ARCS Eagle Award Acceptance
2022 Eagle Award and Scholar Award Presentation
I am so honored to accept the Eagle Award from the ARCS Foundation Metropolitan Washington Chapter. I am especially honored to follow in the footsteps of the 2021 awardee, Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, current Acting Science Advisor to President Joe Biden and co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we also are honoring Dr. Collins this spring, and will be awarding him an honorary degree at our Commencement ceremony.
I have been asked to say a few words about my own career trajectory. Interestingly enough, the same historical forces that led to the founding of ARCS in 1958, and to the launch of the Metropolitan Washington Chapter in 1968, were also transformative for me — opening up opportunities for a young science-inspired girl — opportunities that would not have been open to my parents.
So, let me begin at the beginning. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and was blessed to have wonderful parents. My mother, a social worker who loved literature, taught me and my siblings to read before kindergarten.
My father, a postal worker, who never had the opportunity to graduate from high school, was mathematically and mechanically gifted. He served in World War II, in a segregated Army unit. During the Normandy invasion, when the rudders of the amphibious vehicles bringing supplies and troops to shore kept breaking, he was able to improvise a repair — with a special splice that he created on the spot. For that, he received a Bronze Star. His technique was taught to the U.S. Army maintenance units throughout France, for the remainder of the conflict.
My parents encouraged my early interests in science. My father helped me and my siblings to build and to race go-karts. I learned a lot about the principles of mechanics and aerodynamics from this experience, and I quickly figured out that the skill of the go-kart driver was less important than the aerodynamic design of the vehicle.
I also would capture live bees, and keep them in Mason jars under our back porch. I observed how they behaved under different conditions — such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to during the day. Today, we would say that I was doing experiments in circadian biology. This is an important area of research, including at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, because disruptions in our circadian rhythms have many impacts on human health.
As a child, I also was very fortunate in the convergence of two events that allowed me to receive an excellent education. The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C., public schools in 1955, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend a good school, right in my own neighborhood, with more competition, and with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives.
The second event occurred two years later, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which occasioned fear among United States political leaders and policymakers that we might be losing the Cold War. This sparked the Space Race, which, as you know, culminated with human missions to the moon. Sputnik 1 also prompted a group of extremely far-sighted women in Los Angeles to take a new approach to educational philanthropy by creating the ARCS Foundation.
And Sputnik 1 spurred a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools that benefitted almost every scientist of my generation. This educational focus dovetailed with my own interests and allowed me to excel.
I was valedictorian of my high school graduating class, and after a very encouraging educational experience, entered MIT — where for the first time, I experienced real discrimination, as one of just two African American women in my class.
Many of my fellow students were unwelcoming, leaving me out of their study groups. More surprisingly, some of the professors were equally unwelcoming.
When I was considering majoring in physics, I sought out a distinguished professor for advice. He told me, “Colored girls should learn a trade.”
I was shocked and hurt by his low expectations for me, especially since I had the highest grades in his class. But I realized that I was faced with a choice: either to give in to ignorance, or to continue to pursue excellence. So, I chose the latter, and made physics my trade.
When I was a senior at MIT and deciding where to attend graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania physics department, hoping to recruit me, invited me to visit in April of 1968. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist. I was very interested in the work of Dr. John Robert Schrieffer, who was at Penn, and whose contributions to the BCS theory of superconductivity would lead to his sharing a Nobel Prize in Physics with John Bardeen and Leon Cooper.
However, a strange, tragic coincidence sent me down a different path. As I was leaving Penn after the visit, in a car with my sorority sister, on my way to the Philadelphia airport, the radio broadcast was interrupted, and we learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot, and later died.
By the time I got back to Cambridge, I knew that I would remain at MIT for graduate school. I was inspired by the courage of Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement, and MIT was the place where I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better. Of course, MIT was an excellent place to study physics, but it was not as active in condensed matter physics at that time, so I changed my focus to elementary particle physics.
As a first-year graduate student, I helped to found the Black Students’ Union, which presented a set of demands to the MIT administration — only we politely called them “proposals.” Associate Provost Paul Gray, who later became President of MIT, listened, formed a Task Force on Educational Opportunity, and asked me to join it.
The Task Force accomplished a great deal, and MIT began, for the first time, to actively recruit minority students and faculty in significant numbers. It also initiated a six-week summer program, called Project Interphase, that helped to prepare incoming minority freshmen for the rigorous coursework they would encounter. The program was open to all who needed it. Although I was still a student, I was asked to design, and teach in, the physics curriculum.
The students I helped to bring to MIT — and helped to adjust to its culture — truly excelled. They proved to the world that scientific and engineering talent is not restricted to one race, or one sex, or one story of origin.
That experience and recognition of my work in theoretical physics, led to many more opportunities for leadership. These included being invited to serve on the MIT Corporation—the institute board of trustees—where today I am a Life Member.
After obtaining my Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics, I was fortunate to gain a postdoctoral position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. There, I had the privilege of getting to know a fellow theorist, Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
She persuaded me to spend a year in Switzerland, doing research with her. At CERN, I worked with Mary K. on a paper on diffractive elastic neutrino production, and developed an interest in the topological properties of solutions to nonlinear field theories. I also gained the invaluable perspective offered by time abroad.
After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete a third postdoctoral year, and as I thought about what I would do next, a unique opportunity arose in my original field of interest — theoretical condensed matter physics.
I was introduced, by Dr. John Klauder, whom I had met at a theoretical physics summer school during graduate school, to Dr. T. Maurice Rice, the head of the theoretical physics department at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey — arguably the greatest industrial research laboratory in history, 15 of whose scientists have won Nobel Prizes.
Dr. Rice invited me to deliver a colloquium at Bell Labs, where I explained how my interests in topology could be applied to certain models of condensed matter systems, and I won a limited-term appointment. A year later, after IBM offered me a job, Bell Labs moved quickly to make my position permanent—based on work I had done with Maurice Rice and Patrick Lee, in the theoretical physics department at Bell Labs, on charge density waves in layered compounds.
I had a number of research successes at Bell Labs, focusing on the electronic and optical properties of two dimensional and quasi two dimensional systems. For that work, I achieved recognition within the greater community of scientists. I was elected a fellow of American Physical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Two other windows opened for me during this time, that set me down new paths, and changed my life. First, I was asked to join the board of a natural gas company — New Jersey Resources — and for the first time became engaged with energy policy. As a result, I was a natural choice when a recruiter was looking for a new director for PSEG, or the Public Service Enterprise Group. PSEG owned or co-owned five nuclear reactors. Because of my original background in elementary particle physics, I sat on, and later chaired for a number of years, the PSEG nuclear oversight committee, visiting its nuclear power plants often.
The second window was government service. I was asked by New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to join, as a founding member, the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which created partnerships between industry and government in disciplines important to the state economy. The position was unpaid, but required State Senate confirmation, and introduced me to a number of prominent businesspeople and government leaders. Two governors subsequent to Governor Kean also tapped me for advisory roles — one of which required State Senate confirmation.
We can have, in life, both witting and unwitting mentors. I am unsure how my name arose when President Bill Clinton was looking, in 1994, for a Commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission — or NRC — which licenses, regulates, and safeguards the civilian use of nuclear reactors, nuclear materials, spent nuclear fuel, and nuclear wastes. However, given my scientific background, my government service in New Jersey, and my familiarity with nuclear power plants from PSEG, I was ready for this leap.
Of course, I had a moment of disbelief, when the White House first called and asked me to send my resume for an unspecified position. After I interviewed for a spot as one of five commissioners, President Clinton offered me the job of Chairman of the NRC.
Suddenly, I had a staff of 3,000 people, a budget of over $500 million, and responsibility for an organization that oversaw a multi-hundred-billion dollar set of enterprises, at a time of growing public concerns about the safety of nuclear power — especially in the aftermath of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine in 1986.
I recognized that the NRC needed to reaffirm its fundamental health and safety mission, enhance its regulatory effectiveness, and position itself for change.
So, I held public meetings, listened to community concerns, and led the development of a strategic plan for the NRC — its first ever. This plan, and the related planning, budgeting, and performance management system (PBPM), put the NRC on a more businesslike footing — and it remains the NRC planning and budgeting approach today.
We also put in place the first license renewal process to extend the operating lives of nuclear reactors, and introduced an approach to regulation at the NRC that used probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis — risk-informed, performance-based regulation— which persists in the nuclear arena to this day.
My tenure at the NRC coincided with the initial aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and I became very involved in international efforts at the highest levels to promote nuclear safety and nuclear non-proliferation.
There was concern about the tracking and control, in the Newly Independent States, of the weapons-grade enriched uranium of the Soviet nuclear programs. Moreover, many of the Newly Independent States were left with reactors of the same design as Chernobyl, without having the full design basis documentation of the plants.
Representing the U.S. government on the bilateral Gore-Chernomyrdin (U.S.-Russian Federation) Commission on Scientific and Economic Cooperation, I had the opportunity to lead the NRC in developing nuclear safety frameworks in the Newly Independent States — with associated regulation development and inspector training. We also worked with other U.S. government agencies to secure the Newly Independent States weapons-grade uranium.
Clearly, this work continues to have repercussions today. Under the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the United States, and Great Britain.
My tenure also coincided with the end of apartheid in South Africa. The post-apartheid government did not have the expertise needed to oversee the nuclear facilities and programs it inherited. With my service on another bilateral commission, the Gore-Mbeki (U.S.-South Africa) Commission, we also developed nuclear safety frameworks — and helped with the development of regulations and the training of inspectors.
After meeting, early in my tenure at the NRC, with my senior nuclear regulatory counterparts from around the world, I saw the need for even greater international cooperation to avoid disasters such as Chernobyl in the future. So, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA), as a high-level forum for chief nuclear regulators. The initial membership comprised Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. I was elected the first Chairman of the group, from 1997 to 1999. The INRA still exists today, with its membership expanded to include South Korea.
During my tenure as Chairman, the NRC also initiated and advocated for an international Convention on Nuclear Safety. It took a lot of work with the U.S. Congress (Senate), but we did manage to get it ratified, just before it entered into force. The Convention on Nuclear Safety remains in force, today, as a multilateral nuclear safety framework.
Four years after I took office at the NRC, another unforeseen opportunity arose, and another decision. I was asked to assume the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest private technological research university in the United States. The Rensselaer Board of Trustees was looking for a change agent after an unsettled period during which Rensselaer had five presidents in 14 years.
With the experience I had garnered in government and in business, as well as in academia, I saw that I could help Rensselaer to regain its promise — to re-establish its presence as a world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact.
My initial vision for shaping Rensselaer was captured in an ambitious strategic effort known as The Rensselaer Plan, followed by The Rensselaer Plan 2024.
The Plan was designed to prepare Rensselaer for leadership in areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century by focusing on “signature thrusts” in…
- Computational science and engineering;
- Biotechnology and the life sciences;
- Nanotechnology and advanced materials;
- Energy, the environment, and smart systems; and
- Media, the arts, science, and technology.
We have succeeded in doing just that. We have expanded and strengthened our graduate programs.
We have transformed our Troy campus by building state-of-the-art research platforms that include the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and the Center for Computational Innovations, which houses the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. We also have expanded the footprint of the campus. We also have upgraded the physical and technological infrastructure of the campus, while enhancing the student residential and athletic facilities. Since 1999, more than $1.4 billion has been invested in The Rensselaer Plan.
We have hired over 450 tenured and tenure-track faculty members, and have tripled sponsored research awards and expenditures. Our world-class faculty includes members of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors; many fellows of technical and professional societies; and numerous recipients of national and international awards.
As we have transformed the university, we have changed how we teach, what we teach, and the pathways our students take through the university.
The “how” is reflected in new approaches such as the new AI-driven gamification of certain courses in immersive virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) environments, utilizing the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, as well as immersive platforms developed by our faculty.
The “what” is exemplified by the development and implementation of three broad-based common core requirements, for all students, in Communications, HASS Inquiry courses, and Data Dexterity, as well as through the creation of 25 new degree programs across all schools, including Biological Neuroscience, Music, Sustainability Studies, Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Information Technology and Web Science, Biochemistry and Biophysics, Human Computer Interaction, and Design Innovation, and Society.
The “journeys” our students take now occur through new programs such as the five year co-terminal B.S./M.S. program, The Arch, which allows students to have extended time away in pre-professional activities, and, now, the Accel/Accel+ program, which offers a three-year B.S. track, and a four-year B.S./M.S. track, while further strengthening the overall student experience through the First-Year Experience and CLASS, otherwise known as Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students.
We also have increased scholarships, and grown undergraduate research. As a result, demand for a Rensselaer education has never been greater.
Within a vision we term The New Polytechnic, Rensselaer leads by serving as a great crossroads for talented people working across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations. Together, enabled by the most advanced tools and technologies, they collaborate on the greatest challenges of humanity in energy, water, and food security; in climate change and the need for sustainable infrastructure and materials; in national and global security; in human health; and in the allocation of scarce natural resources.
The education we offer reflects this multi-disciplinarity. As one among many examples, a few years ago, we instituted a first-in-the-nation “data dexterity” requirement, ensuring that every undergraduate is prepared to apply analytics to diverse datasets to solve complex problems in their particular fields.
As we have accomplished this transformation of Rensselaer, I have kept my fingers on the pulse of industry by serving on the boards of leading corporations, including IBM, FedEx, Medtronic, PSEG, and the New York Stock Exchange. I also have served on the boards of leading nonprofits and associations, including the World Economic Forum USA, the Smithsonian Institution, where I was Vice Chair of the Board of Regents, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I served both as President and Chair of the Board, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
I also have maintained my commitment to policymaking in science and national security. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed me to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, where I served for over five years. As a member of PCAST, I co-chaired with Eric Schmidt of Google a major study on advanced manufacturing, whose recommendations led to a number of important initiatives — including the Manufacturing USA network of institutes devoted to key new technologies to undergird advanced manufacturing.
In 2014, President Obama asked me to serve as co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), which assesses issues pertaining to the quality, quantity, and adequacy of intelligence activities — an important role at a fraught time, given the rise of non-state actors and the threat of cyberattacks of many kinds. To support our national intelligence activities, I advocated for stronger analytical approaches to the assessment of data —both structured and unstructured— from disparate data sources —work which links to expertise we have developed at Rensselaer in what we term DAIC: data, artificial intelligence, and computation.
In addition, I served on the U.S. Department of State International Security Advisory Board from 2011 to 2017, and the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board from 2013 to 2017—roles I have taken on once again in the Biden Administration. I also am advising the U.S. Department of Defense as a member of the Defense Science Board.
In 2019, The Nature Conservancy asked me to serve on its global board, to help it address the very greatest of challenges facing the planet Earth.
Each role that I have had has informed the others — helping me to lead Rensselaer with perspectives gained from multiple realms. And I have had the great privilege of continuing to grow professionally and intellectually.
In short, it has been quite a career for a theoretical elementary particle physicist!
I do think of my career as one in which windows of opportunity have opened at unexpected moments and in unexpected directions. Because I had the courage to step through those windows and to take on new challenges, I have had opportunities to lead in many different realms. Any success that I have had has built on what I have done before, and importantly, because of a window in time opened for me at the earliest stages of my life.
So, I would advise the young scholars here today that, while you are on the paths you have set for yourselves, if you are offered a chance to develop new perspectives and grow, take it. You can accomplish more than you think! And the world needs brilliant young scientists and engineers to do world-class research, to help solve global challenges, to help shape public policy, and to enhance the communication of science to non-scientists.
The one note of disappointment in an otherwise wonderful career is that — almost 50 years since I was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT — women and minorities are still too rare in many STEM fields, especially in computer science, engineering, and my own field of physics.
If they are not welcomed into these fields — essential to our prosperity and national security —the United States is handicapping itself economically and geopolitically.
We are an innovative country and economy, but there is no innovation without innovators.
I long have termed our failure to cultivate the full complement of talent a “The Quiet Crisis.” It is quiet because it takes years to educate a scientist or engineer. But when a shortfall appears, it is indeed a crisis. Therefore, as we must continue to welcome exquisite talent from abroad, we must likewise welcome into STEM young people with the interest, aptitude, and tenacity to do this work.
It has been so heartening, looking over the list of outstanding scholars awarded support by the ARCS Metropolitan Washington Chapter — to consider the fascinating research they are engaged in — and to see that among them are women pursing doctorates in physics, computer science, and engineering.
Helping young people live up to their full potential is the most important work in the world. That has been the focus of my career for the past 23 years. I am deeply honored to be recognized by an organization entirely focused on this work, the ARCS Foundation’s Metropolitan Washington Chapter.
I thank you for all that you do, and for listening to my story.