To avoid system errors, if Chrome is your preferred browser, please update to the latest version of Chrome (81 or higher) or use an alternative browser.
Click here to login if you're an NAE Member
Recover Your Account Information
Dr. Frances S. Ligler
2020 Simon Ramo Founders Award Winner
Thank you for being here to celebrate with me. My first opportunity to serve the NAE was on the awards selection committee. I remember thinking that any normal person would require at least three lifetimes to accomplish as much as the nominees did in only one. So I am particularly humbled to be chosen for this year’s Ramo Founders Award. First, I want to thank the Awards Committee for their generosity in selecting me, my nominator and references for the hard work they performed in supporting my nomination, the NAE members who have become my friends, and the mentors, colleagues, friends and family who are a part of everything I do.
As I have listened to the NAE Award lectures over the last 15 years, I have particularly enjoyed learning how each winner had such a unique life and how their backgrounds impacted their priorities. So I will try to entertain you with the history of my “evolution” to engineer.
I am a 5th generation Kentuckian. My great, great grandmother crossed through the Cumberland Gap with another relative, Daniel Boone. My wonderful grandmother, Betty Smith, was born in a log cabin in Cox’s Creek, KY; after being widowed, she raised 4 kids alone in an old cottage on the family farm with no electricity or running water. Consequently, Dad spent his career bringing electricity to the farmers of KY. Growing up, when I was not reading adventures of American pioneers, I spent my free time running around the woods with my hound dog, galloping my horse around my grandfather’s farm or on family fishing vacations. So while some of you may have been taking old radios apart, I was dissecting fish to figure out how they worked and what they had for lunch—sometimes I even got my worm back.
It was very natural for me to end up in biology and biochemistry as my education progressed. I was interested in being a cowgirl or a forest ranger. Then one summer, my biology professor got me an internship at Oak Ridge where I isolated a secreted factor that controls growth in fish—and I was hooked on research forever.
That summer, I also got engaged to a young fellow who was headed to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. So I worked very hard to get a scholarship that could be used at Oxford and headed to England for the sake of true love. After grad school, I spent 5 years in medical schools doing research in biochemistry and immunology. Then, the discrimination against women in science drove me out of academia to a terrific job in DuPont’s Central Research and Development. I had an amazing degree of research freedom, promotion to head of cellular immunology, and the opportunity to take courses in project and personnel management that have served me well my entire life. But I am also part of a two-career family, and it was my turn to move for George’s career—so in 1985 I became the youngest retiree in the history of DuPont.
In DC, I selected the weirdest of my job offers and went to the Naval Research Laboratory where Joel Schnur was starting a group to make new materials and systems based on self-assembly of biomolecules—a very odd concept at the time. It sounded like molecular tinker toys to me—great fun. Soon after I arrived, I realized how vulnerable the US was to a biowarfare attack, so Richard Thompson and I successfully proposed to build a sensor for biothreat agents based on antibody recognition.
Now according to the astrological charts, I am a Gemini--born in June. All Gemini have split personalities, and it was time for the “scientist me” to develop the alter ego “engineer me”. In order to build a sensor system that could be used by real people, I had to learn engineering, so I hired engineers of all types as postdoctoral fellows to teach me engineering and fill in the missing parts of our biosensor systems. I realized that I definitely think like an engineer; developing creative solutions became a habit. Finally, NRL gave me a wonderful opportunity to work on hard, really important problems and to build and contribute to cross-disciplinary teams of highly talented professionals.
In 2005 I truly “graduated” to the status of a real engineer; I was elected to the NAE. For the first time, I really saw myself as an engineer. I was amazed at the accomplishments of NAE members and thrilled at the opportunities to work with such incredible people to continue to serve my country. I learned so much, and my world grew a lot wider. It is really rewarding to be able to look back and know I helped make a difference.
So I conclude with thanking the NAE for this wonderful award—I am in amazing company. And I urge all of you to get involved with NAE’s mission and activities so that we really can be a positive force in improving life in our Nation and around the globe.