Meet Dr. Rebecca Keiser -
A technology and aerospace expert, she’s helping U.S.-Israel science collaborations reach stratospheric new heights
As the current head of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Office of International Science and Engineering, and as a former professional in a variety of capacities at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (NASA), Dr. Rebecca Keiser has spent her career surrounded by people at the forefront of astonishing technological advances.
Dr. Rebecca Keiser with husband Matt, daughter Sydney, and son, Sammy.
That means she knows technological promise when she sees it. And as a member of BSF’s Board of Governors, she sees it quite a bit when she’s in Israel. During a recent visit to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Be’er Sheva, she was impressed with the university’s Computer Science Department, and she couldn’t wait to tell her NSF colleagues about it.
“But what I learned was that they were already aware of what’s going on there, and that they are already working with them,” Dr. Keiser said.
This, she said, is just one example of the awareness that her colleagues in America have when it comes to the scientific and technological talent in Israel. Dr. Keiser credits BSF with helping to raise that awareness, and for encouraging promising and innovative partnerships between Israeli and American scientists.
Four years ago, BSF and NSF entered into a far-reaching agreement to encourage U.S.-Israel partnerships in projects covering a wide range of fields, including biology, oceanography, geology, physics, computer sciences, cyber security, economics, psychology, and energy sustainability. As someone who works closely with both BSF and NSF, Dr. Keiser believes this partnership is important for both Israel and the United States.
“One of the great things about BSF is that it is there to help fund projects at the beginning, and it gives scientists an opportunity to get in the door as far as funding is concerned,” she said. “But even beyond the funding, BSF promotes international scientific collaboration, and this is so beneficial for scientists and researchers both here and in Israel.”
As someone whose experience covers science and technology policy, agreements and other cooperative efforts, Dr. Keiser has seen firsthand the benefits of scientists from different nations collaborating with one another. She helps to oversee NSF’s Partnerships for International Research and Collaboration (PIRE) program. NSF recently conducted a major study and evaluation of the program and found that American scientists and researchers who worked with international partners benefit in ways that extend far beyond laboratories. These scientific, cultural, and social exchanges often lead to enhanced scientific skills, more networking opportunities, and a better understanding of each other’s cultures.
“The more we can get scientists and researchers to collaborate early, the more they are likely to continue collaborating down the road,” Dr. Keiser said.
Dr. Keiser also credits BSF with funding potentially transformative science projects that encourage scientists and researchers to take higher risks than they might be willing to take otherwise. When it comes to proposals, BSF conducts a blind review – with applicant names left off – so that colleagues who evaluate these applications see only the science in the proposal before them.
“With this, BSF can leave out any implicit bias, and focus on the proposal itself,” Dr. Keiser said. “To BSF, the main things are always the project and the science itself.”
Though Dr. Keiser has devoted her career to science, that’s not the path she thought she would travel when she was studying at Wellesley.
“I thought about being a doctor, and I took some science courses, but when it came time to decide, I chose to major in international relations because I thought there would be more opportunities there,” she said.
This eventually led her to Japan, and a fellowship in Japanese Foreign Relations. But here’s where she credits serendipity for leading her back to science. In order to complete her degree, she needed some experience with a United States government service. It just so happened that NASA was looking for someone who spoke Japanese and knew a lot about Japan. Dr. Keiser got the job – and with it, a new and rewarding career path.
“NASA opened so many doors for me,” she said. “If you would have asked me 25 years ago where I would be at this time in my life, I would not have predicted this.”
As a board member of Women in Aerospace and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Keiser spends much of her free time encouraging women to pursue science, and promoting more welcoming and accommodating workplaces for women in science. This is a very personal mission for Dr. Keiser, who has a 10-year-old daughter, Sydney, and an 8-year-old son, Sammy.
“If Sydney wants to pursue a career in science, I want her to have opportunities equal to what Sammy has,” she said. “That’s why I love helping out at things like science fairs. It’s really important for both boys and girls to know how rewarding science can be for them.”