Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the National Science Foundation, met with UCLA students, faculty, and administrative leaders this week, offering inspirational words about how researchers can better influence and guide the next generation of scientists and engineers.
A computer scientist and engineer by training, Panchanathan was named head of the agency in 2019 and confirmed by the US Senate in June 2020. His visit to UCLA was, as he said, an opportunity to see up close where the NSF makes a difference.
In meetings with different groups throughout the day, he stressed that accessibility and inclusivity must be at the forefront of research efforts. He also highlighted the agency’s commitment, which has an annual budget of $8.8 billion, to collaborations – with other agencies, industry partners, cities, states and countries in the around the world – who can improve the speed and scale of its mission to support new ideas and help bring them to life.
UCLA currently has more than 450 active National Science Foundation grants, totaling more than $350 million in funding. The fellowships were awarded to faculty members, students, and several major multidisciplinary research centers.
As part of his visit, Panchanathan gave a presentation in the auditorium of the California NanoSystems Institute titled “Innovation Anywhere, Opportunities Everywhere: Accelerating the Frontiers of Science & Technology.” Before an audience of dozens of faculty, students and staff, he gave passionate arguments about the need to provide individuals, groups and regions that have been underrepresented with the support and benefits of support and advancement of scientific research.
“How can we make sure we have accessibility and inclusiveness when thinking about the future?” Panchanathan asked. “This is a time when we must redouble our determination and effort to leave no talent or idea behind. This is something you will see NSF achieve as we move forward, with intensity. and intentionality.
His presentation was peppered with examples of major NSF-funded projects headquartered at UCLA, including the Institute for Pure & Applied Mathematics, the Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems, and the Center for Quantum Science and Engineering. He also gave a nod to a few faculty members, citing how the agency has supported their careers from the start until today, including Nobel laureate Andrea Ghez, professor of astrophysics Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine of UCLA, who attended the talk.
Prior to the town hall, Panchanathan met with UCLA graduate students from different disciplines who have received the organization’s fellowship. He encouraged them to venture outside of academia and gain industry experience, learn entrepreneurial skills, and give back through service and mentorship.
“He was as energetic and enthusiastic at our meeting as he was at the general meeting,” said Jamie Leonard, a third-year civil engineering graduate student who studies airborne microplastics. “Only instead of highlighting what the NSF does as an organization to inspire the next generation, he asked what we are doing individually to achieve these goals: how do we mentor undergraduate students in our labs and do we reach out to other schools that may not have the same resources as UCLA?”
The director’s remarks also resonated with William Schmidt, a bioengineering doctoral student who also works with the NSF-funded Success, Engagement & Retention of Veterans in Engineering and Science program at East Los Angeles College.
“It highlighted our role as stewards and communicators of science,” Schmidt said. “It is our responsibility to take the spark of curiosity that has ignited within us and continue to pass it on to future students who will one day take our place.”
During his visit to UCLA, Panchanathan also met with members of campus leadership, including Chancellor Gene Block and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt; held a roundtable with early-career faculty members who received the agency’s CAREER award; and visited the CNSI’s research and incubation spaces.
“We are honored that the Director of NSF visited our campus and met with so many researchers, students, and university leaders,” said Roger Wakimoto, UCLA vice chancellor for research and creative pursuits. “His message was inspiring and visionary and he has our support as he guides the agency in the months and years to come.”