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Tomorrow’s Trailblazers
When Rensselaer students receive their hard-earned diplomas they also are rewarded with entrance into a pantheon of distinguished alumni who have left their marks across the globe—and in space and cyberspace. As President Shirley Ann Jackson told the members of the Class of 2008 at the May 17 Commencement on Harkness Field, “You are walking in the footsteps of Rensselaer graduates who made the discoveries, constructed the canals, the roads, the bridges, the skyscrapers, the basic infrastructure here and around the world, which formed the basis for the 19th and 20th century society. Your forebears changed the world, just as you will.”

The graduates already have taken up that challenge. They now are settling into positions with major corporations, including DreamWorks Animation, Merck, and Honda, while 42 ROTC graduates will start active service in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, and others will enter graduate programs at institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and, of course, Rensselaer.

The graduates of the Class of 2008 represent the next generation of ambitious inventors, socially responsible innovators, groundbreaking researchers, and leaders in industry and academia who will change the world. But as with past graduating classes, these students have not waited to receive their diplomas to discover and to make world-changing contributions. Here are some of their stories.

In the Chips

Jeffrey Martin
Heparin is among the most widely used drugs in the world. Formed naturally in cells of the human body as well as in other animals like pigs, heparin acts as an anticoagulant preventing blood clots, which makes it a good therapeutic for heart, stroke, and dialysis patients. Unfortunately, the main source of heparin is currently the intestines of foreign livestock, which carry a high risk of contamination. While researchers are working around the clock to develop a safer, man-made alternative to the drug that will prevent outside contamination, a member of the Class of 2008 believes he may have an answer. Biohemistry and biophysics major Jeffrey Martin has created a lab-on-a-chip device that mimics the way one of the most important cellular structures in the human body, the Golgi apparatus, builds complex, highly specialized sugar molecules. The device could help scientists quickly uncover a new class of synthetic sugar-based drugs. Martin’s artificial Golgi allows researchers to build sugars in an automated fashion where they can be tested on living cells, either on the chip or in the lab, to determine their effects.

“We are going to start making new combinations and we simply don’t know what we are going to find,” Martin says. “We could find a sugar whose signal blocks the spread of cancer cells or initiates the differentiation of stem cells.” He plans to continue on at Rensselaer as a graduate student, working with his adviser, Robert Linhardt, the Ann and John H. Broadbent Jr. ’59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, to test and further develop his artificial Golgi.

A potentially energy-saving innovation has been the focus of doctoral degree recipient Weixiao Huang, whose invention could replace one of the most common pieces of technology in the world—the silicon transistor for high-power and high-temperature electronics.

Huang has invented a new transistor that uses a compound material known as gallium nitride (GaN), which has remarkable material properties. The new GaN transistor could reduce the power consumption and improve the efficiency of power electronics systems in everything from motor drives and hybrid vehicles to house appliances and defense equipment.

“Silicon has been the workhorse in the semiconductor industry for the last two decades,” Huang says. “But as power electronics get more sophisticated and require higher performing transistors, engineers have been seeking an alternative like gallium nitride-based transistors that can perform better than silicon and in extreme conditions.” The new transistors can greatly reduce energy, making energy conversion more efficient. Huang plans to work as a device engineer in the semiconductor industry.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.