Essential Connections

September, 2016
ECAV Rensselaer Polytechnic Institutes

Remarks at First Year Convocation

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

Welcome to the Class of 2020, and the architects of 2021! 

We are so very glad that you are here, and the entire Rensselaer family looks forward to getting to know you better.

Tomorrow, you will attend your first college classes. It is an exciting prospect. If it seems to be a slightly intimidating prospect as well, I ask you to remember that we do know what we are doing. We are very good at selecting those students, who possess a combination of academic skills, self-motivation, and willingness to think for themselves—who will thrive at Rensselaer. In other words, you!

Please allow me to introduce my team—those people who work hard to make your years at Rensselaer inspiring—the President’s Cabinet:

  • Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Jonathan Dordick, Vice President for Research;
  • Virginia Gregg, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Jonathan D. Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management;
  • Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration;
  • Richie C. Hunter, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations;
  • Frank E. Ross III, Vice President for Student Life, whom you have already met; and
  • Graig R. Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement.

Please allow me, also, to introduce our academic deans:

  • Professor Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Professor Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science;
  • 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 Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education; and
  • Professor Linda Schadler, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education.

Their efforts and imagination undergird life at Rensselaer inside and outside the classroom, so let us acknowledge and thank them.

You are on the cusp of a very great experience—at a very interesting moment in the history of our nation, and, indeed, the world.

Each year, we select a theme for consideration by the entire Rensselaer community. Our theme this year is “The Unity Underlying Diversity.”

The concept of unity arose out of the biographies of the three people to whom we awarded honorary degrees at our last Commencement. They included Professor Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin, a theoretical physicist who was honored with a Nobel Prize for unifying two of the fundamental forces of nature—the electromagnetic force, and the weak nuclear force. His theory allowed us to see that although these forces appear very different at low energies, they are the same at high energies.

Such effects emerge outside the realm of theoretical particle physics, as well. Indeed, to engage with people from backgrounds different from one’s own, often is to discover how much you have in common, in terms of fundamental values and experiences. “The Unity Underlying Diversity” is a very apt theme for this particular class to consider, since you are one of the most diverse classes we have ever had, on measures that include geography:  Over 200 members of your class come from other countries.

“The Unity Underlying Diversity” is a very apt theme, also, given the violence and unrest around the world this summer, over racial, religious, and political divisions. At the funeral in July for the five police officers killed in an attack in Dallas, United States President Barack Obama said of our nation, “We are not as divided as we seem.” Indeed, there is great wisdom in perceiving deep connections between apparently unlike people and ideas.

Our vision for Rensselaer, which we term “The New Polytechnic,” is intended to foster just such connections.
In the college career you begin tomorrow, we will help you to develop habits of mind that include intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view—qualities that will offer you insights into differing viewpoints, and make you adept at leading very diverse groups of people. We will help you to develop empathy, also, for the people you live and study with—and for people around the globe, whose lives may be improved on a grand scale by the work you do.

And we will unite you with the entire Rensselaer community—to make sure you are both inspired and nurtured at every stage of your Rensselaer journey. Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond is the merely the first step! Our Clustered, Learning, and Advocacy for Students, or CLASS, will bring you together in residential and in time-based clusters—so that you always will be supported by our Student Life deans—and by each other. You will find many opportunities to grow outside the classroom, through Rensselaer Athletics, through the 250 clubs and organizations sponsored by our historic Rensselaer Union, and through programs designed to help you build leadership skills, including those sponsored by our Archer Center for Student Leadership Development.

Inside the classroom—no matter what course of study you pursue here at Rensselaer—we will help you to unify ideas in new ways. Often, the most creative efforts in every field encompass seemingly unrelated disciplines, which provide a new perspective on old challenges.

The work of our Convocation speaker, Professor Eric Ledet of our Department of Biomedical Engineering, offers an excellent example. He is an expert in musculoskeletal mechanics—and his undergraduate degree, interestingly enough, was in mechanical engineering, not biomedical engineering. By researching the human body as a mechanical system, he is making important contributions to the healing of orthopedic injuries and diseases—including novel technologies to repair fractures, and an implantable sensor that can wirelessly transmit diagnostic information from the site of a recent orthopedic surgery.

Much of the most exciting research taking place at Rensselaer brings the insights and methodologies of one field to bear on another. Perhaps during your Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond program, you visited the Margaret A. and David M. Darrin ’40 Darrin Fresh Water Institute on Lake George. The Darrin Fresh Water Institute encompasses a revolutionary research project called The Jefferson Project at Lake George, which is creating an entirely new model for ecological conservation. It uses a remarkable network of smart sensors, generating enormous amounts of streaming data—and the tools of data science, modeling, and visualization to help us to perceive the crucial patterns in that data—so we can understand how many factors, together, affect the health of the lake.
Who will save fresh water resources around the globe, which are threatened by climate change, by human encroachment, and by contamination? This challenge, surely, will require very grand collaborations—and experimentation as well as field observations—but there is no question that computer scientists are key to any scientific approach to environmental questions.

We will educate you to address such global challenges, to collaborate across disciplines, to unite existing domains, and to define new fields of endeavor.

Because we believe that the ability to intelligently identify, correlate, model, and evaluate data is becoming essential to discovery and innovation in every field, we have incorporated data analytics into our mathematics courses, beginning in the freshman year, in a program we call DATUM, or Data Analytics Through Undergraduate Mathematics. As just one instance of the power of such instruction, last year a group of DATUM students created a model of the emergence of different layers of the cerebral cortex in a human embryo, and then combined this with data about brain diseases. Their work yielded an unexpected insight into the stage of brain development at which the Zika virus causes its damage in unborn babies—a hypothesis that was subsequently strengthened by experiments on neural stem cells.

 Our Art_X @ Rensselaer initiative will help you to make new intellectual connections by considering the art in science and technology, and the science and technology in art. Inside your classes and around the campus, you will explore form, function, patterns, processes, dimensionality, and relatedness across all disciplines. Whether you intend to be an artist, scientist, engineer, entrepreneur, or architect, you will learn that the journey towards innovation and discovery is similar in all domains.

As part of a truly transformative education, all of you will have the option of pursuing a passion project during your junior year—and still graduating within the same span of time.

We call this new program the Summer Arch, and the students who choose it will spend the summer after their sophomore year in junior-level classes here on campus. Then they will leave campus for either the fall or spring semester during their junior year—in order to perform research, to do an internship or co-op assignment, to volunteer, to invent, to launch a business, or to explore anywhere in the globe.

We expect those students who participate in the Summer Arch to add to our campus in new ways when they return after their experience away—and to be even more attractive to employers and to graduate schools after they graduate.

But before you go off on such an adventure—first, you must acquire some knowledge here—starting tomorrow.
I congratulate all of you on joining one of the most exciting living and learning communities in the world. And I urge you to enjoy every minute of it!

Again, we are so delighted to have you with us, and look forward to getting to know you better.