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51st Annual Faculty Recognition Dinner

“Linking People and Ideas”

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

Heffner Alumni House Great Room
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Congratulations, once again, to the faculty members honored here tonight. And thank you all for being here on this wonderful evening.

Usually when Rensselaer faculty and Rensselaer administration meet, we are intent on something—on designing programs, developing our campuses, creating outside partnerships, or finding ways to enrich our students’ experience—in short, on planning and problem-solving.

Tonight, however, we are intent on celebrating you, our exceptional faculty. We recognize your exhilarating scholarship, your significant contributions to science and technology, and your meaningful engagement with our students.

I will not dwell on centuries of combined experience, lest we all feel prematurely ancient! But many of you represent a mature force as we have transformed Rensselaer into a top-tier technological research university—while others of you represent the promise of the future.

When I became president of Rensselaer, in 1999, I said the world was “witnessing a pace of technological advancement that was nothing short of astonishing.” I cited the Internet, biotechnology, and the explosion of data, all areas in which you have led.

I also pointed out the opportunities represented by the synergies between different fields of research and emphasized that much of “what is important and exciting lies…at the interstices of traditional disciplines.” Fully to describe the complex world in which we live—and to discover and innovate within it—we must reach across those disciplines. In his book Consilience, biologist Edward O. Wilson describes the unity of knowledge that has been built in science. “Consilience,” which comes from the Latin for “leaping together,” is the networking of facts and well-supported theories across the disciplines to create a common foundation of understanding. Dr. Wilson argues, however, that a comprehensive scientific understanding of our world is incomplete if this consilience does not also incorporate the social sciences and the humanities. This is not a new idea, of course: As Wilson points out, the concept of consilience was given to us by the great thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

At the same time, our own training sometimes makes distinctions—where binary thinking can keep us from consilience.

At Rensselaer, we are working to catalyze that particularly fruitful form of creativity that arises, when what is unique at the intersection between disciplines is captured.

We bring together the people, programs, platforms, and partnerships to enable collaborations across disciplines in order to create new understandings about the world. New projects such as our incipient Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory will allow us to research the many ways humans are capable of absorbing information and envisioning new truths—in order to stretch the boundaries of human cognition and learning, while enabling new leaps in bringing artificially intelligent systems closer to human understanding and reasoning, and then having human intellect to join with cognitive systems to push into new domains.

Our Art Across the Curriculum initiative will allow us to understand, and teach our students to see and use, the arts and the roots of art in science and engineering, while recognizing the essential role that science and engineering have played, and continue to play, in animating great artistic works and performances.

Those of you here tonight represent consilience in the way you work. You develop the materials and components—from glass to nanomaterials to semi-conductors—that enable advances in the life sciences, energy, the built environment, transportation, and communication. You apply mathematics to medical diagnostics, lighting to biochemistry, and neuroscience to the arts. You accelerate and refine the modeling and simulation of the most complex processes and research the communication of complicated ideas. You show students how to access unstructured data, create new data architectures, and then share data across platforms. You work, and teach our students to work, in cross-disciplinary teams that mine and interpret such data, as in the Jefferson Project at Lake George.

You are generous in teaching—from designing websites to excite young children’s interest in science, to persuading young women to consider different leadership styles, to participating in hours-long question and answer sessions at the residence halls about navigating the professional world.

Within our faculty, as well, there is a constant handing-off of knowledge. We know that this is the essence of scholarship—to share our insights with those who are younger in experience, and to further your own inquiries based on the work of those who came before.

Universities exist precisely to enable such links among people, and between people and ideas, as together, we draw a continuous thread to make sense of the world.

Rensselaer is grateful for all you do to enlarge the minds and spirits of our students, to expand our reputation and purpose as a university, and to push outwards the frontiers of human knowledge.

Thank you, and congratulations, once again, to all those recognized here tonight.

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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