Indian American scientist creates history as first woman, immigrant and person of color to serve as director of WHOSTP
With her confirmation by the Senate Indian American scientist Dr. Arati Prabhakar has created history as the first woman, immigrant and person of color to serve as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (WHOSTP).
India born daughter of immigrant parents, Prabhakar will also be President Joe Biden’s chief advisor for Science and Technology, a co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and a member of the president’s Cabinet.
Nominated to the position by Biden in June, she was confirmed by the Senate on Sep 22 in a “historic bipartisan” 56-40 vote.
“Dr. Prabhakar is a brilliant and highly-respected engineer and applied physicist and will lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy to leverage science, technology, and innovation to expand our possibilities, solve our toughest challenges, and make the impossible possible,” Biden then stated. “I share Dr. Prabhakar’s belief that America has the most powerful innovation machine the world has ever seen.”
Alondra Nelson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director for Science and Society, who is performing the duties of WHOSTP director since February, called Prabhakar’s confirmation “a testament to her sterling track record of leadership and innovation stewardship, as well as her extensive expertise in science and technology policy.”
“Today’s historic bipartisan confirmation of Dr. Arati Prabhakar as Director of @WHOSTP is a testament to her sterling track record of leadership and innovation stewardship,” he tweeted. “We’re thrilled to welcome her to OSTP and begin a bright new chapter!”
A day ahead of her confirmation vote, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Democratic chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, underscored Prabhakar’s exceptional qualifications, experience and commitment to advancing innovation in science and technology and to expanding STEM education and opportunities for women and girls. “
“We have just passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which is a renewed commitment to domestic semiconductor research and manufacturing US leadership in next-generation chips technology,” Cantwell said on the Senate floor.
Read: Ronnie Chatterji to lead $50 billion CHIPS for America program (September 20, 2022)
Prabhakar previously served as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 2012 to 2017 and as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) from 1993 to 1997. She was the first woman to serve as NIST director and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to lead that agency.
At DARPA she “oversaw teams that prototyped a system for detecting nuclear and radiological materials before a terrorist can build a bomb, that developed tools to find human trafficking networks in the deep and dark web, and that enabled complex military systems to work together even when they were not originally designed to do so,” according to her profile released by the White House.
She also established a new office to spur novel biotechnologies. “Under her leadership, DARPA kick-started the development of a rapid-response mRNA vaccine platform, making possible the fastest safe and effective vaccine development in world history in response to Covid-19.”
At NIST, she helped take from the early seed stage to the national scale the Manufacturing Extension Partnership to boost the competitiveness of small- and mid-size manufacturers, and the Advanced Technology Program to stimulate early-stage advanced technology development.
She also reinforced NIST’s long-time mission in measurement science and technology that underpins commerce and high-quality manufacturing.
Between her Federal leadership roles, Prabhakar spent 15 years in Silicon Valley, helping bring R&D to deployment as a company executive and as a venture capitalist.
Her work included components for consumer electronics and semiconductor process technology. In 2019, she founded Actuate, a non-profit organization bringing new actors to the table to develop solutions to the challenges of climate, health, trustworthy data and information technology, and opening access to opportunity for every person.
Prabhakar’s family immigrated from India to the United States when she was three years old – first to Chicago and then settling when she was age 10 in Lubbock, Texas.
She earned an electrical engineering degree from Texas Tech University and was the first woman to earn a PhD in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology, where she also earned an MS in electrical engineering. She started her career in the legislative branch as a Congressional Fellow at the Office of Technology Assessment.
She is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.
Several voter mobilization groups celebrated Prabhakar’s confirmation.
“Throughout her career, Dr. Prabhakar has helped gather and develop new ideas, and implement solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges: climate change, healthcare, and data security,” stated AAPI Victory Alliance Executive Director Varun Nikore.
“In her new role, we are confident that she will only further her legacy of ground-breaking work, and continue setting a leadership example for all women of color — especially AAPI women—in American government,” he added.
The Science Coalition, which works to expand and strengthen federal investment in fundamental scientific research, took to Twitter, noting that it is looking forward to “working together to ensure the strength of the US research enterprise remains a national priority.”
The Center for Democracy & Technology tweeted that “Prabhakar has demonstrated a commitment to using technology for good by respecting civil rights & liberties.”