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Fall Town Meeting

“Shared Joy in Individual Accomplishments”

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

EMPAC
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Welcome, everyone, and thank you for coming, especially our friends watching remotely in Hartford.

For me, this is always one of the most enjoyable events of the academic year. We call it a Town Meeting, in reference to the form of direct democracy that developed in the colonies of New England in the 17th century. And indeed, this is comparable to a Town Meeting, in the sense that all of the members of our community have the opportunity to participate, by asking me questions after I have summed up the state of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

However, the name of this event raises a larger question: Is Rensselaer comparable to a town? Towns are places where familiarity often wears neutral air—and where we may be known, without fully being embraced, understood, or appreciated.

I often refer to the Rensselaer family because we strive to be more than mere acquaintances and neighbors. The spirit of collaboration here, the shared joy in individual accomplishments, the sense that we all are participants in a noisy and exciting conversation that continually enlarges us intellectually and spiritually—this is familial. This is true even if we do not always agree with one another—on every point.

Today, I will discuss where we are headed as an Institute—and as a community of talented faculty, staff, and students brought together by a desire to change the world for the better.

I would like to begin by introducing our extraordinary leadership team. Please stand when I call your names.

  • Prabhat Hajela, Provost, and Professor of Aerospace Engineering;
  • Charles Carletta, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Elisha Mozersky, our new Chief of Staff. Elisha comes to us from the I. Grace Company in New York City, a diversified high-end construction company, where she was responsible for all administrative processes and office services.
  • Jonathan S. Dordick, Vice President for Research, and the Howard P. Iserman Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering;
  • Virginia Gregg, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer;
  • Paul Marthers, Vice President for Enrollment, and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions;
  • Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration
  • Timothy E. Sams, Vice President for Student Life; and
  • Allison Newman, Acting Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations.

In addition, to help us realize our aims in research, we have recently recruited Ivar Strand, as Assistant Vice President for Research Administration and Finance. Ivar, please stand.

I also would like to recognize our academic leadership…

  • Professor Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture
  • Professor Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
  • Professor Thomas Begley, Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Professor Laurie Leshin, Dean of the School of Science; and
  • Professor Joe Chow, who was recently named Administrative Dean of the School of Engineering.

This year, we have made 29 new tenured and tenure track faculty hires, including Dr. Catherine Royer, Constellation Chair in Biocomputation and Bioinformatics in the Department of Biology; and Dr. Richard Gross, Constellation Chair in Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

I would like to ask all of our new faculty members to stand. This is a remarkable group, with expertise in fields that range from the digital arts, to cognitive science, to biomedical imaging.

These are the people who will lead Rensselaer into the future, so please, let us give them a round of applause.

I also would like to recognize Geoffrey Seber, Associate Advancement Officer in the Division of Institute Advancement, who was named the 2013 Pillar of Rensselaer, the highest honor we give to a staff member. Geoff was recognized for his deep understanding of the Rensselaer mission and history, for his mentorship of other staff members and students, and for his active role in the community.

Geoff, thank you.

Over the last 14 years we have transformed the Institute, under a vision set forth in The Rensselaer Plan. That plan was unusual in that is was holistic, encompassing all aspects of life at Rensselaer, with the goal of transforming Rensselaer into a top-tier technological research university. As anyone who has ever devised a blueprint or mission statement or list of recommendations can tell you, our plan also was unusual in that it was realized.

There are many ways to measure the fulfillment of our vision. In Fiscal Year 2013, our sponsored research reached $100 million, the highest mark in Rensselaer history. We saw the highest rate of giving to the Annual Fund in seven years. We attracted distinguished partners to Rensselaer that included old friends launching new endeavors, such as IBM, and new collaborators, such as the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Our rankings among 281 national research universities by US News and World Report indicate that our achievements are recognized. Last month, we were ranked 41st overall. In the “faculty resources” category, which uses various metrics to measure student interaction with distinguished professors, Rensselaer rose ten places to 38th.

In addition, our “selectivity” rank in terms of our students was a record-high 39th. Business Insider recently ranked Rensselaer 44th on its list of “smartest schools,” in a group of 501 national universities and liberal arts schools, as measured by the SAT scores of first-year students.

Indeed, the clearest evidence of our achievements is the enthusiasm with which extremely talented young men and women now pursue a Rensselaer education. Applications to the freshman class have more than tripled over the last 14 years, to a record 16,150 this year, up 6% over the year before.

And we have enrolled the largest freshman class in Rensselaer history, 1411 students. They are a very high-achieving group, with their average mathematics and critical reading SAT scores setting a new record. Over ten percent of the class received a perfect 800 SAT score in critical reading, mathematics, or writing. For the entering class, the middle 50% SAT range on the mathematics and reading portions is1290-1480, the highest in Rensselaer history.

Our freshmen are not merely extraordinary in their academics. We have a number of entrepreneurs, class presidents, dozens of sports team captains, a two-time winner of national honors in sand castle construction, and a champion race car driver. Clearly, the kinetic energy of the Troy campus has been boosted by many Joules.

As you know, last year, we set ambitious new goals for Rensselaer in anticipation of the bicentennial of our founding in 2024. With The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we shift focus from transforming Rensselaer to becoming even more of a transformative force—in our pedagogy, in the lives of our students, and in the global impact of our research. The implementation of the refreshed plan is well underway, and I would like to summarize where we are.

Let us begin with the teaching and learning that takes place here. One of the great challenges we face as a university is the challenge of educating the most cyber-savvy generation of students the world has ever seen.

Of course, our history itself readies us for creativity on this front. Pedagogical innovation characterized Rensselaer from its very start in 1824. The traditions of that time had students listening passively to lectures. Rensselaer broke decisively with that pattern, and instead asked students to prove and expand their knowledge through demonstrations and experiments. Under The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we continue this tradition by giving all undergraduate students the opportunity for research and independent study, and we are creating an Honors Program for seniors who demonstrate particular promise in research.

Rensselaer also pioneered the “flipped classroom”—in which students first learn the basic subject matter outside of class and then come to class for problem-solving and experimentation—long before online educator Sal Khan of the Khan Academy began advocating for the same switch. Now, we will be using online approaches to enhance the Rensselaer experience. Here is one example: We soon will be giving under-represented minorities and other under-served students a virtual bridge to Rensselaer, in part by offering an on-line calculus course before they first arrive on campus.

And we intend to incorporate advances in computational science and engineering and IT, such as the Semantic Web, into online learning.

Our students now are benefitting from other revolutions in teaching as well, including the gamification of courses, the mixed reality classroom, and interaction with artificially intelligent synthetic characters. All three are coming together in a program called the Mandarin Project, which uses a sustained narrative to engage and motivate students to learn the Mandarin language and Chinese culture. The Mandarin Project is moving into our new Emergent Reality Lab, a massive mixed reality space, and it ultimately will include synthetic characters arising out of Rensselaer breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and cognitive modeling, characters which will interact directly with students in the course. This new approach has ramifications beyond language and cultural study for our students, and will be an area for active pedagogical research across all our schools.

We also are working toward blended (online and classroom-based) formats for certain professional degree programs—for working professionals at Rensselaer at Hartford, among others.

To prepare our students to help shape the future, we have created two new degree programs at the Lally School of Management: a Master of Science degree in Business Analytics and a Master of Science degree in Supply Chain Management.

However, we are well aware that education does not take place merely in the classroom, but also in the interactions our students have with each other, with faculty and administrators, and with the community around them. The second area in which we will continue to be a transformative force is in the lives of our students—in their personal growth and development. Our Clustered, Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, is designed to foster these connections for all students, in ever-widening circles.

The many programs that emerge from CLASS recognize the different stages of college life, while preparing our students to change the world. For example, programming through our Center for Career and Professional Development is specific to each year. Our award-winning Sophomore Career Experience is designed as an introduction to professional life that can help students make more strategic choices in their studies as upperclassmen. Over 200 sophomores participated in the kick-off Career Prep 101 event with industry partners that included ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, GE, and the US Navy Nuclear Program.

CLASS also includes academically linked programs to bridge the classroom and the students’ living environment. This year, we designated three School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences courses as “inquiry courses” that not only introduce the humanities in vibrant ways, but also help future scientists, engineers, architects, business leaders, and artists to consider the meaning of their chosen paths. We hope to enliven these courses further by moving them into students’ residences.

And to encourage an even greater sense of affinity, we are allowing students to build their own living and learning cohorts based on the CLASS core themes—or particular global challenges such as environmental stewardship. For example, our Leadership Houses allow students to participate in a truly exciting ongoing discourse about governance, management, courage, and inspiration. This year, we will inaugurate the Blitman Leadership Forum, which will bring civic leaders to the Blitman Commons from across the region to discuss political life.

In addition, our Archer Center for Student Leadership Development currently is developing an idea we call “The Why Not Change the World: Challenge Studio” to allow our students, faculty, and other investigators to collaborate on projects designed to answer ill-defined, but challenging and pressing global questions.

We are expanding our students’ sense of connection outwards, in part, by encouraging all Rensselaer juniors to seek out a transformative experience, such as study abroad, an internship, or a co-op position that integrates classroom work with a professional position. Ultimately, CLASS is designed to develop those personal qualities most likely to lead to wonderful careers and full lives: intellectual agility, multi-cultural sophistication, and a global view.

We are preparing our students to do what Rensselaer graduates have always done: to change the world. Many of them will contribute significant insights and answers, as humanity addresses the great global challenges surrounding energy, water, food, national and global security; human health; climate impacts; and the allocation of scarce natural resources.

We also have focused our remarkable research endeavor at Rensselaer on these same global challenges.

Before I begin to describe the wonderful research work taking place here, I would like to address something undoubtedly much on everyone’s minds.

As you know, the Federal government continues in partial shutdown. Federal funding agencies are significantly affected, including operations involving grant funding, fund disbursement, and proposal actions. Rensselaer, like other major research universities, has taken actions to enable the research enterprise to continue in as normal a fashion as possible—including using our own funds to cover National Science Foundation grant expenditures, as that agency is completely shut down.

We hope for a resolution very soon, but we all need to be prepared for the fact that a “restart” on the part of Federal agencies may be slow, and we may continue to see disruptions, which we all will manage to the best of our abilities.

As you know, under The Rensselaer Plan, we prepared Rensselaer for leadership in areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century and that build on our strengths—by focusing on “signature thrusts” in

  • computational science and engineering;
  • biotechnology and the life sciences;
  • nanotechnology and advanced materials;
  • energy, the environment, and smart systems;
  • and media, arts, science, and technology.

Now, two broad new research umbrellas have been identified in The Rensselaer Plan 2024 as key to addressing the grand challenges.

The first we have called “Beyond the Internet: Digital Meets Reality,” recognizing that Big Data and advances in computation are creating a significant shift globally in the way we make connections, make decisions, make products, make discoveries, and ultimately, make progress.

Rensselaer is rich in distinguished faculty who are doing groundbreaking research in all aspects of computation and data science—including high-performance computing, cognitive computing, web science, data analytics, visualization, and immersive technologies. Through their efforts, and the efforts of our Vice President for Information Services and Technology and CIO, John Kolb, a remarkable computational ecosystem is coalescing at Rensselaer.

This past spring, we launched The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications—directed by Professor Jim Hendler—to bring together our talents in every computational field, so they can unlock the power of new tools and technologies—and enable researchers in every field to employ those tools for discovery and innovation.

The Rensselaer IDEA will make full use of our remarkable computational infrastructure. In our newly renamed Center for Computational Innovations—or CCI—we have upgraded our supercomputer significantly, bringing Rensselaer above the petaflops level for computational power—in other words, 10 to the 15th power or a quadrillion floating point operations per second. The new system has been named the Advanced Multiprocessing Optimized System, or AMOS, in honor of the academic founder of Rensselaer, Amos Eaton. We now have the fourth most powerful university-based supercomputer in the United States—number 12 at universities in the world—and the most powerful at an American private university.

AMOS is not merely fast. It also is massively networked and interactive within itself, allowing not only extremely large questions to be answered, but also extremely complex ones that require hundreds of thousands of simultaneous tasks orchestrated towards a single end. Its high-performance internal networking and advanced parallel storage make it an extremely useful tool for this era of petabyte-scale data generation and analysis.

AMOS also has a roommate in the IBM cognitive computing system Watson. Watson is the remarkable computing system that several years ago used its natural language processing ability and powerful inference engines to vanquish the best human champions at Jeopardy!

The combination of AMOS and Watson, utterly unique to Rensselaer, offers tremendous promise. Rensselaer scientists will use their experience with Watson to expand the possibilities of agent-based modeling—or computational models that can simulate the effects, on a system, of the decision-making of individuals. And they intend to use agent-based modeling on the massive scale permitted by AMOS.

Because the great global challenges are social as much as they are physical, the human implications of merging cognitive computing with supercomputing are enormous. We will be able to incorporate the element of human decision-making into economic models, into the planning for natural disasters, or into the design of a really smart, smart grid.

Rensselaer also is rich in talent capable of making full use of this infrastructure. This year, a team of scientists led by CCI Director Professor Chris Carothers set a new supercomputer simulation speed record with 504 billion events per second. Such speed will allow, for the first time, planetary-scale calculations describing global phenomena.

A team led by Professor Petros Drineas has been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Information & Intelligent Systems to explore new strategies for mining and extracting knowledge from petabyte-scale data using supercomputing.

A very distinguished group of web scientists in the Tetherless World Constellation—including Professor Jim Hendler, Professor Deborah McGuinness, and Professor Peter Fox—are developing new tools that make the world of unstructured, or non-mathematical, data on the Internet capable of being read by intelligent software agents, and then correlated, visualized, and applied to problems as large as global carbon emissions.

In addition, Professor Francine Berman is working to enable the open exploration of scientific research results globally. She is the United States representative to the Research Data Alliance, a new international organization formed to accelerate the ability of scientists and engineers everywhere to access, combine, and use each other’s data.

One of the key goals of The Rensselaer IDEA is to close the loop between Big Data—and science and engineering. Data mining and other data operations focus primarily on making predictions based on correlations. However, if we are going to use these results to solve global problems, we must understand the causal or scientific basis of the effects we identify.

The Rensselaer IDEA is bringing together our data scientists with our physical scientists and engineers, to turn data analytics from predictive to prescriptive: in other words, to help us design, build, and maintain real-world systems.

One of our first initiatives under The Rensselaer IDEA is the Jefferson Project at Lake George, named for Thomas Jefferson, who greatly admired the beauty of the Lake. This is a data-driven partnership with IBM and The Fund for Lake George to turn Lake George into the “smartest lake the world.”

We are adding a remarkable cyberphysical platform to the lake that will allow real-time data collection and monitoring, through the use of sensors and innovations such as flow-cams that can take snapshots of microscopic organisms. Our high-performance computing platform at Rensselaer, as well as innovations in data modeling, analytics, visualization, and web science, will allow us to use this data to understand and protect the water quality of Lake George—and will serve as a model for data-driven ecological stewardship worldwide.

The implications of such data-driven research are particularly important in health care. This year, we established a new partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai that will offer Rensselaer a treasure trove of clinical data, and the ability to translate biotechnology research breakthroughs into clinical practice. The partnership is going to allow us to produce sophisticated computer algorithms to analyze data from many, many patients. We will be able to use that data to identify new correlations, to develop predictive models of disease, to devise safer and more effective drugs, and to make better use of shared health-care assets and financial resources.

This collaboration offers our faculty the opportunity for shared research and shared research funding, and our students new educational opportunities, as well as a planned new addition to our innovation ecosystem. The Mount Sinai and Rensselaer Collaborative Center for Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to be based both in New York City and Troy, will help faculty and students from both institutions in converting medical breakthroughs of all kinds into start-up companies.

The collaboration with Mount Sinai also reinforces our second critical research umbrella, “Infrastructural Resilience, Sustainability, and Stewardship.” Under this umbrella, we are focusing on advanced infrastructure, systems, and materials—as well as affordable health-care technologies that will benefit people globally.

These latter technologies include regenerative medicine and tissue engineering—and the first virtual platform for non-invasive surgeries. Developed by Professor Suvranu De and an interdisciplinary team at our Center for Modeling, Simulation, and Imaging in Medicine, this virtual surgery application can train surgeons, as well as allow computer-aided design for new surgeries. Because it can run directly on web browsers—including over mobile phones, which are now globally ubiquitous—it has the potential to improve health care even in the poorest and most remote places.

Our “Infrastructural Resilience, Sustainability, and Stewardship” umbrella also encompasses research concerning smart logistics and infrastructure. Rensselaer scientists and engineers are focusing on predicting and controlling the risks of extreme weather and other natural disasters. They are considering how best to engineer systems—including cyber-systems, supply chains, transport systems, the electric grid, and urban built environments—to withstand natural disruptions, as well as manmade security threats; to respond to the weather intelligently; and to make efficient use of energy from a wide range of sources.

Under this same umbrella, we also are focusing on transformative materials. Composites of atomic-scale layers are expanding, vastly, the materials palette at our disposal. And materials informatics and genomics are allowing the rational design of new materials—including biological systems—for specific properties. Nanotechnology is yielding new solutions for energy storage, such as fast-charging, long-lasting graphene-based lithium ion batteries.

Bio-nanocomposites that combine lytic enzymes—or enzymes that rupture cell walls—with nanomaterials have enabled a group led by our Vice President for Research, Professor Jonathan Dordick to devise a new strategy for bypassing the problem of antibiotic resistance in deadly bacteria such as MRSA and listeria. They are incorporating these bio-nanocomposites into long-lasting antimicrobial paints and coatings that are remarkably effective.

It is safe to say that many stubborn problems are yielding to the discoveries and innovations emerging from interdisciplinary research at Rensselaer. Many new opportunities are unfolding from it. And the achievements of our faculty draw numerous honors and awards. I would like to highlight just a few recent ones:

Professor Jose Holguín-Veras, Director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment, was honored by the White House as a “Champion of Change” in the field of transportation.

Professor Heidi Newberg of our Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Professor Susan Gilbert, Head of the Department of Biology, has been awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award, in recognition of the high quality of her research contributions over the long term.

Tissue engineering and stem cell expert Dr. Leo Q. Wan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, has been named a Pew Scholar by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

New faculty member Dr. Theresa Gutberlet, Assistant Professor of Economics, was awarded the Gino Luzzatto Dissertation Prize for the best Ph.D. dissertation related to the economic history of Europe.

Professor Jian Sun, Director of our Center for Future Energy Systems, received the IEEE Power Electronics Society Modeling and Control Technical Achievement Award.

Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center Director Professor Robert Karlicek was named Editor-in-Chief of the new Journal of Solid State Lighting.

Professor Jason Vollen, Associate Director of the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, has been elected to the editorial board of The International Journal of Architectural Computing.

Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Patrick Underhill received the Arthur B. Metzner Early Career Award from the Society of Rheology.

Congratulations to all of you!

The pride we feel in these remarkable teachers, investigators, and scholars is a shared pride that redounds upon every one of us. They remind each of us how fortunate we are to belong to such a community.

I compared Rensselaer earlier to a family. Of course, we do not all gather every night at dinner. We do not bicker. We do not share the shape of our noses—merely our eagerness to learn and to discover. But we are related in this sense: Our individual journeys here at Rensselaer merge into a shared trajectory, as excellence attracts excellence, which attracts excellence, and we spur each other to new heights.

Students, faculty, and staff, alike—I, for one, cannot wait to see the work you do this year!

And now I would like to invite our audience to pose any questions you might have…


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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