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Accepted Student Reception

“Maximizing Opportunities for Brilliant Students”

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

Wilshire Country Club
Los Angeles, California

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Thank you, Ms. Denson-Low, for your kind introduction, and, for hosting this very lovely event.

Good afternoon and welcome! We are so delighted to meet you—the exceptional young men and women whom we have admitted to the Rensselaer Class of 2018—who towered above a highly competitive application process. We also are delighted to meet the wise people who raised you.

Congratulations to all of you.

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to host many of your fellow accepted students and their families on the Troy campus; and now, we are bringing you a glimpse of what your life will be like at Rensselaer.

Before I launch into this delightful subject, I want to tell you a bit about one of our distinguished alumnae, Ms. Denson-Low. She is a member of the Rensselaer Class of 1978, and the parent of a graduate of the Rensselaer Class of 2012, who also will be receiving a Master’s degree at commencement this year. Ms. Denson-Low also is a member of our Board of Trustees and generously supports the Institute through her philanthropy. Because of her and her husband, Ron, this reception is becoming an honored tradition here in Southern California.

One can learn a great deal about a university by sizing up its graduates. Rensselaer is very proud to call Ms. Denson-Low one of its own. With a Juris Doctor degree from The Brooklyn Law School, as well as a B.S. in Chemistry from Rensselaer, she has forged a distinguished 30-year career in aerospace. She recently announced her retirement as Senior Vice President of the Office of Internal Governance at Boeing, and is a member of the Executive Council of the company. She can tell you, perhaps even better than I, the value of a degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I also encourage you to take the opportunity to speak with other members of our Rensselaer community who are here with us today. We are joined by:

  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Vice President for Research and the Howard P. Isermann ’42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering;
  • Dr. Paul Marthers, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions;
  • Mr. Richard Graw, Senior Advancement Officer in the School of Engineering;
  • Mr. Walter Williams, Senior Advancement Officer in the School of Science; and
  • Ms. Becky Bonenfant, Senior Event Planner with Institute Advancement.

I also am very pleased to have my sister, Dr. Barbara Avery, with us today. Dr. Avery is Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Occidental College, here in Los Angeles.

And now I will do my best to convey the amazing and exciting things happening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in a few short minutes. This is a challenge!

How many of you have been to the Rensselaer Troy campus?

We are an exceptionally interesting mix of the traditional and the radically new. Rensselaer actually is the oldest private technological university in the United States, and we will celebrate our 200th anniversary in 2024.

The university was founded to teach young people to apply science to the common purposes of life. Almost two hundred years later, our mission remains the same. Our motto is, “Why not change the world?” and we will help you to do just that.

As you know, the world faces significant challenges in food, water, and energy security; national and global security; human health and the mitigation of disease; climate change, and the allocation of scarce natural resources. At Rensselaer, our scholarship is linked to these overarching challenges, and so is our education. If you join us in the fall, we will encourage your grandest ambitions, and keep you focused on the largest opportunities.

Although our campus has more than its share of graceful old brick buildings with copper roofs, Rensselaer always has been about discovery and innovation—innovation in teaching and learning, and discovery and innovation in science and technology, and related fields. It is only fitting that the campus also includes such state-of-the-art platforms as our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, as we call it. EMPAC is not merely a stunningly beautiful space for concerts, movies, and plays. It also is a working laboratory for data visualization, animation, simulation, acoustics, and haptics—or technologies that use the sense of touch—as well as for cognitive science, virtual reality and immersive technologies of all kinds, and new ways to teach you. It may well be the most interesting building on any university campus anywhere—we think so.

Fifteen years ago, we began making significant investments in platforms such as EMPAC—as well as people, programs, and partnerships—to transform Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute into the world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact it has become. We wrote a plan, The Rensselaer Plan, to guide us.

And we realized our plan, with rankings for Rensselaer among national universities rising substantially. Last month, the Princeton Review named our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program as one of the best in the nation for video game design.

More and more young people are understanding what a Rensselaer education means. Our applications for the freshman class have more than tripled in the last nine years. You can expect to join one of the most accomplished classes in Rensselaer history, as well as one of the most diverse.

Two years ago, we revised and refreshed The Rensselaer Plan, in anticipation of our 200th anniversary. With The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we are moving beyond transforming Rensselaer, to becoming even more transformative…

  • In our innovative teaching and learning,
  • In the global impact of our research,
  • And, most significantly, in the lives of our students.

What does it mean that we intend to be transformational in the lives of our students? Simply put, it means we will offer each of you, as an individual, the unique opportunities that will allow you to make the most of your potential.

With fewer than 5,400 undergraduates (and approximately 2,000 graduate students), and just over 500 faculty members, Rensselaer is not an enormous, sprawling institution. However, our impact far outweighs our size—something I know a bit about personally—because we focus so intensely on maximizing opportunities for both brilliant students and brilliant professors.

This means concentrating on those areas where our faculty are global leaders. We have five “signature thrusts” in which we excel: in

  • computational science and engineering;
  • biotechnology and the life sciences;
  • nanotechnology and advanced materials;
  • energy, the environment, and smart systems;
  • and media, arts, science, and technology.

Our research in these areas truly is changing the world. Here is just one example: Our accepted students may already know that humanity’s most powerful weapons against infectious disease—antibiotics—risk becoming obsolete, as their overuse has helped to engender bacteria that are resistant to them.

Fortunately, Dr. Dordick, who is with us today, is leading an interdisciplinary team of both biochemical engineers and materials scientists that is devising ingenious 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 cell walls—and wipe out deadly germs almost completely. Since the bacterium being targeted uses the very same lytic enzyme in its own process of cell division for reproduction, it cannot become resistant to it.

Rensselaer always has seen teaching and research as a single, linked learning endeavor—so you will have the opportunity to partner with your professors in groundbreaking research, or in independent study—in a continuum from the classroom, to the laboratory, to the world.

At Rensselaer, you may well find yourself working with some of the most brilliant people in the world in high-performance computing, web science, data science, and immersive technologies. I am sure I do not need to tell anyone here the degree to which our lives are now digital—or the amount of data humanity is generating about itself—or the significance of the insights that potentially can be mined from that data. Last June, we created a Rensselaer-wide initiative—The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA—to enable data-driven discovery and innovation in every field, and to prepare our students, in every major, to lead in a data-driven world.

The computational ecosystem underpinning The Rensselaer IDEA includes AMOS, the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university, with a processing power of 1.1 petaflops—or more than a quadrillion calculations per second—nearly 150,000 calculations per second for every person on earth. Our computation ecosystem also includes Watson, the remarkable IBM cognitive computing system that in 2011 beat the best human champions at Jeopardy!

IBM is a partner with us on many endeavors, and we were the first university to receive a Watson system. IBM sent Watson to school at Rensselaer, so that we could expand its artificial intelligence beyond the information it had been fed—to the whole world of open data on the web. We always say that a Rensselaer education encourages intellectual agility in our students. Watson is no exception.

At other universities, you might never have the chance, as undergraduates, to use a supercomputer such as AMOS, or a cognitive computing system such as Watson. At Rensselaer, we expect you to actually use these extraordinary tools for discovery and innovation, and to extend their capabilities.

Are any of you interested in sustainability and protecting great natural resources?

One of the most exciting initiatives under The Rensselaer IDEA is called The Jefferson Project at Lake George. Lake George is located within the Adirondack Park, about 50 miles north of Troy, and has famously clear water. We are turning it into the world’s “smartest” lake—in part, by putting into place sensors and flow-cams that monitor the lake in real time—so that we can understand and mitigate the factors that are stressing it. At the same time, we are establishing a new model for environmental protection, driven by data and informed by science, that will be applicable to ecosystems worldwide. At Rensselaer, you will find many ways to change the world by saving the planet.

Our strengths in data science, and biotechnology and the life sciences, are drawing distinguished new partners to us, including the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. Together, Rensselaer and Mount Sinai are driving innovation in medicine and opening up exciting new educational opportunities for our students—including the FlexMed program at Mount Sinai, which allows Rensselaer sophomores to apply to medical school without taking the MCAT exam. Those admitted finish their Rensselaer undergraduate degrees, and then move directly into the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

One of the sectors being transformed most rapidly by advances in data science and computation is manufacturing. At Rensselaer, we do a stellar job of educating engineers in product design and innovative production, and Rensselaer students regularly place very high in—and often win—the prestigious American Society of Mechanical Engineering [AMSE] and Society of Manufacturing Engineers [SME] student competitions.

However, manufacturing is undergoing a revolution, thanks to advances such as the sensoring and networking of products of all kinds, 3-D printing, materials informatics, robotics, and virtual prototyping. The convergence of computation and manufacturing is generating tremendous excitement in our engineering students. So we have recently created the Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, or The MILL, with an expanded course of study embracing the most advanced technologies, and soon, a more expansive physical space, to prepare the next generation of manufacturing leaders and entrepreneurs.

In fact, entrepreneurship is infused throughout the curriculum at Rensselaer, and many of our students have gone on to create important and successful companies. Less than a year ago, The New Yorker profiled two such students, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre—as well as Rensselaer’s famous Inventor’s Studio class, where the idea for their company Ecovative Design was born. Ecovative uses mushrooms to grow sustainable packaging and insulation.

Since the world is always changing—and Rensselaer intends to be an important agent of change—you can expect constantly expanding academic offerings to characterize your education at Rensselaer. These include…

  • In the Lally School of Management, new concentrations in such cutting-edge fields as business analytics and supply chain management;
  • In the School of Engineering, our new Douglas Mercer ’77 Laboratory for Student Exploration and Innovation, where those students interested in electrical engineering applications can find an amazing space in which to tinker.
  • Within the School of Architecture, our Center for Architecture Science & Ecology offers you the opportunity to envision radically new, more sustainable built environments.
  • In the School of Science, a new neuroscience concentration in our Department of Biological Sciences will allow you to explore the great mysteries of the human brain, while astronomy will allow you to unlock the mysteries of the universe; and
  • Inquiry Courses in our School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences will help you consider the ethical and social implications of your field of study, while cognitive science will allow you to develop artificially intelligent digital beings.

Because Rensselaer is so strong in fields that include web science, cognitive science and artificial intelligence, gaming theory and design, and immersive technologies, your educational experience at Rensselaer will take breathtakingly innovative forms. For example, in The Mandarin Project, we are using a multi-player game, an immersive reality experience, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters to teach the Chinese language and culture. Once we have perfected this approach for languages, it will become a part of our teaching and learning in other fields of study across the university.

As I mentioned earlier, at Rensselaer, we educate for intellectual agility, which may well explain why great companies such as Boeing and IBM value our graduates so highly. Late last month, PayScale released a report that says, in terms of salary, Rensselaer offers one of the highest returns on investment in the nation among American private universities.

Even more importantly, we will prepare you fully for meaningful and interesting lives. We will encourage you to embark on every intellectual adventure that interests you.

And we will support and nurture you every step of the way through what we call CLASS, or Clustered Learning Advocacy and Support for Students. You may be far from home in Troy, New York, but I promise you, with CLASS, Troy will become home as well.

The CLASS model of college life includes both residential and time-based clustering. Within your residences, you will receive live-in support from Assistant Deans, graduate students, and upperclassmen—as well as support from the Faculty Dean of the Residential Commons.

For the time-based clustering, CLASS begins with our award-winning First-Year Experience for freshmen, which will offer you a smooth transition to campus life, giving you numerous opportunities to meet your classmates and to make fast friends. Then, when you are sophomores, a Class-Year Dean guide and nurture your class until graduation.

With CLASS, living and learning are connected in ways that will allow you to thrive. We will help you to grow as individuals, and help you to become more civically engaged. We will offer you opportunities for international experiences, and ensure that you develop the multi-cultural sophistication and global view that you need to succeed in any profession.

If you join our Class of 2018, you also can expect to have a lot of fun. We offer an expansive athletics program that includes 23 varsity sports, as well as 27 intramural sports, and a full 54 club sports. In fact, Rensselaer currently boasts nearly 200 separate student-run clubs and organizations. Our students are not merely a very brilliant group, but also energetic and creative. If you do not find your own interests reflected within our many existing clubs and activities—as I said earlier, we delight in entrepreneurship. By all means, start a new club!

If you want to invent, design, discover, or innovate, Rensselaer is the right place for you. If you want to use every aspect of your intelligence, talents, spirit, and imagination—and do something new—Rensselaer is where you should be. If you have an inkling about how to make the world a better place—or merely a sense of mission about making a difference—about leading—come to Rensselaer! Join us, and change the world.

I very much look forward to getting to know all of you better.


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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