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Rensselaer and Tech Valley: Sharing the Future

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

The 50 Group
Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Monday, October 3, 2005

It is my great pleasure to host you in surroundings which are such a source of pride and pleasure to all of us at Rensselaer.

You may have noticed when you entered this building that it has a traditional front along 15th Street and a futuristic interior. There is a reason. Like this building, the changes which we are making are built upon, and honor, our 180-year history. We have not forgotten the reason that this university was founded — to "apply science to the common purposes of life." Today's applications of science, of course, were unimaginable then — or, even just a few short years ago. Our research and pedagogy touches every common, and uncommon, purpose of life — seeking to prolong it and to improve it.

Now, we seek to answer the question, "Why Not Change the World?" And, in doing so, we acknowledge that our first step toward changing the world is to change and to grow ourselves.

This beautiful structure stands as a symbol of the exciting changes taking place at Rensselaer. You remember, perhaps, the old commercial which said, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." Well, this is not your father's RPI.

Five years ago — and, it is hard to believe that it has been that long — we put into place The Rensselaer Plan, a map to a remarkable transformation. Although we are far from achieving all of the Plan's highly ambitious dreams, perhaps this five-year milestone is as a good time to reflect on our progress.

Our first priorities focused on people. In five years, we have renewed our faculty by bringing in 150 new tenured and tenure-track members, 73 of whom hold new positions. We are well on our way toward achieving our goal of creating 100 new faculty positions. Even more important, we have recruited people of phenomenal talent, accomplishment, and renown. What they bring to and send forth from this university is truly remarkable.

Student quality also continues to rise. The average SAT scores of this fall's entering freshman class is more than 55 points higher than five years ago. Similar metrics of quality can be applied to our graduate students. In addition, we increased our Ph.D. enrollments from 679 in 2000 to 854 this year. At commencement in May, we awarded 133 Ph.D. degrees — up 33 percent from five years ago.

Our entire curriculum also is changing dramatically. We have established new Ph.D. programs in Cognitive Science, Architectural Science, and Electronic Arts. We have expanded the life sciences focus in Biology and Chemistry, and require this curriculum for all undergraduates. We have redesigned our core engineering program, created a new undergraduate minor (soon to be a degree) in game studies, updated the MBA curriculum, and there has been a continuous review of all of our graduate programs. The world is changing so rapidly — often at our own hands — that we cannot let the quality and relevancy of our academics, our facilities, or our dreams, stand still.

But, with all of these curricular and technological advances, we try never to lose sight of our students as energetic, bright human beings who deserve an exceptional experience at Rensselaer. We have put many resources into expanding and improving our athletic and cultural programs, and facilities, and improving the Student Union, residence halls, and graduate student housing. We have created a beautiful Student Life Services Center in a building some of you may remember as Troy School 14, but which we lovingly call Academy Hall. And, we have increased our efforts to provide them with financial assistance, as they enter Rensselaer, and help them to find worthy employment, as they leave.

On the capital front, overall, I am happy to report that we have initiated more than $400 million dollars in construction and renovation of our facilities.

The building we are in now ranks among the world's most advanced research facilities, focused on the application of engineering and the physical and information sciences to the life sciences. It houses cutting-edge research, and hosts world-class programs and symposia. It, also, exemplifies a new research paradigm: No department offices reside in the building. Rather, it is occupied only by faculty researchers and their laboratories with postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates.

I should add that the Center is becoming the home to a new $22.5 million Gen*NY*sis Center for Bioengineering and Medicine funded by New York State. Rensselaer has also received $750,000 in federal funding to support the creation of a new Center for Quantitative and Computational Bioscience to be housed here.

All of the excitement and construction on campus is not reserved for the life sciences, of course. Everywhere you look, across the campus, you will see renewed, refreshed, and re-imagined facilities. For example, we will soon see the completion of a magnificent 200,000 square-foot Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on the revitalized south end of our campus — and, I hope to invite you back for another dinner there in the future. This futuristic facility will not only be a place for first-rate classical and contemporary performances in "the time-based arts", it also will serve as a bold laboratory for amazing advancements in the arts and sciences: electronic music, simulation, animation, visualization, acoustic experimentation — creative processes which cross disciplines.

Because we intend that this transformation continue to play itself forward toward our vision of an extraordinary technological research university, we launched the billion-dollar "Renaissance at Rensselaer" Campaign. Thanks to the generosity of alumni and corporate supporters, we have already raised more than 650 million dollars toward this previously unimaginable goal.

Our overriding vision is a world-class research university of international renown, with global reach and global impact. We are well on our way. Our total research awards topped over 90 million dollars in the last fiscal year — and, that is up from 37 million dollars, just five years ago. We are within sight of another goal which some once thought impossible — to bring in at least $100 million in sponsored research every year. Our faculty is engaged in work supported by the corporate and government sectors, and represents a growing appreciation of Rensselaer's ability to provide research "on the edge."

Recent research awards spotlight the dynamism and diversity of our research. Arthur Sanderson, who recently completed a highly successful stint as Vice President of Research, and returned to the faculty to focus on his own research, recently showcased new solar-powered robot technology for water observation and monitoring for the National Science Foundation. Physics Professor Toh-Ming Lu is creating springs, rods, and beams on the nanoscale which will lead to exciting new energy-saving technologies. Stem cell researcher George Plopper is developing bio-engineered "bone spackle" tissues which, one day, will be used to help bone injuries heal faster and stronger.

And, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the director of this Center and your tour guide this evening, Dr. Robert Palazzo, is a renowned biologist whose research covers many important aspects of cell structure and function, cell evolution, protein biochemistry, and drug discovery. He may have explained to you that one of the most amazing things taking place in this Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies has to do with its second name — Interdisciplinary.

We know, now, that science and nature do not hold to disciplinary boundaries. The excitement takes place at the intersections of biology, chemistry, nano-technology, materials engineering, and other disciplines.

Within biotechnology, for example, we have established "constellations" — at these intersections. A constellation has a specific research focus and brings together leading faculty in fields of strategic importance. It is a multidisciplinary mix of senior and junior faculty, post-doctoral associates, graduate students, and even undergraduates, who collaborate in areas such as Multiscale Computation, Pervasive Computing and Distributed Intelligence, Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, Bioinformatics and Biocomputation, Integrative Systems Biology, and Entrepreneurship.

I highlight a few of these exciting changes not to boast about Rensselaer but to share with you the responsibility we feel to contribute and to respond to the many opportunities for growth in Tech Valley. We are a significant player in a complex and exciting endeavor, and we are proud to be part of a region which, literally, is transforming itself.

We take seriously the role which we can play in improving the quality of life in this region. One of Rensselaer's great benefactors, J. Erik Jonsson, a founder of Texas Instruments, said that a great university must have a great community. I take that wisdom to heart. Some of you know that one of my first initiatives, as president, was to engage in and encourage something I called "Communiversity." We are very excited about the ongoing revitalization of Troy, and we are committed to its further progress. We have extended our own fiber optic backbone into downtown Troy, and renovated and placed employees in the Rice, Gurley, and Hedley Buildings. We have provided more than ten million dollars in neighborhood and streetscape improvements, and our Homebuyer Incentive Grants have assisted in the purchase of 30 homes. Our students have captured the spirit as well, building a Habitat for Humanity House on Eleventh Street.

We also acknowledge the role which the Capital Region has played in fostering opportunity at Rensselaer. Financial and research support from your organizations have played an extremely meaningful role in our success. The region is literally abuzz with excitement and extraordinary chances for collaboration and success. On the educational front, we have major medical research at Albany Medical Center and Wadsworth Laboratories; new nano-technology centers at Rensselaer, the University at Albany, and Sage; a new cancer research center at Albany; and new engineering and management initiatives at Union, to name a few examples.

We are pleased to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the technology-related businesses here — GE Global Research, Albany Molecular, Mechanical Technologies, Intermagnetics, DayStar, MapInfo, Plug Power, Albany International, Taconic Farms, BioMedica, Micron Technologies, X-Ray Optical Systems, and Vicarious Visions are just a few. There are so many others, large and small, which represent enormous potential. They can be found throughout the area — in our own Technology Park and incubator, and others that are coming into their own like Luther Forest and the Harriman Campus.

My recent election to the Board of Directors of IBM should further spur what has already been a strong partnership of this global technology company with Tech Valley, as evidenced by its role at Albany Nanotech and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The Capital Region has been ranked and lauded in the past year by Forbes, Inc., eWeek, Biotech Tech, and other periodicals which have defined the region as an "up and comer" in the technology arena. The Boston Business Journal recently asked in a headline, "Is the Bay State Losing Out to Albany?"

I am pleased to say that we have tremendous opportunity in common. And, we all want to maximize it to full advantage. But, there is an accelerating storm approaching — unlike Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — which I call "The Quiet Crisis." This crisis is the very real danger that we will lose our competitive advantage because we are not producing a sufficient supply of science and engineering professionals for the Capital Region enterprises, and for our nation.

The Council on Competitiveness, of which I am a member, comprised of CEOs, university presidents and labor leaders, has been engaged in what it calls "the National Innovation Initiative." Rensselaer hosted one of the regional symposiums which contributed to this endeavor. Its final report (not unlike others) found that far too few young people study science at the middle and high school levels to guarantee a steady stream of scientists and engineers at the undergraduate, postgraduate, and postdoctoral levels. On top of this, the number of international students and scientists is dwindling. For years, this highly skilled sector has stayed and worked in this country, contributing their specialized skills to the American innovation enterprise.

Just last month, Sam Palmisano, the Chairman and CEO of IBM, who chaired the committee that produced the report, was in this very building to receive an honorary doctorate degree from Rensselaer. In his remarks, he called this crisis the "single most important factor in determining America's success in the 21st Century."

The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, recently released a special report that observed a decline in the numbers of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers at the same time that the need for such expertise continues to grow. The NSB said, in no uncertain terms, "These trends threaten the economic security of our country."

The U.S. stands to relinquish its long-standing preeminence in science and engineering. The overwhelming dominance American scientists and engineers once had in worldwide patents is declining, and Americans account for just over a half of U.S. patents awarded in the past three years. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan currently account for more than a quarter of the industrial patents awarded by the U.S. Patent Office. China, India, Singapore, and others are making significant inroads in this area where we once stood head and shoulders above the rest. I am sure I do not need to tell this group to read The World Is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, who provides an engaging and extensive analysis of this issue.

As immediate past-president of the AAAS, I am privy to many more disturbing trends in the basic sciences and fundamental research. A recent survey showed that the percentage of Americans published in The Physical Review, a group of major physics publications, fell from 61 percent to 29 percent in just the last year.

Although scientists and engineers comprise a mere five percent of our workforce, these are the very people whose visions and inventions have driven the powerful engine of American innovation, and which, in turn, has propelled our global leadership, our health and our security. (Indeed, by some estimates, scientific and technological innovation has accounted for half of our GDP growth in the past thirty-five years.) I am sure this distinguished audience understands this better than most, and the need to re-engage our young people in these important pursuits.

You need look no further than the local newspaper to see evidence that this crisis is already affecting our region. Recently, the front page of the Capital District Business Review quoted Paul Rous, president of Ryan-Biggs Associates, the Troy-based engineering firm, as saying that it is very hard for engineering companies to hire graduates with engineering degrees these days. While this may bode well for the job prospects of our graduates, it is not good news for our region or for our nation.

In the Capital Region and in Tech Valley, we can protect our progress and realize our full potential if we work to address this "Quiet Crisis." We can build better connections with lower-level schools, help science teachers to bolster their curricula, and sponsor exciting competitions, science camps, field trips, and scholarships.

A good example of what I am talking about is a program that was also covered in the Business Review recently. It offered corporate externships for middle school science teachers to spend their summers working at Boston Scientific, X-Ray Optical Systems, GE Global Research, Plug Power, MapInfo and Infineon. The teachers were able to both contribute their knowledge to the companies and bring their real-world experiences in problem-solving and team-building back into the classroom. The companies said they would definitely do it again.

Another regional example is a federally funded program called the National Summer Transportation Institute that recently placed 15 high school students at places like Albany International Airport, DOT, Turner Construction, U-Albany and Rensselaer, to explore careers in transportation.

In another arena, I will not give you the full measure of my concern about energy security, which twin hurricanes have brought home to our wallets, in the form of soaring gasoline prices. This is a subject for another evening. But, it will suffice to say that it is my hope that energy security will become the spark which will ignite the imaginations of our young people, in the same way that the launch of Sputnik by the Soviets spurred an entire generation of students, in my day, to become scientists and engineers. For this we need national leadership and a national strategy.

At Rensselaer, we are proud of the outreach programs we offer, which put our students in elementary grade classrooms, bring young people onto campus for science and technology camps, and sponsor competitions such as Lego robotics.

If our technological enterprises are to thrive, our educational system at all levels must evolve at the same pace. Our K-12 schools must be among the best in the nation. There is much to be done.

We are all in this together. We, all, are experiencing exciting changes, making the most of extraordinary chances, and facing enormous challenges. And, we must seek the interfaces between and among our unique organizations so that we may build a region which attracts and holds the best and the brightest — students, faculty, employees, and leaders. This is how we will maintain our edge.

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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