Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Category: University Events
February, 2020
EMPAC Concert Hall
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone, to our 20th annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day.

I want to begin by thanking Mr. Wexler, our Vice President for Enrollment Management, and Dr. Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics, for putting together this year’s event.  

I thank the younger children for joining us, as well as all of the parents, guardians, teachers, and mentors here today. 

And my heartfelt congratulations to all of the middle school students who were nominated for this year’s program. Clearly, you are excellent students. Clearly, there are adults in your life who support your interests in math and science, the same way that the adults in my life supported my interests when I was a child.  

For example, when I was in middle school, my father helped me to build and to race go-karts. I learned a lot about the principles of mechanics and aerodynamics from this experience, since I quickly figured out that the skill of the go-kart driver was less important than the aerodynamic design of the vehicle.

My family even tolerated my capturing live bees from around our backyard. I kept them in Mason jars under the back porch, so I could observe how they behaved and what they ate under different conditions—such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to during daylight hours.

Today, we would say that I was doing experiments in circadian biology—which refers to the chemical clocks inside our cells that respond to cycles of light and dark during a 24-hour day. Our circadian clocks control when we feel sleepy, when we feel alert, when we digest our food—and much more. Two weeks from now, when we set our kitchen clocks forward an hour for Daylight Saving Time, you probably will feel a little groggy for a few days. So, it will not surprise you to learn that circadian biology is an important area of research, because disruptions in circadian rhythms affect human health.

I am sure that as your education progresses, you, too, will discover that the things that particularly interest you in nature, in math, or in the way that things are constructed or built, touch on some very important issues for our world.

The theme for our program today is “STEM Solving Life’s Problems.” You will find that the students here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and their professors, work on the very hardest of problems—such as the threats to and limits of fresh water resources in a world of 7.8 billion thirsty people; the need for electric cars, so we can burn less fossil fuels and help to address climate change; and the planning required to prevent and to help people to recover from natural disasters—including disease outbreaks, such as the coronavirus that has recently emerged in China. 

Because of their education in science and engineering—which is the application of scientific principles to design or build things or systems—our students are not overwhelmed by the size and complexity of these issues, or of other pressing matters. They are able to identify and to analyze large challenges; to describe them using mathematics, computation, and the languages of their individual fields; to experiment, tinker, and develop potential solutions; and then to test those solutions, both in the laboratory and out in the field. 

In other words, scientists and engineers are powerful against very long odds, because of the things they have learned, the tools they are able to use, and their trust in their own creativity.

The workshops you will be participating in today are intended to help you start “solving life’s problems,” and to discover how enjoyable and rewarding that is.

Please allow me to tell you about the exciting projects our students and our graduates are engaged in, to give you a sense of the kind of exploring you might do, if you continue to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM subjects.  

I mentioned earlier the dire need to secure enough fresh water for a growing global population. With something we call The Jefferson Project, our students and their professors in many different fields are pioneering a new scientific model to protect fresh water lakes. Starting with Lake George, an hour north of here, we make lakes “smart” by equipping them with sensor platforms that measure in real time the factors that influence water quality, including weather, currents, run-off, the tributaries that feed the lake, and the living creatures in the lake. The sensor platforms themselves are smart, and they can decide to collect more data when something interesting is brewing, like a storm. We then use computing and visualization technologies to help us to understand the massive amount of information being generated, to guide experiments, and to develop insights.  

Here is one of those insights: Rensselaer professors and students have been examining the influence of the salt used to de-ice the roads around lakes in winter, which can contaminate the water. Our researchers have found that when developing tadpoles are exposed to road salt, a certain proportion of the females will become male. Others of the females will be smaller than normal. (

This does not bode well, if we hope frog populations to thrive in the long term—because the females are the ones that give birth, so there will be fewer frogs in the next generations. 

The Jefferson Project includes Rensselaer students whose interests lie in game design, the electronic arts, and music. Collaborating with biologists and programmers, they created a touch-pool installation called “The World of Plankton.” Plankton are the tiny creatures that drift in lakes and oceans. In importance, however, they are very large, because they are at the very base of the food web that feeds every other aquatic creature. And plant plankton—known as phytoplankton—produce at least half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. With “The World of Plankton,” children are able to learn by exploring the life beneath the surface of the water.

And, when we teach our own students here at Rensselaer, we are just as creative. If you come to Rensselaer, you may well take a class known as the “The Mandarin Project,” which teaches the Chinese language and culture within a new kind of smart classroom. If you take this class, you will find yourself engaged in a multi-player mixed reality game that will put you into virtual scenarios that offer an experience of China without anyone having to get on an airplane. You will interact with artificially intelligent virtual characters who will help you to master the hardest aspects of the language. And you, yourself, will be a character in the ongoing story, which will make learning particularly exciting.

Please allow me to show you what I mean…

A STEM education truly can give you the power to reach for very large goals.  

For example, George Low, who earned two degrees in aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer and later became President of the university, helped to convince United States President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s that it would be possible to send astronauts to the moon and back before the decade was out. And he successfully oversaw the Apollo program at NASA to make that prediction a reality.

Today, people who came to Rensselaer as students are helping NASA to reach its goal of sending humans to Mars, to explore a planet that may have hosted life at one time, or that may still. They include Senior Mechanical Engineer Kobie Boykins of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who started there while still a Rensselaer student. Kobie has helped to build all of the rovers that have explored Mars, including the Mars 2020 Rover, which is going to launch in July or August.  

Another of our graduates, Curtis R. Priem, for whom this beautiful performing arts center is named, designed some of the very first graphics processors, computer chips that enabled the stunning images in computer games. He co-founded a company named NVIDIA based on his chip designs. Today, NVIDIA graphics processing units are making self-driving cars possible.

Another of our graduates, Colleen Costello, came face to face with a very serious problem while she was biomedical engineering student here. Her grandmother had a minor fall that sent her to the hospital. While in the hospital, Colleen’s grandmother became infected with a bacterium called MRSA that has evolved to be resistant to many of the medicines we use to fight infections, and became very ill. So, Colleen dedicated herself to finding a way to help to disinfect hospitals and other indoor spaces. Today, her company Vital Vio sells LED lights that use a unique spectrum of light to activate a molecule specific to bacteria, mold, and fungus cells, killing them—while remaining completely harmless to human cells, which lack this molecule. 

As you can see, armed with the tools of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, people in many different fields can address great challenges.

We say to all of our students here at Rensselaer, “Why not change the world?” That seems like a very large thing to ask of them, but we know that young people do have the power to change the world.

We know that you have that power. And if you think we might be trying to recruit you to come to Rensselaer in a few years—you are absolutely right. We always are looking for excellent students like you. Beyond that, the world needs you to think deeply about the great challenges you see around you, and to develop the tools that will allow you to make a difference and to improve lives.

I hope you enjoy your day here! But before you go off to your workshops, I am going to end today by introducing you to someone else who loved math and science at your age. He went on to earn a degree in mechanical and industrial engineering from Clarkson University—and he has used this education to engineer a better nation, and a better world, as a leader in government. 

Congressman Paul Tonko represents New York’s 20th Congressional District, which includes Troy, Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, and Amsterdam. He serves on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee in the U.S House of Representatives, chairing the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. He also serves on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

He is one of the most enthusiastic and eloquent advocates in our nation for STEM education—as well as for clean energy technologies; for the protection of fresh water resources; and for investments in groundbreaking research in science and engineering.

Before being elected to Congress, Congressman Tonko was the President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority—and, as such, an important partner for Rensselaer. Before that, he was a member of the New York State Legislature for 25 years.

Please join me in welcoming Congressman Paul Tonko.