changing. In mid-century, by some estimates, nearly half of the U.S. population will be from ethnic minority groups, and, of course, half will be women, as well. So a new cohort of scientists and technologists will come, of necessity, from groups which traditionally have been underrepresented in the sciences. And, although women are rising in numbers in academe, both they and underrepresented minorities have yet to realize their full potential, to become the researchers, scholars, educators, role models, and mentors for future generations.

There is a fourth reason why diversity is critical. We know that diversity is a desirable, valuable commodity, enabling the innovation process, so essential to American competitiveness in a global economy. The experience of diversity creates skillful leaders, brings differing ideas and perspectives to bear on a problem, and gives corporations a unique ability to function with corporate partners and consumers in today's global environment. This is something which is increasingly recognized and acknowledged, especially in the corporate sector.

I have entitled this presentation, "Stretch Your Wings And Fly To The Sky." It is a quote by Challenger astronaut Ron McNair. The Challenger exploded and crashed in January 1986, and its seven crewmembers were lost. Ron McNair, one of the seven, was a friend of mine, and I will tell you more about him shortly. Ron believed in pushing the edge of the technological envelope, which is precisely where biomedical research will take you. I chose this title because you are poised on the edge of one of the greatest technological revolutions in human history, and you are ready to soar.

The promise of biotechnology and biomedical research is enormous. There are those who will tell you that in the field of physics, which is my area of specialty, we know perhaps as much as sixty to eighty percent of what there is to know. But in biotechnology and biomedicine, we may know as little as 10 percent of what there is to know, and what we need to know. But research today is pushing the edges of the biomedical envelope.

For example, researchers at Harvard University now are able to perform nanosurgery on an internal part of a single cell, without disturbing the rest of the cell. Nanoscale lasers, using pulses measured in femtoseconds (a thousandth of a trillionth of a second), are directed through an epifluorescent microscope. Focused on a tiny point within a cell — the mitochondria, for example — the high-intensity beam can remove a cell portion with such precision that other parts of the cell, just one-millionth of an inch away, remain unaffected.

This research team has used the technique on the skin cells of mice, which bear a strong resemblance to human cells, and has been able to cut the connecting fibers between two nerve cells in worms which enable their sense of smell.

Our greatest limit is the current level of knowledge about how the body works. Employing this technique may help us learn more about the complicated network of functioning parts and fibers which make up the internal workings of cells. By isolating physical structures of cells — and, changes to them — we may come to understand their role in ailments such as heart disease or diabetes.

Although the use of embryonic stem cells is controversial, adult stem cells offer great promise, as I am sure you are aware, and are already being used in the current practice of medicine. The type known as hematopoietic stem cells, which form blood, have been used for decades in bone marrow transplants. Recent studies have shown the potential for stem-cell use in the treatment of diabetes and cancer, and researchers believe stem cells can be used to create tissues for medical therapies for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, and more.

In March of 2003, a 16 year-old boy from Royal Oak, Michigan was accidentally shot in the heart with a nail gun, suffering a heart attack. Doctors at William Beaumont Hospital, in Royal Oak, used drugs to stimulate production of hematopoietic stem cells in his blood, which they then isolated and injected into an artery feeding the heart muscle. Within days, the youthís heart pumping capacity increased from 25 percent to 35 percent.

Ultimately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) forbade further treatment along these lines, although the boy's own stem cells were being used, and transplants of bone marrow, the primary source of adult stem cells, have been used in treatments for some time. The doctors did not seek prior FDA approval because it was an emergency surgery, and because they believed the procedure was permitted. The young man is still living.

The potential for stem-cell research may be most dramatic in treatment of spinal-cord trauma. Eleven thousand people suffer spinal-cord injuries every year in the United States, and only a few years ago these injuries were thought to be beyond medical help. Stem cells are crucial for spinal-cord treatments, because nerve cells, unlike other types of cells, do not regenerate.

Last month Christopher Reeve, whom we all knew as the "Superman" of the movies, died at age 52. Paralyzed from the neck down after a 1995 riding accident, he maintained the hope that stem cell research would offer doctors treatment options for serious diseases and illnesses, and repair traumatic injuries, including spinal cord injuries.

Dr. John McDonald, a leader in this field, now of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, developed the therapy and exercise programs which enabled Christopher Reeve to re-establish some movement and sensation in his limbs. In 1999, Dr. McDonald led a team which transplanted stem cells to the location of spinal-cord injuries in rats. The result of his experiment was remarkable: several weeks later, the formerly paralyzed rats had use of their hind legs once again. This work also has been done by Professor Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was able to accomplish the same type of result, as these pictures show. In testimony in June of 2003 before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, Dr. McDonald said that while science does not offer guarantees, it 'is a process in which we knock on 20 doors: nineteen open with nothing behind them; one opens to reveal a pot of gold."

Other scientists at Johns Hopkins University have developed a self-assembling protein gel which stimulates biological signals to quicken the growth of cells. Using a combination of cells, engineered materials, and biochemical factors, the gel can replace, repair, or regenerate damaged tissues. And, at the Georgia Institute of Technology researchers are developing a gel to treat combat soldiers who suffer infections from wounds in the field, such as burns or abrasions. This liquid emulsion, when applied to the wound, forms a protective layer that is permeable to air and water, but guards against microorganisms. The emulsion contains control-released, anti-microbial agents, which treat the wound. The new technology addresses the critical needs of soldiers fighting in isolated areas without the availability of nearby medical treatment.

This fall my own university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, opened a new research facility which ranks among the world's most advanced. It is focused on the application of engineering and the physical and information sciences to the life sciences. The core research facilities contain laboratories for molecular biology, analytical biochemistry, microbiology, imaging, histology, tissue and cell culture, proteomics, and scientific computing and visualization. Rensselaer research teams, which include graduate and undergraduate students, are engaged in interdisciplinary research across broad fronts.

Recent advances in chemistry and screening techniques make it possible to identify large numbers of promising compounds, known as derivative libraries. Yet, subsequent testing to evaluate each compound is expensive and slow. The current process for developing a single new therapeutic drug can take many years and cost as much as $1.7 billion. The resulting bottleneck in drug development has attracted considerable attention among researchers advancing more efficient, affordable processes. For example, Dr. Jonathan Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann '42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer, leads a research team developing tools to synthesize and screen promising compounds rapidly, to identify those most suitable for development as potential new drugs. Dr. Dordick and his research team use novel techniques that will, if successful, generate completely new compounds, accessing a whole new range of molecules and expanding molecular libraries.

Dr. George Plopper, assistant professor of biology at Rensselaer, is researching what he refers to as "bone spackle," an engineered tissue that may one day be used to help bone injuries heal faster and stronger.

Dr. Plopper and his graduate students work with adult human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC), which have the specialized potential to become one of three forms of connective tissue — bone, cartilage, or fat. Adult stem cells are extracted from banked bone marrow samples and then grown in the laboratory. A team member in mathematical sciences provides the predictive analysis which ultimately will sort out the set of conditions which will cause the hMSC to differentiate into bone cells.

Chemicals are often used in culture dishes to artificially stimulate hMSC to differentiate into bone. In the body, however, these chemicals can cause a number of problems including liver toxicity, immune system disorders, and infection. Plopper's goal is to develop bone reliably from stem cells without the use of chemicals. The researchers have selected a specific protein, called focal adhesion kinase (FAK), a decision-making protein which may signal stem cells to become bone at an early stage of differentiation. The researchers hope that "turning on" FAK will be a chemical-free method of creating engineered bone cells which could be safely used in people.

These researchers also want to learn to recognize when stem cells begin the transformation to bone, as opposed to turning into cartilage or fat. Someday, these engineered bone cells could be directly injected into the site of a bone injury. Or, in the form of a paste, the cells could serve as a bone "spackle," spread onto the ends of fractured bones, or used to fill in a crack. Similar to a skin graft, applying this veritable jumpstart of bone cells would mean that healing time should decrease significantly, or could strengthen the attachment of hip or knee replacements, and may even be able to repair the painful degradation of bone ends which occurs in severe arthritis.

As these examples show, all research and technology indicators suggest that biotechnology and information technology (IT), coupled with the convergence of microsystems and nanotechnologies, are closely aligned with global and societal priorities, are important for human health and welfare, and are, primary drivers of economic growth. They will dominate the future.

And, you are part of that future. Indeed, you are that future.

Pushing new knowledge, biotechnology and biomedical research will transform how we think of our selves, what language we use, and will revise our sense of what is possible and what is impossible. Its impact on our society and culture will be huge, and you are positioned to be a part of this change and this societal dialogue.

This is not unlike the technological revolutions of the past. The advent of a light weight internal combustion engine enabled transportation by automobile and aircraft, and ultimately led to space flight — completely transforming how we live, where we live, how we think about the world — not to mention how swiftly disease is able to cross national boundaries. Those technologies transformed our concept of "the standard of impossibility."

The Internet and telecommunications technologies have transformed our lives, in our lifetimes, changing how people communicate, and even how parents and children relate to each other.

But, this is old news.

You are sitting on top of the new news. Biomedical discoveries push back the "frontiers of impossibility" causing us to rethink what it means to be human; to examine how we relate to the natural world — indeed, the very nature of nature, if you will.

As scholars in these disciplines, you will be making not only the discoveries of the future, but changing the world and shaping the cultural dialogue, as well.

I said before that I would tell you about Dr. Ronald Ervin McNair and how his unique approach and outlook teaches us some important lessons and serves as a metaphor.

I knew Ron McNair, when I was at M.I.T. He was an exceptional achiever, the product of a segregated community, the son of an auto mechanic and a high school teacher. He was taught to read by his grandmother — who could read, but not write. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class, and went on to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) University where he studied physics. He graduated magna cum laude and was named a Ford Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar. He was intelligent, insatiably curious, eager, relentless in pursuit of excellence, determined to succeed, with a highly developed work ethic.

I came to know Ron in 1970, during the spring semester of his junior year. He came to M.I.T. on a program to introduce HBCU students to graduate school opportunities at M.I.T. I was his mentor, and I interacted with him from time to time that semester. But, it was when he came back in the fall of 1971, as a graduate student, that I came to know him well.

At the time, I had an apartment off campus, and a group of African-American students, in both physics and chemistry, would come to my house to study. This was because I was a little ahead of them in graduate school, and already had been through many of the courses they were taking. I would lend them my previous problem sets and old tests. Ron would come to study about once a week. While I did my thesis research calculations in one room, he would study in another. He had tremendous focus and tenacity — working nonstop for hours at a time.

He also was an exceptional competitor — a fifth level black belt in karate — who would never permit himself to be defeated. The story about him which best shows this aspect, concerns the time when he was working on his doctoral thesis. One night, he was mugged and lost his case which contained all his data — the accumulation of two years of specialized laser physics research. Despite this setback, he began again, and produced a second data set in less than a year. He never complained and claimed that the second data set turned out better than the first.

Ron received his Ph.D. in physics in 1976 and joined the staff at the Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu. There, he continued to work with lasers, specifically laser application in isotope separation, and photochemistry reactions in low-temperature liquids. Two years later he submitted an application for NASA shuttle personnel and for astronaut training. Of the 8,000 applicants, Ron was one of 35 accepted, but almost immediately, he faced another setback — he was seriously injured in a car accident, and was warned that he might miss the start of NASA training. Again, typical of his personal ethic of determination, perseverance, and achievement, Ron worked to recover fully, and began training on time.

Ultimately, astronaut Ronald Ervin McNair became the second African American in space. On his first flight in 1984, aboard the multipurpose orbital space shuttle Challenger, he conducted experiments involving, among other things, optical and electrical properties of arc discharge, atomic oxygen erosion, cosmic ray physics, growth of spores, protein crystallization, and seed germination. And, he operated the remote shuttle arm.

In January 1986, he was a crewmember aboard the Challenger, again. Shortly after lift off, a rubber ring, sealing a joint on one of the solid rocket boosters, failed. When flames reached the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellant, the Challenger was lost.

I was at Bell Labs, Xeroxing journal articles, when someone rushed up and said, "Did you hear that the space shuttle exploded?" I was shocked and had a sense of foreboding because I knew Ron was on that shuttle. More than anything, I was hurt — for Ron, his family, his friends, and his colleagues — for America, for we had lost a great son of the Black Community, a great son of America.

In fact, the seven Challenger astronauts lost that day were the first space crew which reflected all America — diverse in gender, race, religion, and in aspiration.

It is hard — even in retrospect — to think about January 28, 1986. I have often thought about Ron McNair — about him studying for hours on end at my apartment on Henry Street in Cambridge, Mass. I have thought about how hard he worked to become what he became — a physicist, husband, astronaut, father, pioneer.

I spoke with Ron a few weeks before he took that second Challenger flight. He expected that to be his last shuttle flight. Interestingly enough, he was talking of becoming a professor. No doubt he would have, had he not been on the Challenger that fateful day. In fact, if Ron had been able to become a professor, he would have come full circle. He began in academia — it launched his career. He worked in industry after his Ph.D. — at Hughes Research Laboratory. He worked for the government as an astronaut — and was a hero because of it. Instead of being a professor, he became a national icon because he lost his life doing what he loved — stretching the edge of the envelope.

Ronís personal ethic remains with us, however. That ethic propelled him to the highest achievements — to the stars, and beyond. He was a trailblazer and a precedent-setter. He never allowed adversity to deter him, and continually challenged himself. He was willing to do whatever it took, and this is what makes him an ideal role model. His life offers us important lessons.

Ron believed that pushing technology and challenging ourselves to the limit engages us fully, and stretches our imaginations and our achievements. He believed that the risk is not in the doing, so much as in the not doing. He believed that to remain where you are most comfortable is the greater risk. The determination he demonstrated is what it takes to complete a task of academic study, and to follow the rigorous path to the exciting and challenging careers in biomedical researchóthe kind of work which will change the world.

Ron, also, felt that being in space, and seeing Earth from a great height, gave clear evidence that we are one community, interconnected, and fragile — that what affects one, affects us all. This lesson teaches us nothing if not that we must care for each other and for the world community. There could not be a better message for young people — for you — about to enter careers in biomedical research, which holds so much promise to alleviate suffering.

You are not unlike Ron McNair. You are intelligent and, I am sure, insatiably curious and eager, or you would not be here. You must be relentless in pursuit of excellence, determined to succeed, with a highly developed work ethic. You are the next generation of Ron McNairs.

As I close, I leave you with his wish and his advice for your success. He said:

"Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them, and how badly you want them. You are eagles! Stretch your wings and fly to the sky."


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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