Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Best Thing About the US is the National Science Foundation (NSF)

In the past 3 weeks I have been on 8 Lufthansa flights -- even the crew on the flight from Munich to Boston on Sunday was impressed. I had spent 3 weeks in Europe, as part of my Visiting Professorship at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden,  and also as a Guest Professor in Vienna, Austria. Strangely, there are no direct flights to Sweden from Boston and even to get to Vienna from Gothenburg I had to do a Frankfurt or Munich hop!

The flights that I took on Sunday from Gothenburg to Boston via Munich, Germany were all full and, since Sunday I had 18 hours of travel to make it back to Amherst, as a frequent flier, my "secret" is to stretch a lot and to stand on the plane, whenever possible -- I can recite plane configurations in my sleep.

While in flight, and after some really interesting conversations with the Lufthansa flight crew in the back (the service and hospitality were fantastic -- THANK YOU!), a gentleman joined me in the back for some stretching, as well. He actually remarked that it was about time for him to do some yoga exercises.

Being an academic, I can spot interesting people easily and since I travel so much and am one of those who truly enjoys even the journey, and that is primarily because of the people that I meet en route,  I struck up a conversation.

He works in countersurveillance and had recently had an audience with Aung San Suu Kyi, the peace activist, in Burma and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and had just starred in a play in Berlin. His brilliance was apparent and in our conversation we also talked about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of The Gulag Archipelago, and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

During our conversation on literature, political activism, technology, computer programming, education, and research -- we exchanged business cards and he was intrigued that I was the Director of the Virtual Center for Supernetworks at UMass Amherst. He immediately asked whether I knew Kevin Fu, a cybersecurity expert, and I said, of course, but that he has left UMass to go to Michigan. He also spoke of Susan Landau, the computer scientist, and we discussed computer science colleagues at the University of Washington.

He reminded me of Aaron Swartz, so I asked him whether he knew him and he responded that Aaron was a friend, so we spoke about Internet activism, MIT and Harvard, and the great loss that Aaron is no longer with us.

Out of the clear blue sky he stated with a smile and glow: "The Best Thing About the US is the National Science Foundation (NSF)!" I  exclaimed -- "Wow -- that is so great to hear!"  He is now part of a funded project on countersurveillance and I am sure will do great work (and he already has).

As a recipient of several NSF grants,  including a large one that I am a Co-PI on, I can honestly say that NSF support has been essential to my confidence-building  and productivity (when times get tough you can immerse yourself in research and know that you have the support and that you can bring in more PhD students, which is essential to scholarship and education). NSF grants have enabled me to stretch and cross disciplinary boundaries, to delve deeply into new research areas, to work with colleagues across disciplines, and to publish journal articles and books. Several of my former students who have been funded, in part, on my NSF grants, have achieved tenure and even Full Professorships and, when I travel to conferences, time and time again, am told how successful my former students are. An NSF grant gives you the imprimatur to fully stretch yourself and to do courageous research.

Thank you, NSF, for being gutsy and visionary, and, as my new airplane colleague attested, being the best thing about the US!

And Lufthansa landed in Boston early! I do reget, however, not taking a photo of the snack offered from Gothenburg to Munich that consisted of a triangle of Wiener schnitzel with mashed potatoes seasoned with mustard (very yellow), which I gave to my seat-mate, with whom I had another fascinating conversation about manufacturing in Poland versus Sweden, which I may write about in another post. I had packed up a big bar of Lindt dark chocolate, which I shared, and that pulled me through.

In the meantime, continue to do your best work!