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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at DFWI Strategic Planning Session

Category: Regional
August, 2018
Darrin Fresh Water Institute

DFWI Strategic Planning Session

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

Welcome to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to the Margaret A. and David M. Darrin ’40 Fresh Water Institute, and to Bolton Landing.

I thank Dr. Rick Relyea, David M. Darrin ’40 Senior Endowed Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences, Director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, and Director of The Jefferson Project; and Dr. Sandra Nierzwicki Bauer, Professor of Biological Sciences and Associate Director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, for their leadership.

We are so pleased that all of you are here to help us plan for the future of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute. Given the many challenges to freshwater resources around the globe, including climate change, rising populations, crises of contamination, frequent droughts, and geopolitical tensions surrounding water, the work that takes place here is nothing less than crucial.

Please allow me to tell you a bit about the past and present of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute. The field station dates back to 1967, and moved to this wonderful site in the 1980s, after the Darrin family purchased the property for Rensselaer. The Darrin Fresh Water Institute has been monitoring the water chemistry of Lake George continuously since 1980, in order to address concerns related to nutrient loading, giving us a vast longitudinal data set—one of the longest and most consistent in the United States, providing a valuable benchmark for long-term change in temperate lakes worldwide.

And the Darrin Fresh Water Institute is an expression of something that has made Rensselaer unique since its founding in 1824—which is its exploratory approach to learning and research.  Rensselaer was the first institution in the world to offer organized instruction in field work—and Rensselaer people discovered and surveyed many of the natural resources of our nation.

Since the early part of the 20th century, Rensselaer faculty and students have used their proximity to Lake George and the Adirondack region to advance the sciences of limnology and ecology, as well as regional watershed and workforce management policies.

Today, we are establishing a new model for freshwater conservation with the Jefferson Project at Lake George. Named after Thomas Jefferson, who called the oligotrophic Lake George “without comparison, the most beautiful water [he] ever saw,” the project, which is now five years old, is a partnership among IBM, the Fund for Lake George, and Rensselaer.

The concept underlying the Jefferson Project is that before we can properly protect such bodies of water, we must come to understand them scientifically, using the most advanced technology and sophisticated approaches. The Jefferson Project is creating a new paradigm for freshwater conservation, based on an enormous amount of streaming observational data; sophisticated data analytics, data visualization, modeling, and computation; and experimentation that allows us to test and confirm our hypotheses.  

For the first time, Lake George is being investigated as a system of systems that include weather, hydrology, lake circulation, and the food web. We have put in place a network of more than 50 smart sensor platforms containing more than 500 sensors—some of which were invented for this very purpose—to supply our researchers with information about the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the lake. These platforms include weather stations, tributary stations, floating vertical profilers, and acoustic Doppler current profilers.

While you may think of our sensor platforms as Internet of Things technology, the Jefferson Project is an example of an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things—in which the network is smart and recognizes opportunities in data streams—and the devices it connects also are smart, and able to adapt to changing conditions, such as taking more measurements when a storm is brewing. At Rensselaer, we believe that an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things is crucial to addressing many challenges and opportunities, from cybersecurity, to advancing robotics, to enabling personalized medicine, to making use of the tsunami of digital data humanity is generating.

We have already collected more than 300 million data points on Lake George and its surroundings. The data generated by our sensor platforms are streamed into our Helen-Jo and John E. Kelly III ’78 Data Visualization Laboratory, whose advanced computation, artificial intelligence, and graphics systems are helping us to integrate that data—and to develop a full picture of the interactions that make up Lake George and its watershed. The insights we gain then help to steer the experimentation that takes place under the auspices of the project.

Some of the experimental findings of the Jefferson Project thus far include the fact that high concentrations of road salt can cause amphibians to change their sex, and zooplankton to evolve a tolerance within just a few months. We also have learned that salt can destroy the circadian clock of zooplankton, which regulates a host of biological functions to a day/night cycle. So we are gaining greater insight into how road salt may disrupt the food web by harming salt-sensitive species.

In addition to scientific discovery, one of the goals of the Jefferson Project is to comprehensively describe the consequences of human encroachment on the lake, so that policymakers can take informed steps to protect it. 

The Darrin Fresh Water Institute fits into a larger vision at Rensselaer that we term The New Polytechnic, under which large collaborations, using the most advanced tools and technologies, address the most complex of global challenges. The collaborations that have been spawned here— among biologists, Earth and environmental scientists, data scientists, computer scientists, engineers of all stripes, artists, environmental advocates, and IBM researchers—have made Rensselaer a leader in the study of freshwater resources.

As you can imagine, the Darrin Fresh Water Institute is extremely popular with our students and has helped us to implement a number of pedagogical innovations—including The Arch, which we currently are piloting.

Beginning next summer, The Arch means that all Rensselaer rising juniors will spend the summer after their sophomore year on campus, taking first-semester junior courses. This allows them to spend either the fall or spring semester of the traditional junior year off campus, and yet still graduate in the normal span of time.

During their on-campus summer, they profit from the cultural and recreational opportunities of the season in this beautiful part of the world, and from the chance to do field work here on Lake George.

Then, during their traditional junior year, they are able to have a full semester of adventure—whether they engage in an international experience, an internship or coop assignment, a volunteer or entrepreneurial venture, or a research project.

The Jefferson Project already has offered research opportunities to more than 150 Rensselaer undergraduates. Soon, even more undergraduates may be grappling with the great question of how to preserve the famously clear water of Lake George forever—and how to expand upon and improve freshwater resources around the globe.

Given the Big Data challenges here, we also expect that the Darrin Fresh Water Institute will prove important to a new “data dexterity” requirement we have introduced into our core curriculum. We believe that no matter what field of endeavor they choose, our graduates will need to use diverse datasets to define and address complex challenges. So all students at Rensselaer must complete two “data-intensive” courses; one to establish the foundations of data modeling and analysis, and a second course that applies modern data analytics within their academic disciplines.

To sum up, the Darrin Fresh Water Institute contributes to, and indeed, epitomizes Rensselaer in many important ways.

I thank all of you for helping us to identify new strategies for engaging a larger cross-section of the university here, and for recruiting new students, faculty, and organizational partners.

And, we welcome your advice on maximizing the impact of our field station regionally, nationally, and globally.