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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 204th Commencement

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

East Campus Athletic Village
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Saturday, May 29, 2010

As President of Rensselaer, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 204th Commencement exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

For the faculty, staff, and trustees, this is the day every year when we see most clearly the fruits of our work. Graduates: We truly are proud of you. We salute you, and we share in your sense of accomplishment.

However, 2010 is no ordinary year.  So, we must extend equal congratulations to the families here today, who helped these students to complete their degrees during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. 

As our graduates move out into the world at this moment of tentative and tenuous recovery, it is obvious that a full recovery demands that, as an economy, we focus once again on innovation.

Although young people do not have an absolute monopoly on new ideas... there are advantages to being young, in that you have not yet spent decades steeped in conventional wisdom.  So, graduates, we all are depending on you for the insights that will help us to create new industries, to create new jobs and to solve the great global challenges. 

One thing is certain: the transformative ideas we need as a society are going to require new kinds of collaboration across the disciplines... for engineers to address challenges of medicine... for botanists to consider questions of solar power…for experts in computation and modeling to help us understand, and even mitigate, the effects of climate change.

So, as today’s graduates leave Rensselaer in triumph... perhaps, in some cases, in exhausted triumph…I hope that you will remember one idea that we have worked hard to weave into the fabric of the Institute: the supreme importance of talking to people outside your own field of expertise. Conversation is a prerequisite for collaborative innovation, and for the movement of great ideas out into the world.

Of course, you will be greatly enabled in any attempt to communicate and connect by new technologies. The Semantic Web platform we are building here at Rensselaer will enable the sharing of scientific data on an unprecedented scale, and allow even citizen scientists into the great Web-enabled conversation that is innovation, in and of itself.  

You also have at your disposal new media such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube, which empower your voice, and allow you to do important and unique things, which can tremendous differences in people’s lives. In other words, as newly minted graduates of Rensselaer, with formidable minds and skills, you have power to create and use technology responsibly — and beyond technology, you have the power to be leaders.

The power of social media is being proven across the globe, as tools of social responsibility, economic growth, and political liberation.  Jody Williams, the Vermont school teacher who went on to become the head of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, began her landmark campaign using fax machines and went on to harness the Internet — an inspiring illustration of the transformative “Power of One.” In Africa, the spread of low-cost mobile phones has brought banking services to millions who never before had a chance to participate in the global economy.[1] Last year, Twitter enabled protestors to organize in Iran, and to tell the world about their causes, despite government attempts to repress such news.[2]

However, we must be aware that new communications technologies can separate people as well as join them… and may encourage us to fritter away our best ideas and most important connections on a distracted chase for novelty.  Sociologist Dalton Conley warns of the dangers of an “elsewhere” society, where gadgets like the iPhone and Blackberry are constantly luring us away from the present moment.[3]  When more than half of all teenagers report texting their friends daily, but only one-third say they actually talk to them face-to-face, one wonders if a cellphone screen is not also a wall.[4]

I urge you to use the remarkable tools at your disposal wisely. To be truly effective, communication requires attention as much as expression, empathy as much as will, and generosity as much as personal confidence.

Let me give you another illustration of “the Power of One.” Seven years ago, a young man sat where you sat, a member of the Rensselaer Class of 2003. Miroslav “Steven” Zilberman, went on to be Lieutenant Zilberman; in fact, it was while he was in the Navy that he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in just three years. He had plans to go on to study medicine. His leisure reading while in action was organic chemistry texts.

But just two months ago, while returning from a mission in Afghanistan, his aircraft lost an engine over the Arabian Sea. Zilberman ordered his crew mates, including the co-pilot, to bail out. According to Navy Rear Admiral Philip S. Davidson, “He held the plane level for them to do so, despite nearly uncontrollable forces. His three crewmen are alive today because of his actions.”

His mother said it more simply: “He saved three lives. He’s a hero.”

Steven Zilberman exemplified empathy for his colleagues, and he showed the ultimate generosity of spirit, in giving his life.

Today’s honorands have succeeded in part because of their generosity in sharing their ideas. Economist Peter Orszag has long been one of America’s most persuasive advocates for health care reform.[5]  And as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, he is so adept on television, it is fair to say that he has become a pop culture phenomenon.[6]

Biotechnology pioneer Robert Langer is not merely a founder of the fields of tissue engineering and controlled-release drug delivery, he is also famously energetic and giving of his time, sharing his advice and knowledge with his students and the world. [7]

Harold Varmus was tutored in the art of communication by the very best... Shakespeare and Chaucer... earning a master’s degree in English at Harvard University in his youth.  For Dr. Varmus, it was not enough to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1989 for his groundbreaking work on the genetic basis of cancer.  He also has helped nonscientists understand that work by writing an introduction to the subject for a general audience.[8]

And Neil deGrasse Tyson is not only a distinguished astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium.  He is also the host of delightful science programs for television and radio, which have made many an adult a bit sorry to be a lawyer or accountant, instead of a cosmic explorer... and many a child determined to seek a career in the stars.[9]

Graduates, today I hope that you, too, will wring new meanings from the stars overhead, or from the particles in an accelerator, or from the carbon nanotube in the wing of a futuristic airplane.

But I also hope that you will learn how to strike up a conversation with the person who sits next to you on that same airplane; that you will take the time now and then to ask a colleague in a different department about his or her work; that  occasionally, you will read a paper or article in a subject that is not your own; that you will not be afraid to give a speech or a bit of advice when asked; that you will keep corresponding with, and talking to, the old friends at your alma mater … and that you always will find a moment to tell your family and friends that you love them on occasions as beautiful as this one … for you are sure to have many.

Thank you.

Final Remarks

Before we make our way down the hill to the picnic tents, and the celebrations with loved ones, I want, once again, to thank the families of our graduates for the privilege of educating and guiding these extraordinary people. Rensselaer is proud to call them graduates.

Graduates, you, now, are on the threshold of great adventure. I believe we have given you roots, and we have prepared you well to grow, to flourish, and to succeed in your chosen professions, in your continued education, and in your personal lives. Be proud of what you have achieved. And remember, this is just the beginning of a lifelong journey.

[1] Louise Greenwood, “Africa’s Mobile Banking Revolution,” BBC News, August 12, 2009. Accessed 5/20/2010 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8194241.stm.

[2] Ellen Barry, “Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter,” New York Times, April 7, 2009.  Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/world/europe/08moldova.html . Brad Stone and Noam Cohen, “Social Networks Spread Defiance Online,” New York Times, June 15, 2009. Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/world/middleeast/16media.html.

[3] Dalton Conley, Elsewhere, U.S.A., Pantheon Books, New York, 2009, p. 8.

[4] Pew Research Center, “Internet and American Life” survey, April 20, 2010.  Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1572/teens-cell-phones-text-messages.

[5] Laura Meckler, “Obama’s Health Expert Gets Political, Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2009.  Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124839406488477649.html.

[6] See Dana Milbank, “Peter Orszag, OMB Chief and Sex Symbol, Washington Post, February 2, 2010.  Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/01/AR2010020103426.html. See Mark Leibovich, “If Peter Orszag Is So Smart, What Will He Do Now?” New York Times, January 8, 2010.  Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/fashion/10orszag.html.

[7] Helen Pearson, “Being Bob Langer,” Nature, March 4.  Accessed 5/19/2010 at http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090304/full/458022a.html.

[8] Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website.  Accessed 5/20/2010 at http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/1780.cfm.

[9] Hayden Planetarium website.  Accessed 5/10/2010 at http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/profile/bio.

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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