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The Power of One

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 29, 2010

As President of Rensselaer, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 204th commencement exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

For the faculty, staff, and trustees, this is the day every year when we see most clearly the fruits of our work. Graduates: We truly are proud of you. We salute you, and we share in your sense of accomplishment.

Between admission and graduation, there are many stories of hope, struggle, insight, and achievement. I am sure some of today’s graduates had surprises along the way — pleasant and unpleasant. But no matter how our graduates may have gotten here, they now are well prepared for life’s challenges and adventures. We all are thrilled for them and full of anticipation for what comes next. The success we celebrate is possible because of the efforts of all members of the Rensselaer community — faculty, staff, students, and especially our graduates.

2010 is no ordinary year. We must extend special congratulations to the families here today, who helped these students to complete their degrees during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

As our graduates move out into the world at this moment of tentative and global tenuous economic recovery, it is obvious that a full recovery demands that we focus once again on innovation.

Although young people do not have an absolute monopoly on new ideas… there are advantages to being young, in that you have not yet spent decades steeped in conventional wisdom. So, graduates, we all are depending on you for the insights and innovations that will help us to create new industries, to create new jobs, and to solve the great global challenges.

One thing is certain: the transformative ideas we need as a society are going to require new means, and new kinds, of collaboration across disciplines and across geographies… for engineers to address challenges of medicine… for biologists to consider questions of solar power… for experts in computation and modeling to help us to understand, and even mitigate, the effects of climate change and environmental disasters.

So, graduates, as you leave Rensselaer in triumph…perhaps, in some cases, in exhausted triumph… I hope that you will remember one idea that we have worked hard to weave into the fabric of the Institute: the supreme importance of communicating and working with people outside your own field of expertise, outside your range of experience. Collaboration is an enabler for each of you, and is a prerequisite for innovation, and for the movement of great ideas out into the world.

Of course, you will be greatly enabled in any attempt to communicate and connect by new communication and collaboration technologies. For example, the Semantic Web platform we are building here at Rensselaer will enable the sharing of scientific data on an unprecedented scale, and invite even citizen scientists into the great Web-enabled conversation that is innovation, in and of itself.

You have at your disposal new media such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube, which empower your voice, and enable you to do important and unique things, and allow you to demonstrate the “Power of One.”

The utility of new media, as tools of social responsibility, economic growth, and political liberation, has been, and is being, proven across the globe. Jody Williams, the Vermont teacher who went on to become the head of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, began her landmark campaign against landmines by using the technology of fax machines, and then went on to harness the Internet to create an international movement to ban landmines — leading to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty — is an inspiring illustration of the transformative “Power of One.”

In Africa, the spread of low-cost mobile phones has brought banking services to millions who never before had a chance to participate in the global economy. Last year, Twitter enabled protestors to organize in Iran, and to tell the world about their causes, despite government attempts to repress such news.

Let me give you another illustration of “the Power of One.” Seven years ago, a young man sat where you sat, a member of the Rensselaer Class of 2003. Miroslav “Steven” Zilberman, went on to be Lieutenant Zilberman; in fact, it was while he was in the Navy that he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in just three years. He had plans to go on to study medicine. His leisure reading while in action was organic chemistry texts.

But just two months ago, while returning from a mission in Afghanistan, his aircraft lost an engine over the Arabian Sea. 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.”

He battled and controlled the technology in his hands to save his crewmates.

Steven Zilberman exemplified empathy for his colleagues, and he showed the ultimate generosity of giving his life. He demonstrated the “Power of One.”

So, I urge you to use the remarkable tools at your disposal wisely. To be truly effective, technology requires responsibility as much as creativity, thoughtfulness as much as self-expression, empathy as much as will, and generosity as much as personal confidence.

Today’s honorands each has shown the “Power of One.” They have succeeded in part because of their generosity of spirit, their generosity in sharing their ideas, and using their talents to advance the human condition.

Economist Peter Orszag long has been one of America’s most persuasive advocates for health care reform. And as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, he is so adept on television, it is fair to say that he has become a pop culture phenomenon.

Biotechnology pioneer Robert Langer is not merely a founder of the fields of tissue engineering and controlled-release drug delivery, he is also famously energetic and giving of his time, sharing his advice, knowledge, and creativity with his students and the world.

Harold Varmus learned the art of communication from the very best… Shakespeare and Chaucer… earning a master’s degree in English at Harvard University in his youth. For Dr. Varmus, it was not enough to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1989 for his groundbreaking work on the genetic basis of cancer. He also has helped nonscientists understand that work by writing an introduction to the subject for a general audience.

And Neil DeGrasse Tyson not only is a distinguished astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium. He also is the host of delightful science programs for television and radio, which have made many an adult a bit sorry to be a lawyer or accountant, instead of a cosmic explorer… and many a child determined to seek a future in the stars.

Graduates, I hope that you, too, will derive new understandings from the stars overhead, or from the particles in an accelerator, from carbon nanotubes, from the decoded human genome.

As newly minted graduates of Rensselaer, with formidable minds and skills, you have the power to create and use technology for the greater good — to motivate others — to help others — to demonstrate the “Power of One.”

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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