The National Science Foundation’s newest engineer believes in the power of her profession

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Last month, the National Science Foundation named the newest leader of its Directorate for Engineering. For the past 4 years, Susan Margulies had been a professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. Federal News Network’s Jason Miller recently had a chance to talk with her to discuss why she decided to take her talents to the NSF on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Jason Miller: Susan, thanks for joining us. Let me start with the basics. The National Science Foundation’s Engineering Directorate, a lot of people may not have heard of it, maybe even are unsure what you all do. So maybe just give us that 50,000 foot view of the mission of the Engineering Directorate, then from there we can kick off our conversation.

Susan Margulies: The mission of the Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation, is really about addressing the nation’s problems by generating very important basic research, to be able to allow us to solve those problems that are most pressing in our nation. In addition, the Engineering Directorate expands that mission to also address training the workforce, which includes the engineers at the undergraduate, as well as those post secondary education, and inspiring young students to become the engineers of tomorrow. So we really focus on problems that people and create key partnerships so that this basic research is translated into real solutions to those problems in the lives of Americans today and tomorrow.

Jason Miller: It’s fascinating, because I think one of the things that the National Science Foundation does, and maybe people don’t realize, is the connection back to not just industry, but to academia, which is actually where you came from, had you worked with the National Science Foundation, because you’re fairly new, I think you just started in July.

Susan Margulies: I just started in August. So this is actually my fourth week on the job. And my history actually does extend far back to the National Science Foundation. When I applied for this position, I looked on my CV and I said what type of funding have I had from the National Science Foundation. And in fact, it spans many of the programs that the Engineering Directorate is well known for. It began with a career award, which was my first NSF grant. And it really supported me as a young assistant professor in both research as well as educational initiatives of my own design. And I even had a National Science Foundation that funded a renovation of a facility. I had a National Science Foundation grant that funded a new piece of instrumentation, a very expensive piece of instrumentation, which was a core facility at the University of Pennsylvania where I was a faculty member. And in fact, I’ve been involved in innovation in engineering education at the graduate, and the separate funded project for by NSF at the undergraduate level. And also one of the ERC’s, or engineering research centers, to really my own funding extends the gamut. And it’s a real proud moment in my life to be able to then think about the next steps for the Directorate and not focus only on biomedical engineering, which is my own background, but all engineering disciplines.

Jason Miller: So what made you decide to come to NSF after years, and accolades on the other side of the fence, now? You decided to try your hand on the side of fence that hands out money versus receiving money.

Susan Margulies: This is an incredible time in our nation, it’s a time when we have pressing problems, where engineers really can come up with the pathways towards solutions. And it is a time when the focus on science and engineering is really widespread throughout our nation, from the youngest children who are learning how engineering and science can make a difference in the pandemic, and create at warp speed, new vaccines, disseminate them to people, and to really be able to track the information about where that virus is, and how effective strategies are to mitigate its effects. It’s so clear, at a fundamental level, that science and engineering are important in the economic future of our country, as well as the opportunities for all of its citizens. So we are at a time where engineering is needed. And it was a time to step up and really serve the nation. This really calls to my priorities, my own personal values of really giving back and helping facilitate opportunities for all. And so it’s my pleasure to be able to serve in this capacity now.

Jason Miller: Did you ever think one you do work for the federal government or NSF? And two, did they recruit you? Did you throw your resume, so to speak against the wall and see if it stuck? How did you get to the position you’re in today coming from academia?

Susan Margulies: So actually, I was called to consider this position. I would have thought my predecessors were deans or vice deans and leadership positions across entire engineering colleges or schools. So for me, it was actually a call from a member of the search committee who said Susan, we actually think that because you’re a chair of biomedical engineering, which in of itself is a convergent discipline, where we need to speak many languages, those of science, all disciplines of engineering, as well as those of medicine to really make a difference. And in addition, that I was a chair in the biomedical engineering department that is both in Emory School of Medicine, and I’m a tenured faculty member at Emory, as well as in Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, where I’m a tenured faculty member at Georgia Tech, and really being able to understand and speak the languages of a large public institution that’s driven by technology and engineering, and a large private institution, where medicine is really the largest entity on campus and being next to the CDC, the applications of medicine and society are very, very strong themes there. This person on the search committee said, you know what, you actually understand partnerships between diverse cultures. And this is an opportunity to really help NSF form partnerships, not only within the National Science Foundation, with other agencies, with industry and with other types of partners to really be able to bring engineering to a new level. And so I had not considered that, I did not throw my resume at the wall to see if it stuck. Instead, I was rooted to listen to the challenge and to what the opportunity was. And I was really drawn to the opportunity to leave.

Jason Miller: What a great story because I think so many times folks don’t understand the opportunities that exists in government to make that difference, to give back, but also to use the knowledge you have gained over the years to then make things better. Which is, I think, what we all hope to do in our jobs. I’m speaking with Susan Margulies, the Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, who leads the Engineering Directorate. So Susan, let’s talk about some of your priorities. You were on the other side of the fence. As I said, receiving grants, were applying to NSF. Now you’re on the side that is giving out grants and really helping to promote the this idea of engineering and solving the problems you mentioned, establishing these key partnerships. I know you’ve only been in place now for about four or five weeks, what are you hoping to accomplish? What are some of those priorities and your goals to improve the process to really spread the word about engineering and the possibilities that exist?

Susan Margulies: So I’ll come back to those three themes of the problems, people and partnerships. I believe that right now the priorities are addressing important problems where engineers play a critical role. At times, we lead, and we need to develop the technologies, as well as the basic engineering know how to be able to address the problems. But sometimes we’re working on those problems, and we need to have partners at the table. And the people at the table could be communities, and those are communities from across the nation. I grew up in Minnesota in a small town, I’ve lived in the northeast, I’ve just come from for years in the deep south. The communities are really important to bring to the table on to help them understand. In addition, I think it’s really important to bring to the table the other partners whose expertise can make a difference. So within NSF, it’s very clear that the problems need the influence of the other directorates who are bringing their teams of experts to the table, the experts don’t reside at the National Science Foundation, the experts literally are in the field. They’re the students, and the faculty, and other experts. And we’re making a difference with the funding that you so aptly put that we give out every year. So most of the money of the National Science Foundation really is disseminated throughout the country to be able to bring experts to the to the problems and the problems forward to solution. So the problems that we’re looking at right now are really big and gnarly. They include looking at climate, looking at solutions for clean energy, these are important for us to address now, not in our children’s lifetimes, but in our lifetimes to make a difference in our children’s lifetimes. We’re using artificial intelligence and engineering to change the way we sense the world around us and use that information to respond dynamically. No more Is it the kind of a hub with distributed information that comes to a single decision. We’ve seen many networks break down, whether it’s in storms, or in many other situations, we need to think about how information is moving, and how that information really is the engine that drives many of the things from the phone in our hands, to large power grids. This information drives new equipment, new technologies that need to be created, and engineers are at the table there. When we think about disaster responses. We need to also be thinking about the infrastructure, not just of our nation, but in our homes to make us more resilient. Those are new materials. Those are new manufacturing methods that allow us to think differently about how the world moving forward is different than the world that we live in today, that we’ve learned a lot about bio-technologies and my experience in biomedical engineering, I think brings out a perspective to the fact that in the olden days, we used to think of mimicking biology. And engineering would be able to create a mimic. An artificial heart is a really good example of that. But now, with artificial intelligence or AI, we actually want to think like a brain. So we use biology to inspire new technologies that mimic what biology is, not for the purpose of being on a biological entity, but for actually being something that is part of our everyday activities, whether it’s an individual, as an industry or as a nation.

Jason Miller: Let me maybe drill down for a half a step because one of the things that when you’re on the outside looking in, you always wonder, why did NSF process work that way? Or why did they make that decision? Is that been maybe part of the biggest learning curve in this first month or over this first next six months you’re gonna have is really understanding the processes and the way NSF works?

Susan Margulies: So one of the things that I’ve learned by being here at NSF for just three weeks is how important the information from the community is. NSF holds many workshops that are open to the public to attend, to provide information, feedback and guidance to NSF about the problems that we should be studying, or how we should be studying problems. And what’s been really rewarding is that NSF really listens. We’ve recently convened a committee called the Engineering Research Visioning Alliance, which brings together members of the community, engineering community, as well as industry, as well as academia and government, to come together to really articulate what are the important engineering challenges that we need to be addressing in the future. That’s just one more community that is giving us information and guidance on the problems that we need to solve. In addition, we ask broad members of the community in terms of when you think about the community, sometimes you will think about academia, that these are professors are giving their advice. No, it comes down to community groups, community colleges, historically underrepresented communities are encouraged to participate. And one of the things that I really want to do is to really provide increased transparency about how the National Science Foundation works, it really does welcome the input of the entire country, in problems we should be solving, as well as how we should be solving and who should be at the table to be solved. I’m enormously proud of the speed with which those pieces of information move into requests for research proposals. So from workshops that we had in May, we are now formulating emphasis areas for calls for proposals that will happen this year. That is incredibly fast. In addition, we have mechanisms where we have – we’re very proud of our merit review process, where those proposals will come in, they will be reviewed by experts in the field, who are disseminated all throughout the universities all around the nation. And then within the same year, awards will be made. So we can go from listening to acting, to actually enacting change very quickly. Those awards are short term awards, the three year awards, typically at times they’re five year awards, we want people to make good progress, and then come back to us for the next step. We also have mechanisms that I think aren’t well recognized and known about, which are for one year awards, where it doesn’t go through the scientific review process, but are really stage at a very early, great idea that could really make a difference. And awards are made for small amounts. And for a limited time, sometimes six months or one year, to be able to gather that compelling feasibility study to be able to come in for those longer term awards. I’d like to really provide more transparency, about the way the National Science Foundation can really fund the work that’s happening right now and needs to happen.

Jason Miller: And that transparency really tags back to the Biden administration’s push for diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think what you’re trying to do is expand the numbers and the types of people, organizations that can then work on these hard ideas. So that sounds like that’s your longer term goal.

Susan Margulies: So the second goal is people, and we really need to focus. The director likes to focus on the missing millions, those are the people who are not yet at the table. And in engineering, we’ve been focusing on bringing more engineers, younger and younger and younger, into understanding what engineering is. When I applied to be an engineer as a freshman, I didn’t know what engineering was, but I knew I loved puzzles, and I knew I liked to really to approach challenging problems. I want children who are at their early stages or playing with toys that really encourage them to look at the environment around them and to assemble something that makes a real difference immediately. So when we think about the people, the missing millions who could be here, they really represent many people who are not yet in our process to be able to be educated as engineers, and to be part of the workforce of tomorrow and really give them and make a difference in their lives in the career options available to them. But I also like to think about the invisible mountains, the invisible millions are people already engaged in our pipeline, to become engineers and to become scientists, but perhaps they don’t have the environment that really foster success for them. And there’s more that we could be doing to foster the inclusion of those who are already part of our diverse pipeline. So I want to work on both of those things. And we’re equipped to do that to bring more into our pipeline and to diversify those people who consider themselves engineers today and tomorrow, and also to create more opportunities for those who are in the pipeline to really realize their dreams and our dreams for them to make a difference.

Jason Miller: Well, Susan, you mentioned you love solving puzzles, you have entered into a big puzzle called the federal government, and so you’ll have plenty of puzzles to solve over the coming years. So first of all, let me thank you for your time. Susan Margulies is the Assistant Director at the National Science Foundation and leads the Engineering Directorate. Susan, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Susan Margulies: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be here.

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