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Emma Talks

“Why NOT Change the World?”

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Friday, February 21, 2014

Welcome, everyone, to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We are delighted to have you here, as you celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Emma Willard School, with Emma Talks—and as you discuss the service and leadership, the strength and compassion that have always been part of an Emma education.

At Rensselaer, we work to change the world by linking the research we do—and the education we offer—to the great global challenges of our time. These include the overarching challenge of accommodating the 9.6 billion people the Earth is likely to hold in 2050.

That means growing enough food for this population in such a way that we still have enough fresh water for people, for agriculture itself, and for industry—and at the same time, increasing our energy security while mitigating climate change, improving human health, creating a resilient infrastructure, and intelligently allocating scarce natural resources.

That is quite a list of challenges, even for Emma women to take on!

These global challenges are complex, and growing more complex all the time, as we increasingly depend on global systems of all kinds, ranging from a food system that brings us grapes from the Southern Hemisphere even in February, to the complex supply chains that produce our cars and laptops.

These systems on which our very lives depend are increasingly intertwined, as we ourselves are—globally—through modern transportation and communication systems.

When these systems are shaken up anywhere in the world by, for example, the extreme weather that accompanies a changing climate—or by deliberate mischief—we all are subject to intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences.

Of course, the idea that we are connected to each other, and share the same vulnerabilities, is not a new one. English poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” in the 17th century.

This very interconnection is emphasized and fostered at Emma Willard, which draws students from the global village—gives them experiences such as community service that broadens their perspectives—and then sends them off to pursue advanced studies with the strength and character that such an education ensures—so they can change the world for the better.

Today, you will hear from a vibrant array of speakers, who prove that there many different ways to lead and to serve.

At Rensselaer, as we look to lead and serve, we embody what we call “the New Polytechnic,” a crossroads where brilliant people like these women—in all fields—can collaborate across disciplines, sectors, and global regions to solve great problems—using the remarkable tools we have at our disposal in this data-driven, web-enabled, supercomputer-powered, globally interconnected world.

Indeed, this beautiful building—the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC—is the physical embodiment of this crossroads: a place where media, the arts, science and technology intersect—in a human scale, multi-sensory environment for scientific research, education, and artistic expression.

As you consider the ways in which you will lead and serve, I would urge you to consider the power of science and technology, and their nexus with the human spirit and imagination. As President of the country’s oldest private technological research university, I may be a little biased, but the impact of this approach is irrefutable.

It can help us to answer the most fundamental questions. Here is one: How is it that plants are able convert sunlight to energy so efficiently? Can we learn enough about the process of photosynthesis to mimic it—and to offer humanity a limitless supply of renewable, emissions-free energy? Rensselaer Professor K.V. Lakshmi is addressing this puzzle as we speak.

In another arena, you probably know that our most powerful weapons against infectious disease—antibiotics—risk becoming obsolete, as their overuse has helped to engender superbugs that are resistant to them.

This is an extremely frightening prospect. But here at Rensselaer, biochemical engineers Jonathan Dordick and Ravi Kane have joined forces with materials scientist Linda Schadler to find new ways to vanquish superbugs. They have developed coatings such as paints and powders that marry advanced materials with what are called lytic enzymes, which break down cells walls. These lytic enzymes, which are highly specific to different kinds of bacteria, wipe out the deadly germs almost completely. Since the given bacterium uses the very same lytic enzyme in its own process of cell division for reproduction, it cannot become resistant to it.

Study science and engineering, and you, too, may lessen enormous global worries—with the elegant, human-focused, solutions you devise.

I do not need to tell you—we live in an era in which social media, smartphones and tablets, big data, and global interconnectivity dominate our lives. This imparts high importance to all things digital, and to computer science, which is the gateway to the digital world and to our ability to handle the enormous data sets we generate globally. An extremely distinguished woman computer scientist here at Rensselaer is Professor Fran Berman, who is the United States representative to the Research Data Alliance, which is an international effort to enable scientists to access and use each other’s research data—worldwide.

Our soon-to-be computer scientists at Rensselaer also deserve a mention, such as the undergraduate team tutoring Watson. Watson is the remarkable computing system that used its artificial intelligence to beat the best human champions at Jeopardy! in 2011. IBM has sent Watson to school at Rensselaer, to learn to surf the web—and to make decisions based on what it gathers from the entire universe of open information online. Four of the six undergraduates helping Watson become not just more intelligent—but positively plugged in and hip—are women.

The world needs more smart young women like them, and like you. And given the great global challenges we face, it needs them most keenly at the crossroads of science and engineering with the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences.

This represents an incredible opportunity for you.

To be sure—as the speakers you will hear today will confirm—world-changers come from every possible background and place. But they have one thing in common: They consistently, persistently make interesting and bold choices that enlarge their own capacities, and that alter the circumstances in which they find themselves—for the better.

I hope you, too, make interesting and bold choices. I believe you will change the world. You have the power. You have the opportunity.

Enjoy your day.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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