In 2005, the National Academies published Rising Above the Gathering Storm (RAGS), which provided clarity to what many of us had suspected with respect to science and math education in this nation. Complementary NSF data documented the declining interest in high school graduates to follow STEM careers. The 2010 National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 lamented the fact that the needle was not moving forward.
At the same time, many educational working groups identified a bright point: the critical role played by the Informal Science Education (ISE) community of museums and science centers in motivating youth to follow STEM careers. It was recognized that we need to not only educate our youth, we need to inspire them—as well as their parents, and the community. I personally observed the strength of inspiration from the many hundreds of speeches I have given about space exploration to world-wide audiences, for more than three decades. It wasn’t surprising to me: I am a bit biased in this regard. Inspiration from the Apollo program motivated me to study algebra, and then later to leave the ranch so that I could help build Space Shuttle Columbia.
We have many STEM challenges in Texas, as well as proposed solutions. These were addressed in the TAMEST report, The Next Frontier: World Class Math and Science Education for Texas. Houston has its own unique challenges, which we hope to successfully address through the UH STEM center. This Center will serve to promote collaboration within existing university programs, strengthen those that are successful, incorporate best practices, and participate more proactively in external partnerships and networks. The UH programs include teachHouston, replicated after UTeach, the Scholar Enrichment Program (SEP) for science and math undergraduates, PROMES for engineering undergraduates, the Mars Rover Program for elementary and middle school students, and various teacher enrichment programs.
When I was the President and CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, I made several observations which I hope to bring to bear in my new role at the University of Houston. One of the strengths of the museum is its focus on the people, not just the history and the “things” of aviation and space. We incorporated local aviators, engineers, innovators, designers, and astronauts into the exhibits so that our young K-12 visitors could see themselves in these roles. We also included “hands on” experiences and interactive exhibits, as well as “inspirational” visual media.
In the TAMEST report, I was particularly struck with a similar thought by Dr. Larry Faulkner, President Emeritus of The University of Texas at Austin: “In the world at large, a more positive image of STEM careers and the people who pursue them must be conveyed.” The report discussed the role that the media and the internet have on the public perceptions of science and engineering and the people who are in those careers. I suggest that the role that the media plays is far more critically significant than we currently understand, and that we will not make the large scale STEM preparation and enrollment changes we need to make in the short time we have left, unless we engage those who control the planned content in all public media and participate more fully in contributing to its content.
There are many examples of how we have lost control of the message in the last 50 years, as the primary communication mediums have changed from newspapers, TV stations which had much more local programming, and radio, to cable TV, the Internet (with Facebook and Wikipedia), and portable phones with texting and Twitter. Let me provide three very recent personal examples of the results of poor STEM imaging:
- In a recent encounter with a high school counselor, she advised me that she didn’t recommend engineering to her students because “my students like to work with people.”
- At a recent luncheon with about forty 17-year-old young women invited to the NASA Johnson Space Center to participate in the WISH program, they told me that while they were encouraged into STEM by their parents and teachers, they didn’t understand why “society” wasn’t encouraging them. I asked what they meant by “society,” and they answered “you know, the internet and reality TV shows.” They shared with me that they thought “society” valued them more for how they looked, rather than what they knew or did.
- On a recent CSI episode (Miami), the female Ph.D. Aerospace Engineer, who was widely published and successful, murdered a woman so that she could take her place as a TV soap opera lead. Her reason? To change careers because she couldn’t get a date as an engineer.
In order to address the imaging and messaging challenge, the UH STEM Center is not only developing the “traditional” website (to be launched soon), but also has its own Facebook page and Twitter account. So do I. Engaging in Twitter and Facebook can be daunting and risky, but used intelligently and carefully, it can provide more positive and realistic imaging for youth (and many adults). When I meet with students or scientists and engineers, I often take a “phone” picture and tweet it. My staff will also post it to Facebook. Some of those pictures are included in this blog. These are faces of future engineers and scientists. We have also engaged PBS Ch8, which resides at the UH campus. President Lisa Shumate is a strong supporter of STEM programming, and we are working together to find funds for new content. Even this may not be enough. It is time that we engage the networks, Hollywood, cable TV, the producers, Google, Bing, and the “writers” at a national level. They need to see our data. They use the technology we develop; in fact, their business models depend upon it. In 2008, the National Academies published Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering to provide well vetted public messaging about STEM careers. How do we move it forward?
Dr. Bonnie J. Dunbar’s professional experience spans industry, academia, government, and the non-profit sectors. She has been a practicing engineer recognized as a “Fellow” by peer groups and appointed to lead national teams evaluating future space exploration technology development, microgravity science development, and human space operations for the National Academy of Engineering. She was a five-time Space Shuttle Astronaut with more than 50 days in space and an integral member of the research and operations development teams for those flights. Recognized with NASA Spaceflight and Leadership medals, Dr. Dunbar is the recipient of seven honorary academic degrees and invited university lectures. She has been recognized for developing and supporting STEM programs in schools and with Informal Science Education (ISE) institutions. She is skilled at developing operational excellence within culturally diverse environments and creating a collectively supported strategic vision. Dr. Dunbar is an internationally recognized speaker who is frequently requested to lecture on topics related to human spaceflight, spacecraft design, spaceflight research operations, microgravity research, and STEM careers.
Dr. Dunbar was recently elected to the august Executive Committee of the International Association of Space Explorers (ASE) at the XXV Planetary Congress of the ASE, held last year in Saudi Arabia. She is the first woman space flier in that committee’s 25-year history. In April, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida.
In 2013, she returned to the University of Houston as a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and to lead a new STEM center (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), dedicated to improving STEM education and literacy and encouraging more young people to study these fields in college. In June, Dr. Dunbar was also named the new director of the college’s Aerospace Engineering Program.
Dr. Dunbar was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2002 and was a founding member of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) Board of Directors in 2004.
By Peter Hotez
Recent testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hints at more to come on the problem of neglected tropical diseases and poverty in Texas.
The National School of Tropical Medicine, launched at Baylor College of Medicine in 2011, was established to offer a potent North American colleague to the century-old British tropical medicine schools in London and Liverpool and tropical disease institutes in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Basel, Hamburg, and elsewhere in Europe.
An essential cornerstone of the National School is translational research and development, with several core faculty members actively engaged in developing new diagnostics and vaccines for the 17 major diseases of poverty known as the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The NTDs represent a group of parasitic and related infections that actually cause poverty because of their long-term and disabling effects on childhood cognition and physical fitness and development, adult productive capacity, and the health of girls and women. They are the most common afflictions of the extremely poor in developing countries.
To jumpstart the National School’s translational R&D activities, we brought to Houston the product development partnership (PDP) of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. PDPs are non-profit organizations that use industry practices in order to make new drugs, diagnostics, vaccines, insecticides, or other products needed for the control and elimination of major global health problems, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, childhood respiratory and diarrheal diseases, and the NTDs. Sabin’s PDP emphasizes vaccines for NTDs including hookworm infection, schistosomiasis, Chagas disease, leishmaniasis, and selected viral infections such as arbovirus infections and SARS. The human hookworm vaccine is in phase 1 trials, while the schistosomiasis vaccine is expected to enter clinical testing very soon.
In 2011, the Sabin Vaccine Institute PDP moved into new laboratories at Baylor’s affiliated institution, Texas Children’s Hospital, thereby becoming one of the few PDPs—the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development—embedded in an academic health center. In parallel, an educational program was created so that (just like its United Kingdom counterparts) the National School offers diplomas in tropical medicine for physicians, physicians-assistants, and medical students and will soon start a new summer tropical medicine institute to accommodate growing undergraduate interest in global health.
Shortly after the launch of the National School, the scientists and faculty identified an astonishing level of disease and poverty right here in Texas and even in the poorer parts of Houston. We found that many individuals are afflicted with a variety of parasitic NTDs such as Chagas disease, cysticercosis, leishmaniasis, and even arbovirus infections including dengue and West Nile virus infection. Unexpectedly, transmission of some NTDs occurs in Texas and in Houston, especially among impoverished populations and people of color, as well as several animal reservoirs (including armadillos that transmit leprosy, for example). The key point is that whereas many assumed that NTDs are linked to immigrant populations coming in from Mexico and Central America, a more accurate depiction includes evidence for a previously hidden transmission of these diseases. Thus, unlike the European tropical medicine schools and institutes, the National School is combating NTDs in our own backyard. Accordingly, we have established one of the first comprehensive clinics in the United States devoted specifically to the care of people with NTDs acquired locally. It is located at the Texas Medical Center and home to a talented cadre of clinical and molecular epidemiologists to investigate the extent of the problem here in our own state. Moreover, we are now scaling up efforts to combat NTDs in Texas by developing new diagnostics and vaccines.
These activities were the subject of my recent testimony to a House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations,1 one of the components of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
We are at the beginning—the National School and its PDP and clinic are positioned to combat an indigenous NTD disease burden through a multidimensional approach that incorporates R&D, education, and clinical activities. Public policy is the fourth component of the National School, and in a recent June publication in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, scientists from the National School collaborated with several other Texas institutions to advance a concept known as the “ears of the armadillo.”2 It is the disease equivalent of the “tip of the iceberg” idea and borrows from the “ears of the hippopotamus” (mostly submerged in the river) metaphor sometimes used to refer to the undetected malaria disease burden in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the ears of the armadillo, we have a hint that there is a lot of tropical disease and pathology among the poor in Houston and in Texas, but we need to work aggressively to understand its full extent and the basis for its links to extreme poverty.
Today, Texas may have more people living below the poverty line than any other state. An unfolding scenario of NTDs linked to our own indigenous poverty will occupy the National School for years to come.
Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., was inducted into TAMEST in 2011. He is the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine where he also serves as president and director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baker Institute Fellow in Disease and Poverty at Rice University. His book, Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases (ASM Press), was released this spring.
2. Andrus J, Bottazzi ME, Chow J, Goraleski KA, Fisher-Hoch S, Lambuth JK, Lee BY, Margolis H, McCormick J, Melby P, Murray KO, Rico-Hesse R, Valenzuela JG, Hotez PJ. Ears of the armadillo: global health research and neglected diseases in Texas. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 7 (6): e2021.
Our state and nation invests a considerable amount of time and money in the preparation and training of our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the sciences. We know that the future of our leadership in medicine, science, and engineering depends on recruiting the world’s most talented students and providing them state-of-the-art education and training at the very cutting edge of our respective disciplines. Ideally, the best, brightest, and most talented candidates are expected to achieve success and become the next generation of leaders. Unfortunately, the curriculum for predoctoral and postdoctoral training often excludes a critical component—guidance on how to be an effective “citizen of science.” As a biomedical researcher, my career depends on a steady source of federal funding from various agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and others.
Throughout my career, I have been stressed by the uncertainty of available grant dollars during the up and down years and the “rags to riches” mentality of the federal budgeting process. Clearly, even in the best of times, not all deserving research gets funded and some years are much worse than others. It was not until later in my career, when I became active in my professional organizations, that I came to realize that scientists need to become more directly engaged with the public and with policymakers in government. In the beginning, I was not a very effective spokesperson when given the opportunity to testify at public gatherings or at congressional hearings. Moreover, many of my colleagues were either reluctant to speak or were also ineffective spokespersons. After all, our training and background in scientific research did not include guidance on becoming effective spokespeople and advocates for science in the public arena.
As I became more formally involved with graduate and postdoctoral education as chair of a department, and later as dean of a graduate school of biomedical sciences, I began to think more about the importance of encouraging graduate students and faculty to become effective “citizens of science.” One approach was to form a partnership with Research!America, the nation’s largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance committed to making research to improve health a higher national priority. My dream was to prepare graduate students to become more effective advocates and to take more trainees on trips to Washington to visit “The Hill,” walk the halls of Congress, and learn how to sit down with powerful legislators and become effective speakers and advocators.
A remarkable group of Houston citizens known as Baylor Research Advocates for Biomedical Science (BRASS) elected to support my plan and to fund an annual trip to Washington D.C. accompanied by several of our student “BRASS Scholars.” Typically, we spend two or three days on Capitol Hill visiting our local representatives and various key committee members in the House and Senate. Prior to the trip, I also give a public policy lecture to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and show a Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) video on how to meet with your congressman. It is only a small beginning, but I am very encouraged that students understand the need to articulate the value of science to our governmental leaders and share my belief that it should be part of every training curriculum for scientific researchers.
William (Bill) R. Brinkley, Ph.D.
2012 TAMEST President
I recently attended the June 4th Research Universities Conference held at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and organized by the UT System. The speakers and panelists addressed recommended actions from a new report from the National Academy of Sciences for ensuring research universities—such as our Tier One research institutions UT Austin, Texas A&M University, and Rice University—remain sustainable and productive.
I found the conference to be thought-provoking, particularly in relation to the ongoing controversy over the value of our research institutions. I have always been struck by the irony that the value of research universities is under scrutiny by some, while the state supports advanced university research through the Texas Emerging Technology Fund (TETF) and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Both of these taxpayer-funded organizations are making it possible to recruit top talent to our universities, fund centers of excellence, and support consortia benefitting multiple industry sectors. There are vast levels of follow-on funding flowing into our state to develop products from start-ups with technologies created in university labs or collaborations between companies and universities such as ExxonMobil’s energy development programs. This funding is clear evidence that our research universities are the engines of economic growth and significantly improve the quality of life for our citizens.
It also seems that the ongoing support of HB 51, which recognizes the importance of the advancement of emerging research universities in Texas to Tier One status, sends a strong message that national research universities are recognized as the key to attracting top faculty and students to produce scientific innovation and economic benefit. Tier One universities benefit business in the state by providing a highly-trained workforce, generating more research discoveries and expanding partnerships that contribute to the expertise needed to address community challenges.
Of course it is good business practice to constantly look for ways to improve productivity at our universities, and long-term sustainable strategies can be developed without losing sight of the mission of the research university. My favorite quote of the day was from Laurie Rich, Special Advisor on Higher Education, Texas Emerging Technology Fund, who said “sometimes we forget that it takes little money to catalyze transformational forward movement.” As the debate on the value of research universities continues, we need to remember that our research universities play a critical role in catalyzing transformational forward movement, and the long-term benefits to the Texas economy are well worth the investment.
Read more about the Research Universities Conference here.
TAMEST Executive Director