On weekends in fair weather, you might find Rita Colwell racing small sailboats with her husband on the Chesapeake Bay. But as the newest director of NSF, the 63-year-old microbiologist now commands a supertanker-sized organization that invests more than $3 billion annually to fund thousands of projects in science and engineering research and education.
While continuing to press issues such as undergraduate teaching and educating the general public about science and technology, Colwell also plans new focus areas for the foundation. K-12 education, biocomplexity and other interdisciplinary research areas, and information technology will be top priorities during her six-year term.
A former president of the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute (UMBI) who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in bacteriology and genetics from Purdue University and a doctorate in marine microbiology from the University of Washington, Colwell is the first woman to head NSF in its 48-year history. She succeeds physicist Neal Lane, who is now President Clinton's science advisor and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
In this interview with Kathryn Tollerton, ASEE public affairs director, Colwell discusses her plans for NSF and where engineering and engineering education fit into the big picture.
What challenges do you see for engineering education in the 21st century?
Engineering education must focus on K-12 education, diversity, and the technological education of the general public. Meeting these challenges is fundamental to the continued leadership and strength of this country. Diversity is absolutely necessary when we look at the demographic changes occurring in the U.S. population. We must bring our best and brightest into science, engineering, and technology because we are a science-, engineering-, and technology-based society. We just cannot have a small, knowledge-powered elite and then a base of public ignorance of science and engineering, which is why we should be teaching our children about those areas early on. To paraphrase: "It's not Y2K, stupid. It's K-12." That is the first challenge of the 21st century.
We also need to keep a strong emphasis on solid teaching in our colleges and universities. I think professors who teach introductory science or engineering courses, or are selected as outstanding teacher or teacher of the year, should automatically receive significant salary increases. This way, the best, most revered teachers would also be the highest paid. That's how you bring recognition, as opposed to a gold watch, or a thank you and a pat on the back.
Do you have any specific ideas for K-12 programs that will interest and prepare students for careers in engineering and science?
I am launching a fellowship program that places engineering, science, and mathematics doctoral students in elementary, middle, and high schools. These student teachers will divide their time between their doctoral research and the classroom, and receive tuition and stipends for their efforts. Classroom teachers will act as mentors, providing advice about the appropriate pedagogical techniques for preparing lesson plans for five-year-olds, for example. This should be a great combustible mixture of bright graduate students and kids who have not been exposed to science and engineering yet, and the experience could also get the student teachers interested in teaching at this level.
What do you see as NSF's research focus during the next six years?
I think the areas of computation and knowledge-distributed intelligence (KDI) are really exciting. The effects of computers' computational capacity will be felt in all areas of science—especially bioengineering, behavioral science, and the social-economic sciences. Biology and biocomplexity are also favorites of mine. In those areas, we have the capacity to handle enormous amounts of data that we can develop into a model of ecosystem dynamics. This helps us understand complexity—the chemical, physical, and environmental aspects of organism interaction and even cell-to-cell interaction. The scientific infrastructure is very exciting.
How would you characterize engineering's role within NSF?
Absolutely critical. Engineering successes, especially in research centers, are a bridge to discovering new applications. For example, I am very impressed with the Mississippi Engineering Research Center, which effectively demonstrates that you can institute change in a very positive way, in an architecturally and aesthetically pleasing facility filled with and run by very bright people, with companies located close enough to facilitate partnership efforts. That is what engineering centers should be.
NSF received a substantial budget increase for 1999. How will this affect NSF programs?
The healthy budget increase will keep the basic disciplines strong and in a leadership position, while allowing us to undertake areas of opportunity, especially at the interdisciplinary levels. Life is no longer compartmentalized, and we certainly must not be at the university and institution level. That's the real challenge: to be able to carry out our initiatives while at the same time keeping a very healthy environment in math, the basic and social sciences, and engineering, because there is still much to be discovered in those areas.
What are your views on enhancing the relationship between biology and engineering, and between the National Institutes of Health and the NSF Engineering Directorate?
Bioengineering is high on my agenda. In general, NSF is going in the direction of partnerships, and we are working with NIH on developing biomedical engineering research and education programs. We will also emphasize the importance of bringing together the basic sciences. For example, getting ecologists to work with epidemiologists, because epidemiology is a subset of ecology. [NIH Director] Harold Varmus himself said that advances in medicine are based on fundamental research in physics, chemistry, and biology, and I agree.
What do you see as NSF's role in attracting more women to engineering and science careers?
That is critical, because women represent at least 50 percent of the workforce and they need to be more involved in such a vital area of our society. If a manufacturing company threw away half of its raw material for no good reason, you would look very critically at the company and its leaders. We have the same challenge with respect to the business of our nation.
Programs like POWRE (Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education), which helps support researchers at critical points in their careers, and the Program for Gender Equity, which promotes continued interest in science and engineering from the earliest stages of education through the career choice stage, are creative and dynamic, but they can certainly be improved.
What do you think is the future of the virtual university?
The virtual university is now a reality. We started a virtual international university in Maryland with a more than $5 million grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation [in Sweden], and it is now in its second year. Courses are taught simultaneously at Norway's University of Bergen, Sweden's Göteberg University, and the University of Maryland. A graduate program is taught online via video teleconferencing, the Web, and e-mail.
I think that virtual universities, virtual laboratories, and virtual consortia are the wave of the future. When the University of Colorado finds that a significant portion of its students enrolled in its distance education program are resident students living on the campus, that tells you something.
Are there educational benefits to developing more cooperative research efforts between industry and research universities?
I did a lot of work in that area for the biotechnology institute, and I was astounded by how well it works. I should have expected it, as well as the extremely positive reaction that came when I visited every biotech company in Maryland. We ended up with a board of business leaders who were extraordinarily supportive of cooperative efforts. UMBI and Life Technologies, Inc. [a private biotech firm] for example, endowed student fellowships.
I think it now has to be recognized that many of our best and brightest scientists and engineers are in industry. We must use this talent by including these people as faculty members and by developing educational programs jointly with industry.
For example, most of the bright people and most of the first-rate equipment in bioinformatics is in the biotech industry. So if you want to do a program in this field, a Nobel Laureate at the New England Bio Labs, for example, would make an excellent advisor for a doctoral student. That type of collaboration can enhance education for scientists, engineers, and technologists.
What can the engineering community do to help you as director of NSF?
Engineers as well as scientists have a tremendously important role, and that is to work very hard to be citizen engineers and scientists. Neal Lane succeeded in making scientists, engineers, and technologists aware of the fact that they must explain to the public what they are doing and must get the public excited about it, because if they don't then who will?
We need people to understand that computers, cell phones, high-speed gas pumps, and exotic offerings in the supermarket did not suddenly appear out of the heavens, but are the results of basic research, inventiveness, and creativity; and are made possible by federally funded NSF science, engineering, and technology programs. That's a powerful job, and I think it is something that the engineering community really should focus on.
Illustration by Dennis Auth