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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Graduate Research Symposium Keynote

Category: University Events
March, 2018
Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center Theater

Graduate Research Symposium

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

I am delighted to be here this morning, and I thank the Graduate Research Symposium Task Force for inviting me.

I am particularly glad to have this opportunity to speak to you at a moment when there has been, and in some cases, continues to be, such uncertainty for many of your lives—whether the question is the taxability of graduate tuition waivers, or the welcome our nation offers to international students, including those who wish to remain in the United States after their studies are complete.

Please be certain of one thing: You are highly valued here. You are an essential part of the remarkable Rensselaer research endeavor, of our superb undergraduate classroom experience, and of the overall life of our campuses.

We also are as concerned about the quality of your experience at Rensselaer as we are about that of our undergraduates. So we have made our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students—or CLASS—for graduate students an Institute-Wide Highest Priority. In that spirit, we created the Dean of the Graduate Experience position within Student Life, increased graduate student stipends, supported this Symposium, and opened our Off-Campus Commons as a physical space, where graduate students, as well as undergraduates, living off-campus, are able to gather, to study, and to experience CLASS events.

We are well aware that in educating you, we are educating the leaders of the future in many different sectors: Some of you will build your careers in academia, others in for-profit businesses, or in businesses that you launch yourselves. Some of you will work for nonprofit organizations, and others in government, including at our great national laboratories, and some of you in your countries of origin.

And some of you will cross many of these sectoral lines in your careers, as I have—something I highly recommend, as a way to expand one’s aperture and to continue to grow, intellectually and spiritually!

I have been asked to talk today about my own career path, particularly as it led me from graduate studies in theoretical elementary particle physics at MIT, into public service at the highest levels. Indeed, it was during my time as a graduate student that I had my first experience of policymaking.

However, to call it a “path” might not entirely capture the wonderful life and career I have had, which has been much more shaped by the opening of sometimes unexpected windows of opportunity—and my own willingness to step through those windows, however daunting the transition appeared at the time.

Two of those windows opened for me as a child.

The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C., public schools in 1955, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend an excellent school, right in my own neighborhood, with more competition, and with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives—a place where I excelled.

The second event occurred two years later, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which occasioned fear among United States political leaders and policymakers that we might be losing the Cold War. They responded not just by sparking the Space Race, which, as you know, culminated with manned missions to the moon. Sputnik 1 also spurred a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools, from which I benefitted tremendously.

I was tested in the sixth grade and placed in an accelerated honors academic program in the seventh grade, and when I graduated high school, I was class valedictorian.

I had a very excellent and wonderful educational experience before I entered MIT, where for the first time, I experienced real discrimination, as one of just two African-American women in my class. It was not merely the students who were unwelcoming, leaving me out of their study groups, and sometimes refusing to eat meals with me in the dining hall. Some of the professors, as well, were equally discouraging. When I consulted one distinguished professor about majoring in physics, his advice was, “Colored girls should learn a trade.”

This was especially hurtful and surprising to me, since I had the highest grades in his class.

But I realized that I was faced with a choice: either to give in to ignorance, or stubbornly to pursue excellence. I chose the latter, and made physics my trade.

When I was a senior at MIT, deciding where to attend graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania physics department, which had admitted me, invited me to visit in April of 1968. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist, and one of the physicists whose work in this field most interested me was at Penn. He had done groundbreaking research in superconductivity—the subject of my bachelor’s thesis at MIT.

But a strange, tragic coincidence sent me down a different path. As I was leaving Penn after the visit, in a car with my sorority sister, on my way to the Philadelphia airport, the radio broadcast was interrupted, and we learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, and later died. We nearly drove the car off the road.

By the time I got back to Cambridge, I knew that I would remain at MIT for graduate school. I was inspired by the courage of Dr. King, and MIT was the place where I felt that I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better. Of course, MIT was an excellent place to study physics, but it was not as active in condensed matter physics at that time, so I changed my focus to elementary particle physics.

This sacrifice—if it was a sacrifice!—was more than worthwhile, given the important ways that I was able to influence MIT, and through MIT, our national community of scientists and engineers.

With a group of like-minded students, I formed the Black Students’ Union, and we presented a list of demands to the MIT administration. Only, we called them “proposals”—word choice is definitely an element of persuasion!

Provost Paul Gray, a wonderful and empathetic man who later became President of MIT, listened, formed a Task Force on Educational Opportunity, and asked me to join it.

The Task Force accomplished a great deal, and MIT began, for the first time, to actively recruit minority students, faculty, and staff in significant numbers. It also initiated a six-week summer program, called Project Interphase (now, Interface EDGE), that helped to prepare incoming minority freshmen for the rigorous coursework they would encounter. The program was open to all who needed it, and though I was still a graduate student, I was asked to help design, and teach in, the physics curriculum—an excellent experience. All the while, I was progressing quite well through the Ph.D. program in physics.

The minority undergraduates I helped to bring to MIT—and helped to adjust to its culture—truly excelled. They proved to the world that scientific and engineering talent is not restricted to one race, or one sex, or one story of origin.

Because I had proven that I could address complex challenges in theoretical physics, while simultaneously addressing a difficult social/policy domain—namely, the dearth of minorities at MIT—and find practical ways to address it—as well as work well with leaders well above me in years and stature—my life changed. I had stepped through a window of opportunity that led me to become a trusted adviser to many organizations, as well as a research scientist. I was offered other leadership roles at MIT. Indeed, today, I am a Life Member of the MIT Corporation—its Board of Trustees.

After obtaining my Ph.D. in particle physics from MIT, I was fortunate to gain a postdoctoral position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). While there, I worked on a refinement of my Ph.D. thesis, which concerned a multi-peripheral (small-momentum transfer) model for many particle scattering, which was a way to elucidate properties of certain 3-body interactions. Fermilab was a catalyst for great friendships, as well as for great physics. In my first year there, I had the privilege of getting to know a fellow theorist, Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). She persuaded me to spend the next year working with her in Switzerland.

Of course, the cost of living in Geneva, Switzerland, was considerably higher than in Batavia, Illinois. But, sometimes doors open. As a graduate student, I had had a Ford Foundation Fellowship, so The Ford Foundation was familiar with my work. Although they did not ordinarily grant postdoctoral fellowships, they awarded me an individual grant for this year, which CERN then supplemented. At CERN, I worked with Mary K. Gaillard on a paper on neutrino interactions—and gained, in addition, the invaluable perspective offered by living abroad.

After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete my second post-doctoral year, which I greatly enjoyed—although a practical reality intruded as my post-doc was coming to an end. Jobs were hard to come by at that time in theoretical physics—in physics, generally. But there were a few opportunities in my original field of interest—theoretical condensed matter physics—in industry as well as academia.

I had attended, as a graduate student, a theoretical physics summer school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I met Dr. John Klauder. He was a theorist at the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, arguably the greatest of all industrial R&D operations in history, among whose scientists are 14 Nobel laureates. Dr. Klauder facilitated an introduction to the head of the Theoretical Physics Department at Bell Labs, T. Maurice Rice, who invited me to Bell Labs to deliver a colloquium.

After I described my work on neutrinos, I explained how I intended to apply my interest in the topological properties of non-linear field theories to certain models of condensed matter systems. I won a limited-term appointment at Bell Labs. A year later, after I had done some interesting research on charge density waves in layered compounds, IBM tried to recruit me, and Bell Labs moved quickly to make my position permanent.

It was a thrilling period in physics, and early in my tenure at Bell Labs, two of its scientists, radio astronomers Dr. Arno Penzias and Dr. Robert Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, experimental confirmation of the Big Bang model of our cosmos. Dr. Penzias later became the Vice President for Research at Bell Labs.

I had a number of professional successes at Bell Labs, developing theories to explain the formation of charge density waves in layered transition metal dichalcogenides, the polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional systems, and the optical and electronic properties of strained-layer semiconductor materials. Because of this research, I achieved recognition within the greater community of scientists, and was elected a fellow of American Physical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I subsequently served on the governing council of the American Physical Society, and on the Executive Committee of the American Institute of Physics.

Two other windows opened for me during my time as a researcher at Bell Labs, that set me down new paths, and changed my life. First, I was asked to join the board of a natural gas company—New Jersey Resources—and for the first time became engaged with energy policy. As a result, I was a natural choice when a recruiter was looking for new director for PSEG, or Public Service Enterprise Group. PSEG owned or co-owned five nuclear reactors, and still does. Because of my original background in elementary particle physics, I sat on, and later chaired for a number of years, the PSEG Board of Directors Nuclear Oversight Committee, which occasioned visiting and assessing its nuclear power operations often. I am on the Board of Directors of PSEG today.

The second window was government service. I was asked by New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to join the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology as a founding member. The Commission created partnerships among academia, industry, and government, through investment in disciplines important to the New Jersey economy, such as advanced biotechnology and medicine, and informatics. The position was unpaid, but required New Jersey State Senate confirmation, and introduced me to a number of prominent business people, and academic and government leaders. Two governors subsequent to Governor Kean also tapped me for top advisory roles (Rutgers University Board of Governors [Governor Jim Florio], which also required New Jersey State Senate confirmation; and the New Jersey Economic Master Plan Commission [Governor Christine Whitman]).

We always have, in life, both witting and unwitting mentors. I am unsure how my name arose when President Bill Clinton was looking, in 1994, for a Commissioner for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission—or NRC—which licenses, regulates, and safeguards (vis-à-vis nuclear non-proliferation) the use and export of nuclear reactors, nuclear materials, spent nuclear fuel, and nuclear wastes. Someone recommended me. However, given my scientific background, government service in New Jersey, and familiarity with nuclear power plants from PSEG, I was ready for this leap.

Of course, I had a moment of disbelief, when the White House first called and asked me to send my resume for an unspecified position. After I interviewed for a spot as one of five commissioners, President Bill Clinton offered me the job of Chairman of the NRC.

Three years earlier, having missed teaching and advising students, I had switched from full-time to part-time at Bell Labs, and accepted a position at Rutgers University as a tenured full professor of physics. So I stepped away from a tenured academic position to take on the NRC role, which, as all of you can well imagine, required some temerity.

Suddenly, I had a staff of 3,000 people, a budget of over $500 million, and responsibility for an organization that oversaw a multi-hundred-billion dollar set of enterprises, at a time of growing public concerns about the safety of nuclear power—especially in the aftermath of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine in 1986 (in fact, I visited the Chernobyl Plant in 1996). But, the Chairmanship of the NRC played to my strengths as an elementary particle theorist. I certainly understood the nuclear physics, the technology, the associated public policy, and could work through the complexities of the markets and geo-political environments in which nuclear power and nuclear non-proliferation operated—all as a result of my academic background, and the experiences I had up to that point.

I recognized that the NRC needed to reaffirm its fundamental health and safety mission, enhance its regulatory effectiveness, and position itself for change. So I held public meetings, listened to community concerns, and led the development of a strategic plan for the NRC—its first ever. This plan, and the related planning, budgeting, and performance management system (PBPM) I instituted, put the NRC on a more businesslike footing. PBPM still is in use at the NRC today.

We also put into place the first license renewal process to extend the operating life of nuclear reactors (by 20 years). I introduced an approach to regulation at the NRC that used probabilistic risk assessment on a more consistent basis—risk-informed, performance-based regulation—which influenced the nuclear codes and standards of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and informed the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations. Risk-informed regulation in the nuclear arena persists to this day.

After meeting, early in my tenure at the NRC, with my senior nuclear regulatory counterparts from around the world—under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency—I saw another window of opportunity: the need for even greater international cooperation to avoid disasters such as Chernobyl in the future. So, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association as a high-level forum to allow nations to assist each other in promoting nuclear safety. The initial membership comprised Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. I was elected the first Chairman of the group (1997 – 1999). The group persists. Its membership has expanded to include South Korea, and China as an observer.

At the NRC, we also pushed for an international Convention on Nuclear Safety—clearly needed in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Initially, the U.S. Congress (Senate) was hostile to this convention, but we did manage to get it ratified.

Four years later, another unforeseen opportunity arose, and another decision. I was asked to assume the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute by its Board of Trustees, who were looking for transformative change for Rensselaer, and for a change agent, after a difficult period during which Rensselaer had five presidents in 14 years.

Rensselaer has had a rich history since 1824 of producing outstanding graduates, who designed and built much of the physical and the early digital infrastructure of the United States, and made or drove breakthroughs in numerous other areas of science and technology, and business, and continue to do so—but in 1999, it was not living up to its full potential. I saw that I could help Rensselaer to reach its promise—to become a world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.

I knew that to accomplish this, the heads of different portfolios at Rensselaer would need to reimagine their own domains—so I posed five significant questions to the Rensselaer community in my inaugural address, and in our strategic planning process:

  • First, what defines the intellectual core in key disciplines at Rensselaer?

  • Second, in these disciplines, are we in a leadership position?

  • Third, if we are not in a leadership position, do we have the underlying strengths and capabilities necessary to move rapidly into a position of primacy, with the proper focus and investment?

  • Fourth, are there areas that are so vital that we must create a presence in them in order to stand in the community of world-class universities? I suggested three such areas, two of which built on existing activities and strengths—information technology, and applied mathematics—and one of which—biotechnology—represented a new direction for Rensselaer.

  • And the final question was: what areas of current endeavor must we be willing to transform—or to give up—in order to focus our resources and our energies to create the impact we envision?

I promised that, together, the Rensselaer community would develop a Rensselaer Plan that would answer these questions, steer our choices, and allow us to always continue to choose excellence.

The Rensselaer Plan—approved by our Board of Trustees in May of 2000—indeed, did answer these questions, with 144 commitments or “We Will” statements. By implementing the Plan, we prepared Rensselaer for leadership in areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century by focusing on “signature thrusts” in…

  • computational science and engineering;

  • biotechnology and the life sciences;

  • nanotechnology and advanced materials;

  • energy, the environment, and smart systems; and

  • media, the arts, science, and technology.

With such crucial areas of research, we assembled a world-class faculty, which today includes members of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors, several professors who serve on key national panels and committees, hundreds of fellows of technical and professional societies, dozens of early CAREER award recipients, and numerous winners of national and international awards. Together, they have allowed Rensselaer vastly to expand its research enterprise to $100 million in research awards and expenditures, even in a difficult funding climate.

We also transformed our campus here in Troy, New York, with state-of-the-art research platforms that include the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, and the Center for Computational Innovations—our high performance computing center.

These investments have both elevated our profile as a major technological research university, and strengthened our undergraduate and graduate curricula—and all of you are beneficiaries. We continue on this journey through the implementation of the Rensselaer Plan 2024, the successor to the original Rensselaer Plan.

I came to Rensselaer to effect transformative change. That change has happened and continues to happen. I committed to Rensselaer and have stayed the course—for nearly 19 years now.

In taking on the Presidency of Rensselaer, I have kept my fingers on the pulse of industry by serving on the boards of leading corporations, including IBM, FedEx, and Medtronic plc, and leading nonprofits and associations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I served both as President and as Chairman; and the Smithsonian Institution, where I was Vice Chair of the Board of Regents. As Vice-Chair, I was privileged and honored to speak at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, together with President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush; Congressman John Lewis; Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts; Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Dr. David Skorton; and museum founding director Dr. Lonnie Bunch.

I also have maintained my commitment to policymaking in science and national security. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed me to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, where I served for over five years. As a member of PCAST, I co-chaired (with Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Google) a major study on Advanced Manufacturing, whose recommendations led to a number of major initiatives and progress across the government, and industry/university/government partnerships in key new technology areas that undergird advanced manufacturing.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, when she was the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked that I serve on the National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community. That experience, among others, led President Barack Obama to ask me, in 2014, to serve as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), which assesses issues pertaining to the quality, quantity, and adequacy of federal government intelligence activities—an important role at a fraught time, given the rise of non-state actors, an increasingly aggressive relationship with China and Russia, the nuclear threat from North Korea, and cyberattacks of many kinds. I served as PIAB co-chair until the end of January 2017.

In the Intelligence Community R&D review, and especially as co-chair of PIAB, I advocated for stronger analytical approaches to the assessment of data (both structured and unstructured) from disparate data sources—work which links to expertise we have developed at Rensselaer, in data science, data analytics, and artificial intelligence.

In addition, I served on the U.S. Department of State International Security Advisory Board (2011-2017)—originally appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and reappointed by Secretary John Kerry; and the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (2013-2017)—appointed by Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, where I co-chaired a study on the future of high performance computing, including data-centric, neuromorphic, and quantum computing.

Currently, I serve as co-chair of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on International Security—and continue to help steer the conversation on identifying and defusing threats—and building a more resilient and peaceful world.

Because of what I have been privileged to do, and because of what I have accomplished in my various endeavors, I have received recognition for my work—including election to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the American Philosophical Society; and election as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (U.K.); numerous honorary degrees and other awards.

The singular honor of my life, in May 2016, was to receive the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama. The National Medal of Science is the highest award given by the U.S. Government for achievement in science and engineering.

My work in science, technology, and public policy puts me in the middle of academia, industry, and government partnerships—and the experience of each realm enhances my effectiveness in the others. As President of Rensselaer, a member of corporate boards, and a leader in the public policy sphere, I am able to support exciting new discoveries and innovation, and most importantly, the people doing the discovering and innovating—while helping to solve global challenges and continuing to grow intellectually.

In other words, it has been quite a career for a theoretical elementary particle physicist! Although theoretical physics is considered, by outsiders, to be one of the most abstract of all exercises of human intelligence—I would argue that it does, indeed, offer excellent training for leadership.

As a physicist, one develops an ability to look at systems that seem to be chaotic—not to impose order—but to figure out a way to understand their complexity. We physicists see beyond the individual phenomena and try to find the principles that allow us to be both explanatory and predictive. Such an approach is valuable to problems not merely measurable in light-years or Planck lengths—but those of societal or global scale as well.

In fact, whatever field you currently are studying, please remember that you are gaining a perspective, as much as a body of knowledge— a perspective that is crucial as the world addresses complex and interconnected challenges—and one which may well lead you, too, into leadership roles.

So, I would encourage all of you deliberately to stray off the path you have set for yourself now and then, and to accept an opportunity outside of, or as a supplement to, your chosen field, if it promises to offer you a fuller context for your efforts. When a window of opportunity opens abruptly, it may startle as much as delight you. But please assume that you have the capacity to learn and to do a great deal, because you do!

I would urge you, as well, to do everything possible to develop those skills essential to the leadership roles you are likely to be offered in future. These include communications skills that will enable you to persuade others and to helm a team, as well as an ability to budget and to manage people and projects. I urge you, also, to develop the intellectual agility to apply your knowledge and ideas in unfamiliar domains, and a sense of empathy for people who appear to be unlike you. These will allow you to collaborate broadly, and to steer those collaborations, so as to make a great, positive difference in the world.

My father always used to say to me: “Aim for the stars, so that you can reach the treetops, and, at least, you will get off the ground.”

In other words, if you do not aim high, you will not go far. This holds true for each of us as individuals, and for all of us as a species. The advanced studies in which you are engaged represent the very highest aims of humanity, and the pursuit of knowledge is more crucial than ever. So, keep reaching for the stars, because the rest of us need the light you will shine on dark corners, and the solutions to difficult challenges that you will illuminate!