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“Dream Big: Taking on the Grand Challenges”

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

Spring 2012 Town Meeting
EMPAC Concert Hall
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 | Webcast Video

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. And, greetings to our colleagues in Hartford, who are watching via simulcast, and to those who are watching the Webcast.

Each of us, as we look through the news of the day, understands the growing need for answers to global concerns around resources, the environment, the economy, and security. These so-called “Grand Challenges” call upon each of us to devote our thinking, creativity, and actions to meeting both acute and emerging needs.

Universities, especially, play a critical role in finding solutions to the Grand Challenges our society faces in:

  • Energy, Water, and Food,
  • Infrastructure and Resiliency,
  • Global Business and Global Capital Markets,
  • Cognition, Communication, and Culture,
  • Computational Social Science,
  • Digital Humanities,
  • Science, Technology, and Society,
  • Disease and Disease Mitigation,
  • Advanced Materials, including those that take us Beyond Silicon,
  • Advanced Manufacturing and Digital Fabrication,
  • Big Data/Networks/High-Performance Computing, and
  • New Pedagogies for a New Generation of Students

For those of us at Rensselaer, helping to meet these needs is indispensible to our fulfilling our commitment to leadership. We explicitly dedicate our talent, time, and effort to “changing the world.”

The stakes are high. These Grand Challenges demand comparably grand attention, analysis, investment, and action.

When we consider our role, we often think of specific contributions in science and technology—and these are, indeed, critically important. But an inspiring article, by Professor Jose Holguín-Veras of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, reminds us that our participation may need to go beyond our technological expertise. In the “Los Angeles Times,” he wrote about a lesson from last year’s Japanese Tsunami:

“A millennium ago, the residents of Murohama, knowing they were going to be inundated, had sought safety on the village's closest hill. But they had entered into a deadly trap. A second wave… was speeding over the rice paddies from the opposite direction. The waves collided at the hill and killed those who had taken refuge there. To signify their grief and to advise future generations, the survivors erected a shrine.”

He goes on to say, “on March 11, 2011, the Murohama tsunami warning tower—which was supposed to sound an alarm—was silent, toppled by the temblor. Still, without the benefit of an official warning system supported by modern science, the locals relied on the lesson that had been transmitted generation to generation for 1,000 years.”

Dr. Holguín-Veras concludes, “…science and engineering save lives. But in this instance neither did much to help. A message sent into the future 1,000 years ago did.”

The solutions that last include knowledge and answers, but durable solutions also are worked into the fabric of our culture. The work we do here has the potential for providing major benefits, but it will have its greatest effect only if we take global needs, like the Grand Challenges, and use them as touch points for our efforts under The Rensselaer Plan and to refresh the Plan. Further, we need to develop the skill, and find the opportunities, for participation in relevant and influential communities.

In recent months, we have seen clear examples of Rensselaer at work in a changing world. Perhaps the best example was our presence at the World Economic Forum (WEF). In addition to hosting a discussion of digitization, I had the opportunity to lead Rensselaer’s first IdeasLab at the annual meeting of the Forum in Davos, as one of only 11 universities in the world invited to present. Our topic was entitled “Concept to Commerce With Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” The presentation explained how the transformation of Rensselaer has fueled development of ideas that move from the laboratory into commercial applications, leading to technological and other advances that improve our lives.

I was joined in the IdeasLab by three of our distinguished professors:

  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick – Director of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and the Howard P. Isermann ’42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
  • Dr. Richard W. Siegel – Director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center, and the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and
  • Dr. Boleslaw Szymanski – Director of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center, and the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science.

The primary focus of the presentation was the decade-long transformation of Rensselaer, under The Rensselaer Plan, into a fully realized, national research university, of international reach, that has enabled path-breaking research in emerging areas.

The World Economic Forum provides one example of engagement, but I believe we can multiply our opportunities for participation, and we can do more to prepare ourselves to make key contributions. Our deans are central to our taking on the Grand Challenges. Each looks to see how, given our strengths and potential, Rensselaer can respond most effectively to help to create solutions.

For example, the School of Science is positioned well to focus efforts on understanding global needs for clean water. What research will provide essential data? How can we bring students into the research so that they build capabilities that can deliver solutions? And how might we restructure our courses and programs to help students prepare to make a contribution?

So, the Grand Challenges are incorporated across the Institute as our highest priorities as we focus our research plans. This is not to say that these priorities are our exclusive targets. But the Grand Challenges are set as an overarching concept for optimizing research growth across Rensselaer, even as we strengthen support for individual faculty in achieving their goals.

The Grand Challenges provide a vital perspective for reexamining and recommitting to The Rensselaer Plan. I consider this to be a valuable approach in moving into the next phase of realizing the Plan.

In addition to making specific contributions, we must continue to evaluate our efforts, priorities, and tactics. On a deeper level, we must increase our understanding of strategic issues and re-examine our goals so that they are aligned with our principles and strategies.

We will be enabled in those efforts by the ways in which we work together as a community, by the new students who enroll to join our ranks, and by using our financial resources carefully.

The Faculty Senate has been reconstituted. Two weeks ago, the new group held its first meeting—with our Acting Provost, Professor Prabhat Hajela, in attendance. These distinguished elected representatives of our faculty will provide judgment and insights that will help guide our decision-making, and I am looking forward to working with them.

In the meantime, I have had a series of dinners with small groups of faculty members. I am impressed by their thoughtfulness, their ideas, and their ability to “dream big.” I have seen many big, seemingly impossible dreams become reality in my time. We are at a time when big dreams are called for, and I am delighted to see that we have so many people in our community who have visionary ideas.

Turning to enrollment, we see that the strong interest in Rensselaer continues. Once again, we had a record-setting number of applications (over 15,200—a 4.4 percent increase over last year).

Over time, we have seen our applicant pools become stronger each year. This has allowed us to bring together classes filled with people of talent and accomplishment. They enrich our community.

Another outstanding class is being built now, and I am looking forward to the contributions and perspectives of those who will join us this fall.

I am also happy to tell you that, compared to last year, we have more women, more underrepresented minority students, and more international students in the admitted pool for the Class of 2016.

Our graduate applications have increased as well, to reach the highest level (4,297) in 10 years, with those applying presenting ever more outstanding credentials.

Regarding our financial resources, at its meeting on March 3, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees approved an Institute budget for Fiscal Year 2013 that will enable us to focus our energy and resources on the core activities that are central to our mission and purpose, with continued investment in faculty hiring, research initiatives, and revenue-producing activities.

The overall operational budget for Fiscal Year 2013 amounts to $383.8 million. As always, it represents a balanced budget.

In line with the exogenous challenge of a weak economy, we will be ever more careful in managing our hiring practices. In particular, our vacancy management process will be handled more stringently -- with special attention to the future of Rensselaer and the goals that will enhance our status as a leading university.

The academic enterprise lies at the heart of our ability to provide the best educational experience for our students.

Therefore, in Fiscal Year 2013, we will recruit to fill 48 tenured and tenure-track faculty positions, spread across the academic schools, which will include 6 constellation hires. Additional support for the research enterprise, including research seed funding, is incorporated into the budget.

Within our constrained environment, we have set aside a modest salary merit pool. Guidelines for faculty and staff performance management and compensation are being developed.

The Board of Trustees also approved undergraduate and full-time graduate tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year. Tuition for full-time undergraduate and full-time graduate students will be $43,350, an increase of 4.2 percent. We are beginning to see tuition increases enacted by other universities in the 4.5 to 5 percent range.

We have continued to enhance our financial aid resources. The financial aid budget will be increased 6 percent from the current-year level (to $89 million).

Included in the aid budget are resources to assist financially needy students who encounter unexpected financial hardships during their time at Rensselaer.

The minimum academic year stipend for graduate students will remain at $18,000.

We must anticipate that the next several years will continue to prove economically challenging for our country and the world. Rensselaer, like other universities, has not been immune. Strategic direction and focus have never been more critical. As we navigate our way through the economic recovery, The Rensselaer Plan (refreshed) will remain our compass.

Strategic leadership under The Rensselaer Plan is key to our success in both education and research.

Professor Angel García has been named the new Head of the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy. Dr. García is currently Senior Constellation Chaired Professor in the Biocomputation and Bioinformatics Constellation, and a Professor of Physics. His new role will be in addition to his work as a leader in the Constellation.

Radiation expert Dr. X. George Xu has been named Program Head of Nuclear Engineering. In this new role, Dr. Xu is responsible for overseeing student recruiting, curriculum development, research, and faculty hiring for the Nuclear Engineering Program.

Nanomaterials expert Dr. Linda Schadler has been named the Russell Sage Professor. An endowed professorship is among the highest honors bestowed on a Rensselaer faculty member. A Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Dr. Schadler is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the Rensselaer School of Engineering.

Mr. Joseph Medina was named Assistant Vice President for Advancement Strategy, Services, and Infrastructure. Mr. Medina comes to us from Colby College.

Mr. S. Argeo Ascani has been appointed as Music Curator at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). Mr. Ascani joins EMPAC from the Manhattan School of Music, and is a musician, educator, and curator focused on exploring the sonic unknown.

A number of our faculty have received prestigious honors:

  • Dr. Susan Gilbert, Professor and Head of Biology, and Dr. James Hendler, Senior Constellation Professor in the Tetherless World Constellation and Head of the Information Technology and Web Science Program, have been selected as Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS cites Dr. Gilbert for distinguished contributions to our mechanistic understanding of the enzymes that are involved in powering the movement of cells.
  • AAAS cites Dr. Hendler for fundamental contributions in artificial intelligence, including automated planning, and for the invention (with Tim Berners-Lee and Ora Lassila) of the Semantic Web — the next generation of the World Wide Web.
  • Two members of our faculty have been named Fellows of the American Physical Society: Dr. James Napolitano, Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, and Dr. Vincent Meunier, the Gail and Jeffrey L. Kodosky ’70 Constellation Professor of Physics, Information Technology, and Entrepreneurship.
  • Professor Meunier was recognized for his work in computational physics. He specifically was cited “for advancing the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology through the application of innovative theory and advanced computation for the understanding of energy flow and storage mechanisms in nanostructured materials including carbons and metal oxides.”
  • Professor Napolitano was recognized for his work in nuclear physics. He was cited “for contributions to fundamental problems of nature through experiments in nuclear physics.”
  • Professor Deepak Vashishth, Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has been named a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. That organization cited Dr. Vashishth for “significant contributions to the field” and profession of biomedical engineering, and having “the leadership ability to play a transformational role in our field and in our society.”
  • Two of our faculty have won the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. Dr. Kim Lewis, Assistant Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, will use the five-year award to study electronics at the molecular level. The research seeks to better understand how molecules are transported through advanced electronic systems. Dr. Ryan Gilbert, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, will use his award to develop new biomaterials for the treatment of spinal cord injuries.
  • Dr. Jonathan O’Brien, Associate Professor of Strategic Management in the Lally School of Management and Technology, received the Karen Legge Prize, awarded by the “Journal of Management Studies,” in recognition of an exceptional contribution in 2010 by an early career academic.
  • Dr. Michael Mascarenhas, assistant professor of Science and Technology Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, has been chosen as a Fellow in the “Framing the Global” Working Group. (“Framing the Global” focuses on global issues and their linkages across borders, and to local communities.) His work is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

We also have seen support continue for other major areas of research, from the Semantic Web to Water Quality Measurement to Microbial Synthesis of Anti-Cancer Agents.

This fall we will take another significant step toward exploring new frontiers and tapping into a broad range of research and academic strengths here at Rensselaer. We will open of our new Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture.

This Center will focus on the intersections and interdependency of cognition, communication, and culture—in the context of contemporary research, technology, and society. The Center will address diverse areas, including

  • the development of collaborative synthetic immersive environments;
  • the design and use of, and interaction with, intelligent agents, research in creativity and cultural processes; and
  • multi-modal perception and cognition.

Interdisciplinary research activities will draw on the arts, design, engineering, humanities, the sciences, and social science. Work is already underway to create a space for this unique new center here in EMPAC. You will be hearing much more in the days and weeks to come.

We are equally proud of the accomplishments of our students.

The three Rensselaer finalists for the 2012 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Collegiate Student Prize are:

  • Fazel Yavari, a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, who invented a new sensor to detect extremely small quantities of hazardous gases. The device, which harnesses the power of graphene, is durable, inexpensive to make, and incredibly sensitive;
  • Christopher Rivet, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who developed a new method for delivering drugs directly to an injury site and jumpstarting the process of tissue regeneration; and
  • Zepu Wang, a doctoral student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who created a new, advanced material to coat electrical components, and allow the transmission of higher voltages across national power infrastructures. This nanocomposite holds the promise of enabling smarter, more reliable, and greener power systems and also could reduce the frequency of power outages.

Fazel Yavari emerged as this year’s winner. Innovating solutions to the challenges of tomorrow requires a certain kind of individual—one who is ready and willing to take calculated risks and seize promising opportunities. These architects of change push forward the state of the art, and can effect progress on a global scale.

I congratulate all of the winners and finalists of the Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize for innovating a bolder, brighter future for all of us.

Jake Schonberger '12 (Design/Innovation/Society), Rensselaer’s E*Ship Club member, and Kyle Brody '13 (Management), the Club's president, along with Suni (Shelly) Wei MBA ’12, and a student from SUNY Oswego took first place and a $15,000 prize at Troy’s first ever StartUp Weekend, after working tirelessly for 54 hours on their concept.

Startup Weekend focuses on building a Web or mobile application that could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend, and it brings together people with different skill sets—primarily software developers, graphics designers, and business people—to build applications and develop a commercial case around them.

We continue to pursue more deliberate engagement with students to further enhance their Rensselaer experience. You may have have seen Student Life professionals stationed around the Troy campus with Pathways badges. The Pathways program is new and is designed to help us keep in even better touch with the needs and concerns of our students, through direct outreach.

There also has been outreach to various constituent groups—LGBTQ students, the Student Senate, Black and Latino students, among others. This is enabling us to make sure that we are hearing all of the voices of our community as we continue to shape the program we call CLASS—Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students. To enhance this effort, student advisory groups have been established for all of the Student Life departments, and several other divisions.

The CLASS initiative truly is coming into its own. New employees have been hired, key initiatives are being engaged, and the entire Student Life division is poised for the success of CLASS through its impact on the lives of students.

Our efforts to enhance the leadership skills of Rensselaer students continue to evolve, with the aim of providing the skills our graduates need to reach out and participate meaningfully in the issues of our time. Last year, the Archer Center for Student Leadership Development, working in conjunction with the First Year Experience, brought freshmen into a program called Emerging Leaders I. The program was so successful that those students requested a follow-on program. So this year, the Archer Center has rolled out a new program, Emerging Leaders II. The design focuses on community leadership—specifically giving back to the Rensselaer community and expanding student skills and capabilities in leadership.

The Archer Center for Student Leadership Development also is rolling out the LEAP program. LEAP stands for leadership educators advising peers. The program is designed to enhance the participants’ leadership tools and techniques by helping them to deliver leadership workshops to their peers. They spread their capabilities across the Troy campus, while also cementing their own knowledge through teaching.

We also are working to improve the Rensselaer Experience of our graduate student community. Through a partnership with a private developer, for the first time, Rensselaer has created a living community especially for our graduate students. The College Suites at City Station, which already houses a number of our single graduate students, will be opened up to married graduate students and their families this fall.        

In August, we will have a ribbon cutting for the College Suites at City Station. This new complex will improve the quality of life for our graduate students, and will provide a benefit to our undergraduate upperclass men and women. Housing in the East Campus that previously was dedicated to married students will become available to undergraduates.

 Our students who represent us in varsity athletics have continued to excel. Both our field hockey and our women’s basketball teams qualified for Liberty League Playoffs. Brandon Rock qualified for and represented Rensselaer at the NCAA Division III Diving Championships.

This past semester, 36 student-athletes had a perfect 4.0 GPA, and, for the 21st straight semester, the student-athletes had a higher term GPA than the non-student-athletes.

Of special note for the members of the Class of 2012 will be a highly distinguished group of guests who will join us for the Commencement weekend.

I can now “declassify” some much-anticipated news concerning the 206th Commencement of Rensselaer in May. I am happy to share with you the names of the individuals we will honor at our ceremony this year.

The four honorands are:

  • Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Justice Scalia was nominated to the Court by President Ronald Reagan, and he took his seat in 1986.
  • Mr. Steven Sasson, ‘72, ’73, the inventor of the digital camera, a lifelong engineer at the Eastman Kodak Company, and recently named a member of our Alumni Hall of Fame. Before retiring in 2009, Mr. Sasson was a project manager in the Intellectual Property Transactions group at Kodak.
  • Dr. Edward Feigenbaum, Kumagai Professor of Computer Science Emeritus at Stanford University, a pioneer in the fields of expert systems and artificial intelligence.

The final honorand will be our speaker for the 2012 Commencement.

  • The Honorable Barton “Bart” Gordon, is former U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 6th congressional district. He was Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology

Our honorands will join us for the Presidential Colloquy here in the EMPAC Concert Hall beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 25. Our entire community is invited, especially our graduating students and their families. We also will give recognition at that time to the Senior Class Officers and the Senior Class Council.

I do hope all of you will attend. It always proves to be a lively discussion, and offers the campus community a rare glimpse into the candid perspectives and thoughts of remarkable leaders.

A recent event causes me to share with you a special note about a true hero who was recently in our midst, and who was taken from us far too early in his remarkable life. Last week, we dedicated a plaque to the memory of a member of the Rensselaer Class of 2003, Miroslav “Steven” Zilberman.

While he was in the Navy, Lieutenant Zilberman earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science here in just three years. He had plans to go on to study medicine. His leisure reading while in action in Afghanistan was organic chemistry texts.

But in 2010, while returning from a mission, his aircraft lost an engine over the Arabian Sea. Lieutenant Zilberman ordered his crewmates, including the co-pilot, to bail out. According to Navy Rear Admiral Philip S. Davidson, “He held the plane level for them to do so, despite nearly uncontrollable forces. His three crewmen are alive today because of his actions.”

His mother said it more simply: “He saved three lives. He's a hero.”

Steven Zilberman exemplified empathy for his colleagues, and he showed the ultimate generosity of giving his life. It is a distinct honor to count him, and the many others who have chosen to serve in the military, among our alumni and alumnae.

Looking ahead to the challenges we face, I conclude today with a reminder about our approach to facing the Grand Challenges of our time.

Dr. Richard Hamming of Bell Labs, founder of the Association for Computing Machinery, said in his famous “You and Your Research” lecture, “You’ve got to work on important problems.”

He offered an anecdote about when he joined a group of scientists for lunch. From the start he said he asked, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time, he came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”

Dr. Hamming said he was not welcomed after that. He had to find other luncheon companions.

But he later learned that one of those scientists was so bothered by his questions that he changed his research, and went on to excel in his career.

The Grand Challenges do not represent the only important problems we have, but they provide a good starting point. We have much more to do in terms of orienting Rensselaer toward engaging with the Grand Challenges of our time. As I said, we are fine-tuning our research programs and our curricula. The Vice President for Research, the Provost, and the Deans are leading the way.

We are repositioning Rensselaer at Hartford, and Dr. David Rainey has taken on the Acting Dean role there. We continue to reinvigorate all aspects of the student experience. We will continue to explore new ways to build leadership skills and to create opportunities for engagement with our students. The Vice President of Student Life and his colleagues are leading the way. And all the Cabinet Members and I are partners in these endeavors. Indeed, we all are.

We also will work with our alumni and alumnae to develop the resources we need to attract new faculty, to provide the financial aid our students need, and to build the new Center for Science that will house the scientific research and instruction that help to address our Grand Challenges.

We can take confidence in the steps we already have taken, and in the evidence that the world is looking for our ideas, answers, and judgment.

Rensselaer will be there to lead the way.

Thank you.

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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