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Frontiers

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

EMPAC Concert Hall

2:00 p.m. Friday, October 21, 2011


Good afternoon. Welcome back. For many of you, things have changed — dramatically — since your last visit to Rensselaer. An institution and its people cannot change the world without changing itself. But through all the changes, this still is “dear old RPI,” and we are delighted to have all of you back.

You can tell, from the video you have just seen, that important things are happening — even as we continue to grow and to realize our full institutional potential. This is only possible because of the support and generosity of our alumni/ae and friends. Thank you for all that so many of you do for Rensselaer. It is through our shared belief in a rigorous approach to education, combined with determination and creativity, that we are able to prepare generations of responsible leaders and are able, year after year, to contribute insights and discoveries that meet our world’s challenges.

I am sure that you already have experienced the energy and dedication to excellence that characterizes this special place.

Intelligent minds, superlative facilities, relationships that reach across the globe, and a commitment to change the world come together here in a distinct and important way.

The title of my talk today is “Frontiers.” There has always been a human urge to discover, explore, and understand. Driven by curiosity, we move beyond the familiar, and that, in and of itself, creates new opportunities. Working at the borders, making our way into new frontiers, has provided our species with new ideas and perspectives, as well as new resources.

But looking toward the frontiers has another benefit: When the scope provided to our imaginations grows, we find escape from locked-in patterns and limited points of view, and we are able to develop truly new solutions to the biggest challenges we face.

At Rensselaer, we always have had our attention focused on the frontier. In the case of infrastructure, this is literally the case. Our graduates helped to create the means to open new territories, including contributions to the building of the Panama Canal and the Transcontinental Railroad. Today, we are as likely to be exploring frontiers of knowledge and cosmic or financial or networking frontiers as physical frontiers, but the requirements are much the same:

Our approach has been, first, to build a foundation of knowledge and experience. Without a good understanding of facts and data, and how they might come together to create new knowledge and insights, it is difficult to recognize anomalies and novelties. If we do not see the border, we cannot know what is in the frontier.

The other dimension at Rensselaer that makes our work at the frontier valuable is our deep engagement with the world. We are committed to addressing “the common purposes of life.” We understand the need to be creating or discovering new knowledge, while working on practical problems, partnering with others, and taking time to listen to a variety of people who have different experiences and knowledge.

The rigor and engagement that are so much a part of our history prepare our community to select and appreciate those new areas that are most important to explore. In addition, both the physical tools that our students and faculty use, and the tools of the mind—such as logic, mathematics, language, and critical thinking — provide what we need to test our ideas and to deepen our understanding of new phenomena.

This preparation — using an approach Rensselaer has had from its very beginning — draws those who are the most creative, ambitious, and committed into our circle as partners and collaborators, creating a positive loop that magnifies our capabilities so that they are more than the sum of their parts.

This afternoon, I will share a sample of recent achievements at Rensselaer. I will provide details on how we are approaching a world that, despite the challenges that make headlines, promises wonders and benefits. Success never has come easily, and much that we wish to do will demand renewed commitment and true collaboration. But the potential that we see realized daily on our campuses, both in the lab and in the classroom, demonstrates the promise of achievement for those who have the confidence to match their talents to the challenges we face.

As we begin, I would like to take a moment to recognize Mr. Stu Benton, Class of 1962, for his dedicated service to Rensselaer, and the Alumni/ae Association, as President of the RAA. Thank you, Mr. Benton, for all you have done in your two-year term.

I also welcome our new President of the RAA, Mr. Paul Cosgrave, Class of 1972. Congratulations on your election, Mr. Cosgrave. I look forward to a productive year working with you.

Let us take a moment now to remember those Rensselaer family members who are not with us today. In particular, I acknowledge three people:

Mr. John T. Horton, ’52, passed away late last fall. He served as a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees from 1969 through 1982. He was a member of The Stephen Van Rensselaer Society of Patroons of Rensselaer, and received the Rensselaer Alumni Association's Albert Fox Demers Medal in 1982.

We lost Ms. Barbara Curtis Landgraf just a few weeks ago. She was the wife of acting Rensselaer President Stanley Landgraf and a much loved supporter of our university. With her late husband, she offered tremendous opportunities for Rensselaer students through scholarships as well as with other forms of generosity. 

Ms. Mary Low, the wife of past President George Low, who served as Rensselaer President from 1976 to1984 passed away just last week. Throughout the service of Mr. Low and for years afterward, Mrs. Low was very involved as the “First Lady” of Rensselaer. Until a few short years ago, she continued to support the Institute in many ways and remained involved in the transformation of the university that was launched under The Rensselaer Plan.

Her devotion to the Institute included the donation of the George M. Low papers to Rensselaer in 1986. These papers represent an important historical record since they include the years Mr. Low led the NASA Apollo moon landing program.                 

I know there are others — faculty and staff — we all miss, as well.

Finally, let us also be ever mindful of the Rensselaer men and women serving in our armed forces, particularly those in harm’s way, and those who have given their lives, or have been injured, while serving our nation.      

To a large extent, our claim on the future is through our students. Many of you, I am sure, credit your success with the uncompromising and challenging education you received here. You arrived here with great minds, and Rensselaer provided you with the skills, tools, and preparation you needed to contribute to our society and set the standard for achievement.

We continue to stretch our students, to encourage them to reach beyond imagined limits. Our selection process for admission is finely tuned toward identifying students who can and do meet the challenges that our educational approach puts before them. It is not accidental, then, that our retention rates are high.

The freshmen students come in with strong records. For the Class of 2015, the average SAT is 1366, up 46 points from 2005, and up 84 points from 2000. A total of 64 percent of enrolled students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

We have experienced an explosion of interest and applications. In 2005, we had 24,211 freshman inquiries. For the Class of 2014, this number more than quadrupled to over 100,000.

In 2005, we had 5,570 applications for freshman admissions. This fall, it is 14,583 — and we continue on that rising trajectory.

So, we are more selective than ever, but we also have learned how to assist our students in ways that deliberately develop and create successful individuals, and global leaders.

It takes a village to nurture and inspire the fine young men and women who come to Rensselaer. Our faculty, of course, play a major role, but our administrators and staff influence the experiences of our students from the day they arrive — and often earlier — until they leave to make their marks in the world.

You have already met Dr. Timothy Sams, our new Vice President for Student Life. I will take this opportunity to introduce a few more key people who have joined us.

Our new Dean of the School of Science is Dr. Laurie Leshin. She joins us from NASA, where she served as deputy associate administrator of exploration systems. Dr. Leshin has said, “our work together within the school, making transformative discoveries, shaping new interdisciplinary fields, and training the next generation of scientists, will propel Rensselaer to even greater heights.”

Earlier this month, Dr. Mary Simoni took over as Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. At the University of Michigan, she served as associate dean for research and community engagement, and was a tenured full professor in their School of Music, Theatre and Dance. She brings with her a wealth of experience at the intersection of technology and the humanities, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”

We have named Dr. Thomas Begley as Dean of the Lally School of Management and Technology. His work at University College Dublin, where he was Dean of the Business School, along with his experience teaching in some of the top business programs across the world, will serve him well as he leads the Lally School to higher levels of prominence.

On Monday, Mr. Joseph Cassidy will become Director of the Student Union. The Rensselaer Union is a student-managed organization, with multimillion dollar budget supports more than 200 clubs and organizations and intercollegiate athletics. Mr. Cassidy has a distinguished career in university administration, and he will be pivotal to our ensuring the Union continues to help Rensselaer develop our student in ways that reach beyond the classroom.

We are dedicated to supporting these talented students, and our processes for enabling their success here are continually upgraded and refreshed.

Central to this effort is Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (or CLASS). CLASS represents a transformational change in the undergraduate experience. It provides students with a sense of belonging and develops them as leaders throughout their years at Rensselaer.

As part of CLASS, there is time-based clustering, and we have created Class Deans, who will take over each rising sophomore class from the Dean of the First Year Experience. The Class Dean will work with a given class until it graduates. The focus will be on leadership experiences, mentoring, counseling, learning assistance, career planning, and social and cultural activities. In short, the Class Deans are class advocates, and are the connectors and facilitators for that class with all aspects of the Institute, and beyond. They partner with the Dean of Undergraduate Education, the Faculty Dean of the Commons, the live-in commons Deans, the Dean of Students, and others, to transform the student experience.

Last year, we initiated the Sophomore Year Experience, and this year is the first for the Junior Year Experience. Ms. Amy Pettingill, last year’s Sophomore Class Dean will serve as this year’s Junior Class Dean. 

As part of CLASS, there are residential clusters, as well. Live-in Deans actually reside in suites that are in or attached to the student residence halls. The Faculty Dean lives in a university house proximate to the campus.

Off-Campus students are not neglected. The Greek houses that are part of the Greek Commons not only have their presidents signing on to our program, but also their alumni/ae Greek advisors sign on as well—in writing. They also have standards for the physical condition and hygiene of their houses that are the same as for on-campus university residences (and they are inspected).

In support of CLASS, we now have an Assistant Dean for Off-Campus Students, Mr. Cary Dresher. He was formerly our Assistant Dean and parent liaison. He began his new role at the beginning of October, and has been supporting students who live off-campus as well as working with Troy neighborhood and community members, to strengthen their interactions with the campus community.

In addition to being part of the CLASS initiative and helping us to fulfill our commitment to support all of our students, both on and off-campus, this position helps to reassure the Troy community that we are good neighbors. The Assistant Dean for Off-Campus Students provides a point person for them to work with and to build a better relationship.

You may have noticed something about our athletic teams at Rensselaer. They are winning. A lot. Perhaps the headline here is Coach Seth Appert, who brought our university to national attention this year by leading our men's ice hockey team to the 2011 NCAA Tournament. This was Rensselaer’s first appearance since 1995, and we have signed a contract extension that has Mr. Appert under contract through the 2017-18 season.

Our commitment to our student-athletes is reflected in some of our recent hiring of outstanding head coaches. These include:

  • Ms. Erica Hollot: Head women's tennis coach who has an 18-9 record since being hired in Spring 2010.
  • Mr. Tim Landis: Head football coach who arrived with 17 years of head coaching experience, at schools such as Davidson, St. Mary's (CA), and Bucknell. He succeeds Joe King, who retired after many years here.
  • Mr. John Lynch: Head men's and women's cross country coach.
  • Ms. Amber Maisonet: Our head softball coach, who led the team to first place in the Liberty League regular season standings as an interim head coach in 2011.
  • And Mr. Jon Satkowski: Head men's tennis coach, who was hired in Fall 2010, and who has been honored as a Liberty League Rookie Coach of the Year.

We take very seriously our scholar-athlete model. We seek excellence in all that we do, and athletics is no exception. For 20 consecutive semesters, Rensselaer student athletes have had higher Grade Point Averages than the student body in general.

Rensselaer students are scholars, athletes, and much more. They are engaged in the larger community.

In case you did not hear about it, this area was struck this summer by tropical storms and flooding. The Troy campus did not suffer serious damage, but some of our neighbors have been overwhelmed by this disaster.

In response to the widespread storm damage, the Student Senate’s Advocacy, Community, and Advancement Committee, with the support of the Dean of Students Office spearheaded the RPI RELIEF: Hurricane Irene efforts to raise money for the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York and the Regional Farm and Food Project. Their aim was, and is, to assist victims of flooding throughout the Capital Region. They also have been organizing volunteer initiatives in Schoharie, Rensselaer, and Greene Counties, and collecting items to assist victims with cleanup. The list of student groups involved in RPI Relief: Hurricane Irene includes:

  • The RPI Student Senate,
  • The American Red Cross Club,
  • The Class of 2013,
  • The Community Advocates, and
  • The Community Service Committee.

Our students are having an impact. I will quote from a letter sent to me my Mr. Dominic Jacangelo, Supervisor of the Town of Poestenkill [in Rensselaer County]:

“I have always thought of RPI as one of the finest institutions in the world, but only recently have I become aware of how wonderful its student body, faculty and staff members are!

“On September 25th approximately 20 members of the RPI student body and staff gave up their Sunday to volunteer and help the Poestenkill residents most severely affected by Hurricane Irene. The group worked tirelessly to clean up the Poesten Kill creek bank, as well as removing deteriorated sheetrock, lumber and insulation from two homes which the residents hope to rebuild.

“One of the residents actually cried, she was so appreciative of the badly needed help and said that this showed her that America has a bright future if these fine young people are the leaders of tomorrow.

“RPI has made many new friends in Poestenkill and we look forward to repaying the many kindnesses the RPI team provided.”

I am proud of these students (and our staff) and of their compassion and generosity. Such commitment provides evidence that the leaders who emerge from our university will bring together both the technical expertise and the genuine concern that we need as we face important global challenges.

Frontiers exist on the border of much larger territories — territories of shared understandings and accepted practices. But the influence of new knowledge is disproportionately high because it not only creates opportunities within the new frontier, but it transforms the rest through the creation of new perspectives and the realignment of traditional ideas.

By working at the frontiers in a deliberate, focused, and creative way, Rensselaer continues to find answers to the world’s most pressing challenges. Because we reach past today’s limits, we increase rather than redistribute available resources for a better tomorrow.

So, with the development of The Rensselaer Plan, we challenged ourselves to move into new research domains at the intersections of important disciplines, especially where they could benefit from our existing core strengths in engineering; science; management; architecture; the humanities, arts, and social sciences; and information technology. To accomplish this, we have invested in five signature thrusts.

In the area of energy and the environment, Rensselaer researchers are exploring the development of renewable technologies to enable us to coexist with a bio-diverse planet.

Researchers in biotechnology and the life sciences are leading the way to the creation of life-saving treatments for disease.

In nanotechnology and advanced materials, researchers are enabling the development of new materials that support a safer, more cost-effective, and sustainable environment.

Through their work in computational science and information technologies, Rensselaer researchers are deepening our comprehension of a multi-faceted world that extends as far as — computational modeling of new drugs.

You are sitting in a building that exemplifies our fifth signature thrust, experimental media and arts. Such an extraordinary platform as this blur existing boundaries between observation, perception, and experience — allowing our researchers to create environments that expand our ability to learn, understand, and communicate.

These areas are critical to addressing key national and global challenges. Based on this strong foundation, Rensselaer research is creating a better future through the innovation and engineering of a better world.

Research activity at Rensselaer is substantial, ait it is impossible for me to update you on all of the projects, initiatives, and partnership. Instead, I will give you a taste of how the faculty here pushes at the boundaries and finds new solutions, day after day.

For example, over the last six years, Professor B. Wayne Bequette, a member of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has been creating progressively more advanced computer control systems for a closed-loop artificial pancreas. His work stands to benefit the 15,000 children and 15,000 adults who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, every year in the United States. The device automatically will monitor blood sugar levels and administer insulin to patients, and aims to remove much of the guesswork for those living with the chronic disease.

Research led by Dr. Miriam Katz, Assistant Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences, is providing some of the strongest evidence to date that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) played a key role in the major shift in the global climate, from the more tropical, greenhouse climate of the Eocene to the modern and much cooler climates of today, that began approximately 38 million years ago. The research provides the first evidence that early ACC formation played a vital role in the formation of the modern ocean structure.

A new technique allows researchers to collect large amounts of biochemical information from nanoscale bone samples. Dr. Deepak Vashishth, head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, led a study that promises important new insights in the fight against osteoporosis, as well as an entirely new approach to analyzing bone quality. It could even aid the archeological and forensic study of human skeletons.      

The last Space Shuttle flight included material for a series of experiments led by Dr. Cynthia Collins, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The research seeks to understand how microgravity changes the way potentially dangerous bacteria grows. In particular, the research will examine how they form difficult-to-kill colonies called biofilms. The research has important implications for protecting astronauts while they are in space in enclosed and difficult-to-clean spaces, such as the International Space Station, or during extended space missions deeper into our solar system. It also provides new information in the fight against ever-more virulent bacterial infections such as staph, food poisoning, sepsis, and pneumonia. This is the second time that Dr. Collins’s research will be included on the shuttle.

And when the National Science Foundation announced its new initiative, “Science Across Virtual Institutes,” few weeks ago, Dr. Alhussein Abouzeid, Associate Professor of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering, was present to describe his pilot project for a joint U.S./Finland Wireless Institute. This effort pushes the limits of virtual collaboration. According to NSF, it addresses the most vexing challenges of our times while better leveraging taxpayer money.

Our faculty continue to probe the frontiers through their research. The research effort at Rensselaer attracted nearly $90 million in the past year — matching our record level and more than double that of eleven years ago ($37 million). We accomplished this in spite of cutbacks in government awards, thanks to an increase in awards from corporations. We are determined to reach $100 million — a key research-funding threshold in the Rensselaer Plan.

I will take a moment now to answer a question I often hear from our alumni/ae:

“How does our research enterprise affect our undergraduates?”

The answer is that research is an essential and vital part of their education. Since the beginning, Rensselaer students have stepped out of the classroom to engage in real problems and to push the frontiers. They did not wait until Commencement to change the world back then, and they do not wait now.

When I mention the many breakthroughs Rensselaer has made — whether in fundamental science, or high-end engineering or artistic design — please understand that our students have a part in these. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, are our partners in our most important endeavors. In fact, direct participation is something they expect. They came to Rensselaer with the understanding that these opportunities would be made available to them, and we are determined to fulfill those promises.

Research is done here as part of the undergraduate experience, not at the expense of it.

And I use my own external involvements to continue to project Rensselaer into frontiers.

On June 24, I joined President Barack Obama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he talked about the future of manufacturing in the United States. This coincided with the release of the Advanced Manufacturing report, whose generation I helped to spur — a report prepared by the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), of which I am a member, under the aegis of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which I co-chair with Dr. Eric Schmidt of Google.

Reaching this goal in the current environment will require renewed commitment on our part. We need to grow our faculty and provide a world-class platform for science at Rensselaer. We must provide more financial aid to our students, so we can move to more need-blind admissions and full aid policies. Brilliant minds do not always come in wealthy packages.

Faculty — excellent faculty — are at the heart of what we do here. Growing our faculty is an explicit goal of The Rensselaer Plan, but it has been a challenging one to achieve. Retirements, the return of talent to developing nations — such as China and India, and the enticements of industry — each of these make the environment more difficult, enhancing competition for quality faculty, especially in technical fields. And frankly, as our reputation has grown, external efforts to lure away our outstanding faculty members have intensified.

Once accomplished candidates are identified and attracted to Rensselaer, there is one more obstacle — the start-up costs for a new professor in a technical field can be on the order of one half to two million dollars.

With a near-term goal of expanding our tenured and tenure track positions to about 400, and a long-term goal of 500, it is clear that we will require significant funding.

Many of the triumphs we take pride in, such as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the construction of the Panama Canal, would be unimaginable without the integration of new scientific discoveries into engineering. Yet, the hub of our scientific endeavor, the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, is half a century old, dating back to 1961.

It is time to renew our commitment to the highest caliber scientific facilities so that we can bring together the scientists who are spread across the campus, and to create conditions where their programs can grow and prosper.

With proper support, we can raise research productivity, and it is the only way that we can attract the faculty and students we need to honor the character and tradition of our university, and to continue to impact the world.

To accomplish these two objectives — expanding faculty and building a new Center for Science, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees has approved a lead-in to our next major campaign, a focused fundraising effort designed to bring in between 150 and 170 million dollars over the next two years.

In our upcoming Capital Campaign, still in the early stages, our focus will be on substantially increasing financial aid funds for students and endowed chairs for faculty.

Our friends and benefactors stand ready to help us, and I am confident that we will be successful.

We still attract and recognize world-class leaders to Rensselaer. We continue to have our own alumni/ae honored for their amazing achievements. Last May, we had three outstanding Commencement Honorees participate in the President’s Commencement Colloquy. They were:

  • Regina M. Benjamin, M.D., 18th Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service and a recipient, in 2008, of a MacArthur Fellowship — the “Genius Award.”
  • G. Wayne Clough, Ph.D., the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who leads the world’s largest museum and research complex, and who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • And our own Mr. Samuel F. Heffner, Class of 1956, founder and president of Dickinson-Heffner Inc., a building and land development firm that has developed several million square feet of office and industrial space in the Baltimore region. Mr. Heffner was a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees for 33 years, and he served as board chair for 15 years.

By anyone’s measure, these individuals all are “world class.”

Our alumni/ae also have distinguished themselves over the past year. Perhaps most noteworthy is the recognition of Mr. Steven Sasson ’72 and Dr. Marcian E. “Ted” Hoff, Jr. ’58.

These two Rensselaer Alumni received National Medals of Technology and Innovation, becoming the ninth and 10th graduates to earn national medals. Mr. Sasson earned his distinction for the invention of the digital camera, which has revolutionized the way images are captured, stored, and shared, thereby creating new opportunities for commerce, education, and improved worldwide communication. In 2008, 73 percent of Americans owned a digital camera, and 34 million digital cameras were sold in the United States, generating $7 billion in revenue. Mr. Sasson visited the campus recently, and delivered a stellar lecture, as this year’s recipient of the Davies Medal for Engineering Achievement. He also was inducted into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

Dr. Hoff is part of the team honored for the conception, design, development, and application of the first microprocessor. The subsequent commercial acceptance of this universal building block has enabled a multitude of novel digital electronic systems. Dr. Hoff also is a member of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

And I am happy to add that, a few weeks ago, Professor B. Jayant Baliga (faculty, North Carolina State University), who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Rensselaer in 1971 and 1974, was announced as a National Medal of Technology and Innovation honoree for his contributions to the development and commercialization of the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor and other power semiconductor devices. These are used extensively in transportation, lighting, medicine, defense, and renewable energy generation systems.

Of course, I must acknowledge the success of the IBM system, “Watson.” Rensselaer alumni Dr. David Ferrucci (’94), Adam Lally (’98), Dr. Chris Welty (’85, ’89, ‘95), and Dr. John Kelly (’78, ’80) had essential roles in the computer’s design. In winning the Jeopardy! Challenge by taking on the best players the game has seen, this system demonstrated a new level of language recognition by a computer. Last February, along with Dr. Chris Welty, we shared Watson’s triumph with panels, talks, and broadcasts, here in this concert hall.

Tomorrow morning you will have the opportunity to get a taste of that experience. Dr. Ferrucci will come to this stage to explain the larger implications of this breakthrough work, and I hope you have the opportunity to attend.

So, in the end, what is my essential message to you today? It is simply this: Our recognition of new possibilities, often before they are mainstream, provides us with a basis for leadership. Bold imagination is a part of our heritage, and Rensselaer has a responsibility to share our vision of a healthier, happier, and more prosperous world with those who we need to work with to help realize it.

We reach out to those in our community — students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni — and we reach beyond to partners, both local and global. And, always, we reach to explore new frontiers, both to better understand our current world and to extend our possibilities.

The Rensselaer you love has been reimagined for the 21st century. It continues to be vibrant, engaged, relevant, and leading the way.

Our view of the horizon, along with a clear understanding of the issues, challenges, and opportunities before us shapes our development. We continue to be drawn to addressing “the common purposes of life.” It is what pulls us, inexorably, into the endeavors that will change the world.

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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