Obama Adviser Praises U.Va.'s STEM Education and Research Efforts

May 21, 2012 — Speaking on a visit to the University of Virginia, John Holdren, President Obama's chief science and technology adviser, said the research being done at the nation's universities is a key engine in the drive for economic recovery.

Holdren, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, addressed a standing-room-only crowd Thursday. Earlier, he toured several laboratories in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and College of Arts & Sciences, where he saw work of professors and students that is producing breakthrough advancements.

During the tour, Holdren witnessed tools for early tumor detection in a chemistry lab studying microfluidics, the development of new nano-magnetic technology for mobile phones and laptop computers in a nanotechnology lab in Wilsdorf Hall, cutting-edge battery and low-power electronics technology in Rice Hall, and 3D fabrication printers in a mechanical engineering lab that could help bring manufacturing back to the United States.

Holdren also talked with faculty and students from across the University in the new OpenGrounds studio, and observed that interdisciplinary work will be critical for imagining future discoveries and making new inventions.

"So many of the things that the President and I talk about in the White House are actually happening on the Grounds of this university," Holdren later told a capacity crowd in Rice Hall's Olsson Auditorium and others who listened from the lobby. Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon introduced Holdren.

"Inspiration is powerful," said Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research, who hosted the visit. "It is the key to educating the next Einsteins and Edisons, who will invent our future. Dr. Holdren's talk undoubtedly inspired many at U.Va. and students from surrounding high schools to follow their dreams in science and engineering.

"We were delighted to host Dr. Holdren at U.Va., and look forward to connecting U.Va. initiatives with White House programs. It was very gratifying for our research community to hear Dr. Holdren link so many U.Va. programs to real impact and social relevance for the country. This is truly science serving humanity."

Obama keenly understands the importance of both basic science and technology, in regard to education, new knowledge creation and economic development, Holdren said. One of the White House's main technology initiatives is to make U.S. manufacturing a key part of the economic recovery, he said. At the same time, he said, the president is passionate about inspiring the next generation of students to "think of the discoveries out there for you to make, if you reach for the stars."

Holdren said he also wants to work more on translating discoveries at universities into innovation and new ventures, spurring the economy and creating jobs.

He praised U.Va. for its merger of classroom theory and real-world, experience-based education, adding that making discoveries in a laboratory is exciting and memorable for students. A question from the audience asked whether a transformation of U.S. higher education to a more research-based format would be effective and inspiring for students.

Holdren's answer was a resounding, "Yes – we know this works better!"

The White House also wants to work on increasing the number of public-private partnerships, Holdren said. He quoted the president as saying, "Our challenges are so big and our resources so limited, we can't afford not to collaborate."

Holdren added that Obama wants to continue investing in education and research in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "We're not going to win the future," Holdren said, again recalling the president's words, "if we don't make these investments."

Despite the economic situation in the country today, Holdren said he remained hopeful. "We face huge challenges, but we also have huge opportunities," he said.

Informed that U.Va. has produced a seven-to-one return on research investment for biomedical engineering research in the U.Va. Coulter Program, a clearly impressed Holdren said he "will report those numbers" back to Obama.

Addressing the pending increase in student loan interest rates, Holdren said he does not want future American scientists to be hindered by an unaffordable college debt. "We have the greatest universities in the world, and we ought to make the investments needed for all committed students to gain access to them," he said.

– by Lisa Littman