Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Skip to main content

Trustees’ Celebration of Faculty Achievement

Category: Regional
December, 2019
CBIS Auditorium and Heffner Alumni House
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone, on this happy occasion.

One of the great joys of having served as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for 20 years, is that I am able to observe the excellence demonstrated by Rensselaer people at every stage of their academic careers, and also to watch them develop into true powerhouses in research and education.

I include, of course, our students, although today, we honor our faculty. But some of our students do, indeed, become faculty, including a number of those whose promotions we are celebrating.

Today, we honor excellence in those faculty just beginning their careers, and well as our faculty who have earned endowed chairs, national recognition, leadership in their disciplines, and patents in the United States and elsewhere.

We are very proud of all of you, for all you have achieved in both research and teaching. It is your creativity and tenacity as individuals — as well as your willingness to join forces in groundbreaking collaborations — that make Rensselaer so distinctive, and a magnet for other talented people, at all stages of their careers.

Now, it is my pleasure to introduce our faculty lecturer, Professor Susan Gilbert, Head of our Department of Biological Sciences.

She joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as Professor and Department Head in 2007.

Professor Gilbert’s research focuses on cellular movements, and the molecular motors that drive these movements, with the goal of a greater understanding of cellular function and of dysfunctions, such as cancer.

Professor Gilbert received her A.B. in Chemistry from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and her Ph.D. from Dartmouth College in Cell Biology. She performed much of her early research at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Before joining Rensselaer, she had served on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh since 1995.

Professor Gilbert is a member of the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Biophysical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has served on the editorial boards for the Biophysical Journal, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Professor Gilbert’s many awards include the March of Dimes Basil O’Connor Scholar Research Award, the American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Research Award, a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award, and the 2014 Rensselaer William H. Wiley 1866 Distinguished Faculty Award. Her research program has been supported throughout her career by grants from the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences, including a prestigious MERIT Award, which provides 10 years of continuous research support.

Her lecture today is titled, “An Unexpected Discovery: The Common General Anesthetic Propofol Impairs Neuronal Kinesin Transport.”

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Professor Susan Gilbert…

Continuation of Trustees’ Celebration of Faculty Achievement

Heffner Alumni House

Welcome to all of our guests.

I thank our Board of Trustees for hosting this wonderful evening. 

One of the achievements we honored today was for an award that has not yet been presented — the Trustees’ Teacher of the Year Award. I am delighted to say that it will go to Associate Professor Barbara Cutler of our Department of Computer Science.

Professor Cutler — who has been a member of the Rensselaer faculty since 2005, and whose research interests include computer graphics, geometry processing, visualization, and design tools for architecture — is much more than a wonderful teacher. She is a true leader who has been tireless in her efforts to make computer science education at Rensselaer peerlessly excellent, even as enrollment in computer science classes has soared.

She serves as chair of the Computer Science undergraduate curriculum committee, and has spearheaded changes that have deepened our program.

Five years ago, she began devoting herself in earnest to Submitty, an open-source software tool that now can automate the grading for any course requiring programming. Thanks to her efforts, in large computer science classes, professors no longer have to shape assignments based on their manual grading capacity, and graduate student teaching assistants are no longer too busy grading to help students with the underlying concepts.

Submitty offers students consistent grading based on the professor’s rubric, immediate feedback on their work, and the ability to improve their work by submitting assignments several times over, up until the homework deadline. Submitty also incorporates too many other features for me to name, but they include discussion forums that further student engagement.

Last year, there were over 2,900 unique Submitty accounts at Rensselaer, and Submitty is supporting not just more than a dozen Computer Science courses, but also courses in Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering, and in other departments.

And because Professor Cutler teaches in all she does, Submitty has been a remarkable learning experience for our students. It is largely student-written, with over 50 students contributing to the program. Professor Cutler and her students have published six conference and journal papers based on Submitty.

Submitty was spurred, in part, by the management challenges attached to the foundational course Professor Cutler teaches at least once a year, CSCI 1200: Data Structures, whose enrollment at nearly 350 students is about four times as large as it was a few years ago. 

Data Structures is widely acknowledged among our students as both one of the most rigorous courses they encounter at Rensselaer, and one of the most rewarding. To challenge while one delights — that truly is the definition of brilliant teaching. Professor Cutler’s assignments are famously involving, with students often putting in hours beyond what is required for an “A” grade, out of enjoyment and a competitive spirit.

Like our academic founder Amos Eaton, Professor Cutler believes in sending students to the front of the classroom, and allowing them to learn by collaborating with their peers, and by teaching others.

Her students vie to become undergraduate programming mentors for Data Structures. Along with graduate student TAs, the mentors help to run weekly labs, hold office hours, and answer questions on Submitty. As one of Professor Cutler’s nominators pointed out, even this student staff for Data Structures is, at about three dozen, larger than many Rensselaer classes.

Again, Professor Cutler has turned her management of the course into a teaching opportunity. She meets with the team once a week, where they review student progress, and develop new strategies for conveying the material. And she herself often makes adjustments based on mentor input.

Along with Professor Stacy Patterson, she also has held a weekly meeting for women computer science students for the past five years, a casual forum where they can ask questions about courses, jobs, graduate schools, all the nuts and bolts of building a career in the field — while, of course, coming to envision themselves in those roles.

This is so important! Many of us view the NSF statistics about women in Computer Science with extreme dismay: Nationwide, the share of bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science awarded to women has actually declined over the last 20 years, from 27% in 1997 to 19% in 2016. Given the exploding need for computer scientists in our economy, which outstrips even the rising number of graduates the nation educates in field, the limited participation of women hardly makes sense.

We are so grateful to Professor Cutler and to our other computer scientists here at Rensselaer for serving as role models, and for taking the time to instill confidence in the next generation of women computer scientists through their brilliant teaching and mentorship.

We truly are fortunate to have Professor Cutler among us.

I thank all of our guests for helping us to honor our remarkable faculty. And I thank our faculty for making Rensselaer transformative through your brilliance in teaching and research.

Congratulations to all those we honor tonight.