Director’s Distinguished Lecture, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

March 25, 2014

President Janet Napolitano gave the plenary talk at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA on Mar. 25, 2014. Here are her remarks as prepared for delivery:

“The Stars We Ignite”

Thank you, Bill, and thank you all for that warm welcome. It’s great to be here this morning. 

You know, typically in public speaking it’s best to open with a slice of soft humor.

In thinking about bringing a bit of levity to Livermore, I happened to come across the mission statement of this internationally renowned laboratory. It is elegant and to the point:  “Enhance the nation’s defense. Reduce the global threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. And respond with vision, quality, integrity and technical excellence to scientific issues of national importance.”

Significant, serious work, of the upmost importance to the lives of all Americans…but not exactly topics to tickle the funny bone.

So I said to myself, “self, …  maybe we’ll skip the quips this time and cut to the chase.”

(I could add that this is one place, as a speaker, where you don’t want to bomb—but I won’t.)

Today marks my first visit to Lawrence Livermore since becoming President of the University of California.  And while I may be new to the Lab as UC President, the Lab and its rich legacy of cutting-edge science are not new to me.

One of my priorities as Secretary of Homeland Security was the DHS Scholars and Fellows program. Many of the undergraduate and graduate students who participated in this program justifiably named this Lab as their first choice for their summer research.

On a more personal note, this region, and the towns and communities that this Lab has fostered, are well known to me. My brother is a scientist who runs the computer science and information systems group at Sandia, just down the street. 

I also know that Herbert York, the first director of this Lab, possessed a lucid vision for what this dynamic community would become. When he and the young scientists in his charge first came to the old naval base in Livermore valley, he made clear his intent. This was to become a “new ideas” laboratory.

Dr. York possessed a specific style of leadership. He modeled it after that of his own mentor, Ernest Lawrence. It tilted towards allowing young minds the freedom to pursue new ideas as they emerged. Years later, he described his efforts, and I quote, “to keep the place interesting, to keep the work interesting.”

“We [at Lawrence Livermore],” Dr. York added, “practice the philosophy of always pushing against the technological margins, trying to make the biggest, the smallest, the lightest—always probing the technological extremes”. 

I think that if Dr. York were to see the Lab today, he would be pleased.

The current manifestation of the “new ideas” directive is one of the most audacious scientific endeavors ever attempted. I’m talking about the National Ignition Facility. The aim behind this effort sounds almost ludicrous—to ignite a star of our own. 

As all of you know, however, the ideas that ultimately reap the greatest benefits tend to be the ones that were the most audacious at the time of their conception. That is why the entire Lab—all of its scientists and engineers; all of you—mobilized on behalf of the NIF with a renewed sense of commitment and teamwork.  

Today I would like to make the case that the premise behind public research universities is equally bold. 

Consider the University of California. As a research university, UC fosters world-renowned academics, scholarship, and innovation. At the same time, as a public university, UC enhances California’s social mobility.

To quote one article written about the science undertaken at NIF: “The point when fusion becomes self-sustaining is known as ignition.” 

I believe that those same words describe the magic formula of UC. But it did take a couple of generations to find the right mix. 

It’s true that by the first decade of the twentieth century, Edward Slossen had included UC in his groundbreaking book, Great American Universities. Still, it took several more years, plus the focused leadership of UC President Robert Sproul, to create the right conditions for ignition. First came the southern campus—known today as UCLA. From the university farm near Sacramento, UC Davis grew. From the citrus experiment center by the Santa Ana River emerged UC Riverside.   

By the late 1950s—when Clark Kerr took the helm of the University—fusion, so to speak, became self-sustaining. New campuses at San Diego, Irvine, and Santa Cruz opened their doors to thousands of energetic, charged, ready-to-go Baby Boomers.  In 1960, the first Governor Brown signed California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. It ensured a place for any qualified Californian at UC—regardless of background. California blazed the trail for universal access to higher education in this country. 

The state, and arguably the nation, was never the same. Today, as you know, the University spreads across ten elite campuses, three national labs (including this one), five medical centers, and a statewide division of agriculture and natural resources. We teach for California, and we research for the world—and both are better for it.

And so let me say:

California, we have ignition.  

These days, we don’t open three new campuses at a time. But we still, in a number of ways, ignite new stars. 

We ignite stars who are students. Many—45% of freshmen from California this year—are the first in their families to go to college. Many—a quarter of freshmen from California this year—grew up in households where English was not the first language. Many—more than 40% of all of our undergraduates—are low-income. When these students graduate from UC, they have transformed not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them. 

We ignite stars who are faculty members, professors, researchers. They stand at the forefront of international scholarship and research in their disciplines. And it’s no mystery that when all of your colleagues are at the top of their game, you are pushed to become even better at yours. At the same time, the cross-pollination of new ideas, new methodologies, and new graduate students and post-docs leads to discoveries no one could have predicted.

We ignite stars who are K-12 students in California. UC is on the ground in hundreds of high schools across the state, guiding students on how to best prepare for college. UC students tutor middle school students. UC staff teach parents how to help their kids, and themselves, plan for the college transition. UC online programming trains teachers across California in new course curricula, and other teaching resources. 

We ignite stars who are doctors and nurses. UC trains nearly half of California’s medical students and medical residents. The University runs the largest health sciences instructional program in the country.   

We ignite stars who grow our food. UC is the agricultural touchstone in every county in this state. We extend our research to farmers in the field. We teach families about nutrition. We train gardeners and landscapers. We run 4-H.

UC, in other words, ignites the stars who are California’s future. And my job, as the President of this University, is to aim the laser beams and then get out of the way.

This brings me to Lawrence Livermore. 

I know that in the last several years, there have been changes in the mechanics of the lab management structure. This does not change the fact, however, that Livermore, as well as Berkeley Lab and Los Alamos, remain within the UC galaxy. And I am firmly committed to strengthening the relationship between this Lab, and the University as a whole.

For starters, I am committed to helping you find a phenomenal new Lab director. Acting Director Knapp is doing a terrific job in the interim. I commend him on his tremendous dedication to Livermore. I also give him my best wishes for a full and speedy recovery. 

I recognize the vital role that Livermore plays in our nation’s scientific prowess, its security, and its exploration and expansion of our environmental and energy resources. 

I respect the Lab’s incredible legacy of scientific and technological achievement. Massively parallel computing. The co-discovery of new super-heavy elements.  A critical player in our nation’s nuclear deterrence efforts. 

It is my intent to support a set of strategic campus-lab collaborations to enrich this legacy even further.

This Lab, too, serves a role in educating our country’s future scientists. Livermore does particularly important work with graduate student education, and post-doc training. This is work that I wholeheartedly support. Two of my first initiatives as President focused on additional funding for graduate students and for post-docs. 

I am extremely pleased that Livermore is fully engaged in the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which my initiative expanded. 

And I have full confidence in the recently launched graduate student support agreement between the Lab and UC Davis. Graduate students are frequently the glue that binds together collaborating organizations. 

By fostering graduate students and post-docs, the Lab at its core is also fostering future scientific leadership at this University, and in this country.

Let me pause here for a moment. 

One reason I was asked to speak in the Director’s Distinguished Lecture Series this month was to talk about women in the STEM disciplines. March is, after all, Women’s History Month. 

The question of women in STEM is appropriate. But the answers are complex.

Consider the story of Lilian Bridgman. 

Lilian came to UC Berkeley from Kansas State. She chose Cal for her graduate work because she was inspired by a preeminent scientist who called it home. The title of her master’s thesis was “The Origin of Sex in Freshwater Algae”.

(Well, somebody had to ask the question.)

Her research led her to spend many days wading through and combing creeks, scooping out specimens. 

Lilian, however, could not examine any of the algae she collected. To do so would require the use of a particular microscope. And the professor who owned this microscope refused to let her use it. 

He said that he would not allow, and I quote, “a valuable compound microscope in the hands of any coed”. 

As I hope you will have guessed, this incident occurred a long time ago. Lilian arrived at UC in 1886. She did analyze her data—eventually. Doing so took a lot of extra legwork, as well as help from a powerful champion. That champion was none other than Phoebe Apperson Hearst—the benefactor and UC regent who did so much for the entire University in its initial decades. It was Hearst who ultimately bought Lilian her own microscope. 

The University today, of course, is different in many ways from the one that Lilian experienced. During the first few months of my presidency, I visited all ten campuses, as well as Berkeley Lab. At every single stop, I met rockstar STEM professors. Many of them are not just national leaders, but world leaders in their disciplines. And many of these professors happen to be women.

Now, I know that these professors do not tell the whole story. There is, unfortunately, no denying that women remain underrepresented in the STEM disciplines as a whole. 

There is reason to believe, however, that the representation of women at all levels of the STEM disciplines will increase. In UC classrooms, and in UC laboratories, the number of women engaged in STEM coursework and research keeps growing. Last year, for the first time in the history of UC Berkeley, more women than men were enrolled in introductory computer science.

Think about that for a moment. For the first time in the history of UC Berkeley, more women than men were enrolled in introductory computer science. This is a field in which, a couple of generations ago, it would have been unheard of for women to take part in a major way. Think about that in the context of Ms. Bridgman. 

Initiatives and organizations at the faculty and staff level play a critical role in advancing the cause of women in STEM. Right here at this Lab, the LLNL Women’s Association is one important example. 

During my visit to the Davis campus, I was fortunate to meet with many of the faculty involved in the UC Davis ADVANCE program. It aims to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. 

This is part of a larger endeavor, UC ADVANCE PAID, which supports programs on six of our campuses. Some focus on recruiting more women faculty in STEM. Some focus on identifying the barriers we need to break to keep those women faculty. And it’s no accident that the National Science Foundation helps fund these programs. 

This brings me to my final point. 

Fundamentally, when we talk about women in STEM, what we are talking about is leadership. There’s the leadership needed to keep the pressure on raising the number of women in STEM. And by keeping up that pressure, we develop more leaders in science. 

Lawrence Livermore, and the University of California as a whole, cannot lead the scientific world unless we draw the best people from our society, across all barriers of race, gender, and socioeconomics. May I remind you that Herbert York himself was the son of a railroad baggage handler?

This is noble work that you do—along with the rest of your colleagues in the UC galaxy. We stand here today at a living monument to the quest for new ideas. New ideas, and igniting stars in all their wondrous forms, is what this university is all about. And that can never change. 

Thank you.