On Friday, February 11, 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and The Smithsonian Institution hosted a virtual celebration to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and Black History Month. OSTP’s Deputy Director for Science and Society Dr. Alondra Nelson and Deputy Director for Climate and Environment Dr. Jane Lubchenco delivered remarks, which have been edited lightly for clarity and context.
Remarks from OSTP’s Deputy Director for Science and Society Dr. Alondra Nelson:
I’m thrilled to be with all of you as we mark two important occasions: The International Day of Women and Girls in Science and Black History Month. We are so pleased that so many students – particularly so many young women and girls of color – have joined us from across the U.S. I’m honored to be here today as a member of the Biden-Harris Administration – an Administration that has made historic strides to ensure that every student can thrive.
But I am also glad to join you for another reason – a more personal reason: Because long before I ever entered government, before I earned my PhD or wrote my first book, before I even chose to study science and technology in the first place, I was a lot like you.
As a young woman, I was curious. I looked around my world, around my community, and I asked questions. Wherever I went, I was filled with those questions: Questions like: Why are things the way they are? How did they get this way? And what can I do to make a difference? Those questions could be daunting. But I also found that they could be exhilarating – and that the pursuit of answers could lead me to new and fascinating places.
Those questions led me into classrooms, where I studied the building blocks of our natural world — including learning physics from Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut. They led me into hospitals, where I worked as a student, witnessing the healthcare system up close – and seeing so many who looked like me get denied much-needed treatment.
Perhaps most important, those questions led me to some incredible mentors – people who showed me that you could make a whole career out of asking hard questions. And you could lead a whole life defined by learning, driven by curiosity, and filled with the magic of discovery.
I am not the only woman with a story like this one. Many of the extraordinary leaders we’ll hear from today have traveled a similar path. So many of us have learned as scholars, and as public servants, that science and technology can be powerful tools. That with tools, with education, and with questions, we can make life better for the people around us.
This approach is the one President Biden has taken since Day 1 of his Administration. The President posed a series of questions to his science and technology team. He asked us to answer what lessons we could learn from the pandemic, and how science could help us avert climate disaster.
How America can stay on the leading edge of technological development, while propelling new industries and new jobs. And how to make sure the benefits of science and technology could reach every American.
Those questions represent the challenges of our time. They are difficult and complex. And yet each of them shares something in common: They start with making investments in you. They start with making sure students across the United States, in every zip code and every neighborhood, are armed with the tools to follow their curiosity.
The Biden-Harris Administration made great progress on that mission during this first year: Even as we’ve enhanced our nation’s pandemic preparedness and pursued groundbreaking clean-energy technologies, we’ve done so bearing in mind the communities who have suffered disproportionately from COVID and from climate change.
Even as we’ve launched an unprecedented effort to end cancer as we know it, and made critical improvements to our research infrastructure, we’ve kept our focus on those who have historically been blocked from participating in these critical efforts.
To us, STEM equity means lifting up the perspectives of people with disabilities and immigrants, people without generational wealth, and others who begin the race to a career far behind the starting line. That’s why we led a groundbreaking series, called “The Time is Now,” to investigate issues of equity in the STEM fields. And invited researchers, thought leaders, and advocates to offer feedback, to diagnose endemic issues, and suggest informed solutions to ensure that all people can thrive in these fields.
But our efforts didn’t stop there. We launched a national ideation challenge – a call for people across the country and across sectors to offer recommendations how the federal government can build new bridges and on-ramps to careers in the sciences.
All told, our team received over 250 responses from the American public – and now we’re getting ready to take policy action, to shake the foundations of inequality in STEM and open up opportunities across sectors.
These are big moves, made to empower every student to lead a life of discovery. To make sure that when a little girl sees that her hometown lake is polluted, she knows that chemistry can help clean it up. When she sees a loved one struggling with illness, she knows medicine can help them heal. And when she gazes out upon the stars, she knows that math and physics, engineering and mechanics can help her walk among them.
That is the essence of who we are – the America that President Biden has summed up in one word:
I will close with a story about possibilities. It is the story of Zaila Avant-Garde, a remarkable 14-year-old girl from New Orleans, Louisiana, with a passion for science, basketball, and spelling.
Last summer, Zaila made history when she correctly spelled the word “murraya” – becoming the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. After the contest, many news outlets wanted to know the same thing: What on earth does Zaila Avant-Garde want to be when she grows up?
So Zaila answered the question the way any teenager would. She said she wanted to be a basketball player. At Harvard. And then in the WNBA. And a coach in the NBA. And a researcher at NASA. And a scientist curing diseases with CRISPR technology.
But she knew those things wouldn’t be easy to achieve. So if all else failed, Zaila said that she would fall back on her other hobby of neuroscience.
I hope, when we have made progress in our work, that every student will look upon the world as Zaila does – and see it not for its limits, but for its abundance. I hope that each of you will be not encumbered by the weight of an unequal past, but buoyed by a boundless future. And when you dream of a life in science and innovation, you will see the well-trodden pathways to get there.
That is the work, and the vision, of the Biden-Harris Administration. The work all of us are doing together: Forging a STEM workforce that reflects all of us, from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the operating room, to the laboratory. An approach to innovation that is rooted in inclusion and our common humanity. And a future for each of you that is defined by questions, discovery, and possibility.
Remarks from OSTP’s Deputy Director for Climate and Environment Dr. Jane Lubchenco:
I’m thrilled to join you today to celebrate achievements of Black, Indigenous, and other Women and Girls of Color and to focus on the importance of what I call nurturing a culture of inclusive opportunity and a passion for discovery by women and girls everywhere.
Thinking about the girls with us today transports me back to when I first realized I was good at science. As a sophomore in high school, I was selected to attend a co-ed summer science and engineering camp in the Colorado Rockies. We had the opportunity to explore a range of hands-on projects in a variety of disciplines. I don’t actually remember much about what we did, but I do remember a lightning bolt moment when I realized that, gosh, (yes, we really did say ‘gosh’ in the ‘60’s!) gosh, not only is this great fun, but I’m actually pretty good at it. It was a precious moment of self-discovery – one that I hope that all girls have a chance to experience.
All girls also deserve to experience the challenges and the joy of discovering something new. All girls deserve to ponder the wonder of the universe and the satisfaction of helping others through knowledge. It is long past time to break down the barriers that prevent those opportunities.
To you young girls with us today – this is an exciting time to be curious. There are so many wonderful STEM fields to dive into and ways to get involved earlier and earlier—through books, games, TV shows, social media, and outdoor opportunities. Now is the time to explore and see what interests you most.
Equally importantly, the world needs you and all of the best minds and problem-solvers. We invite you to help tackle the big challenges of our time such as the water topics we’ll hear about today.
I’m a marine biologist, so people and water are my world and my passion.
Did you know that there is really only one ocean? It’s all connected, all one ocean. Yes, there are multiple ocean basins – the Atlantic, the Pacific, etc., but only one ocean.
That ocean is our past and our future. It sustains and feeds us. It connects us. It holds great promise to provide food security, economic opportunity, gender equality, and to help address climate change in a major way. The ocean holds secrets that we’ve only just begun to discover. It is full of mystery, majesty, and possibilities.
To seize these opportunities and tackle these challenges, we need intensely curious, talented minds from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. We need Indigenous Knowledge and science. We need more Black, Indigenous, and other Women and Girls of Color to join and lead in the discovery, join and lead in the creation of solutions, and join and lead in the sharing and use of new and existing knowledge.
President Biden has often said that, to him, science is about possibilities. Possibilities. And we scientists, Indigenous Knowledge, and policy experts working in the White House are committed to realizing those possibilities – that means nurturing a culture of inclusive opportunity and a passion for discovery by women and girls everywhere.