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National Youth Science Camp

Sylvia Mathews Burwell
National Youth Science Camp
July 17, 2014
Washington, DC

As Prepared for Delivery


Thank you, Senator Rockefeller. I’m always flattered to be introduced by as great a leader as Senator Rockefeller. He’s an amazing public servant who has served the state of West Virginia and the nation in an exemplary way.

I volunteered on his first campaign for governor when I was only 6, and interviewed him for my elementary school newspaper in the 6th grade. I’d like to think that our quality coverage was a decisive factor in his victory.

I’d also like to recognize and congratulate David Thompson on receiving the Alum of the Year award. It’s well deserved.

Good afternoon, National Youth Science Camp!

I’m happy to get to speak with such an impressive group of students today, especially in the historic Kennedy Caucus Room.

As you’ve probably guessed, this room was named for President John F. Kennedy and his brothers. And it’s the perfect place for this luncheon because scientific pioneering shaped Kennedy’s presidency. He recognized the awesome power and impact of the scientific quest and inspired the nation to see it with him when we chose to go to the moon.

Ever since we took that giant leap, America has led the world in innovation and discovery. That fearless curiosity has made this country great, and as I look around this room, I know you all are the minds who are going to continue that legacy.

With Great Power…

For those of us who are just a little bit older, it can be sort of shocking to step back and look at how far we’ve come these last decades. When I was your age, few families had home computers, and we were years away from the Internet as you know it.

And now? Last month, a man who is paralyzed from the waist down kicked the first World Cup soccer ball using a robotic exoskeleton controlled only by his mind. Now, as far as I know, repulsor beams and flight were not involved, but suddenly a real-life Iron Man seems imaginable, doesn’t it?

We are living in a time of discovery, diving deeper into our oceans and flying further into our universe than ever before.

But as President Kennedy noted, science “has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.” And I would add that it depends on women as well.

You see, Kennedy didn’t just oversee one of our greatest scientific achievements, he also faced down one of our biggest scientific threats: nuclear annihilation.

That is the dichotomy of all progress: What we do with it is up to us. It’s up to you. We have to decide to use our knowledge to deliver positive impact to the world around us. We have to make sure that science serves humanity for good.

Or as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben would say, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Science for the Greater Good

In my career, I have had the chance to see firsthand the incredible impact science can have on people’s day-to-day lives.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where I headed the Global Development Program, has a simple goal: to work toward “the idea that all people deserve the chance to live a healthy and productive life.” The way we took on the barriers to healthy and productive lives was to build on a solid foundation of research and science.

We helped farmers grow crops more effectively and we found new tools to fight deadly diseases.

For example, when many Americans think about tuberculosis, they often picture Victorian women coughing into handkerchiefs. In developing countries, however, TB isn’t some antiquated disease; it’s a very current crisis. One third of the world’s population is infected, and about 2 million people die from it every year. That’s almost as much as the population of Chicago.

And while it’s highly treatable, treatment is complicated, so few areas have the resources to make sure patients are successful.

We worked to help develop a number of innovative tools: new drugs, better diagnostic technologies, and most importantly, a more effective vaccine to prevent the spread in the first place.

We also took on the challenge of helping farmers lift themselves out of poverty. In the developing world, farmers struggle with poor soil quality, plant diseases, and drought. As a result, they have a hard time providing food for their communities and stability for their families.

To contribute to sustainable ways to increase farmers’ yields, we turned to science. We supported research to find better ways to manage soil and water resources. We also worked on breeding better plants that could actually adapt to local conditions, like droughts and floods, while delivering better nutrition.

We even invested in developing plants that are resistant to certain natural killers, like Ug99, or “stem rust.” It’s a fungus that’s wiping out entire wheat fields in Africa and the Middle East and it’s devastating communities. Stem rust is very dangerous, but we’re getting closer every day to breeding a wheat gene that’s resistant.

I’ve also seen incredible advancements as a public servant, especially at HHS. Let me tell you about one of the many things we are doing that is particularly groundbreaking.

At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they are currently in the process of mapping the human brain.

There’s a lot we know about the brain—it’s grey and lumpy; it’s pretty big, compared to other animals’. But for all we know, even more remains a mystery.

We know our brains store facts, but we don’t know how those facts are sorted and recalled.

We know we have intelligence, but not how it works. How do two unrelated ideas click together so you suddenly see a solution? How do we solve puzzles or figure out twist endings?

We know our range of emotions is unique, but we don’t really understand them.

So NIH is creating a complete structural map of our brains, sort of like Google Earth. We will be able to zoom in and out, see how different parts interact, and watch what happens as we age.

With that knowledge, we may be able to unlock the secrets of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and mental disorders. Who knows what we will discover inside our own heads?

You Write the Story

Discoveries like new vaccinations, smarter seeds, and the inner-workings of our minds don’t just lead to articles or notoriety. They save lives. They change the world. They create an impact that changes the human story.

You all are going to write that story.

Maybe you’ll stop the next global health threat. Maybe you’ll discover a new energy source. Maybe you’ll send us to Mars.

Or… maybe you’ll run for office.

The work you do to impact the world doesn’t have to be in a lab or a control room. We need intelligent, creative, nuanced thinkers in our nonprofits, in our corporations, and yes, in the House, Senate, and Oval Office.

From climate change, to health threats, to poverty, we have no shortage of challenges ahead of us. But students like you make it easy to be an optimist.

When we decided to go to the moon and dream of a bigger, brighter future through discovery and innovation, President Kennedy explained that we did those things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Looking around this room, I am excited by the opportunity that you all represent to harness science for the next generation of positive change.

Thank you.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on January 6, 2015