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2012 Freshman Convocation

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

EMPAC Concert Hall
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Good evening.

As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it is my privilege and very great pleasure to welcome you, the Class of 2016, officially into the Rensselaer family.

All of us at Rensselaer are delighted to have the opportunity to get to know you over the next several years.

Tomorrow morning, you begin university classes that will be much more demanding than those you took in high school. Do not be lulled into thinking that early familiarity with some of the course material will make for mastery down the line.  Use any early foundation you have to prepare you for what comes next.

I also know that many of you have just left home for the first time, and, in quiet moments, may be feeling a bit lost. It starts with the relatively simple.  What to eat for dinner is a question you, now, will have to answer for yourselves. As soon as your clean socks run out, you will be responsible, perhaps for the first time in your lives, for your own laundry.

But, of course, things are more complicated than that.  At Rensselaer, we are keenly aware that the moment you now are experiencing is one of the most terrifying and wonderful and thrilling in anyone’s life. I remember well the excitement of my own first days as a freshman at M.I.T.—in addition to every worry I had that I might not fit in, or might not be able to keep up. More deeply, I knew then, and you know now, as so eloquently stated in an op-ed, in the New York Times (8/23/12), by Colby College English Professor Jennifer Boylan, that “you have to stop living in your parents’ shadows, and start casting your own.”

As you think about these things, you simply will have to trust that we know what we are doing. Admission to Rensselaer is extremely competitive. And, I want to assure you that we already know something significant about each one of you: that you are well prepared for what, admittedly, is going to be a rigorous education in your chosen field, and in the art of living.

For the Class of 2016, we selected only those freshmen (you) who we are confident will thrive here and contribute meaningfully to the Rensselaer experience. 

The challenges you will face in the coming weeks and months and years will be substantial, and they should be substantial since you are talented, and we all tend to grow most significantly when great things are demanded of us.

However, you need never be alone in any confusion or struggle or question. First of all, online social networks now mean that you are not completely leaving family and friends behind. Most of you are arriving with a thriving virtual community in your pockets, and I imagine that must be helpful in transitioning into an exciting freshman year.

But, we also all need people physically around us whom we know and trust. So I hope that our Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond program helped you to meet -- as you kayaked in the wilderness or hammered nails with Habitat for Humanity -- some people who soon will be good friends.

Many people find that the friends they make in college turn out to be the friends they keep their entire lives. So, while you are studying hard, do not be afraid to spend time in conversation about your favorite subjects, or to have spirited discussions with your peers on the problems of the world. This not only is an excellent way to bond with them, you may well glean a new idea or two that will light up your imagination in unexpected ways and elevate your own work to a higher standard.

The freshmen sitting beside you also are likely to broaden your horizons, if you are only curious enough to ask them a question or two. They include international students from all over the world, as well as many women and minorities, who, traditionally, have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields. The tremendous diversity of the Class of 2016, along with its demonstrated brilliance, will help provide perspectives and insights that will be essential to success in a complex world. I suspect that in the days to come, you will learn that every conversation at Rensselaer is unique.

Here at the Institute, there are many caring men and women here whose sole purpose is to see you thrive, and, to make your college experience as rich and rewarding—and enjoyable—as possible.

This includes your resident advisors, your academic advisors, your professors, and all the people in the Office of Undergraduate Education and in the Division of Student Life, especially in the Office of the First-Year Experience (FYE).

I want to point out that the First-Year Experience is merely the first step in a program we call CLASS—or, the Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students program. CLASS has been created to integrate you into the full spectrum of academic and residential living experiences at Rensselaer. It will ensure your success here.

At Rensselaer, our motto is, “Why not change the world?” That is our ultimate expectation for every one of you. Everything we do as leaders, from recruiting world-class faculty members, to underwriting our student-run Student Union, we do to support you—to allow your talents and imagination to flower. We want you to surpass even your own high expectations for yourselves.

The President’s Cabinet and the academic deans are charged with making this possible through overall leadership of the university. Please allow me to introduce my Cabinet to you.

I ask each Cabinet member to stand as his or her name is called, and to remain standing until all the names are read:

  • Prof. Prabhat Hajela, Provost,
  • Mr. Charles Carletta, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel,
  • Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer,
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer,
  • Dr. Paul Marthers, Vice President, Enrollment, and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions,
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President, Human Resources,
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President, Administration,
  • Dr. Timothy E. Sams, Vice President, Student Life, and
  • Mr. William Walker, Vice President, Strategic Communications and External Relations.

Thank you. You may be seated.

All of the people I have introduced to you are in agreement on this point: Leadership at Rensselaer is largely about vision. In 1999, we developed the Rensselaer Plan, a strategic blueprint for achieving greater prominence as a world-class technological research university with global reach and impact. Since then, Rensselaer has been been on a steep upward trajectory, and the Class of 2016 is the ultimate beneficiary.

Here are two of our most recent accolades: A Business Insider survey of engineers and other professionals at high-tech firms recently ranked us fourth on its list of the “World’s Best Engineering Schools.” And a Bloomberg Businessweek survey of undergraduate business students ranked Rensselaer’s Lally School of Management & Technology second in the world for the education we offer in corporate strategy, second for quantitative methods, and sixth for entrepreneurship education.

But, we do what we do, not for accolades, but for making a difference.  That requires constant growth and change – as individuals and as an institution.  The world around us has changed a great deal since the Rensselaer Plan was first conceived in 1999. As you know, our planet now faces many wrenching challenges in providing and using energy, water, and food more sustainably; in reviving the global economy in the wake of the recent financial crisis; in improving global capital markets; and in fighting disease and injustice worldwide.

In 1999, when we began discussing a strategic plan for Rensselaer, the world and the U.S. had a different set of resources at our disposal for taking on these challenges, and a different outlook. There have been shifts in the priorities of our society and in the ways we organize ourselves for action.

We certainly knew in 1999 that we were facing a tremendous need for scientists, engineers, architects, entrepreneurs, scholars, and artists to help us find new ways to power an advanced civilization. We also knew that such people would need to help us to become more careful stewards of our planet and its people, in both developed and developing nations. But the important roles for people with such capabilities—and much of the preparation needed—have come into clearer focus over the years.

Today, Rensselaer has many assets it did not have in 1999. As our reputation has grown, so have our opportunities to contribute, to influence on a global scale. We have attracted many talented and accomplished people to join our community as professors, researchers, and, of course, students. We stand ready – with confidence -- to accept a significant role in answering the world’s grand challenges, both through our graduates and through our groundbreaking research.

As a great university, we have an obligation to channel all of the brilliance and creativity that you and your fellow Rensselaer students and our faculty and staff possess so that they are of the greatest possible benefit to the world at large.

So, we are refreshing the Rensselaer Plan, using humanity’s global challenges as reference points to help guide our resource allocation, our teaching, and our research. This means two significant things for you: Almost certainly, you will be participating in a university-wide conversation about the best ways to improve the world’s energy security, food security, and water security, so that its systems can serve an estimated 9 billion people in 2050—and serve them sustainably.

And whether you study architecture, chemical engineering, physics, or business management, you can expect to work side by side with upperclassmen, graduate students, and professors on studies, on transformative research, and design that is intended to make the world a better place.

For example, Rensselaer’s leadership in biotechnology is making rapid advances in health care possible—by bringing together diverse disciplines in engineering, the life sciences and biomedicine, and the physical and computational sciences.  This includes understanding how to target and stop malaria transmission at the genetic level in mosquitoes, and developing bio-engineered heparin, the world’s most widely used blood thinner.

I do not need to tell you how essential Rensselaer’s work on energy and the environment is. However, I do want to tell you about one particularly fascinating area of our research: At our Baruch ’60 Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research, Rensselaer researchers are unlocking the secrets of photosynthesis—which is not yet well understood. Plants are able to convert sunlight to energy at a 95 percent efficiency rate. So far, our best solar technologies have just a 15 percent efficiency rate. Rensselaer researchers hope that by understanding and then mimicking nature’s processes, we will begin to approach her productivity.

Also important to our energy future is Rensselaer’s leadership in nanotechnology—or controlling materials and devices at the atomic and molecular levels. One small example: Researchers here have discovered that graphene—a single layer of carbon atoms similar to the graphite you would find in a pencil, and the thinnest material known to science—is “invisible” to water, so it can coat and protect another surface from oxidation without changing the way water reacts to it.[5] The clever use of nanomaterials like graphene will allow us to make much more efficient, effective, and elegant machines to power our society.

Rensselaer’s leadership in computational science and engineering will help the world to sift through and interpret tremendous amounts of data in order to solve complex problems. The scientists in Rensselaer’s Tetherless World Constellation are leaders in developing Semantic Web tools that allow search engines to exercise more judgment about this data—in order to help us use our research capabilities more efficiently, to collaborate more effectively across borders, and to better pool our common wisdom. Our scientists have begun work with the federal government on a new project, supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA), which is intended to develop computer systems that can scan billions of pages of text in different languages, quickly, to identify new technological ideas, trends, and capabilities.

Finally, our leadership in digital media and the arts—which you see in physical form in this spectacular building, our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC—will allow us to communicate and connect with each other in more profound ways, as well as explore the influence of technology on our society through a marriage of the arts and technology, and through the use of immersive, digital, and multi-modal technologies in massive, configurable physical spaces.

Currently, Rensselaer researchers are using EMPAC’s extraordinary capabilities in visualization, auralization, immersive environments, sensor networks, communications technology, and physical modeling to engineer characters for online virtual and immersive digital worlds that are not mere puppets controlled by keystrokes, but are reasoning intelligences, able to predict the reactions of other characters based on their beliefs. This work is not merely fascinating and fun—it is potentially extremely enlightening. It may well tell us something important about who we are.

Ultimately, this is your task here: To develop and expand your sense of self, so you are able to apply your unique gifts where they will be most valued in the world.

The remarkable platforms for learning that we have created, our world-class athletic facilities, and our more than 200 student clubs and organizations all are here to help you develop a more expansive awareness of your own capabilities, and stretch them. Because we believe that global challenges demand cross-cultural sophistication, we have forged multiple significant partnerships with universities and other institutions around the world, and we have created opportunities for every undergraduate to gain some international experience.

The relationships you build with our remarkable faculty represent your most important opportunity for intellectual and professional growth. Undoubtedly, your professors will offer you new models for a successful life. Their examples may well send you off in new directions—or simply give you a larger sense of your own possibilities.

Now, I could be envious of you, getting to live this particular moment of your lives in this particular place, but, we each live out our moment in time.  I and my leadership team get to support and help guide you to actualize your individual gifts. This is your time.  Since our founding in 1824, there never has been a better time to be a student at Rensselaer. I hope you take every advantage of every opportunity before you.

Thank you for entrusting your education to us. You will not be disappointed. Let me close with an example that links what we do here with what happens in the outside world.

On August 23, 2012, there was an article in the NY Times (and elsewhere) entitled “Genome Detectives Solve a Hospital’s Deadly Outbreak.”  The article described an outbreak of a superbug – antibiotic resistant – that spread through 18 patients in the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.  The bacterium killed 6 patients.  The superbug was baffling because it was more environmentally stable that commonly thought, and its apparent chain of transmission was more complex than doctors and researchers expected.  The problem finally was contained when researchers used rapid genetic sequencing of the bacterium to track its spread and the pathways of its transmission. They then used more sensitive tests and equipment to detect its presence, even when it did not show up by other means.

This experience illustrates two important developments: (1) the scientific and technological leaps that allowed rapid mapping of the bacterium’s genome to find the genetic signature of the deadly organism in its multiple forms and to map transmission pathways, and (2) the use of the more sophisticated tests and technology to detect its presence.

This episode illustrates the importance of what you will study and learn here at Rensselaer.  In fact, the kind of sophisticated genetic sequencing that helped to solve this potential hospital-based epidemic is what a number of our students and faculty do here.  Further, a research group led by Prof. Jonathan Dordick (Director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies) and his colleagues, have developed an enzyme-based coating which kills a particular methicillin (antibiotic)-resistant bacterium on contact.  The ability to produce such a technology depends upon breakthroughs in basic biomedical science, and upon the development of rapid assay technologies, in order to do both detective work and bioprocessing.  This is life-saving, life-changing work—the kind of work we expect you to do—not only in biomedicine and biotechnology, but across a range of fields—especially those you will be exposed to, and be able to study and research here.

So, why not change the world? We will help you to do just that.

Now, good luck tomorrow! Astonish and impress those professors! I know you can.

Class of 2016:  Welcome to Rensselaer!

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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