Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Faculty Welcome Back Reception

Category: University Events
September, 2017
President’s Residence

Faculty Welcome Back Reception

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

Welcome to the President’s Residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Please allow me to introduce my husband, Dr. Morris A. Washington. Morris is Associate Director of the Rensselaer Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems, and Professor of Practice in Physics.

Once again, we find ourselves at the threshold of a new academic year, and I am delighted to welcome all who are here this evening—our established faculty members, as well our newly appointed faculty members.

To our newest professors—we are very happy to get to know you—and we are happy to give you this opportunity to get to know each other.

Many of you have come to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from larger universities. As you settle in at Rensselaer, you may well find yourself surprised at the degree to which our faculty are follow the progress of each other’s research, and collaborate across disciplines and schools, in centers such as the Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems, whose membership now numbers 90 Rensselaer professors—as well as in individual research projects such as The Jefferson Project at Lake George. The Jefferson Project is using Lake George, an hour north of here, to define a new, science-based model for the stewardship fresh-water resources everywhere.

Indeed, as we consider humanity’s great challenges—

including climate change and extreme weather, which last week took a horrific form in Hurricane Harvey; our need for sustainable infrastructure; sufficient supplies of food, water, and energy; national and global security; human health and the mitigation of disease—it is very clear that collaboration is the key to everything. No single person, discipline, or even nation can unravel such complex, networked challenges.

The “polytechnic” in the Rensselaer name comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” We operate within a paradigm we term “The New Polytechnic”: as a great crossroads for brilliant people from all generations, fields of study, sectors, and geographies—who, empowered by the most advanced tools and technologies—work together to make the world a better place.

We educate our students, as well, not just for deep knowledge in their chosen fields, but for a keen awareness of complementary perspectives and experiences—so they graduate prepared to lead such collaborations.

Indeed, Rensselaer exists because of one such meeting of minds—and bridging of experiences. Please allow me to offer you a brief bit of history.

Rensselaer was founded 1824 by two extraordinary men. The school’s academic founder, Amos Eaton was a true polymath—as are many of you. He is known as the “father of American geology,” and conducted the first geological surveys in the Western Hemisphere. He also was a botanist, chemist, lawyer, author of affordable textbooks for ordinary people, and above, all, educational innovator.

Our philanthropic founder, Stephen Van Rensselaer, was a patroon, and the largest landowner in New York State, whose holdings dated back to the Dutch control of the region in the 17th century. He had served in the military and in government, as Lieutenant Governor of New York State, and was in United States House of Representatives at the time of our founding.

Van Rensselaer was a very forward-looking man, who believed in the value of the “application of science to the common purposes of life.” He also was a great practitioner of what is sometimes referred to as “the win-win”:

  • He understood that by offering his land on unusually favorable terms to tenant farmers, he could bring more of his 750,000 acres under cultivation, and encourage farmers to invest in their operations, which would ultimately benefit him.
  • He also understood that if he worked to diffuse scientific knowledge as widely as possible, that knowledge could be applied to improving his own holdings—and, more broadly, could help to spread prosperity throughout his young nation.

Hoping to help his poorer tenants, in particular, farm their land more productively, and to encourage scientifically sound agricultural practices in general, he underwrote geological and agricultural surveys by Amos Eaton, first, of our immediate region; then of the route being taken by the Erie Canal, which would transform the United States, by extending trade west; and finally, of the entirety of New York State.

Van Rensselaer also asked Eaton to lecture along the Erie Canal route, so that Eaton’s survey methods and data could be disseminated. It was during this period that Amos Eaton envisioned a new kind of scientific school in Troy—which today is the oldest technological research university in the United States.

Stephen Van Rensselaer readily understood and embraced the concept of the Rensselaer School. Indeed, in our founding document, Van Rensselaer gave a number of orders for the school-to-be, which indicated that he intended a true revolution in education. Order 7, for example, considered the teaching of chemistry, and said, “The students are not to be taught by seeing experiments and hearing lectures, according to the usual method. But they are to lecture and experiment by turns.”

This turned the usual form of higher education—in which students passively listened to their professors—upside down. Rensselaer students were among the first in the world to conduct their own laboratory experiments, to receive organized instruction in field work, and to move to the front of the classroom to present their findings to their fellow students and professors.

Indeed, Order 8 by Stephen Van Rensselaer concerned the ways that students’ progress would be judged in final exams. I quote: “The examination is not to be conducted by question and answer, but the qualifications of students are to be estimated by the facility with which they perform experiments and give the rationale.”

Rote memorization was the rule of the day—but at Rensselaer, the students were judged on their ability to apply their knowledge.

Today, we still expect our students to invent, to explore, and to think for themselves. You will find that we still are radical experimenters in terms of teaching methods—and with the programs offered by our Teaching and Learning Collaboratory, as well as the Beta Classroom in Folsom Library, we will encourage you to try out new methods and interactive, immersive technologies in your own classes. We still foster great collaborations—such as that between Eaton and Van Rensselaer—that change the world. Indeed, we actively encourage them, offering substantial seed grants for research projects that bring together science, engineering, and architecture with business and the humanities, under our Knowledge and Innovation, or KIP, Program.

To further achieve critical mass in terms of the research conducted at Rensselaer—and to attract and retain the very best talent—students and faculty alike—we will be initiating a new capital campaign next month. Among its most important goals is creating new endowed professorships, supporting your research, and growing our faculty size to 500.

Rensselaer already is excellent, but determined to become even more excellent, and even more transformative in the world at large. So I congratulate you on your wisdom, in joining a growth enterprise. And I encourage you to take full advantage of the opportunities that will be offered to you in the years to come!

I wish all of you a wonderful academic year, and I thank you again for choosing to be part of the Rensselaer family.

Now, I would like to introduce our newest faculty members. As I call your name, please join me at the podium and remain, so that all of you create a line here:

Dr. Marvin Bentley: Dr. Bentley joins our Department of Biological Sciences as an Assistant Professor. He is a neuronal cell biologist studying neuronal differentiation and protein trafficking. He focuses on how and why axonal and dendritic proteins are distributed differently in the cell—processes of great interest to the understanding of diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and diabetes. Dr. Bentley received his Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and a post-baccalaureate in Biology from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. He received his Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Montana and was a postdoctoral researcher and assistant professor in the Jungers Center for Neuroscience Research at the Oregon Health & Science University.

Dr. John Christian: Dr. Christian is an Assistant Professor in our Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering. His expertise is in spacecraft navigation, computer vision, sensor testing, and space systems. Dr. Christian received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. After earning his doctorate, he joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he received numerous awards for his work. He comes to us from West Virginia University, where in 2015, he was named the “New Researcher of the Year” in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

Dr. Mamadou Diagne: Dr. Diagne is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering. He is an expert on advanced controls for manufacturing processes. Dr. Diagne was educated in France, receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in Control and Electrical Engineering from Blaise Pascal University, and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Control Engineering from the Claude Bernard University Lyon. Dr. Diagne did his postdoctoral work on the dynamical modeling and control of screw extrusion for additive manufacturing technologies at the University of California, San Diego; and on electrohydrodynamic jet printing at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Jianxi Gao: Dr. Gao is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science. His research focuses on the behavior of complex networks, including the dynamics of social, biological, and ecological networks. He received his Ph.D. from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Control Theory and Control Engineering. He completed a postdoctoral position at Northeastern University. Prior to joining the Rensselaer, he was a Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University.

Dr. Alex Gittens: Dr. Gittens joins us as Assistant Professor of Computer Science. His research focuses on the intersection of large-scale machine learning, high-dimensional probability and statistics, and numerical linear algebra—and the applications include creating tools to extract value from massive datasets. Dr. Gittens received Bachelor of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics from the University of Houston, and his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Gittens also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Xiaozheng He: Dr. He joins our Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as Assistant Professor. His research interests are in the area of transportation and infrastructure systems, with a focus on transportation system analysis and modeling, and traffic operations and management. Dr. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He also holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Computational Mathematics from Nanjing University in China. Dr. He held postdoctoral positions at the University of Minnesota and Purdue University.

Dr. Jason Huh: Dr. Huh joins our Department of Economics as Assistant Professor. His research centers on health economics, public policy, labor economics and applied econometrics. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also served as a research assistant in the Department of Finance, and Center for Business and Public Policy.

Dr. Gaurav Jain: Dr. Jain joins us as Assistant Professor at the Lally School of Management. His research focuses on how individuals make judgments, estimates, and decisions in the absence of complete information, and spans the fields of numerical cognition and judgment, working memory capacity, and attention limitations. Dr. Gaurav earned his bachelor’s degree in Engineering, Electronics, and Communication from the Manipal Institute of Technology in India; his Master’s of Business Administration in Marketing from the Management Development Institute, also in India; and his doctorate in Marketing from the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.

Dr. Fotios Kopsaftopoulos: Dr. Kopsaftopoulos joins our Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering as Assistant Professor. His research focuses on aerospace structural systems, including intelligent aerospace systems, and autonomous vehicles with state-sensing and structural health monitoring capabilities. Dr. Kopsaftopoulos received his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Ph.D. degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics from the University of Patras in Greece. He served in postdoctoral positions at the University of Patras and at Stanford University.

Dr. Jianjing Lin: Dr. Lin joins our Department of Economics as Assistant Professor. Her research focuses on health economics, industrial organization, and applied econometrics. Dr. Lin received her Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Arizona and holds masters degrees in Economics from the University of Arizona and the City University of Hong Kong. She comes to Rensselaer from Tulane University, where she served as a postdoctoral research fellow and Economics instructor.

Dr. James Malazita: Dr. Malazita is an Assistant Professor in our Science and Technology Studies Department. His expertise is in participatory design, speculative realism, and actor network theory, which will contribute to our powerhouse Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences Program. Dr. Malazita received his Ph.D. in Communication, Culture, and Media from Drexel University, and holds a Master of Science in Digital Media, also from Drexel. He has been a lecturer at Rensselaer since 2015, teaching critical and practical classes in the Design and Innovation program, and in our top-ranked in the nation Information Technology and Web Science program.

Dr. Sergio Pequito: Dr. Pequito is an Assistant Professor in our Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. His research expertise is in dynamical and control systems theory, optimization, and network science. Dr. Pequito received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Applied Mathematics from the University of Lisbon. He received a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Lisbon. Dr. Pequito served in a postdoctoral appointment in the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Chris Sims: The Department of Cognitive Science is pleased to welcome back Dr. Chris Sims, who joins us as Assistant Professor. Dr. Sims received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Cognitive Science here at Rensselaer. Following a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester’s Center for Visual Science, Dr. Sims became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Drexel University. His research centers on visual memory and perceptual expertise, sensorimotor control and motor learning, and learning and decision-making under uncertainty.

Dr. Chad Stecher: Dr. Stecher is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics. Dr. Stecher’s research considers health economics and development economics, with a secondary emphasis on social network analysis, behavioral economics, and applied microeconomics. Dr. Stecher holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics and Mathematics from Colby College, and a Master of Science and Ph.D. in Economics, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Earlier in his career, Dr. Stecher served as Senior Research Assistant at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Dr. Luigi Vanfretti: Dr. Vanfretti is an Associate Professor in our Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering. His expertise is in the area of advanced power system modeling and control, and smart grid and distribution system engineering. Dr. Vanfretti received his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering, with an electric power concentration, from the Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala. He earned his Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Electric Power Engineering here at Rensselaer, and stayed on to do a postdoctoral position, before accepting a position as Assistant Professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2013. Dr. Vanfretti—welcome back!

Dr. Raquel Velho: Dr. Velho is an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies. Her research focuses on disability and infrastructure studies, standards and classification in governance, and cyborg sociology and anthropology. Dr. Velho received her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from University College London. She also holds a Master of Science with Distinction in Science, Medicine, Technology, and Society from Imperial College London.

Dr. Yangyang Xu: Dr. Xu is an Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences. His research focuses on applied mathematics, numerical optimization, and data science—with applications in compressed sensing, image processing, data mining, and machine learning. Dr. Xu earned his Ph.D. in Computational and Applied Mathematics from Rice University. He held postdoctoral research appointments at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining Rensselaer, Dr. Xu was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Pingkun Yan: Dr. Yan joins our Department of Biomedical Engineering as an Assistant Professor. His research focuses on bioimaging, informatics, and image-guided intervention, with an emphasis on the detection of tumors. Dr. Yan received his Bachelor of Science in Electronics Engineering from the University of Science and Technology of China, and his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the National University of Singapore. Dr. Yan was a senior scientist with Phillips Research, and from 2011 to 2013, was a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Miao Yu: Dr. Yu is an Associate Professor in our Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. His research focuses on rationally designing and preparing nanoporous structures for precisely distinguishing molecules by size and shape differences, and applying them for separations, and for size-selective catalysis. Dr. Yu received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Chemical Engineering from Tianjin University in China, and his doctorate in Chemical Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2012, he joined the University of South Carolina’s Department of Chemical Engineering as Assistant Professor.

Please join me in welcoming these newest members of the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.