January 16, 2004

Princeton head: nation’s well-being depends on research institutions

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Shirley M. Tilghman, Ph.D., president of Princeton University, discussed "Training the 21st Century Biomedical Scientist" during the Dean's Lecture Series Wednesday. Photo by Dana Johnson

Princeton head: nation’s well-being depends on research institutions

A volcano that spews lava with the help of baking soda and vinegar; a caterpillar that creates a cocoon and becomes a butterfly in a jar; a bean plant that grows in a milk carton. The wonderment that a child sees in science is the key to ensuring the future of research in the United States, said Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University at this week’s Dean’s Lecture.

“Our challenge as educators and future educators is to convey to students that science is a grand adventure,” Tilghman, Ph.D., said in her presentation titled “Training the 21st Century Biomedical Scientist.”

Tilghman pointed out that all those engaged in science and technology play an important role in the national fabric, that “fundamental research tumbles out of research universities and into the economic mainstream.” Therefore, the future of the nation’s well-being depends on the success of its research universities, she said.

But this success may be threatened by the evolution of the graduate education system, according to Tilghman. Because the number of students has grown faster than the number of jobs available in life sciences, something had to give, and it was the length of training.

“I call it the LaGuardia effect,” said Tilghman. “You circle LaGuardia airport waiting to land. For young scientists, they are circling, waiting in training for a job.”

The lengthy training period discourages some of the most qualified students from entering the field and leads to a focus on productivity, as opposed to education, according to Tilghman

“This 50-year-old system has created the best engine for innovation in the world, but we need to pay attention to the quality of graduate education and career prospects to ensure the vitality of the program,” Tilghman said.

Keeping research universities open to diversity is also important for the future, she said. This means tapping into the entire pool of prospects and inviting scientific interests from all populations.

“We need to hold the doors of our academies wide open,” she said.

To keep the greatest minds continually searching for answers, Tilghman said, “We must convey the excitement and profound satisfaction of making a discovery about the natural world. We encourage the drive to understand the mysteries of this world.”