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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Madison Medal Lecture at Princeton University: “A Laboratory of One’s Own”, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Thank you very much for that kind introduction. It is wonderful to be back in New Jersey, and wonderful to be back at Princeton to receive this incredible honor. I will add it to the list of remarkable and humbling experiences I’ve had since graduating from this university. I am a proud alumna of this school, and it gives me great pride to be recognized with such a distinguished honor. As a graduate student, it was an extraordinary thing to come to Princeton and know that I was surrounded by – and had the chance to learn from – some of the brightest minds in the country and the world.

Coming here set the trajectory for my entire life. It is one of the reasons I spent so much of my career in New Jersey, and why I started my family here. This university is where I had the opportunity to fully immerse myself in what became one of the great passions of my life – the exploration of science. I still think of myself primarily as a scientist. I feel that it is a title I earned here at Princeton and at Tulane, and one I have put to work in my years with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

On my first day on the job as Administrator – and many times since – I have reinforced the notion that science is the backbone of everything we do at the EPA. It is the compass that guides every decision we make, every standard we set, every enforcement action and every emergency response. It is at the core of our mission to protect human health and the environment – which is why the EPA has the largest scientific staff of any federal agency besides NASA.

Now, with that in mind, I want to be slightly unscientific for a moment. Today, for a little while, I want to rely on that enemy of good, comprehensive science: the individual, anecdotal experience. But I do this in service of the cause. I ultimately hope to make a point that I feel is important to science, and how we approach it in the future. So let me tell you my story.

My interest in science began with a calculator. When I was in high school, I went to an engineering summer camp. This may not seem like the kind of camp that would appeal to most kids, but there was a specific reason I wanted to go there: Every camper received a free calculator. Now let me be clear – this was no ordinary calculator. This was the iPad of my day. And I went to this engineering camp because I wanted that calculator. That camp was the spark. I came to realize how much I enjoyed math and science. I studied hard and I did well. None of this struck me as in any way unique. I was at an all girls school at the time. They had science and math classes, and like all the young women around me, I did the best I could in them.

It wasn’t until I began my study of chemical engineering at Tulane that I noticed something: I was, in most cases, one of the few women in my class. After going to an all girls school most of my life, it was something of a shock. Here at Princeton, when I received my master’s degree in 1986, I was again one of the few women in the chemical engineering program. I started at the EPA as a staff level scientist the year after graduation, and spent the next 15 years working my way up. In that time, I witnessed first-hand the changes that took place and the doors that began to open – not just for me but for all women.

When I was a student, about 154,000 women were pursuing master’s degrees in science and engineering in America. By 2003, that number had jumped to 270,000. Fifty years ago, ten percent of the doctorates in science and engineering went to women. Today that number has grown to 40 percent. We can see the future taking shape in the winners of the first-ever Google Science Fair last year. Young women took top honors in all three age groups. The Grand Prize went to a 17-year old for her project to improve treatment of ovarian cancer following accumulated resistance to chemotherapy drugs. I hope – and expect – that these are just the first ripples in a wave. I am proud to see that each year we graduate another unprecedented generation of women, who are stepping up to lead the way in scientific fields.

It is up to us to continue encouraging young women to put their intelligence and their creativity to work in science and engineering. And there is still much more to do.
My oldest son is looking at schools right now. I am encouraging him to at least think about smaller technical schools. When we look at the numbers for the student population, most of them are 70 percent or 80 percent male. Why don’t we see technical schools that are 70 percent female? At least one reason is that any good young male scientist would likely recognize the favorable odds of seven women for every three men, and the admissions office would be flooded with applications from men. Still – there is a deeper question to consider besides numbers or quotas or any of the oversimplifications that these things often get reduced to.

First, we know that the greater the number of brilliant minds tackling any single challenge, the further and faster we will advance. This has always been science’s greatest tool. I also anticipate that adding more women to science is undoubtedly good news for our economy. It’s clear that much of our future prosperity rests on new innovations and advances in scientific and technical and medical fields. President Obama has made it a priority to invest in research and development – not only because American scientists and inventors are doing work critical to our health or our energy security, but also because we know that new ideas lead to new opportunities for American workers. Think of how far we’ve already come. Think of how many “Next Big Things” we’ve already seen. And for most of history, half the team has been kept sitting on the sidelines. It is exciting to imagine what can happen once those talents are fully unleashed.

There is even something at work beyond these factors. I believe that bringing more women into science will represent an important change in the culture of science. Let me be very clear about something before I go any further: I am not talking here about any innate or genetic differences between men and women and their competence or aptitude. I’m happy to say that science has tried to quantify those differences for years – and has failed every time. What I’m talking about is an inevitable cultural dynamic that will be at work in the years to come.

One of the things I have learned from watching and working with so many strong women in my life is that, to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman. Empowering yourself doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are. And yet, I find that in science, women are not expected to bring these things to their work. When you think about the mainstream views of science, it is traditionally defined as something like what Dr. Spock from Star Trek does. It is cold. It is logical. It is humorless and emotionless. The facts and nothing but the facts. But I was also a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation – and I was intrigued by the character Deanna Troy. For those of you who don’t remember, she was a lieutenant commander, she was the ship’s counselor, and she was telepathic. She was strong and capable, and she was attuned to the people around her.

That is the direction in which I would like to see our perception of science progress. What I am hopeful for is a culture of where women don’t feel that they have to give up the things that they value about themselves as women. I don’t believe the solution is for women scientists to acclimate themselves to a man’s world. I believe women should make their own space in science – a laboratory of one’s own.

Again, this is a place where I draw from my own experience. When I first began to study science I felt, as many women often do, a call to service, a call to issues of health, and a call to use my interests to make a difference in the world. I originally planned to be a doctor, because I wanted to help people. I enrolled in engineering pre-med courses and I found my interest being pulled in that direction. I thought initially that chemical engineering would mean spending my time in a lab, wearing a white coat and filling test tubes. What I ended up studying were the many ways chemicals can affect people, and how they impact our environment and our health. I spent time with my boots on, going to work in the wetlands along the Gulf Coast. I also went into communities and talked to people and their families, and had to consider how the issues I was exploring could have an effect on their lives.

I was thinking about being a doctor because I wanted to help people by treating them when they got sick. I came to realize that – if I studied chemical engineering, and started working to protect our environment – I could help people by making sure they didn’t get sick in the first place. Now – my mother still wanted me to be a doctor. In fact, for years she asked me why I took up environmental protection. But she stopped asking me that once President Obama called.

My point is, the qualities that have traditionally discouraged young women from pursuing science – that we are not interested in a cold and disconnected discipline – are a misrepresentation of both women and science. In fact, I believe that these are exactly the reasons why we should welcome more women into scientific fields. To make that happen, we must change the perception that science is a man’s field, and that to be a part of it, women will have to compromise their identities as women.

I believe that could change the direction of science in this country. We may see more science aimed at protecting children’s health. We know far too little about what factors are affecting our children’s physical and emotional development. We could find greater intermarriage of so-called “hard” science and social science disciplines as women come together as their numbers increase. For years, women have been saying that we need more women’s voices in the discussions on women’s health. And it might just be that we will see greater balance in the science used to make policy decisions.

A living example of this is my own field of environmental protection. There is no doubt that environmental protection would not be where it is today without the extraordinary, groundbreaking scientific work of amazing women. Women like Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson – whose book Silent Spring changed environmentalism forever. The EPA has had six women serve in its highest office over the course of its 40 year history. Today, many of our senior managers are women, just as many of the scientific staff I have met and worked with in my years with the agency have been women.

Let me close with one of the most well-known ideas in science: Newton’s first law of motion. To paraphrase, “An object that is at rest will stay at rest. And an object in motion will stay in motion unless an external force acts upon it.” This is cold, hard physics. We know it as a fact just as we know that increasing the number of women in scientific fields will expand our baseline knowledge pool, and add to the potential for new ideas and innovation. I like Newton’s law because it can also be applied to our culture. It is clear that women in science have been set in motion. The question is, how will that affect the field of science itself? And what kind of external forces can we exert to ensure the best outcome?

We are in the midst of a profound change. Science is increasingly driving public policy and strengthening our society and our economy. It is critical that women play a role in scientific advances, and that we educate and inspire a new generation of leaders. And the changes we must make are both institutional and interpersonal. We must continue to open doors at our universities and in the professional world for women to join the leadership in physics or nanotechnology or chemical engineering. But we must also address the forces that prevent a 10-year old girl from deciding that she is curious about science. We have to be diligent about the subtle but pervasive discouragement women can encounter when they think about taking a computer science class, or want to learn more about physics, or consider a career in robotics.

I hope that all of you, as graduates of this university and leaders in your own communities, will take every opportunity to support this transformation. I hope you will encourage your daughters and your students to consider these fields and to explore them to the fullest. I also encourage the members of the Princeton community to use the national and international presence you have to support women in science. And in all of this, I urge you to recognize that this is more than just a change in numbers and percentages. This is a change in how we approach science itself.

It is not only about opening up new possibilities for women in the existing field of science. This is also about opening up the existing field of science to the new possibilities that women can bring.

Thank you once again for this incredible honor. I’m very glad to be with you today.