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Courtesy: Sean Jones
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Interview of Sean Jones by David Zierler on October 23, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Sean L. Jones, Assistant Director for the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Jones recounts his father’s scientific career at IBM and his own childhood in South Carolina, and the opportunities he had to pursue his interests in math and science. He discusses his undergraduate work in ceramic engineering at Clemson and the opportunities for him to become a McKnight Fellow at the University of Florida for graduate school, where he worked on increasing the luminescence of thin film phosphorous. He describes his postgraduate work at Bell Labs and how the internet bubble affected him at the turn of the century. Jones discusses his subsequent work as a professor of optical engineering at Norfolk State University and the enjoyment he derived in teaching at an HBCU. He explains why meeting Bruce Kramer at NSF was so formative and why he chose to join NSF as a program director after working at Applied Plasmonics. Jones describes the flatness of the NSF’s organizational structure and how the Obama administration’s commitment to science and technology research resonated for his program. He discusses his work at the OSTP in the Executive Branch and his tenure as Executive Secretary of the National Science Board. Jones discusses his increasing responsibilities at NSF and the overall improvement of the budgetary environment since he started. He talks about the current opportunities to expand diversity in STEM and his current work in managing research support as costs continually rise. At the end of the interview, Jones explains why the appetite for taking risk must be central to the future of good scientific policy at the national level.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is October 23rd, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Doctor Sean L. Jones. Sean, good to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Good to see you too, David. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.
All right, so to get started, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Sure. I am Sean L. Jones, and I'm the Assistant Director for the Directorate for Mathematical & Physical Sciences here at the National Science Foundation.
Now, I know from many of your colleagues and fans out there, this is a big responsibility that you just took on. Can you talk a little about your recent trajectory? And how your responsibilities have changed over the recent past?
Oh sure, yeah. Thanks for that question, David. Actually, I started at the National Science Foundation about eleven years ago as a Program Director. I started here working in the Division of Materials Research, and I worked actually on three programs when I first got here. I worked in our Materials Research, Science, and Engineering Centers program. It's our flagship Centers program for materials research. And along with that, I had responsibilities for MRI, or Major Research Instrumentation Program, within the division, along with PREM, which is Partnership for Research and Education of Materials, a program for minority-serving institutions. And that platform, working in these three areas, allowed me to work with a very diverse set of individuals here at the National Science Foundation. And allowed me to really get to know different parts of the foundation that I think served me well over these eleven years to really grow and to different types of roles and leadership positions than the foundation. So, starting from, as a program director, then I got involved in a few initiatives that were NSF-wide. After some success working in those programs, I became the deputy division director for our division, which then after working on a few other NSF-wide initiatives, I became the Deputy Assistant Director within the Directorate of Mathematical Physical Sciences. And our actual Director, or Assistant Director, he decided to leave for a different opportunity, that then led to this opportunity for me to apply and then become the Assistant Director for MPS.
Sean, it's such a great opportunity to ask you. So many people in STEM have a basic idea of what NSF is, but without really understanding the specifics. In other words, so much of NSF is, it's not that it's opaque, it's just sort of hard to understand where NSF fits within the broader galaxy of federal science policy. So, I want to ask specifically in your new role, perhaps the best way of getting at this question is, who are some of your most important partners beyond NSF? In the world of industry. In the world of research. In the world of the inter-agency process. Who are some of the most influential institutional partners that allow you to accomplish your mission?
Yeah, excellent question David. And actually, the first partner I'm going to say is the most important, are actually our academic institutions. So, NSF within the federal enterprise, we fund basic science research. People who are curious about science, hypothesis-driven research, the craziest ideas that someone might have. You come to the National Science Foundation to learn more about that science and to advance your discipline. So, the first group of partners would be the fabulous universities that are here in the country, and then through advancing research through those academic partners, we work with other federal agencies to advance their mission, again through our partners at the university. And so MPS in particular, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences directorate, we have very strong partnerships with the Department of Energy, and with some of the other DOD agencies actually, to advance science within Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
Well, Sean, at this point, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. I want to hear about sort of the origins of how you got involved in science and science policy, your educational trajectory, but I think for you, a great place to start would be with your parents and their influence on your career. So, first, I want to ask. I want to hear a little about your parents starting with where they're from.
Sure. So, my mother and my father, I'll first say where they met. So, they actually met in graduate school. So, my parents both have master’s degrees. My father has a Master’s in Physics. He's actually ABD in Physics because- and I'll tell you that story in a second. And my mother has a Master’s in Speech Pathology. And they met at the University of Connecticut, and that's actually where they got married and where I was born. My mother is from the South, so she grew up in South Carolina and my father grew up in New Jersey. And as a child- they actually were married for a few years in graduate school. Graduate school was hard on people who were married, and my father actually had two children from a previous marriage that he was taking care of, and so he had a fairly large family while he was working on his PhD in physics. And that stress in grad school was tough on people with no kids, but having three children was very tough on them, and so they did get a divorce. So, my mother moved back to South Carolina, which is where I grew up. I grew up in South Carolina. And my father, once he finished school, he went back North to work at IBM, which is where he was working, actually, before they sent him to graduate school at the University of Connecticut. So, I grew up primarily in the South with trips in the summer up to New York.
What was your father's academic area of specialty? What was he doing at IBM?
Actually, making semiconductor chips. And he worked on some chips, not just for computers, but actually the drivers for displays. And so, he worked on a production line as well as the development line to help develop processes for making integrated circuits.
And clearly, he had a very promising career if IBM wanted to send him on to graduate school and advance his craft.
Yes. Yes, he enjoyed his time at IBM. Actually, he grew up in the time where you would start at a company and end at a company. And he had a very productive career at IBM working not only in the engineering world, but he actually ended in sales. Which is how he came to D.C. and Annapolis. So my father actually lives close to me now, here in the D.C. area, because IBM actually- but yeah, he had a full thirty plus year career at IBM, and actually told me many stories that were inspirational to me through undergrad, but also when I started my career as an engineer. So even though he chose physics and I chose engineering, we had a lot in common that was inspirational specifically when I started my actual career in engineering.
It sounds like despite the physical difference between you and your father that you had a close relationship with him, and you were able to see what it was like to be a scientist from a son's perspective.
Most definitely. Very inspirational. And you know, my father is a Renaissance man, and I would say a lot of- most of the men on that side of the family were really about everything in life amplifies one another. So, my father was really big into music. You know, he was a jazz musician along with his brother, who actually played for Count Basie's orchestra.
Yeah, a very talented family. My aunt was a medical doctor. But they had lots of other passions in terms of reading, bird watchers, all types of different things. He was a strong inspiration in my life because he was, you know, everything he did he did to one hundred percent. He did everything towards excellence. And he taught me to do the same thing. And when he talked about engineering, physics, and science, he talked about how that was the inspiration for him for life. And he instilled that in me. So, when I was young, one of my STEM spark moments was when I got a chemistry set.
So, for Christmas, my father and my mother conspired together to get me some STEM toys, and they bought me a chemistry set, and I have the famous picture of me when I was doing my first experiment with the chemistry set. And you can just see the STEM spark on my face. You know, trying to make some concoction that might have some smoke or have a small explosion or whatever. And I got that love directly from my father.
Sean, I'm curious if your father ever talked about his experience at IBM in terms of if he ever experienced any difficulty from a diversity perspective or anything like that. Or if it was generally a positive place for him.
So, you know, my father did talk a little bit about that. But he is more, I would say, of the Michelle Obama, "Let's take the high road," approach to life. But in these days, he's working on a lot with white fragility and things like that in the movement. That was another thing about my family, both on my mother's and my father's side, that they were very into their professions, but they also were activists in some sense, and that rubbed off on me as well in my undergraduate years. But yes, my father now opens up a lot more about that. And one example that he gives is when he was interviewing for a different position within IBM, you know, moving from one job to another job assignment. He interviewed with the person, and they gave him a test, and gave him like a two-hour long interview and asked lots of technical questions beyond just the written test. And then when he started the job, he was working with a colleague, and he asked his colleagues, "Oh, how was your interview process?" You know? And this person said, "Well, I came in and they noticed that I drove a motorcycle into the interview, and they asked me, you know, 'do I work on motorcycles?' And I told them, ‘Yeah, I fix motorcycle engines.' And I got hired right on the spot." And so, he was saying basically, for me, I had to go through a lot of hoops to pretty much prove myself, but this person, it was just assumed that they would be able to do the job by just asking one simple question. So, I've heard other types of stories like that from him as well, but the point, again, is if you're excellent, people will see you're excellent, and they will recognize that, and you will be rewarded for that. So hard work again is the mantra, and I've held that my whole life. And my mother as well would drill that in me as well. You have to work hard in life, and you might have to work twice as hard as other people around you, but it will be noticed.
Sean, where did you grow up in South Carolina?
I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. It's a small town about an hour due east of Columbia, South Carolina, which is the capitol.
And what was your neighborhood like growing up? Was it diverse with a lot of different kinds of people?
You know, Orangeburg is an interesting little town in South Carolina. It has three colleges in this really small town. South Carolina State College, Claflin College, and then there's a technical college as well within the town. And I grew up on the campus of South Carolina State College. My mother was a teacher there. She taught speech pathology. And at that time, we had housing on campus. Housing and apartments, and so we had an actual community that was located at the college. And South Carolina State College had a very strong STEM program, so a very diverse faculty, so I had a lot of diversity growing up on campus. We had a K-8th grade school on campus as well. It was Felton Laboratory Elementary. And very diverse classes on campus, and then when I went to high school, high school was also somewhat diverse, but when I was growing up in Orangeburg, we still had a little bit of the segregation where we had some private schools, where I'd say the diversity dropped almost to zero at those schools. So, my high school, while it was diverse, it wasn't at the full percentage of the local diversity, because we still had a little bit of segregation in Orangeburg during that time.
Sean, how would you compare your high school education to people that might have been in a different district? Did you have a strong math and science background before you went to college?
Yeah, actually. So, Orangeburg again, because of where it's located, I would say had some pockets of excellence, right? This little itty-bitty town had three colleges – actually four, ‘cause I missed one of the other Technical Colleges earlier. I took all the AP courses my junior and senior year in high school. My last year of high school I took some computer courses at the local college, so I actually went to South Carolina State College. I took two computer courses there. And my math and science, I would say, were good- all AP courses. I’m thankful for the preparation at my high school and the confidence instilled through those courses at SC State College. It helped me navigate the rigorous courses at Clemson University – I was in honors Calculus courses, through the Calhoun Honors College, for example, and then graduate school at the University of Florida. Without that early support in the AP courses, it would have been very difficult, more so than my colleagues who grew up in the Northeast or the West Coast, or certainly those from other countries, had a much stronger foundation of math!
When you were thinking about colleges, were you thinking about science programs specifically? You knew you wanted to major in science of some kind?
Most definitely. I knew I didn't want to major in physics, because my father talked about physics all the time, but I did know I wanted to major in science or engineering. And actually, in my high school, you know, I made straight A's in chemistry, straight A's in math. And my guidance counselor said, "Well, you're really good in chemistry and you're really good at math. You should be a chemical engineer." So, I actually started out in chemical engineering at Clemson University. A rigorous program, loved chemistry, still love chemistry to this day. It's a passion of mine. And yeah, you know, from that first chemistry set, to going to college, science has always been something that really motivated and drove me.
And Sean, in college as you were taking courses and learning what your abilities were, were you finding yourself gravitating more towards applied and laboratory kind of work, or more of the theoretical and abstract side of science?
You know, I would say a mixture of the two, but I gravitated, I would definitely say, more toward the physical, when I think about what was my second STEM spark. So, I loved all my courses at Clemson, you know, from thermodynamics to the chemistry P-Chem labs, things like that, but the one course I took was under Professor Gene Haertling. It was a ceramic course where we made electronic materials, and one of the experiments was making a 1-2-3 superconductor. And just the process of going into the lab, picking out the raw materials, going through the process of mixing these materials and then firing them, and then coming out with an actual superconductor, something about that was just magical to me, and what was special about this one particular lab is that we failed repeatedly. So, we made our first batch and we didn't either mix or fire them long enough, and so we had to then reprocess this superconducting material, and we had to do it three times. But the third time was the charm, and we did the Meissner effect experiment where you levitate the magnet. And to me it was just like magic. And it was like, this is why I'm in science. For this right here. And that was the day I made up my mind that I would be going to graduate school at some point. That one lab. ZIERLER: And that class, your major was not in chemical engineering, correct? It was in ceramic engineering. JONES: That's correct. So, my third year in, I decided I would switch majors to ceramic engineering, and that's an interesting story in itself. Clemson University has very strong engineering programs, and the chemical engineering program at that time was delineating itself from other engineering programs by the rigor of its courses. I think I started with either 200-250 students in my freshman course that had identified as chemical engineering, and we graduated like twenty or so. So just to tell you the type of rigor they were aiming for. Many of us decided to stick with engineering, but we went to other majors. So many of us went to either electrical or into ceramic. And so, I was with a lot of former chemical engineering majors in my ceramic’s coursework. And many of us actually did go on to graduate school, and I think we can attribute that to these labs that were very impactful, you know? Where you were allowed to make these experimental mistakes and see what doing real experiments, real science, was about.
Sean, I know you were set on going to graduate school, but it's such a unique program, ceramic engineering. I wonder what idea you might have had about opportunities in industry with that kind of a degree. What kind of companies would hire somebody with a ceramic engineering degree?
Yeah. So, at that time, the biggest company hiring ceramics would be Corning. Corning Glassworks, a behemoth company, you know, doing all types of ceramic work, from consumer products but also these electronic products that the same kinds of things we were making in Gene Harling's lab, but also advanced materials beyond just electronic materials as well. So, a big employer of ceramics, but other companies as well, right? Like Intel, CorsiTech, you know, really big on like consumer products, silicon. A lot of the materials that you think of as maybe not as ceramics are actually ceramics. So like silicon is a great example, and actually, that was one of the first jobs that I interviewed for, was Memtech, or MEMC, which was a ceramic company making silicon ingots, and there was actually a factory right there in South Carolina.
I'm curious. You know you wanted to go on to graduate school, but to the extent that you had a bigger plan beyond graduate school, were your motivations more on the basic science side of things? Just, you know, the discovery? Or were your motivations more the discovery, but you want to apply this at a high level to a career in industry? What were you thinking as an undergraduate as you were trying to make these decisions about what you wanted out of graduate school?
Yeah that's an excellent question, which is why I think I lean more towards engineering, which was basic science for application, right? I want to impact or solve world problems. And at that time our understanding was, I could do that through engineering. Which is why I chose to go into something very similar to ceramics, which is material science engineering. Which was a broader application beyond just ceramics. Yeah, most definitely looking towards how can I impact science but also the world through applied research?
What kind of schools did you apply to for graduate work? What were the most impressive schools and where did you want to be for graduate school?
Yeah, so glad that you asked that question too, David, because for undergrad, I had applied to a suite of schools, right? So, I applied to Princeton, I applied to MIT. I actually got to Clemson because of my friends, actually, and that's an interesting story as well. But for graduate school when I left Clemson, I actually did a co-op, and worked for a while, and then I applied to graduate school, and I did the same suite of institutions, but I added a particular suite of schools based on the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program, which is funded through the Florida Education Fund. So, I looked at MIT, Princeton, and then schools that would be in Florida, because this fellowship funds only schools in Florida, and I looked at Florida State because of the high magnetic field laboratory that had just arrived at Florida State. And then at that time, the materials science engineering program at the University of Florida, highly ranked graduate program, then when you went on their website, you saw amazing research projects. I visited Dr. Paul Holloway’s electronic materials lab where he was working on flat panel display light emitting technologies on next generation phosphors and I was hooked! I basically chose those four schools. I think I had another school that I applied to as well, but those were the primary four.
I'm intrigued by this fellowship. What's its mission? What kinds of things is it designed to support?
Yeah, so the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program, and if you're familiar with the Meyerhoff Scholars at UMBC-
This is basically the exact same program but for Florida, and it's meant to really inspire underrepresented minorities to pursue faculty careers in Florida. You go to a school of your choice in Florida, you get your PhD, and then they try to facilitate opportunities for you to teach within Florida. But it's not mandated, and so that's the other beauty of that program is that it provides lots of opportunity and choice for those who graduated.
In what ways did the degree in ceramic engineering prepare you well at the graduate level for materials science engineering? In other words, your undergraduate degree was pretty specific, and I imagine that materials sciences at the graduate level was sort of a more broadly-based curriculum.
Yeah, so at Clemson, again, the ceramic engineering program there, I would say most courses had a laboratory component. And because our professors at that time really believed in giving you an assignment and letting you loose in the laboratory, you had to really do a lot of hands-on work to figure out how to actually engage and do the actual project. Right? So, you had to figure out how to cook up your instrumentation, how to take proper readings, how to actually know if you took the right reading or not. And because they left you to your own devices, you had to work with your classmates quite a bit, so this teamwork, team collaboration on, you know, here's our final goal, but where are the steps that we need to accomplish to get to our goals? I think the autonomy of the labs, the having to work in teams in these labs, and the ability to kind of make mistakes on your own and on your own time, really helped prepare me to do, I think, the research aspect of the graduate work at the University of Florida and it was great, because the professors there were pretty much the exact same way, you know? If you're not breaking something in the lab, then you're not making progress. So, I think that time at Clemson practicing, you know, doing science work, really did prepare me for my time at Florida.
Sean, how did you navigate that tricky process of developing your own academic interests and finding a professor who could be a graduate advisor to really help you maximize your potential?
Yeah, so for me, it was clear I needed to find somebody who was not working on one thing and one thing only. I needed to find somebody who they themselves had a wide interest in things. And so, I used that as kind of my ruler measuring stick as I was interviewing people. Because, again, with the fellowship, with the McKnight Fellowship, you got to apply to three schools, and part of my process of choosing the school I was going to apply to and then accept the admissions was the cadre of potential advisors. And so, I went on a mission prior to interviewing different professors, and finding out what their interests were. And I found one, Paul Holloway, who had a wide variety of interests. You know, he was working on ohmic contacts for integrated circuits and electronics. He was working on luminescent materials. He had some work he was doing with polymer and inorganic, you know, interconnects. He was working on a wide variety of things. And he also believed in the integration of instrumentation with what you were doing in the lab. So, a lot of hands-on lab work dealing with surface science techniques. But it was the work he was doing on understanding the degradation mechanisms of next generation light emitting phosphors for flat panel displays that seemed really impactful and exciting. And so that really intrigued me. And so that's how I ended up in Paul Holloway's lab.
And how did you go about developing your dissertation?
Oh, so you mean the topic for my dissertation?
Yeah, so my dissertation topic was on increasing the luminescence of thin film phosphorus. So, the standard at the time were powders, right? If you remember old school television sets, CRTs use powders for red-green-blue emission, and we were working on field emission displays, so very high-resolution displays, very thin. So even the thinnest displays we have now, right, these LED screens? Think about your thin laptop screen. You could cut that in half, make that thinner even than that. And that was the goal for these field emission displays. And one of the limitations was powder and powder size. So, we knew that if we could make very small grain-sized thin films that were very bright, we would have half of the solution for these very thin displays. That we could even think about competing against organic displays. that might be rollable or things that are much more portable. So, everyone was working on powders. Not many people were working on thin films. I wanted to differentiate myself from, you know, the majority of what people were working on and try to solve the brightness problem in thin films. And so again, trying to differentiate some of the work we were doing in our lab, I chose thin films first as our area of focus.
Sean, to get back to what you were saying before about being motivated by real-world problems. To what extent was your dissertation responsive to some issue out there where you were working towards a realistic solution?
Yeah, so portable displays and as we've seen, all these advances in our cellphones and our watches. You know, the portability of displays and being able to make information more readily available, is a lot of what drives people who work in the display industry. And so, getting down to a field emission display would be one step closer to portability. You know, at that time we were, as the United States, and to some degree, an arms race on display technology. But you have to remember, this was before we had LCD crystal displays and we didn't have heads-up displays, things like that. And so, we were racing on who could have the technology that would answer this. And so, a lot of, again, that was driving and motivating us, was that portability. And flexibility of what the consumer would be able to have to be able to retain new information or to have different types of entertainment. And so really driving on how to improve consumers' lives.
Sean, graduating in 1997, this is before the technology bubble burst, you know, toward the end of the 1990s. I wonder what the job market was like and where you wanted to make your mark fresh out of graduate school?
Yeah, so you're right. This was just before the bubble, because I actually experienced that (laughter). While I was on my first job. But yeah, so I left school bright-eyed, right? Like as many people wants to get their PhD trying to figure out where they'll start their career. And I had a few different offers, and honestly, the three offers I was considering was University of Maryland, a professor position there, working at Corning, or working at Bell Labs. And actually, Bell Labs won out because of the connection. I'm a part of the American Vacuum Society. And I actually interviewed for several of these positions at AVS. And the person who interviewed me for the Bell Labs position was John McChesney, who is the inventor of the Bell Labs process for making optical fibers. When I interviewed with him, you know, I just fell in love with the culture of Bell Labs. This place where there's friendly competition, I'll say. And that's what I really enjoyed about the Atlanta office as well. We competed with each other but we helped each other in that competition as well. You know, I remember trying to make advances on optical fibers, and everybody wanted to have the best result by the Tuesday R&D standup meeting. So, it wouldn't be uncommon to come in on the weekends at like 10 at night, you know, in between going on a date or something. Going in to start a new experiment and seeing your cube mate starting up their experiment as well, you know? It was a great time being at Bell Labs.
Sean, I'm sure you've heard all of the stories from Bell Labs in the heyday in the 1950s to the eighties, before the breakup where it was really the premiere place for basic science. You're coming in obviously much later in Bell Labs history, was your sense that even with the impending break up, the breakup of the monopoly, that Bell Labs still retained that culture of basic science when you were there?
Most definitely. The strong history and culture of basic science remained up until, you know, even the remnants that are there today. That was a hallmark of Bell Labs. You know, basic science would be the driver and the feeder of everything that came out of Bell Labs. And that was true at all the locations. You know, not just in Murray Hill.
And I could ask that same question about your father's experience and your experience. Was your sense that Bell Labs was a place that celebrated diversity? Was it an inclusive place?
You know, I would say the answer would be yes.
But it's more complicated than that?
It is. It is a little more complicated than that. So, you know, I would say the Atlanta office was very interesting because, so the Atlanta works office was one of the optical fiber main factoring locations. We had a small Bell Labs contingency there working on the new generation of optical fibers, along with the connectors that allow optical fibers to work. And the cabling process to make optical fibers safe and usable in the actual environment. And there were African Americans and Hispanics that worked in all of these sectors, and we worked with the local universities and colleges and we had diverse interns from Georgia Tech, for example. And so, I would say that it was actually fairly diverse. Where you didn't see a lot of diversity was in the management ranks. And so, as you went up the tier in a ranking from a member of technical staff through distinguished member of technical staff, and then later consulting member of technical staff, as well as the management ranks, that's when diversity became a little bit of an issue. But again, you know, there were some exemplars and examples that you could look to. Michael Pearsall, for one. Charles Brown, who was a distinguished member of technical staff, who worked on some of the most challenging problems in optical fibers. So, I would say, when I look at some of the other companies where I worked, Bell Labs was actually ahead of the curve.
Where does Lucent come in on this?
Lucent started as the optical fiber company itself around the time that I actually started with "Bell Labs." So, it was Bell Labs Lucent Technologies from this breakup of the AT&T, right? And so, the optical fiber communication side rebranded its name as Lucent Technologies.
This must have been a very exciting time, before the bubble at least, because with optical, the name of the game at this point is broadband internet.
You know, it really was an exciting time. We saw an explosion not only in fiber cells, but just all the different types of fibers that were coming out. So, you had people doing all kinds of work on transcontinental fibers, large area fibers. My project was on high bandwidth multimode fibers. You just saw an explosion in the innovation in the different types of waveguide technologies that were coming out. And at the same time, a lot of optical startups were being started at that time too, to go for the holy grail of all optical switching. Yeah it was a fabulous time to be working in the optical fiber and the communications technology space.
And when that tech bubble popped, what were your experiences? How did you navigate that?
Yeah so that was a tough time for everybody, right? That was a very tough time. Especially for those who were in markets that were not engineering cities. So, Atlanta, I would say, is much more of a banking and service-oriented city, as opposed to an engineering city. I mean, there's obviously pockets of engineering that go on in Atlanta. You have Lockheed Martin, you have some other companies there and some manufacturing plants, but as a PhD scientist, it's a little difficult. So, most of our colleagues had to transition either to New Jersey locations or other offices. Where for me, a mentor and a colleague of mine had told me about an opportunity that we had been thinking about over the last, I guess, six months or so before the final, I would say, floor dropped at our location. And that was actually to help start an engineering program at a college called Norfolk State University. And I was able to pivot fairly seamlessly to being a professor of optical engineering at Norfolk State. So, going back to school and to a university had always interested me, always sparked me. I enjoyed my time at Clemson and the University of Florida. And I thought maybe this would be an excellent chance or excellent time to pivot to do something else in a creative space to maybe innovate but innovate through students.
So, what did you actually end up doing?
I left Bell Labs as the technical manager for the optical conductivity group, and I relocated and moved to Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA to become an optical engineering professor there in their brand-new optical engineering program.
Oh, that must have been so exciting for you.
It was. It was a big change, and it was to a degree, going back home. Norfolk State University is a Historically Black College and University, or HBCU, just like the school where I grew up. My mother taught, again, at South Carolina State College University, which actually is a historically black college and university, right next door to Claflin University, which is also an HBCU. And so, to a degree it was a homecoming of sorts to go back and to give back at an HBCU. And to go and actually build something at an HBCU was thoroughly exciting. You know, they had had through the Office of Civil Rights program in Virginia, the president at the time, she I would say was a visionary. She requested I think three programs, and one of the three programs was to start an optical engineering department at the school, to start a bachelors and a masters program, and at that time there were only two other programs, right? There was Rose-Hulman and Arizona. And so, we would be the third in the nation as an actual optical engineering program. Not a concentration, not a minor within another degree, but an actual optical engineering degree program. And that was very compelling to come and to work on.
And so, you were essentially there from the beginning? You were part of building all of this?
Yeah. I came about a year after they had started the program, and I was there to help build out the first four-year class, and I was there to start building the master’s degree program. So, from the curriculum and then later becoming the chair, to literally go out and hand-pick the students. So, I was there for the specs on the buildings. Specs on the optical engineering labs. The building out of the optical engineering labs for our lab courses there. It was exhilarating, and a lot of sleepless nights, lot of hard work, lot of weekends on campus, but it was extremely rewarding.
Sean, coming from Bell, where you have access to the premiere technology of the world, did you feel spoiled? Was there, you know, a feeling like you wouldn't be able to work with the same level of instrumentation? Or at Norfolk State were you able to get some really good equipment?
You know, we actually were able to get some really good equipment at Norfolk State. Part of the Office of Civil Rights funding was a small amount of money for equipment. Now, was it Bell Labs level? No. But you are absolutely right. Bell Labs was phenomenal. You would, you know, want a laser? No one ever asked you how much the laser was. You just, if you needed it for a project, then you could say what the outcome would be by getting this equipment, you got your laser. It was, I used the word magical before. Some parts of Bell Labs were magical like that as well. So, at Norfolk, it definitely was different. Starting a program and setting out a budget on what to acquire and why to acquire it and then systematically trying to put things in place, not only to undergird the curriculum, but to also help build out a research program. That was a little more challenging, but again through the foresight of the president, we did have some money set aside to be able to start and nucleate some things.
Sean, what was it like teaching at an HBCU? Was it something that was personally meaningful to you? Was it something that you felt like you were giving back, that you were going to give the next generation, the up-and-coming generation, opportunities? Were those kinds of things important to you personally?
Most definitely, David. All of the above. Right? And you couldn't help but walk into the classroom and see yourself just sitting in the seat, bright-eyed and wanting to change the world. And so, what I would tell people when I would, you know, interview people for a position, it's like, "You will feel your impact every day. When you go home at the end of this day, you will know what your impact was. And then when the spring comes, when you see these kids graduate, and they graduate with a job or they graduate with an offer to go work in someone's lab for a graduate degree program, that will be, it's a reward in itself for coming to work here. Like, you will know, feels tangible." You know? The impact that you have.
I can't help but ask, in terms of funding sources, if this was an early opportunity for you to see how the NSF works?
Actually David, it was. And so, I started out as a professor, and then I became chair of the department. And part of my duties as chair was to help faculty raise money and to find opportunities to collaborate and funding opportunities. And I worked with the vice president of research a lot on these activities. And that brought me to the National Science Foundation. And so, we were working on an engineering research center, we wanted to apply for one, but we really didn't know much about the program other than people approaching us to be part of their proposal. So, I went on one of these information quests. You know, I set up a bunch of different interviews with different program officers here at the National Science Foundation, and it was when I met with Bruce Kramer, I would say that meeting to a degree changed my whole life almost.
What was Bruce's position at that point?
So, Bruce Kramer was one of the program officers working on the engineering research centers. And so, I was supposed to meet with someone else and they didn't have time on their schedule, and so they ended up having me talk to Bruce. So, it was an ad hoc meeting and we went through the normal steps. You know, this is what an engineering research center is, and tell me a little bit about your department and the research that you guys do, and what are you known for? What's your specialty area at Norfolk? And after talking about that a little bit, he suggested a few folks that we should contact about maybe joining their collaboration and ended up being, of course, Arizona, because they had an optical engineering department there. And then a group in LA. And after we got through the business part of it, he spent like another hour with me just talking about the National Science Foundation, its mission, why it's so important. And I think, you know, I had an appreciation of the Foundation before meeting with Bruce, but I think at that point I said, you know, if there was a place to work, to have impact on people's lives, it would be working at the National Science Foundation. And it was at that point I set my sights at someday, you know, maybe I can go do a rotation at NSF or maybe I can go work at NSF. And it was many years later, but it did come to pass.
It planted a seed, it sounds like.
He did, he did. I credit Bruce all the time for me actually being at the National Science Foundation, because otherwise I would never have even thought of it. But just talking to him about what it meant to be at NSF and what kinds of things that he was doing at NSF and the impact that it can have and have on minority-serving institutions. You know, I kinda sorta fell in love with the place before I even came to work here (laughter).
Sean, it kind of sounds like there's a duality of your motivations on like a micro-macro level. At Norfolk State, you can make that impact on an individual student face-to-face, but that's limited by definition to your work physically there at Norfolk State. Whereas at a place like NSF, your impact truly could have national ramifications.
You get it David. You get it. Yeah, and that's what's kept me here at NSF. It's the love of the work, the love of the passion of the community, but being able to have that national impact and to move the field, or to move a policy forward, that's very compelling. That's what gets me up every day. It's trying to have some type of impact.
Have you remained in contact with your colleagues at Norfolk State? How is the program doing these days?
You know, the program is doing well. They decided to stop the master’s degree program, so they're only doing the bachelor's degree program, but pump it, now lots of students. And since I've been there, they started a PhD program in materials science. And so many of the bachelor’s degree awardees who leave optical engineering, they also have an electronic engineering degree program, and many of those then aspire to go on to the PhD program in materials sciences. And so, the program's going well. Many of my colleagues that started with me are now doing other things. You know, Dr. Gettis is now associate dean at Hampton University, and Dr. Francis Williams is associate VP, I believe, of Tennessee State. So, you know, from that catalytic experience from all of us starting these programs together. They've all gone off to do wonderful and exciting things.
Now after Norfolk State, you actually went back to University of Florida.
I did. So actually, a classmate of mine started a startup company called Applied Plasmonics. And he recruited me away from Norfolk State, because when I was at Bell Labs, I took a sabbatical from there to work at a company called Luxcore, which was a startup in Atlanta trying to go after the holy grail, our optical wavelength converter. And that was an exciting time as well. You know, there's nothing like working at a small startup, a tech startup, where you get to wear every hat. You're the scientist, you're the engineer, you're the marketing person. You know, you wear a thousand hats when you're working at a startup.
Sean, I just realized. Did you ever cross paths with Quinton Williams in Atlanta?
Of course, of course. So, Quinton and I worked together on this multi-mode high bandwidth project together. So that was a project that had a fiber grower, a computational theorist, a person that worked on just computation, and a characterization expert. And Quinton was our characterization expert. And that was such a positive experience, and I've kept in contact with Quinten ever since our Bell Labs days, right? He's now at Howard University, doing fantastic things at Howard. And actually, when I took my sabbatical from Bell Labs to work at Luxcore, Quinten took a sabbatical from Bell Labs as well and started a startup company with his brother.
And we were competing to a degree as well. Those were, again, fabulous, fabulous times.
Right, right. What was Applied Plasmonics? What was their core business?
Applied Plasmonics was working on- hm, how much can I tell you? I might have to get you to sign an NDA. I don't know.
Well, this is meant for publication, let's just keep it general. Whatever you can say.
Okay. So, they were working on what we would hope to be the next generation of lighting technologies that were efficient but also it would be revolutionary in the terms of switching wavelengths. And I think we were on to interesting IR source as well. So, it's something that would be scalable across wavelengths, and it would have significant applications both consumer but also maybe military.
And so, you essentially had, was it a joint appointment between Florida and Applied Plasmonics, or it was just two separate things you were involved in?
Yeah, it was two separate things. Two separate things and then I ended up leaving Applied Plasmonics because startups are startups, and sometimes the life of a startup is feast and famine. And so, in the famine times, I switched over to University of Florida working on the extreme life project. So again, lighting and we were working on a portable, flexible light system that would emit light in the near-IR for mechanical purposes. So that technology was all about flexible displays.
And then at some point, that seed that was planted earlier on became something when you moved over to NSF. How did that happen? What was the opportunity there for you?
Yeah. So, it ends up being that I ended up getting engaged when I was in Florida, and my fiancée actually lived in Maryland, and it was a time to think about, where are we going to settle roots? Are we going to live in Florida or are we going to live in the DMV area? And decided NSF's in the DMV area. Seems like a good time to maybe start pursuing the National Science Foundation position. So, she was all for that. You know, she loved Florida, but of course her family is from Maryland. My dad lives in the area. You know, it was a good way of thinking about transitioning to a new phase of life. And an excellent opportunity to think about what opportunities could be pursued at the National Science Foundation. So, I applied for like eight jobs at the National Science Foundation. And Dr. Zakya Kakafi took notice of my background, so I had a little bit of industrial experience, little bit of academic experience, worked at Bell Labs, and she decided, you know, let's take a chance on Sean bringing him in for an interview. And again, I interviewed for this MRI position, for the major research instrumentation job, and again, she took a chance on me, brought me into the foundation working on three different programs, and it's been excellent ever since.
Now, so many federal government positions, the titles are a bit opaque. They don't really explain what it is that you do. So, when you started as a program director, right, what exactly- where are you in the chain of command? Who reports to you, and who do you report to in that role?
Yeah. So, you are right, sometimes it does look like there's this black box called the National Science Foundation.
And nobody knows, you know, kind of like what the positions are, right? So, we're a very flat organization. I mean we're extremely flat. We look like a university almost, right, where we have the agency director is kind of like the president or provost, and then we have these directorates that are run basically by like I would consider like a dean, and then we have divisions under the directorates, and they're run by basically department chairs. And then there are program directors, right? And each program director runs a specific program, whether it's disciplinary or it seeks to do something larger, like centers or group activities. And these program directors typically do not have people reporting to them. We work alongside of administrative staff professionals. But we don't have direct reports as program directors. We do report to, again, our equivalent of a chair. That'd be the division director and the deputy that serves them. And as a program director, your job is to help the community advance that particular discipline, right? So, for centers, these are large-scale programs, and for MRSECs, the Material of Research Science and Engineering Centers, their job is to attack grant challenges in materials research. As a program director, you're trying to set up competitions that allow the best science to come forward and then you want to do a really good job with the leadership and science management to make sure that they're taking risks and that they're pushing the science forward as hard and as fast and as thoughtful as possible.
What are some of the feedback mechanisms in that role of program director where you know you are succeeding in your mission? How do you know you're doing effective and rewarding work?
Yeah, so we all start out with our goal review standard process, our peer review, where the community is telling us, "These are the most compelling problems, and this is the most compelling way forward to address these problems." Right? And so it all starts with that first initial review, and then our centers, these really large projects, have a lot of post-award management and not just the program officer reading annual reports, getting updates from the leads of these projects, but also doing site reviews, where we'll bring the community back in. Then they'll assess, how well is this center moving on the research? But also, on other aspects that we care about for the Board Science Foundation. For example, workforce development, broadening participation, is there an educational component or an outreach component, and if so, how are they meeting those objectives? How are they pushing forward on those? And again, we bring the community in to gauge how well does this award really advance on the goals of the program?
Sean, given the front-line status of the program director position, how you're really out there working with the people in the field, during the course of your tenure, your seven years in that position, what are some of the real success stories for you? What are some of the areas where you were involved in, where you felt like you were really, you know- that idealized moment that you had of what the NSF could really be before you joined. What were some of those moments of success where you actualized what the mission was all about and your role in it?
You know, there's so many of these examples, it's so hard to say. And the arc of these is so different as well. So sometimes you'll give an award and one year later, there's a huge impact from that award, right? There'll be a Nature or Science paper that's highly cited because it moves or advances the field, but then there'll be some things that are way, you know, much longer an arc in terms of like their impact. But I'm so amazed at the creativity of the community of some of the things that they do. You know, there's a story I love to tell about one of our PREM awardees, right? It's Partnership for Research and Education of Materials. And it's an award that's in Puerto Rico. And this one award, very small amounts of money when you think about the totality of impact. They really focus on impact in their local high school, and they bring the women from their local high school, the girls from their local high school, in throughout the academic year, and in the summer partner them with undergraduates in the lab, and they become now a feeder system for those students to come from the high school to their local college, and in this particular city, many people don't go to college, so that in itself is a big achievement. But then to working with their network, they send these graduates of undergraduate physics degrees to graduate programs in like Wisconsin and Minnesota. And because of their very concerted efforts at this local high school, they're one of the top twenty producers of Hispanic PhD women in physics. You know, we have amazing outcomes not just in the science, but also in the broader impact, education and outreach activities as well. But when I think about the science- you know, long-term type funding that's gone to John Goodenough, who got the Nobel on the lithium battery, lithium work. That work was done right here at the National Science Foundation. You know, within the Division of Materials Research in Chemistry. And so, we have amazing science stories every year from I would say very modest investments from the federal government. Where our community is doing amazing and exciting work.
Sean, I have to ask on very broad level. You started alongside the Barack Obama administration. And it is a historical fact that President Obama's personal interest in celebration of science and technology is really unparalleled in American history. I wonder, at your level as program director, if you felt that as a national policy, the importance with which the Obama administration held science as a, you know, a vital part of moving the country forward?
Yeah, I would say yes, David. I would say through his strong support of his science advisor, John Holdren, at the time, he showed that he had a strong leaning towards making sure that the U.S. was going to be strong in science and technology. And not just S&T, but also in basic research. You know, he really supported and stood up a strong office of science and technology policy and I would say you felt that in the R&D priority memos that would come out. There would be things that resonated and aligned with a lot of the things that we were trying to do as the National Science Foundation. And so, there was a lot of synergy with the priorities coming out of the White House, with the priorities, I would say, of the agency. So, I would say for sure you could feel it during that time. You know, I did a detail under the Obama administration, under John Holdren at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, working in the science directorate there.
And this was 2013, 2014 you were there?
'14, that's correct. That's correct. And you certainly felt it there in the White House. And under his tenure to show and display his love and affection and just his passion for science, but his belief in the fact that we needed to have a strong science infrastructure in the country. He started the first science fairs at the White House. And then he followed up in the second administration with these maker fairs. You know, which are science fairs but a little different than what you would consider like a high school science fair. Because the maker movement spans across ages and all kinds of things like that. And so, he was the first, and I think the only president to do maker fairs for sure, but I think the first to even do science fairs. And he did them in the White House. To bring people to the White House to show them the importance of it by bringing them into, not the Eisenhower Building, not down the street at the convention center, but into the actual White House.
Right, right. Sean, I'm curious. Your time at OSTP, what did you learn about the policy process of science at the federal level, being so close to the president within the White House? What did you learn about the policy process that you might not have gotten at the NSF?
I think I learned a lot about the policy making process while I was there that is not textbook. You know, and it can look a little messy. And it literally is "get your hands dirty" kind of work. You have to be committed to what your cause or your purpose is, and you have to be willing to knock on a lot of doors. Once you have an objective in mind, the other great thing about policy work from the White House is that you can convene as many people and whoever you like. And getting great ideas from the country, you know? Sometimes at NSF we have a small community that we typically work with, right? Typically, academic, maybe federal, and then some industrial. And when you're looking at policy making at the White House, you know, it includes everybody. All voices are important. All voices matter. And great ideas come from any and everywhere. And that's another thing that I learned about policy working at the White House, is that some of your best ideas would actually come from places you would never have even thought of. Talking to, or even thinking of putting them on the list of people we have to talk to.
Now is OSTP, are most of the people there serving in a detailed capacity, or are there full-time civil servants who work in OSTP?
So OSTP, believe it or not, is a very, very small enterprise. Regardless of administration, it's very small. And it only has a few full-time civil servants who work there, and most people actually are on detail for a variety of agencies, and actually some universities as well.
Now, you served as executive secretary of the National Science Board. What is the relationship between NSF and the National Science Board (NSB)? How do they work together?
Yes, the National Science Board. Well, the NSB is our oversight board. It is comprised of some amazing and talented leaders. We are lucky to have them as partners in advancing the science and broader impacts that our PIs engage in. Within their oversight capacity, they help the NSF navigate major decisions, from funding major investments in facilities, changes in the NSF gold standard merit review process to helping NSF communicate the things that are important to us like Broader Impacts. ZIERLER: (Laughter) Do you know, did you have a sense that your time at OSTP was sort of, were there people who were recognizing your abilities and were putting you on sort of a leadership track at NSF? Was that part of your sense, that OSTP was giving you a broader sense of how things work, so you could take that knowledge base back as your career blossomed at the NSF?
Yeah, I will definitely say that it provided that platform to see things in a much larger lens, or wider lens. You know, Joe Handelsman was my last advisor there, and Phillip Ruben was my first. And the two of them together were excellent role models, excellent advisors. Still keep in contact with them for their advice and their mentorship. And definitely being at OSTP and having, I guess, the weight of trying to do something on the national level, but from the White House, not just nationally for just NSF, but thinking about the full S&T enterprise definitely changes your mindset about what's possible, what's not possible. And what could be done from a national impact perspective. It definitely does change that. And I would say the people here at NSF were very supportive of me going on that detail. You know, my boss at the time, Mary Galvin, who was my division director, and Ian Robertson prior to that. Really supported my growth here at the NSF, but also to take some risks by going to OSTP and working on projects there.
When you were promoted in 2016 to Deputy Division Director, how did that change your day-to-day?
Yeah so, the deputy positions here at NSF, we're split up into deputy division director, deputy assistant director, and then there's the component, right, the division director and then the assistant director, so we work in these pairs, right? And the deputy's job is to really work on operation. You're somewhat of the COO of the organization, whereas the division director is more the CEO. And in those two roles, the deputy looks inward and the division director should be looking outward. So now, as the deputy, I'm now in charge of making sure all the trains run on time, and so I'm having to ping my peers, who were my peers before, to make sure you get this in on time, or make sure you validate this or get this up to date, or how are we doing on that new solicitation of “Dear Colleague Letter”, so it changes your relationship substantially with your colleagues. Because now you're the person making sure everybody's getting things done and getting things done on time. And then also helping the division director fulfill their vision. You know, they have a vision of where they want to see the organization go in a year or five years, and as the deputy, your job is to help create an environment by which that vision can occur. And so you're working with your, again, your former colleagues in a different way, maybe challenging some of their assumptions to make sure that as a group, as a collective, we're all trying to move towards the same goal and objective, as set by the division director.
Sean, as you've moved up in the NSF, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the overall budgetary environment. How are things now versus when you started?
You know, the budget has grown substantially actually since I first started here. And so that shows significant, I would say, partnership, but also support from Congress, who appropriates our budget. And so, you can see that Congress believes in science, and they believe in the need for a strong basic science agency that then can really propel and feed innovation, translation, to academia, to industry, but also to our other federal partners. And so, we've enjoyed growing budgets since 2008. And it's helped us actually meet a lot of these objectives. So, since I started, you know, one of the major things that the National Science Foundation has really leaned in on is this notion of convergence research. You know, we can't work in our discipline silos any longer. You know, the grand challenges that we're going to meet of the future require disciplines to really work with each other and not have these silos where we're throwing things over the transom to someone else to solve these problems. If we can work together, we'll do that. Some of that budget has gone to helping us realize convergence research in a better way, and to help us meet this larger workforce issue that we're going to have in the future, just making sure that we can generate the right types of people for the jobs of the future. And Congress has been working with us to do that.
Sean, I don't want to get anywhere near anything of a classified kind of discussion, but I am curious that because NSF does have clearances for certain employees, it's obvious why in the Department of Energy, the Office of Science, you need a clearance there. They deal with nuclear stuff. Or DARPA for example. Can you explain a little bit about why or how the National Science Foundation is involved in research endeavors that do have a classified component to them?
Oh, interesting question David. Hm (laughter). There's an announcement going on in our building.
Hold on one second.
Sorry. I came into the building just to make sure the internet wasn't going to falter, and there's a test of the emergency system while I'm at the building. So that was a good break.
Came around just as I'm asking you about classified information, right? (laughter)
That's right, that's right. They must be listening in, David. They must be listening in. No, so you know, we do work on things that require us to collaborate with other federal agencies. And those federal agencies are in the space of classified work. And because they're in a space of classified work, and for us to discuss things that might impact them, a few of our employees need that level of clearance to be able to have conversations with them. And so, this is a very, very, very small percent of the population here at the National Science Foundation that needs or requires clearance for it. So, I would say the vast majority of people here do not have security clearances.
I want to return to this idea that back when you were at Norfolk State and you realized that you could make an impact in terms of improving diversity in STEM at the National Science Foundation. Sort of like a ripped from the headline’s kind of question. We're really still right in the middle of this reckoning in STEM about increasing inclusivity and incorporating the ideas of Black Lives Matter and particles for justice and all of these other very important movements that are happening in real time right now. I wonder if you could talk both on a personal level, and on an institutional level, about where you see yourself in all of these conversations, and how NSF might have a unique position and a positive role to play as these issues continue to work themselves out into the future?
Great. David, that's a deep question. And-
Not an easy one, either, I know.
Yeah, that's right. We, as you said, we're still in the midst of this. And as an African American male, I've been in the midst of this literally my whole life. When the social unrest occurred this summer as a result of George Floyd's death and Breonna Taylor and all the ensuing marches and things, we actually had a reckoning moment here at the National Science Foundation, and it allowed many of us to reflect on our own personal stories and I've been able to share some of those with my colleagues. And for me, we're at a point now where the veneer is being taken off. And we have to look at what's really going on in this country. And it's an all-hands-on deck moment as far as I'm concerned with making change. You know, we all believe in the diversity of the country. That this melting pot is what makes the U.S. such an amazing place to live. It makes it not just unique in the world, but it's a place that's a beacon for the world, and that's why the world wants to come here to learn at our institutions and to finally become a citizen and to live here, right? It's the concept of this melting pot and that each person can pursue their own individual pursuits and liberty to the fullest, you know, while they're here. Those sentiments are shared by everybody. You know, African American, Hispanic, White, everyone. And so, this moment has meant to me that it's time for us to live up to those ideas. You know, those are not just things on paper. Those are things that we should really live out in our daily lives and they should reside in our conscious, in our thoughts, and they should live out in our institutions.
Where have you had the opportunity to demonstrate that diversity is good for STEM? In other words, diversity is important for the sake of equality and justice, but even if you didn't care about those things and you were just interested in advancing the science, right? Diversity is good for STEM. So, where have you had opportunity in your career, personally or institutionally, to really make sure that that point comes across?
Yeah, so first I would say there's a lot of people working, researching, the benefits of diversity, right? And publishing the benefits of diversity of though, diversity of peoples' backgrounds, and it's in industry's business and so the people who have been doing really the best work in this is actually industry, right? I mean they've been working with the SBE, Social Behavioral Economics community for a long time to really flesh out quantitatively that this is true. That this is a fact, right? But when I look back at my Bell Labs days, I would say that that's an excellent example of an organization that said, you know, the latter works organization said, "I don't care where you come from, I'm just concerned about your skillset. What can you bring to the full narrative of what we're trying to accomplish and, you know, advancing optical fiber technology, right?” So, I worked with people from all types of backgrounds. From African American, African, Asian, white, Indian, it was a melting pot of people in our R&D meetings, and it didn't matter where you came from. It just mattered what skills did you bring to the table and how well could you work with individuals, right? So that we could work as a team. So, I would say the- and so that microcosm, when you think about what Bell Labs was, right, it was in the top one, two, and three Fortune 500 companies for decades doing it as a diverse science organization. That's proof in the pudding right there. That diversity works, right? When you start looking at the top technology companies and they're doing it because they have a diverse workforce, there's no better evidence than that. And we see the same with some of our centers. You know, because NSF tries to imprint some of these values, you know, broader impacts, broader participation, on our awardees, places that we can really do it are like centers, right? There are enough people there to be able to do that, and so we see centers advancing through diversity as well. You know, one of my favorite examples is University of Massachusetts. The polymers research on going through their MRSEC. That organization, the school itself wasn't as diverse, but because the center directors were committed to this concept of diversity through their seed program, they pulled in a lot of women and under-represented minority PIs to be a part of their center, and that research would help fuel what their renewals looked like. And so that was a long-standing center that was very successful at re-competing every six years. That's because they kept bringing in the diversity of thought. Not the same old things from people at their university. That's just one example that comes to mind in terms of science here, propelled at the National Science Foundation.
I want to ask sort of a broadly retrospective question about the NSF. You know, right now, between climate change and coronavirus, just to take two examples, there's a wide-spread societal belief that, I mean it's always been true, but it's more appreciated than ever, that science is really going to get us out of these problems. Or if we have any chance of getting out of these problems, it's only going to be because of science, right? In what ways is the NSF well-positioned to meet this historical moment?
Yeah, well you're spot-on. It's going to be science that solves these problems. And one of the powerful things about the National Science Foundation besides it's a federal agency, with a platform, we can convene people. The power of NSF is that we fund a very broad and diverse community of scientists who are amazing and very creative and through our core research programs, and partly with other federal agencies, it will be scientists and getting them excited about solving these problems, that will lead to real, long-lasting solutions. It's because we have such a large and dynamic and diverse community.
Well Sean, just to bring the narrative right up to the present, what have you been working on in recent years? What are some of the major things in your portfolio?
Yeah so as the assistant, well the new assistant director for the mathematical physical sciences directorate. You know, really just trying to think about our five divisions, one of the unique things about our directorate is that it's extremely diverse scientifically as well as the communities that we serve. You know, the math community, chemistry community, materials community, which in itself is extremely broad and diverse, right? The physics community and then the astronomy community. Just really thinking about what's our next step to really support big, bold science of the future in each one of these disciplinary areas. So, what can I do to help the leaders in those divisions really turn it up a notch for their communities, right? And then we have some challenges going forward in the future with the cost of science. You know, it's going to be costlier. Graduate student costs are going up, cost of school is going up, cost of instrumentation is going up, and so how do we right-size our awards? And we're hearing from the community all the time, you know, what we could pay for on an award ten years ago is just not the same what we can do today, right?
And so it's just working with the leaders in our community to figure out what's right-sizing science, if you will, to make sure that we're still advancing the future at the same pace or faster than we've done over the last few decades. So I'm really thinking about policy things these days and how to really help propel science and we have a new director and trying to figure out what we can do as the directorate to really help our new director envision his goals that he has for the agency as well.
Absolutely. Well, Sean, for my last question, I want to ask you something that's sort of forward-looking. We've touched on so many things over the course of your life and your career, and so many of the things that have been important to you and will continue to be important to you. So, as you look forward in your career, I'd like you to talk a little bit about the things you're most optimistic about, both personally and both as a member of a larger professional society. What are you most optimistic about in terms of advancing the policy and making sure that the best science is supported in the best possible way? How are you going to continue your work promoting diversity in the field, and how are you going to continue working to further your interests in the world of education as well, even though you're no longer directly in that environment? So basically, on those three levels, what are those goals that you have that you're most optimistic about?
Yeah. Thanks David, for another complex question (laughter). With many subparts and many nuances. But I would say at the core of the answer to all of those questions, the future is bright. We work with so many talented individuals here at the National Science Foundation. And again, the community is just so talented, energetic. They're willing to take risks or give suggestions of how we could take some risks and I think that makes me hope, right? And I'm really interested in how can we do things together as a community and move things forward in the future. You know, I had a chance to work on a project recently that made me have to write out some core values or core principles. And one of them that fits this of how I'm approaching the future is an African proverb that says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together."
I like that.
And so, I want us to go far, and the only way that we're going to do that is if we can do it together as a community and as a collective.
That's a great answer, and for everyone's benefit, I hope you're one hundred percent right on that. Well, Sean, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. I'm so glad that we connected, and I'm so appreciative for the opportunity to hear your perspective on all of these important issues. And I want to thank you for doing this, and it's going to be a tremendous resource for lots of researchers for generations to come. So, thank you so much.
Thank you, David, really.