As Science City, Tucson needs more Ph.D.s, fewer Mickey D's

2011-05-09T00:00:00Z As Science City, Tucson needs more Ph.D.s, fewer Mickey D'sKathleen Perkins Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

There are many compelling reasons Tucson should work harder to make this city appealing to more of the world's scientists and make science itself more compelling to its youth. Here's why:

Companies in the United States spend billions marketing fast foods, and we have one of the world's highest obesity rates.

We struggle to find funds to encourage science and math, and we have declining math and science scores throughout K-12 and beyond.

There is a correlation.

These results reflect our priorities. Cheap food is valued. Science skills? Not so much.

Granted the arm of capitalism is involved here. Whereas there are massive short-term profits in fast food, the science payoff is longer: a smarter, more competitive society with top jobs, better health and energy. So cheap, unhealthy food receives marketing attention, and science lags.

Through the University of Arizona's science leadership worldwide, Tucson is on the verge of being known as a science city. That is a special distinction, not easily or quickly duplicated.

Scientists are drawn to places where they are respected and supported. Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, Boston's high-tech corridor. Scientists are explorers, trained to focus rigorously on specific problem-solving. Landing in a place that understands their methodology is a significant plus.

During my 13 years leading a high-tech company, engineers routinely gathered in the hallways mapping out possible solutions to complex photonics algorithms. Often one engineer would have 20 computers running for days doing a complex calculation of billions of rays to find an optimum path. Groups of engineers would walk outside the office while discussing solutions. Remember, these are the people that give the go-ahead to space launches, so we want them to check, double check and recheck.

Scientists deal with facts. They are also trained to question what is presented as fact.

Many recall one precise moment, one early memory, when they knew they would become an engineer. I have yet to meet a physicist who was struggling to select a major in college and chose physics at age 20. This is why early competence in math and science education is crucial. The window closes by junior high.

Scientists know early on that they want to understand how the world works, to tackle tough problems, and though career success is important, money is often not at the top of the list, though most could easily go to Wall Street as financial engineers.

Thankfully, most chose to work in biology, optics, space, et cetera.

A community of scientists is a grounded, thoughtful place to live.

Educated as critical thinkers, scientists bring those skills and apply them to community interests. Scientists as parents are deeply knowledgeable and interested in the educational system.

Highly employable, scientists also start new companies, create intellectual property and bring impressive social networks. It is typical for an optical engineer to work internationally yet closely with materials scientists, geologists, software programmers and manufacturing engineers. Patent attorneys, CPAs and commercial real estate rely on science and technology for work, for growth.

Scientists gravitate to problem-solving activities such as rock climbing, cycling, chess and marathons. They are concerned and active citizens.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft are wealth creators started by engineers.

Scientists are drawn to Tucson going back to the early days of optics attracting astronomers to the desert's night skies.

Let's continue to support the UA as the magnet that attracts scientists to Tucson. Eat less fast food. Meet a scientist.

Kathleen Perkins is on the advisory board for the UA College of Science. Email her at kathleentperkins@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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