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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Faculty Welcome Back Reception

Category: University Events
September, 2018
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 our Center for Materials, Devices and Integrated Systems, and Professor of Practice in Physics.

To our newest faculty members—a special welcome to Rensselaer, to Troy, to the Capital Region of New York. I imagine that many of you are quite busy getting settled and may have not yet had the opportunity to explore your surroundings.

If you are new to Upstate New York, you have arrived in time for what can be a particularly lovely season here—fall foliage.

Given the right conditions over the next few weeks, the mountains that surround our campus—the Adirondacks, Berkshires, Green Mountains, and Catskills—will be transformed into a blazing panorama of colors. Each individual red, yellow, orange, or purple tree is bold and brilliant on its own—but an entire mountain of turning leaves is even more magnificent. I encourage you to take a moment from unpacking boxes for some “leaf-peeping.” It can be a truly remarkable sight.

Like the mountains around us at the peak of fall foliage, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is a great crossroads for the “bold and brilliant”—for talented people from many different fields and disciplines—whose collaborations truly yield spectacular results.

Rensselaer came into being because of an unusual collaboration nearly 200 years ago. Amos Eaton, our pedagogical founder, was a scientist known as the “father of American geology,” who also made important contributions as a botanist, chemist, and land surveyor.

Stephen Van Rensselaer, our philanthropic founder, was a member of one of the leading Colonial families in the region, a statesman, as well as the largest landowner in New York State. He was an unusually benevolent landlord to his 50,000 tenant farmers, offering leaseholders the land for free for the first seven years, because he understood the value of bringing his vast holdings under cultivation.

Van Rensselaer was enlightened, also, in seeking more scientific agricultural methods to help his tenants farm the land more productively. And, as a businessman eager for growth opportunities, he was a vigorous proponent of a great canal to establish trade with the West.

To realize his visions, Van Rensselaer employed Amos Eaton to conduct geological and agricultural surveys of our immediate area, and then along the Erie Canal route. During these surveys, Amos Eaton delivered scientific lectures in towns along the way—and began conceiving a new kind of scientific school in Troy.

Eaton described to Van Rensselaer a school that would overturn traditional teaching methods, which had the students listening passively to lectures delivered by their professors. Eaton intended instead to place the students in the role of teacher—asking students to perform rather than to watch experiments, and then to lecture their peers on the principles demonstrated. Van Rensselaer embraced this concept, which today we would call “experiential learning,” and very quickly agreed to finance a school for the “application of science to the common purposes of life.”

So, from our very founding almost 200 years ago, Rensselaer set the state for somewhat unlikely, but extremely fruitful, collaborations.

Today, within an intellectual construct we term The New Polytechnic, our faculty collaborate across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations to address the greatest global challenges—including climate change; humanity’s need for sufficient supplies of food, water, and energy; our need for sustainable infrastructure; national and global security; human health and the mitigation of disease; and the intelligent allocation of valuable natural resources.

Because these challenges demand a multiplicity of perspectives, we bring our faculty together in ambitious research projects and Institutewide centers. For example, The Jefferson Project at Lake George encompasses biologists, Earth and environmental scientists, meteorologists, data and computer scientists, engineers in many fields, environmental activists, and IBM researchers working together to create an entirely new model for freshwater conservation.

The Jefferson Project has made Lake George, an hour north of here, “the smartest lake in the world,” by installing in the lake, and its watershed, 50 smart sensor platforms containing more than 500 sensors. These platforms supply our researchers with information about the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the lake, generating enormous amounts of streaming data. The insights within that data help to steer experimentation—and ultimately, scientifically based policy that will protect the famously clear water of the lake.

Given the increasing frequency and intensity of threats to freshwater resources around the globe—including droughts, flooding, contamination, invasion by non-native species, and toxic algae blooms, the work we are doing is urgent, indeed.

Another collaboration, at our Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems, includes faculty from departments that range from Materials Science and Engineering; Biomedical Engineering; Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering; and Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy. Together, they have proposed a novel intellectual framework for understanding the phenomenon of stochasticity—or randomness—in materials, as something inherent to all materials, and pointed to four fundamental causes of such fluctuations that span materials—helping to lay the groundwork for a new field of study.

At our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, an interdisciplinary group of researchers is working to unite perceptual artificial intelligence with associative artificial intelligence, in creating smart Situations Rooms that see, hear, and understand their occupants, and that use hierarchies of cognitive agents to anticipate a group’s need for information and analysis.

One application of this work is a cognitive classroom. We are beginning with something we call The Mandarin Project, which uses a group game narrative, combined with immersive experiences, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters, to speed learning of the Mandarin Chinese language and culture.

At Rensselaer, we encourage our faculty to experiment with technology in order to engage our students, and we have created the Teaching and Learning Collaboratory and the Beta Classroom in the Folsom Library for this purpose.

The newest members of our faculty are sure to find Rensselaer a very exciting place to teach, to conduct research, and to forge new collaborations that may very well allow you to change the world.

I am delighted that you have chosen to join us at this crossroads. I wish all of you a wonderful academic year and thank you for choosing to be a part of the bold and brilliant Rensselaer family.

Now, I would like to introduce our newest tenured and tenure-track faculty members.

  • Dr. Rui Fan: Dr. Fan joins our Department of Economics as an Assistant Professor. Her research will focus on applied econometrics, financial econometrics, econometric theory, economic forecasting, and modeling. Dr. Fan received her M.A. in Economics from Xiamen University in China, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Economics from The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her recent work includes several projects on improving financial return predictability.


  • Dr. Raffi E. García: Dr. Garcia is an Assistant Professor of Accounting and Finance in the Lally School of Management. Dr. Garcia’s research focuses on measuring and understanding the effects of regulations and of unexpected shocks on firm behavior, strategy, and performance. Dr. García received his B.A. in Economics from Boston College, his M.A. in Economics from Vanderbilt University, and his Ph.D. in International Economics and Finance from Brandeis University.


  • Dr. Michael Klein: Dr. Klein joins our Department of Economics as Assistant Professor. He specializes in the interactions among intellectual property rights, foreign direct investment, and international technology transfer in the global economy. Dr. Klein received his B.S. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his M.A. and Ph.D., both in Economics, from Indiana University-Bloomington.


  • Dr. Mae-Ling Lokko: Dr. Lokko joins our School of Architecture as an Assistant Professor. Dr. Lokko received her B.A. in Architectural Studies from Tufts University, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Architectural Sciences from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is a leader in building science at our Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology, or CASE, as well as the founder of two companies: AMBIS Technologies, a building technology startup at CASE, and Willow Technologies, an agro-waste upcycling company.


  • Dr. Moussa N’Gom: Dr. N’Gom joins our Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy as an Assistant Professor. Dr. N’Gom’s research will focus on wavefront shaping, quantum optics, quantum entanglement, tissue optics, and the use of nanoparticles in medical applications. Dr. N’Gom received his undergraduate degrees in Physics and Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, and his Ph.D. in Applied Physics from the University of Michigan. He served as Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Michigan, where he led a team studying coherent light scattering through random media.


  • Dr. Todd Przybycien: Dr. Przbycien joins our Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering as Professor. He comes to us from Carnegie Mellon University, where he spent 16 years as Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, served as the Head of the Biomedical & Health Engineering Program, and was founding Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Przybycien received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering and B.A. in Chemistry from Washington University in Missouri, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Przybycien is recognized as one of the leading researchers in the world in the field of downstream bioprocessing and biomanufacturing.


  • Dr. Shanbin Shi: Dr. Shi joins our Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering as an Assistant Professor. Dr. Shi earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Southeast University in China, his M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Shanghai Jiao University, and his Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from Purdue University. Dr. Shi will conduct fundamental and applied research in the areas of multiphase flow and thermal hydraulics for advanced nuclear systems.  


  • Dr. Alexandros Tsamis: Dr. Tsamis joins our School of Architecture as an Assistant Professor and as Associate Director of the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE) in New York City. He comes to us from Adolfo Ibanez University in Chile where he was Director of the Master in Design program. He received his undergraduate degree from Aristotle University in Greece, and his M.S. in Design and Building Technology and Ph.D. in Architecture, Design, and Computation from MIT. His research involves the rethinking of computational tools and fabrication techniques used in architectural design.


  • Dr. Raquel Velho: Dr. Velho is an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, who joined us last year. A sociologist of science and technology, her research focuses on the development of large technological systems, especially transport infrastructures, and the work undertaken by marginalized communities to mold such networks. Dr. Velho received her Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from University College London. She also holds a Master of Science in Science, Medicine, Technology, and Society from Imperial College London, and a B.A. in Sociology from the Université de Nantes.


  • Dr. Runye Zha: Dr. Zha joins our Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering as an Assistant Professor. Her research focuses on the synthesis of self-assembling biohybrid systems that incorporate versatile biological building blocks in advanced materials. Dr. Zha received her B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering from MIT, and her Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Northwestern University.

Please join me in welcoming these newest members of our Rensselaer community!

We also have a number of superb new lecturers who have joined us—whose research, scholarship, and teaching promise to greatly enrich our community.