Alum Learned to Seize Opportunities as a Wellesley Student

April 21, 2015
Rebecca Spyke Keiser ’91

Rebecca Spyke Keiser ’91 has recently been named head of the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering, the latest in a series of unexpected opportunities she has embraced in her fascinating and deeply satisfying career.

“A lot of us spend time wondering if we’ve taken the right path in life or made the right choice, but that’s not a helpful way of thinking,” she says. “I have always made a choice, walked through the door before me, and then taken a series of steps from there.”

Keiser will oversee NSF’s international strategy, developing scientific partnerships with various countries and promoting STEM activities for women and girls around the globe.

Keiser had her first opportunity to explore unanticipated paths as a student at Wellesley. “I really thought I wanted to become a doctor when I enrolled,” she says, “but I also wanted to take a variety of classes and study Asian history, culture, and religion. College is the only time you can do that kind of thing. I really wanted a liberal arts education.”

She created her own major—Japanese studies—with approval of the dean, while also completing pre-med requirements. She spent her junior year in England (a country she had always wanted to visit), studying at the University of York. There, she began to learn how Europeans viewed U.S. power and influence.  

“My junior year abroad was a big turning point,” she says, “because I loved interacting with different cultures and thinking about broader world issues. I knew then that I wanted to do something international, rather than attend medical school.”

After graduation, Keiser earned a master’s degree in the politics of the world economy at the London School of Economics. She often found herself trying to explain U.S. policies and values to her fellow students, which deepened her understanding of international viewpoints and sharpened the critical thinking skills she had learned at Wellesley.

Keiser taught English in Japan for a year before enrolling in a doctorate program in international studies at the University of South Carolina. When her mentor advised her to improve her Japanese, she applied for a government fellowship to pay for the high cost of language immersion in Japan. She received the fellowship, completed her Ph.D., and joined the U.S. government as part of the fellowship’s work repayment plan. Keiser spent 15 years at NASA, where she integrated her two interests, diplomacy and science. She served in the Office of International and Interagency Relations as the lead for France, Spain, and Portugal, and the human space-flight lead for Asia. She also worked as the assistant to the director for international relations in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, making policy recommendations and representing the agency at domestic and international meetings.

A coworker told Keiser about the NSF position, which sounded perfect for her. In her new role, Keiser hopes to encourage women who are interested in STEM fields. She also hopes the NSF can serve as a ministry of science, promoting international diplomacy through joint research.

“For me, everything started at Wellesley, because I learned the art of thinking about an issue from various angles, arguing a position, and backing it up in writing and orally,” she says. “If you know how to communicate well and can do so diplomatically, in a well-reasoned, thoughtful way, you can go anywhere.”