How will the dramatic increase in funding affect NIST and your main goals for the agency?
NIST's mission is becoming critically important and very visible. We've become a priority of the president in terms of funding, and I'm trying to make sure we can meet that responsibility. Visibility at that level creates an urgency that's not there when you're not singled out as a priority. There are a lot of inside baseball issues that we will address to make ourselves more efficient. You can burn a lot of time getting people together to build an effective team for a new project. One of the real successes of our smart grid effort, for example, has been quickly pulling together a very diverse group of stakeholders (utility companies, local and state regulators, equipment manufacturers, ISPs, telecom and wireless tech providers) who had not worked together before. In the meantime, our scientists are ready to go on this project.
Before beginning your career as a scientist, you spent a year teaching high school math and science in Missouri. How did that experience prepare you for your current position?
I loved it. I have to confess, if I thought I could have made a real career out of it I would have stayed with it. There's nothing more basic to building the future of the country than education. It was also one of the hardest jobs I've had. Six courses a day back to back with three minutes in between and no lunch, I was a basket case by the end of the day. One of the more rewarding experiences came in 1986 during the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. I remember dropping our normal lesson plans to talk about it. It's not something you plan for, and it was a powerful experience. The kids were really fascinated by what happened. In the end I found that at least at the high school level, I was going to be teaching someone else's curriculum and that the logical career path was to move into administration. I saw more opportunities in going back to school and getting my graduate degree.
You mentioned the importance of education to a country's future. How would you encourage young people to become interested in education—in particular math, science and technology?
My message is the country needs you to do it if you have the interest. The other lesson is that there are many, many more career opportunities that are built on a foundation of math and science than you can imagine (including teaching, copyright law, high-tech manufacturing, medicine and health care). You don't necessarily have to be a mathematician or a scientist.