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2014 Commencement

“Seeking Meaning Within Data To Benefit Humanity”

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

East Campus Athletic Village
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Saturday, May 24, 2014


As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 208th Commencement Exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Let me begin by offering my own heartfelt congratulations to our graduates. You were full of potential when we admitted you to Rensselaer. You have worked hard, enjoyed many triumphs, learned from your mistakes, and surpassed even the high expectations we had for you. Today, you are prepared for lives of great purpose and great fulfillment. We are very proud of you.

My congratulations, also, go out to the faculty who taught our graduates—to the mentors who guided them—and to the friends who buoyed and encouraged them here at Rensselaer.

I want to offer special congratulations to the parents and guardians, spouses and partners, siblings, grandparents, and other family members here this morning who supported our graduates. They made this day possible. Graduates, please join me in thanking all of the people who, in the course of your education, have guided you, nudged you, encouraged you, underwritten you, and loved you.

At Rensselaer, our motto is, “Why not change the world?” Rensselaer graduates have changed the world throughout the history of the Institute, and we expect no less from the remarkable Class of 2014.

The world you are moving into is in the midst of a revolution. Thanks to the rise of social media and the “Internet of Things,” with the proliferation of sensors and networked devices ranging from thermostats to tractors, the amount of data humanity is generating about itself is soaring. Advances in high-performance computing, data analytics, web science, visualization, and immersive technologies of all kinds—as well as in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing—modeled on the workings of the human brain—are helping to interpret this data and transform it into real knowledge.

Some of you already have played a part in developing these tools and technologies. All of you, even those of you who have chosen professions that are not data-centric, will use them to solve problems. Whether you do science; or practice engineering, architecture, economics, or medicine; or manage a business, data will improve your decision-making.

This is not lost on the two year-old non-profit titled the LifeNets Foundation, founded by Rensselaer student Albert Yu with a team that includes Lindsay Penzel, James Lee, Elle Donnelly, and Meredith Giblin of the Class of 2014. Inspired by the heart-breaking sight of a little boy in Malawi—with cerebral malaria—suffering a seizure while his sister cried beside him, LifeNets employed usage data analysis, and an engineering approach, to educate Malawi villagers about how and why to use their engineered nets to eradicate mosquito-borne malaria.

There is a lesson in this story. As you interact with increasingly intelligent computer systems—as you use them and your own intellects to pick needles out of the haystacks of data of increasing size, number, and complexity—as you seek the correlations between needles in different haystacks—it is up to you to give meaning to data, and to use it to solve important problems—to uplift us and to improve lives.

Often, when the stories of great discoveries and breakthrough innovations are told, they are told as if enormous progress is made in an orderly fashion. Many times, however, progress is entirely serendipitous, and only occurs because intelligent people, when confronted with information that does not fit with existing explanations, are alert to its anomalous nature, curious about it, persistent in pursuit of an explanation for it, unwilling to give up on it, and determined to find the benefit within it for humanity at large.

In 1978, I had the great pleasure to be a theoretical physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, when my Vice President for Research, Dr. Arno Penzias, and our colleague Dr. Robert Wilson won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the first experimental evidence that supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. We even wore T-shirts that read, “This is how the world began—not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

This was an entirely inadvertent discovery. In 1963, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson, radio astronomers, were using a powerful radio telescope that had been built by Bell Labs to demonstrate the feasibility of communications satellites. When the first satellite for television transmission, Telstar, had its transistors ruined by high-altitude nuclear tests, Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson were then free to use the telescope for their own investigations.

When they turned on this telescope, frustration followed. Attempting to detect a halo of gas surrounding the Milky Way, they found that the sky was too bright in microwave radiation for the halo to be located—and everywhere they looked, space was slightly warmer in temperature than it should have been.

Was there a source of contamination? They tested whether heat from New York City was affecting their results. No, it was not. They even expelled the pigeons nesting in the antenna, but the background radiation persisted.

By sharing their puzzlement with others, they learned that astrophysicists at Princeton University had predicted that if there had been a Big Bang, there would be lingering cosmic microwave background radiation from it. Drs. Penzias and Wilson had found that background radiation—a serendipitous discovery—leading to a massive expansion of our understanding of the universe—only because they were so committed to seeking meaning within their data, and because they were willing to admit what they did not know.

Our honorand Dr. Mary-Claire King showed commitment of even longer duration in pursuing an explanation for the results of epidemiological studies, which documented an elevated risk of breast cancer within certain families. At the time, very few people believed that there could be a simple genetic explanation for a complex disease such as breast cancer. Dr. King developed a mathematical model that suggested a susceptibility gene. With the help of surgeons who believed in her and who sent patients her way—in 1990, after 17 years of painstaking work, her laboratory finally mapped that hypothetical gene, a landmark in medicine that since has saved many lives.

The discovery was more remarkable because it occurred in the same year that the Human Genome Project was first launched, thirteen years before it was complete, long before the advent of genome browsers—or of companies offering genetic analysis of hundreds of thousands of one’s own genetic markers.

We are moving into an era in which everything from our own DNA, to factors affecting crop growth in individual farm fields, will be analyzed, catalogued, and retrievable. I am sure that most of you, on occasion, have pulled out a smart phone to settle a factual dispute over dinner. Cognitive computers such as IBM’s Watson, and the vast expansion of networked information on the World Wide Web, will allow you to answer more questions in the future— more readily.

It is up to you to provide meaning to the information your garner. It is up to you, how you use what you learn.

The great American novelist Henry James once offered this advice to young fiction writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

I have similar advice for the Class of 2014—try to be people on whom nothing is lost.

Curiosity will make you successful. Our honorand IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty leads over 400,000 professionals worldwide. In her career, she has surprised many people by seeking out their thoughts, including IBM researchers and employees around the globe; but also venture capitalists, clients, academics, and many others. So when she says that curiosity is the most important thing in any job, you are being offered guidance from one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject.

Life will come at you in many different contexts—in the form of people, papers, spreadsheets, sights, sounds, and tweets. Clean the pigeons out of your antennae! Stay alert to the pattern not previously perceived, to the exception that proves the rule, to the glitch you cannot explain.

Stay alert to yourselves. You are well educated in your disciplines. If you feel something is interesting and worth pursuing, it is interesting and worth pursuing. Do not hesitate.

The World Wide Web came into being because honorand Sir Timothy Berners-Lee had a clear view of a destination that needed to be reached for the sake of all mankind: a space, in which all the information stored on computers everywhere was linked, accessible to everyone, and readily able to be added to by anyone.

The means of reaching that destination were proposed by Sir Tim, and were decided by delicate compromises arrived at with the many fiefdoms of the computer world—and with Sir Tim’s employer, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where he was a fellow in data acquisition and control.

When Sir Tim first submitted a proposal for the World Wide Web, his boss at CERN dubbed it “vague, but exciting,” and allowed the project to continue. So, just as Sir Tim did, respect your own grand, but incomplete, ideas—the ones you find exciting—the ones others find vague because they cannot yet see the future you see.

Those who create transformational change are those who use their abilities and the technology available responsibly; who are able to find, or create, clarity in complex situations; and who live out the courage of their convictions.

This is well illustrated by the work of Jody Williams of Putney, Vermont, the 1997 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her grass-roots campaign was largely responsible for the development and adoption of the Ottawa Convention to ban landmines, now accepted by 161 countries. In building an international consensus for the landmine ban, she used the new technologies of her time, beginning with the fax machine, to persuade people around the globe, to make the world a better place.

Employ the remarkable tools and technologies at your disposal, and the tools and technologies you develop—but most importantly, always apply your minds, your talents, and your values, to pursue large meanings—beyond the task at hand—to uplift yourselves and others, and to elevate the human spirit.

If you do this—and I believe you will—you will lead happy and fulfilling lives. Class of 2014, I am going to miss you, but I eagerly anticipate the many great things you will do. I wish all of you good health, much success, and the greatest of happiness.

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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