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Spring Town Meeting

“Promising News and Soaring Ambitions”

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

EMPAC Theater

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Welcome, everyone. Thank you for coming. Greetings to our colleagues watching in Hartford, and to those who are watching us online.

As you know, in 2012, we revised and refreshed The Rensselaer Plan, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of our founding in 2024. With The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we are building on our achievements over the past 15 years, and moving beyond transforming Rensselaer, to becoming even more transformative…

  • In the global impact of our research
  • In our innovative pedagogy
  • And in the lives of our students.

Since 2012, we have been making key investments to implement the bicentennial strategic plan, and to enable promising new endeavors. There is much good news to report.

Those admitted for the incoming freshman class, the Class of 2018, signify the degree to which Rensselaer has transformed—and they are sure to help us become even more transformative in the world at large. There were 18,569 applicants for the class, a new record, and more than triple the number 10 years ago. (We have admitted 6,750 applicants, or 36%.)

Our selectivity will allow us to assemble one of the most accomplished classes Rensselaer has ever seen. The average combined verbal and math SAT scores of our admitted students is an impressive 1417.

Given the eagerness with which so many brilliant young people vie for a Rensselaer education, we expect record crowds for our Accepted Students celebrations in April. And we expect the Class of 2018 to be very diverse. The applications from women, underrepresented minorities, and international students all set new records.

Our recent rankings also underscore our achievements: This month, the Princeton Review named our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program as one of the best in the nation for video game design: 18th out of 150 undergraduate programs. This month, as well, U.S. News and World Report released its graduate school rankings. Our School of Engineering ranked 38th in the nation overall, with five graduate programs ranked among the top 25: aerospace engineering, industrial engineering, materials science engineering, mechanical engineering, and nuclear engineering.

The good news includes the smashing success our Division of Institute Advancement had on March 14th—3/14, or Pi Day. Rensselaer trustees Jeff Kodosky ’70 and Ed Zander ’68 had issued a challenge: If we could persuade 314 alumni and alumnae to donate on Pi Day, they each would make a substantial gift to the Rensselaer Annual Fund, which provides unrestricted support for students.

Because of a charming social media campaign, which included personalized “thank-yous” from our Red & White students, the initial challenge was met by noon. More pi-related challenges followed, and, in all, 819 donors stepped forward to support Rensselaer in a single day. I say to everyone who participated—well done.

Of course, good news does not mean that we face no challenges—it simply means that we handle them well. The outlook for the nation’s higher education sector as a whole includes continued fiscal pressure on all sides. Strategic focus has never been more critical, and we are fortunate to have a plan to guide us.

At its meeting on March 8th, the Rensselaer Board of Trustees approved a budget for Fiscal Year 2015 that will enable us to concentrate our energy and resources on the core research and teaching activities that are central to our mission and purpose.

The overall operational budget for Fiscal Year 2015 amounts to $383.1 million. As always, this represents a balanced budget.

Tuition for full-time undergraduate and full-time graduate students will be $46,700, an increase of 3.5 percent. On average, room and board rates will increase 4.5 percent.

At the same time, the financial aid budget will be increased 10.5 percent from the current-year level, to $106 million. Included in this are resources to assist those students who encounter unexpected financial hardships during their time at Rensselaer.

The minimum academic year stipend for graduate students remains $18,500.

We are developing guidelines for faculty and staff performance management and compensation, and we will continue actively to manage staff attrition to achieve savings.

In Fiscal Year 2015, we will fill 33 vacant tenured and tenure-track faculty positions across the schools, including one opening for a constellation professor.

Recent additions to our leadership team include David L. Brond, who will join us April 14th as Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations. He comes to us from Georgia Regents University and Georgia Regents Health System.

We have appointed Dr. Daniel Walczyk, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, as Director of the Center for Automated Technologies and Systems, or CATS. And we have named Dr. Shawn Kantor, a distinguished economist, Head of the Department of Economics.

We are very proud of our world-class faculty, and their strength is particularly apparent in a year that did not represent smooth sailing for the national research endeavor as whole. Despite the struggles over the federal budget, the government shutdown, and sequestration, our federal research funding is expected to remain approximately the same in Fiscal Year 2014, as it was in the somewhat more placid Fiscal Year 2013—when our total external sponsored research expenditures exceeded $100 million for the second year in a row.

Clearly, the people spurring these research awards are remarkable. Thus far in Fiscal Year 2014, five of our junior faculty have received prestigious National Science Foundation [NSF] Faculty Early Career Development [CAREER] awards:

  • Dr. Ying Chen,
  • Dr. Mariah Somer Hahn,
  • Dr. Onkar Sahni,
  • Dr. Johnson Samuel, and
  • Dr. Leo Q. Wan.

That brings the total to 69 CAREER awards since 1999. We now have one of the highest percentages, in the nation, of faculty who have received CAREER awards.

In addition, the NSF has tapped Dr. Jeff Trinkle, director of the Computer Science Department Robotics Lab, for a leadership role with President Obama’s National Robotics Initiative as program director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems.

The NSF also has awarded a five-year, $5 million grant to Rensselaer and its partners to expand the country’s engagement in the Research Data Alliance, which is accelerating the development of a global infrastructure for data sharing and exchange among researchers. Dr. Francine Berman, the Edward P. Hamilton Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, is Chair of the American arm of the Research Data Alliance.

And among the many members of our faculty who have received professional distinctions over the last half a year is Dr. John Wen, head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Professor Wen was awarded the 2013 Transition to Practice Award from the IEEE Control Systems Society, which recognizes “the transition of control and systems theory to practical industrial or commercial systems.”

Our remarkable faculty is enabling us to take on the great global challenges related to food, water, and energy security; global and national security; human health, climate change, and the allocation of scarce natural resources. They are allowing us to address an overabundant natural resource that perhaps holds the answers to these great challenges. I am referring to the tsunami of data the world is generating, which we are not harnessing to the degree that we should.

Last June, we created a Rensselaer-wide initiative—The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA—to allow us to take the greatest possible advantage of the remarkable computational ecosystem coalescing here—to enable data-driven applications in fields that include health care analytics, business systems, built and natural environments, materials informatics, and public policy and open government.

Our computational ecosystem includes platforms that allow us to confront the global challenges at sufficient scale to change the world, including—in the Center for Computational Innovations—AMOS, our petascale supercomputer, and Watson, the remarkable IBM cognitive computing system. Together, they will allow us to do agent-based modeling, or the modeling of human decision-making, at a level that may help us determine, for example, how best to evacuate a city of millions following a natural disaster. EMPAC, with its remarkable visualization and perceptualization capabilities, is another key platform.

The Rensselaer IDEA is intended to allow our researchers in every field to work together across departments and schools to engage in data-driven discovery and innovation. We will, for example, bring together our web and data scientists with the bioengineers in CBIS, our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, to find novel pathways for diagnosing and mitigating disease.

Health care is a particularly fruitful field for the data explorations enabled by The Rensselaer IDEA. Last year, we signed a partnership with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which has coupled our strengths in biomedical engineering, the basic sciences, and all computational fields with Mount Sinai’s treasure trove of patient data, treatment modalities, and clinical experience. Recently, Rensselaer and Mount Sinai have ignited this partnership by seeding 8 joint research projects.

Together, we also are offering the students of both institutions exciting new educational opportunities—including the FlexMed program at Mount Sinai, which allows Rensselaer sophomores to apply for medical school without taking the MCAT exam. Those admitted finish their Rensselaer undergraduate degrees and then move directly into the Icahn School of Medicine. Our students have begun participating, as well, in the Mount Sinai Summer Undergraduate Research Program, with three of our undergraduates offered summer research fellowships this year.

A new partnership with Optum Labs—a collaborative research center founded by the Mayo Clinic and health care management and technology company Optum—expands Rensselaer’s opportunity to drive discoveries and innovations in health care. This partnership gives us access to 150 million patient records to help us, through data analytics and other tools, to find the correlations that can lead to new uses for old pharmaceuticals and better treatments of all kinds.

Another exciting partnership under the auspices of The Rensselaer IDEA is The Jefferson Project at Lake George. Joining forces with IBM and The Fund for Lake George, we are creating a new, data-driven model for environmental protection—turning Lake George into the world’s smartest lake, so we can understand and mitigate its stressors. We are putting in place…

  • cyberphysical platforms, including sensors that can monitor the lake in real time;
  • a visualization hub at our Darrin Fresh Water Institute; and
  • an experimental platform that includes mesocosms, or water enclosures, which allow us to control the conditions for water-based investigations.

In conjunction with high-performance computing, these tools will allow us to develop circulation models, food web models, and biochemical models—to better understand the lake, so that our efforts to protect it are informed fully by science.

To take full advantage of the remarkable opportunities afforded by EMPAC—as well as Rensselaer’s leadership in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and immersive technologies, we are in the process of developing another research endeavor in partnership with IBM. Though it has not yet been announced formally, I will say that we are creating a center called CISL, the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory.

Today, most human interactions with intelligent machines take place at the scale of the iPhone. At CISL, we will advance human-machine interactions at the human scale—to enable research, the production of art, and a more complete learning experience for our students.

In addition, to ensure that Rensselaer discoveries and innovations with the potential to change the world do make their way into the world, we are strengthening our Innovation Ecosystem. This includes transforming our Office of Technology Commercialization, to make it easier for student and faculty inventors to protect their best ideas and to turn those ideas into new ventures. We also are creating a Strategic Intellectual Property Advisory Committee, with a faculty group that identifies significant IP for license agreements or joint ventures, and an external advisory group that offers insight into the opportunities for our IP in the marketplace.

This leads me to next area in which we intend to be transformative, and that is in our innovative pedagogy.

We clearly do an excellent job here of educating engineers in product design and production, and Rensselaer students regularly place very high in—and often win—the prestigious American Society of Mechanical Engineers [AMSE] and Society of Manufacturing Engineers [SME] student competitions.

However, manufacturing is undergoing a revolution. The Mount Everest-like ascent in data production we now are experiencing is due, in great measure, to the rise of the Internet of Things—and the proliferation of sensors and networked devices. This networking of everything from wind turbines to running shoes now makes it possible to follow a product through its entire life cycle, from manufacturing through recycling, in order to improve the next generation of products.

And this is merely one of many recent revolutions in manufacturing—which include 3-D printing, materials informatics, robotics, and virtual prototyping. Ultimately, these advances represent a convergence of computation and the production of the physical products we use every day. Together, they are making manufacturing a particularly exciting sector for our engineering students.

To prepare the next generation of product pioneers and manufacturing leaders, we have transformed our Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory into The MILL, or the Manufacturing Innovation Learning Laboratory, and are expanding the fundamental instruction we long have offered to undergraduates with graduate-level classes focused on the possibilities in advanced manufacturing, including…

  • nano- and micro-scale manufacturing,
  • Big Data collection,
  • high-speed manufacturing,
  • advanced robotics,
  • advanced composites, and
  • additive manufacturing.

Along with this expansion in the course of study, we intend to expand the physical space in which The MILL is housed.

I want to introduce another new initiative in Rensselaer pedagogy with a short piece of music…

[Song plays]

While that has been compared to a Cuban dance melody, it actually is the sonification of the experimental data that indicated that the Higgs Boson had been found. In fact, the Higgs particle has inspired a number of songs, including “The Higgs Boson Blues,” “The Large Hadron Rap,” and an Adele parody called “Rolling in the Higgs.”

That is not entirely surprising. The connections among music, physics, and mathematics long have been understood. Mathematical relationships such as the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci Sequence, and fractals long have informed the work of composers, architects, and painters. Today, however, the arts are not merely inspired by the revelations of particle physics, astrophysics, and the life sciences—they increasingly rely on technology as a means of expression.

At the same time, the arts help us to perceive the world around us in ways that benefit scientists and engineers. For example, the intellectual leaps that allowed materials scientists and mathematicians to understand quasi-crystals—or crystals based on symmetries that cannot repeat themselves in three dimensions—were enabled by medieval Islamic tiles, which contain similar non-repeating patterns.

At Rensselaer, we have transformed the university, in part, by recognizing that the arts and the sciences reinforce each other. We have encouraged these symbioses…

  • By creating EMPAC, a remarkable platform for aural, visual, and virtual experience;
  • By developing interdisciplinary crossroads such as The Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture; and
  • By expanding the curriculum to include Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, and soon, music degree programs.

Today, we would like to take a step further and introduce art into every one of our schools—to broaden our students’ horizons, to deepen their understanding of their own chosen fields, and to help them learn through all of their senses. Of course, this ambition relies a great deal on the brilliance and creativity of our faculty in every discipline—but I am certain you are up to it. I hope you will consider ways to help us make Art Across the Curriculum a reality.

We continue to move forward, also, on technology-enabled learning. The Mandarin Project, which uses a multi-player game and a mixed reality classroom to teach the Chinese language and culture, continues to grow richer. We are adding an airport scene that allows our students to interact with sentient digital beings and that links to Watson, the cognitive computing system that is very adept at natural language processing. We also are focused on expanding the virtual reality experience in the Mandarin Project from a single user to multiple users with different perspectives.

Another example of technology-enabled learning is the Virtual Calculus Bridge to Rensselaer that will be offered for the first time this summer. This is a joint effort of the Office of the Provost and the Division of Student Life, to help those incoming freshman who could use more preparation in math to get ready to succeed at Rensselaer. The program is scheduled to bring 30 students to Rensselaer in early July for orientation, and then to engage them in a MOOC-like calculus course over the summer.

As we strive to connect living and learning—and to be transformative in the lives of our students—other programs also link Student Life and our academic endeavors. These include the HASS Inquiry Courses we piloted this year, which are designed to encourage future scientists, engineers, business managers, architects, and scholars of all types to be as thoughtful as possible about their fields of endeavor. The Inquiry Courses were so successful that they will now be offered to almost our entire incoming Class of 2018—including one course inspired by the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. It will combine residence-hall-based conversations about the drug culture depicted in the show, with more scholarly examinations in the classroom on subjects that may range from the physiology of addiction to the economic forces at work in our cities.

Other Student Life endeavors include further globalizing the student experience; expanding CLASS to include more supports for graduate students and their families; and refining the idea of a Why Not Change the World: Challenge Studio—intended to bring together students with faculty and staff, to find solutions to particular global problems.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has always has been an exciting place to receive an education. But it grows more exciting every year.

I am now happy to declassify some very important news concerning the 208th Commencement of Rensselaer in May: the people we will honor at our graduation ceremony this year.

They include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and—with Rensselaer Professor Jim Hendler—a founder of the Semantic Web movement. Since this is the 25th anniversary of the web, we are delighted that Sir Tim has accepted our invitation.

We also are proud to honor Dr. Mary-Claire King. Dr. King, a human geneticist, has transformed our understanding of disease and our own species, with breakthroughs that include

  • identifying the BRCA1 gene responsible for an inherited susceptibility to breast cancer,
  • demonstrating that the genomes of humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical, and
  • applying cutting-edge genomics to a humanitarian cause—to identify the victims of human rights abuses.

Finally, we are proud to honor Ginni Rometty—the Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of IBM—who is leading the world’s most storied information technology company into the era of Big Data and cognitive computing. Ms. Rometty will be our commencement speaker.

All of our honorands will participate in the President’s Colloquy on Friday, May 23rd, from 3:30 to 5:30 in the EMPAC Concert Hall. The entire Rensselaer community is invited, and especially our graduating students and their families.

I urge you all to attend. Our honorands are fascinating people, and our discourse with them promises to be equally fascinating.

Our belief that Rensselaer has an important role to play in changing the world for the better is confirmed and validated by the extraordinary leaders and partners whom Rensselaer attracts, such as our honorands.

However, it is the men and women here today who make our soaring ambitions reasonable and achievable: a staff that allows us to embark on great ventures; faculty members who push outwards the frontiers of human understanding and the possibilities of technology; and brilliant students who take what we teach, and then unfurl it, magnificently, into something even greater in their own careers.

I salute all of you, and I thank you wholeheartedly for everything you do for Rensselaer.

And now, I would like to invite 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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