“I Was a Teenage Scientist: Life Lessons from the Lab”
Remarks at Intel Science Talent Search Alumni Dinner
March 11, 2011
Good evening! It is such an honor for me to be in a room with so much talent and potential. Congratulations on being named finalists in the prestigious 2011 Intel Science Talent Search.
Just a few months ago, the grand-prize winner from last year’s Intel competition was honored by a national publication. It wasn’t the Washington Post, or Science, or the New York Times.
Instead, Glamour magazine held up Erika DeBenedictis as one of the year’s “20 Amazing Young Women Who Are Already Changing the World.”
Here was a publication that typically writes about fashion, dating and skincare, shining the spotlight on an aspiring scientist who is exploring how to improve space travel.
I loved Erika’s reaction to the publicity. “It’s not every magazine,” she said, “that realizes that science can be glamorous.”
She’s right. Science is beautiful. It is beautiful, and rewarding, and absolutely critical to our country’s future as a nation that competes and contributes in the global economy.
We are a nation desperate for more scientists and engineers – scientists and engineers from all walks of life, all backgrounds, who reflect the growing diversity of our nation. America is simply not producing enough college graduates right now to replace the scientists and engineers who are retiring.
President Obama himself said in this year’s State of the Union address that we must “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”
That means you, and I hope you are ready for the challenge. America has long been recognized as a global leader in science and technology. But we know, from the National Science Foundation and other organizations, that our nation is slipping in how we prepare and nurture the talent of tomorrow.
Your hard work shows us what is possible. Your accomplishment as an Intel Science Talent Search finalist places you squarely in the spotlight as our nation’s brightest hope for the future. Your ideas and theories are going to lead our country to new cures, solutions and technologies.
That is why I am so happy to be here tonight: to congratulate you, encourage you, and provide a little advice about being a scientist in a country that absolutely must place more value on discovery, innovation and the creation of new knowledge.
You will not forget this week in Washington, or your achievements as Intel finalists. Fifty years ago, I experienced the same feelings of pride and excitement that you, and your families, are enjoying.
I was a high school senior in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and I had come home from school for lunch. I always had lunch with my dad, who was a professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
I can remember this so clearly. Waiting for me was a Western Union telegram – our generation’s version of a text message – telling me I was a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
Oh my gosh, what an honor. I could not believe it. My mother was a third-grade teacher, and I phoned her school to have her pulled out of class to share the news. I was the first student from Iowa to ever be named a Westinghouse finalist.
I think the best feeling was how my classmates treated me. I wasn’t a freak or a nerd, and being good at science didn’t make me odd. Instead, they were just as excited. I felt like a football star.
Now, I didn’t look like a football star, or a rock star. I have to share a few images of the science winners of 1961, and our visit to Washington, where we had the honor of meeting President John F. Kennedy.
Here we are, gathered on the South Lawn of the White House … I think our wardrobes are a little different from today’s styles. Maybe Lady Gaga can bring back white gloves and bucket hats.
And in this second photo, here I am … the young lady right between President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
I thought so highly of President Kennedy, and I’m clearly captivated by what he’s saying.
And in this third photo, here we all are, in the Oval Office with the president. Again, I remember this so clearly. That young man on the far right, who is leaning over, is Robert Axelrod, and today he is a highly respected political scientist at the University of Michigan and former president of the American Political Science Association.
If you had told me then that I would become president of one of the world’s leading research universities, I would have laughed out loud. The only thing I was sure of at age 17 was that I loved chemistry and maybe, just maybe, I would become a college professor.
That leads me to first piece of advice for you.
As young people who enjoy exploring and probing, I encourage you to always embrace the unknown.
None of you know where your interests will take you. You will face opportunities that will seem foreign, and not what you envisioned for yourself.
Don’t turn away from them. Always remain open to the idea of experimentation, whether in the lab, in your community, or in your relationships.
Sally Ride, a physicist and the first American woman to go into space, said, “All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.”
My career began as a university biochemist in cancer research, and I did that for 20 years. When I was asked to move from the laboratory to university administration, I was certain it would be dull and boring. All I could think of was spending my days at a desk, pushing paper and missing the lab.
What I didn’t see was the opportunity I would have to work with so many interesting people. Or the chance to build entire academic programs. Or the opportunity to raise money to fund really good ideas of students and faculty. I didn’t see then, as I do now, that I could change the direction of a major institution and have a real impact.
So I’m glad I did not back away from an opportunity that seemed totally alien.
Neither have your predecessors in the Intel competition. I’m sure you have read about their remarkable careers: seven Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, 11 genius grants from the MacArthur Foundation, 30 inductions in the National Academy of Sciences.
But not all Intel stars have made names for themselves in science alone. They have walked through doors that unexpectedly opened for them and traveled in different, rewarding directions.
Julia Deiters was a finalist in 1944. She went on to major in math and chemistry in college, but then answered a higher calling and became a Catholic nun. She shared her love of science by tutoring high school dropouts.
Finalist Joe Buff was a math whiz who graduated from college at age 18. Today, he is a wizard of words, a bestselling novelist who writes naval technology thrillers.
Finalist Ian Sobieski holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and aerospace engineering, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in aeronautics. He takes flight today as a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.
And a 1998 semi-finalist who researched the enzymatic production of hydrogen from sugar was just involved in a much flashier production known as the Oscars. Before receiving an Academy Award for best actress, Natalie Portman was a straight-A student honored by Intel as one of our country’s best young researchers.
So you can’t predict where this honor, or your love of science, will take you, be it Hollywood, a convent, Wall Street, or a national research lab. Whatever the direction, your career will be well served by your background in science. Science teaches you to be deliberate about planning and executing strategies. And planning and executing great ideas are critical to success and leadership.
My second piece of advice – and I suspect you already have some experience with this from your science projects – is expect to fail.
Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. He previously led the Human Genome Project, and before that spent almost 20 years on the University of Michigan faculty. He discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and neurofibromatosis.
He knows success. Which means, as a scientist, that he also knows the cold reality of failure.
Listen to his words: “I don't know any scientists,” he says, “who have a success rate of their experiments greater than about one in ten. Ninety percent, total flops, learn nothing, something was dreadfully wrong, just wasted time.”
Failure is absolutely fundamental in the pursuit of new knowledge, particularly in the sciences. When Thomas Edison was working to develop a new battery, he is said to have carried out 50,000 experiments before achieving success. Fifty thousand.
It did not faze him.
“Why, I have gotten a lot of results,” Edison said. “I know 50,000 things that won’t work.”
And just because something doesn’t work, don’t give up on its potential.
Sixty years ago, a graduate of the University of Michigan was beginning his career and set out to conduct research into drug therapies for treating cancer.
After several years in the lab, Jerome Horwitz believed he and his colleagues had finally created a compound that would slow the growth of cancer cells. Alas, his tests in mice showed no progress, and Dr. Horwitz’s synthesized drug was put on the shelf. It was 1964, and he was the first to say his experiment had failed miserably.
Fast forward more than 20 years, to another graduate of the University of Michigan. It is the mid-1980s and an emerging disease called AIDS is causing what amounts to panic in medical and public health circles.
Dr. Samuel Broder is a researcher and administrator at the National Cancer Institute who is desperately seeking something that will stop the disease. When a drug company comes forward with Dr. Horwitz’s forgotten compound from the 1960s, Samuel Broder sees a glimmer of hope. Where the drug was ineffective with cancer, it has a profound effect on the AIDS virus.
Dr. Broder becomes a champion of the drug Dr. Horwitz created. He experiments with it, pushes for clinical trials, and lobbies for FDA approval. In 1987, that drug – AZT – becomes the first genuine treatment for AIDS. It helps transform the diagnosis of HIV from a death sentence to a chronic disease that can be managed.
Where one scientist conceded failure and advocated patience, another saw potential and hope.
Francis Collins keeps a quote from Winston Churchill on his office wall. It says, “Success is nothing more than going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm.”
And enthusiasm leads me to my third and final piece of advice. It comes from my experience as a university president, a scientist, and a mother – and mothers are always right.
Do what you love. Never lose the passion for learning that brought you here.
Someone once asked Isaac Newton how it was that he could make discoveries in astronomy that exceeded anything achieved by anyone else.
His answer was simple: “By always thinking about them.”
It’s obvious from your accomplishments that you love the thrill of discovery. You are helping to explain robotics, cancer, mathematical fractions and astronomical galaxies. Your projects are so far beyond those of my era, and that is how knowledge works: you build upon others’ achievements because you absolutely love new ideas.
Never apologize because you believe science and math are fascinating, or that your science teacher is your role model, or because you spend evenings and weekends in the library or a laboratory.
That appetite to always learn more will serve you well, here at the competition and when you begin your college careers. When I traveled to Washington for the finals 50 years ago, it was so exciting to meet other accomplished students who were just as passionate about science and to hear their stories.
Earlier I mentioned the astronaut Sally Ride. As an undergraduate at Stanford, she majored in physics and found herself immersed in math, chemistry and physics classes. She reached a point where she needed a diversion, some new direction for her mind, and so she enrolled in an English course.
That led to another course, and another, and pretty soon Sally Ride was majoring in Shakespearean literature as well as physics.
I don’t want to compare myself to a pioneer like Dr. Ride, but I had a similarly positive experience as an undergraduate. I attended Grinnell College in Iowa because it had a strong chemistry program, and I enrolled in plenty of courses in biology, chemistry and math.
But I also loved art, and elected every year to include independent study in metalsmithing and design. I have always valued that experience, because it allowed me to genuinely enjoy myself in a field other than science. Today, that art perspective helps me see the world through a different lens.
That’s why I am so impressed by your love of learning, and your interests outside of science and math. You’re involved in broadcast journalism, sailing, community service, scouting and fencing. I am particularly struck by how many of you are musicians, either playing an instrument or singing in your school choruses.
This eagerness to learn and explore, to really throw yourself at something, is the very essence of scholarship. That is my hope for you as our country’s next scientists, doctors and engineers: that you celebrate the sheer joy of learning, and how new knowledge allows you to see today’s world from different vantage points.
Washington is a great place for history. All of you have made your own history and headlines with your award-winning research and your selection as finalists.
This week also marks an important milestone in scientific history.
One hundred and thirty-five years ago this week, the U.S. Patent Office here in Washington issued a patent, No. 1-7-4-4-6-5. It went to a scientist who was developing a technology that would allow him to communicate with his deaf mother and the deaf woman he was courting.
Three days after Alexander Graham Bell received his patent for the telephone and returned to his Boston laboratory, he shouted those now-famous words to his assistant after spilling battery acid on himself. “Mr. Watson, come here — I need you.”
Let me put a 21st century spin on Mr. Bell’s call. Intel science finalists – we need you. We need your ideas, your enthusiasm, and your love of math, science, engineering and technology. And we, as a country, need to always celebrate and reward your scientific achievements.
The challenges facing our nation and world are so much more complicated today than in Mr. Bell’s day, or 50 years ago when I was a high school science student.
I came of age with Sputnik and the space race of the 1960s. Getting into space and to the moon was an obsession. An absolute obsession. Americans love competition, and here was the Soviet Union, our fiercest political enemy, already sending men into orbit. JFK was going to beat them and so was every aspiring scientist in America, young people like me who became enthralled with the power and promise of science.
Win we did, by putting a man on the moon. And now the generation that couldn’t get enough engineering and medicine and math is at the helm of leadership and saying, “We need another Sputnik!”
Actually, we need to double the national urgency for science that I experienced as a teenager. Sending men to the moon was, frankly, easier than finding a cure for AIDS or a solution to global warming.
As a nation, we absolutely must put more emphasis on brain power than star power. Let’s shift from more headlines about Charlie Sheen to more funding in science education and research. Let’s pay less attention to “American Idol” and more to American innovation and ingenuity.
Today’s challenges are incredibly complex, and require the creativity and expertise of many great minds – your minds.
That is why we need you to embrace the unknown.
We need you to accept failure.
We need you to celebrate your love of learning, and your love of science.
Science cures disease and helps end suffering. Science explains the environment so that we can better protect it. Science improves communication and technology, and brings us closer together as human beings.
Science defines us as people who want to improve the world. There is nothing more powerful, more invigorating, and more essential than creating and sharing knowledge. And there is nothing more inspiring than knowing you, the next generation of scientists, will be shaping our future.
Thank you, and congratulations again.
Photos courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library