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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks presented at Hong Kong Jockey Club

Category: International
September, 2018
Hong Kong Jockey Club

State of the Institute

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

Good afternoon. I would like to begin by thanking our gracious host, Mr. David Ho of the Class of 1986, for sponsoring this event at the historic Hong Kong Jockey Club. Founded in 1846, it is a venue renowned for its world-class horse racing and equestrian events, and also for The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, one of the world's top ten charity donors, which just recently donated nearly 450 million U.S. dollars toward the construction of the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

I am delighted to see so many Rensselaer alumni and alumnae, parents, corporate and institutional partners, and friends joining us today who, together, reflect the expanding global reach and global impact of a transformative Rensselaer.

In telling you about the current state of the Institute—which by all measures is thriving—I would like to share with you how, over the past 19 years, Rensselaer has been transformed in ways that today ensure our students are prepared to change the world.

Since 1824, Rensselaer has been at the forefront of advancing human progress. Across the United States and around the globe, Rensselaer graduates designed and/or constructed the canals, roads, bridges, skyscrapers, and basic infrastructure which helped to form the basis for 20th century society in the U.S.

They also were instrumental in building the world’s early digital infrastructure, including the invention of the digital camera, the first microprocessor, and the graphics processing chip on which the company NVIDIA was founded. Our alumni/alumnae also have made or driven breakthroughs in numerous other areas of science and technology, and business, and continue to do so. In 1999, when I assumed the presidency of the Institute, we set a course for sustained excellence and impact.

We went forth, embracing the conviction of Rensselaer’s 14th President, Mr. George M. Low of the Class of 1948, who spent a momentous 26-year career at NASA directing the Mercury and Gemini Spacecraft Programs, and leading the redesign of the Apollo Spacecraft Program to put a man on the moon, who said that “without risk there can be no progress.”

Armed with our intellects, our energy, and a bold vision for the future, we launched a process to realize the mission of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in new and tangible ways.

Out of our efforts emerged The Rensselaer Plan that would guide our endeavors for the next 12 years—focusing on the development of people, programs, platforms, and partnerships that would prepare Rensselaer for leadership in areas of research that are of fundamental significance in the 21st century by focusing on five “signature thrusts”—crucial areas of multidisciplinary research based on the growing interface of the basic sciences and engineering. Such a focus provides the basis for innovative solutions to today’s global challenges, including:

  • Prevention and mitigation of disease
  • Providing clean food and water
  • Developing new sources of clean and renewable energy; and
  • Establishing a sustainable and resilient national and international infrastructure

The first of these signature research thrusts is in Biotechnology and the Life Sciences, where we are creating new routes to drug discovery and development, and understanding the fundamental mechanisms of disease, from Alzheimer’s and diabetes to cancer.

Our second signature research thrust is in Computational Science and Engineering, where our focus on artificial intelligence, machine learning—including deep learning, high-performance computing, multiscale modeling and simulation, and data analytics is supporting research and innovation across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

You will be hearing more about our work in these areas during our Global Game Changers Panel Discussion following lunch.

Our third signature research thrust focuses on Energy, Environment, and Smart Systems, where we are exploring renewable technologies, energy efficiency, resilient infrastructure, and the understanding of global environmental change to preserve the biodiversity of the planet.

Our fourth signature research thrust is in Media, the Arts, Science, and Technology, where we are facilitating new approaches to networking, advanced simulation and gamification, sensor design, haptics, acoustics, augmented reality, and interactive human-scale immersive technologies.

And our fifth signature research thrust is in Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, where we are developing robust, affordable, and sustainable methods for manufacturing new functional hybrid materials, and the hierarchical systems and products based upon them.

To advance such crucial areas of research, we assembled a world-class faculty, which today includes members of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. 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 National Science Foundation CAREER award recipients, and numerous winners of national and international awards.

Through the growth of our faculty, we reduced our student-faculty ratio from 18:1 to 13:1. To ensure that our students and faculty would have the resources they need, we invested $750 million in new construction, renovation of facilities, and technology upgrades for research, teaching, and student life.

The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies is a 218,000-square-foot facility that contains laboratories for molecular biology, analytical biochemistry, microbiology, imaging, histology, tissue and cell culture, proteomics, and scientific computing and visualization. In its first decade, our scientists and engineers have created:

  • Bioengineered therapeutics and anti-bacterial coatings for medical devices
  • High-throughput diagnostic chips that enable rapid identification of drug candidates as well as toxins
  • Bioengineered molecules, including a contamination-free form of the anticoagulant heparin
  • Nanoscale therapeutics that inhibit anthrax toxins; and
  • Stem cell bioengineering to aid in the treatment of diseases, including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and Alzheimer’s

The Center for Computational Innovations houses one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, which is the second most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. It also is home to the innovative cognitive computing system, Watson, which was developed at IBM primarily by Rensselaer alumni. 

Our computational center allows us to advance semiconductor technology at the nanoscale, enable key new nanotechnology innovations, and support research in the fields of energy, biotechnology and the life sciences, new materials, the arts, medicine, cognitive science, computer science, engineering design, and computational science and engineering.

The Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems is developing next-generation optoelectronic devices, advanced manufacturing technologies, advanced robotics, integrated biomaterial devices, energy harvesting and storage, electric transmission and distribution, responsive and adaptive built environments, and nanostructured composite materials—advancing research that spans the range from fundamental discovery to systems-level assembly and manufacturing.

The 220,000-square-foot Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, is a venue like no other in the world—a beautifully designed, marvelously engineered, and technologically advanced masterpiece—for both world-class performance and research.

Here, artists, researchers, and audiences come together to inquire, experiment, develop, and experience the ever-changing relationship among our senses, technology, and the worlds we create around us.

EMPAC’s linkage to the other centers I described is propelling Rensselaer to the scientific, engineering, and artistic frontiers of the 21st century.

Our research enterprise has tripled in funding over the past 19 years in spite of a difficult funding climate. With the right people, programs, and platforms in place, our partnerships have grown substantially.

We are affiliated with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in both research and education, fostering collaborations that are stimulating the development of new technologies to radically improve the diagnosis and treatment of human disease. 

A recent initiative includes the Alzheimer’s disease Clinical and Translational Research Training Program that is empowering Rensselaer students to contribute to Alzheimer’s research by exposing them to a range of biotechnology and lighting research on neurodegenerative diseases, and by having them participate in a summer clinical rotation in medical research at Mount Sinai.

Through the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), and in partnership with IBM, we have created the Center for Health Empowerment by Analytics, Learning, and Semantics, also known as HEALS.

Bringing together data analytics, state-of-the-art machine learning, and the technologies of the Semantic Web which provide a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries, HEALS is a five-year, $20 million effort to prevent the progression of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

We also are working alongside IBM on The Jefferson Project at Lake George, which is developing a new model for the conservation of freshwater resources.

The Jefferson Project combines advanced Internet-of-Things technology, predictive analytics, and basic science to create a comprehensive model for environmental monitoring and prediction.

Our science-based model is driven by the enormous amounts of streaming data delivered by 51 smart sensor platforms we have placed in and around Lake George, an hour north of our Troy campus. These smart platforms are able to perceive the changing environment around them and to make adjustments, such as taking more measurements when something interesting, such as a storm, is brewing.

The Helen-Jo and John E. Kelly III ’78 Data Visualization Lab, a state-of-the-art research center for high-powered data visualization, which meshes cutting-edge graphics processing with modern data collection and visual data analytics, is integral to this research, and is located within the Margaret A. and David M. Darrin ’40 Fresh Water Institute on Lake George.  

The Jefferson Project is helping us to understand the lake, as a system of systems, so that we can protect its water—and gain new insights into managing freshwater resources around the globe.

Our partnerships with IBM also include our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, or CISL, which is linking cognitive computing with human-scale immersive environments to create a smart boardroom or classroom, with the goal of radically enhancing group learning and decision-making, through interaction with societies and hierarchies of cognitive digital agents. 

It is deeply gratifying to see how prescient we were in the development of The Rensselaer Plan, identifying the areas of technological innovation and research that today are at the leading edge, including areas of interest here in China.

At Rensselaer, we believe that as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers steam—with the merging of the digital, physical, and biological realms—one of its linchpins will be an Intelligent Internet of Intelligent Things, so that intelligence is distributed throughout our systems. In other words, the network is smart and recognizes opportunities and vulnerabilities in data streams—and the devices it connects also are smart, and able to adapt to changing conditions.

This 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.

Our journey has continued through the implementation of The Rensselaer Plan 2024, the successor to the original Rensselaer Plan, and created within the paradigm of The New Polytechnic.

“Polytechnic,” as you know, comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” As The New Polytechnic, we view Rensselaer itself as a great crossroads for collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations—collaborations animated by the most advanced tools and technologies—and focused on addressing the greatest of global challenges and opportunities.

It is through this paradigm that we educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields—but also for intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view—in other words, for the kind of perspective that crosses borders, and that fosters creativity, innovation, empathy, and leadership.

Undergirded by this vision—which inspires our faculty, staff, and students alike—Rensselaer is thriving.

Demand for a Rensselaer education has never been higher.  We had the greatest number of applicants for our freshman class in history—a 5 percent increase over the record-breaking number of applications we received last year. We have enrolled the largest, academically strongest, and most diverse class in our history.

Our overall rankings, and especially the rising reputation of our programs, help to explain this demand.

Rensselaer has been ranked as one of the top 50 national universities in the U.S., by U.S. News, for the past 18 years.

A number of our programs are ranked quite high by various entities and publications that influence students’ and parents’ choice of university for higher education.

  • Our undergraduate Information Technology and Web Science program has been ranked first in the nation by College Choice;
  • College Choice also has ranked the Lally School of Management second among undergraduate business schools in New York State and, Rensselaer as a whole, eighth among the best colleges in the state;
  • Our Master’s of Business Analytics has been ranked third in the U.S. by TFE Times;
  • Our undergraduate Physics program is ranked sixth by College Factual;
  • Our Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program is ranked sixth by org, seventh and 12th by The Art Career Project; and
  • Our School of Architecture is ranked 13th in the U.S. by DesignIntelligence

To stay on the leading edge in education as well as research, we have added 21 new academic programs in emerging fields, including a neuroscience concentration in biological sciences, and a new technologically inflected Bachelor of Science in Music.

The Bachelor of Science in Music Program focuses on preparing graduates for careers in creative professions combining depth in music with breadth in the sciences, media, and engineering—21st century careers, in fields such as composition and sound design for virtual environments, and interactive music over networks.

There is great excitement for this program among our students, who appreciate the underlying interrelationship between the arts and other disciplines including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and many of whom look forward to pursuing dual majors that incorporate their love of music and performance.

Many of these students also participate in the Rensselaer Orchestra, which I am pleased to announce will be making a historic debut performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City next month as part of a gala celebration in support of scholarship.

Other programs are being developed and/or strengthened such as a new focus in Quantitative Health Economics in our Economics Department. Under development are a new Bachelor of Science degree program in the Lally School of Management in Quantitative Finance and Analytics, and a new program in Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning.

For working professionals, we are developing learning clusters and certificate programs in key areas such as Supply Chain Analytics, Analytics of Cybersecurity, Machine Learning, and Emerging Web Technologies.

As a result of all these efforts, the outcomes for our graduates are excellent, in terms of the graduate schools where they are accepted, the salaries they command, the enterprises they launch, the leadership roles they assume, the service they provide to the U.S. and the world, and—most importantly—the meaningful and fulfilling lives they lead.

Our mission, from our very founding, is to be transformative in the world at large. In the words of our philanthropic founder Stephen Van Rensselaer, Rensselaer was created to forward the “diffusion of a very useful kind of knowledge, with its application to the business of living.”

Eleven months ago, we launched a one billion-dollar capital campaign, Transformative: Campaign for Global Change to continue to propel Rensselaer, the oldest technological research university in the United States, to global leadership in the 21st century. The Transformative campaign has three pillars:

The first is increasing student financial aid and enhancing the remarkable student experience at Rensselaer. The cost of the education we offer—world-class, immersive, and experiential—is not inexpensive

At Rensselaer, we intend to, and do, attract the best and the brightest students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and from across the U.S. and around the world. We work hard to create a very diverse community, in terms of gender, ethnicity, geography, and experience—because we are well aware that such diverse communities are most likely to have a transformative impact on the world around them.

To honor the intensely democratic vision of Stephen Van Rensselaer, who established his school to place knowledge “equally within the reach of all”—we must add to our endowment to better meet student financial need.

With a larger endowment, more of the best students will be able to attend Rensselaer—and our graduates will be able to pursue their dreams along the trajectories that most suit them and that position them for being global game changers.

Another focus of the campaign is raising the resources for continued leadership in a field in which Rensselaer always has led: pedagogical innovation. In the early 19th century, higher education typically meant listening passively to lectures.

At Rensselaer, however, education took the radical form of trips where students could learn to conduct field studies and to engage in laboratory experiments by themselves, and to present from the front of the classroom what they had discovered or invented.

Today, Rensselaer pedagogical innovations include mixed-reality experiences, gamification, and interaction with artificially intelligent characters. We recently launched a “data dexterity” requirement to ensure that all undergraduates learn how to use diverse datasets to define and solve complex problems. This will require at least two courses—one in the foundations of data science and data analytics, and a second course that applies this knowledge to a problem in their field of study.

As we go forward, we will draw upon innovations arising out of Rensselaer research in fields such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and immersive technologies to create even more transformative teaching and learning experiences.

We also deliberately encourage new ways for our students to see, think, and interact with each other across different fields of study, and through expanded experiential learning opportunities, at home and abroad.

Encompassing the entire student experience is CLASS, our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students. With CLASS, we nurture Rensselaer students in tight-knit residential groups, and offer, as well, developmental, or time-based, clustering that gives them increasing opportunities appropriate to their stage of academic and personal development.

We are facilitating the intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and global view that I referred to earlier, by reorganizing the academic calendar with the launch in the summer of 2019 of The Arch.

Under The Arch, all Rensselaer undergraduates will remain on campus for the summer after their sophomore year, engaged in junior-level classes, and then leave campus for a full semester (and beyond) of their junior year, for an intellectual adventure uniquely suited to their own passions, interests, and professional development, and still graduate within the usual time span.

We hope that all of you will consider opportunities within your organizations here in Hong Kong, for talented Rensselaer juniors on their “away” semesters.

The second pillar of our Capital Campaign focuses on our faculty, members of a collaborative community working in an atmosphere of multi- and interdisciplinarity.

Rensselaer research programs reach across the campus and beyond, linking together faculty and students, departments, schools, and interdisciplinary centers, and stimulating the integration of inquiry, new knowledge, and education.

Rensselaer faculty take pride in their dedication to teaching—demonstrating a commitment to excellence that always has been a hallmark of Rensselaer’s teacher-scholars.

The discovery of new scientific concepts and technologies, especially in emerging interdisciplinary fields, is the lifeblood of Rensselaer’s culture, and a core goal for faculty, staff, and students.

We will use the resources unleashed by the campaign to create new endowed professorships that will allow us to attract and retain the very best academic talent from around the world.

We will draw gifted teachers and researchers to Rensselaer to do world-changing work in their laboratories and classrooms—and to ensure that our students, working beside them on their investigations, learn at the leading edge of their fields.

Endowed chairs will allow us to expand our tenured and tenure-track faculty to 500 so that Rensselaer can achieve intellectual critical mass, and lead, in all crucial areas of research and education that comport with our founding mission, “the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

Our third pillar focuses on our beautiful Troy campus, which we are growing, modernizing, and equipping for continued leadership in pedagogy, research, and student life. Rensselaer’s 276-acre Troy campus and its off-site facilities support the exploration, discovery, learning, and enrichment of our students and faculty.

Our campaign will allow Rensselaer to build, among other things, a state-of-the-art Center for Science, to expand our Jonsson Engineering Center, to complete the second phase of our East Campus Athletic Village, and to reconfigure our historic West Hall to accommodate practice rooms and teaching studios for our expanding music programs at Rensselaer. We also will renovate, upgrade, and expand housing for our students—both undergraduate and graduate students.

Since the launch of the campaign, I, along with leaders from across the Institute, have been traveling across the U.S., and around the world, to engage with the larger Rensselaer community.

We have hosted events in New York City, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Boston, Florida, and most recently in California’s Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.

Internationally, we have visited with our alumni and alumnae in Dubai, Zurich, and Shanghai, and now we are here—in Hong Kong.

Throughout our travels, we have endeavored to bring the paradigm of The New Polytechnic with us—by providing a comprehensive update on the State of the Institute, and by inviting our talented students, and our renowned faculty to speak about, and illustrate, the innovative pedagogy and groundbreaking interdisciplinary research taking place at Rensselaer.

The response we have received from the Rensselaer community to this ongoing capital campaign rollout has been overwhelmingly positive—as our accomplishments under The Rensselaer Plan 2024 continue to bear fruit and multiply.

Our focused allocation of talent and resources will continue to elevate our profile as a major technological research university, strengthen our undergraduate and graduate curricula, and pay transformative dividends that will indeed change the world.

As you know, the world faces complex and interconnected global challenges—with concomitant opportunities arising from those challenges, which beg to be seized.

As we consider everything from climate change, or the rise of disruptive non-state actors, on the one hand, to remarkable advances in artificial intelligence and gene editing, on the other, the world needs the faculty, students, and graduates of Rensselaer to find new solutions, to discover new possibilities, and to transform the business of living for a global population projected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030.

As we consider the world around us, the stakes are high. The opportunities are clear. The urgency is real. The world truly needs that particular combination of qualities that include audacity, creativity, pragmatism, and the refusal to be daunted by the scale of the problems that confront us.  That is what we nurture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

We hope that you will join with Rensselaer now to help the next generation change the world.