Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Skip to main content

Freshman Convocation

Category: University Events
August, 2021

Freshman Convocation

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

As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and, on behalf of the entire Rensselaer community, it is my privilege, and my very great pleasure, to welcome you, the Class of 2025, and the architects of 2026, into the Rensselaer family.

We are so very glad that you are here — one of the most academically accomplished and service-minded classes ever to enter Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in its nearly 200-year history. I should also add, one of the most intrepid classes, since you are beginning your university careers during a pandemic.

Fortunately, you are in very good hands, and your health and well-being are our first priorities. Excellent planning is something of a specialty here, and we have remarkable resources at hand, including a laboratory capable of doing a very large volume of “gold-standard” PCR-based surveillance, and, as needed individual diagnostic testing—a highly unusual resource at a university without a medical school. Since reopening a year ago, we have done an exceptional job of controlling the spread of COVID-19 on campus — with a positive test rate of just over a tenth of a percent. 

Please let me introduce my team, whose hard work under challenging conditions has allowed us to be fully in-person this academic year, and who will do everything possible to make sure your Rensselaer experience is wonderful in every aspect:  

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Ms. Barbara Hough, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Dr. Robert Hull, Acting Vice President for Research;
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Dr. Peter Konwerski, Vice President for Student Life, whom you already have met;
  • Dr. Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics;
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration; and
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.

I am delighted, also, to introduce our academic leaders…

  • Mr. Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture;
  • Dr. Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences;
  • Dr. Chanaka Edirisinghe, Acting Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Professor Lee Ligon, Associate Dean of the School of Science for Academic Affairs;
  • Dr. Keith Moo-Young ’92, ’95, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education;
  • Dr. Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education; and
  • Dr. Richard Plotka, Director of Information Technology and Web Science.

May I ask you to join me in applauding these leaders?

Each year, we host this Convocation to offer our freshmen a formal welcome into our community of scholars.

We have been innovative since our very founding. While other universities in the early 19th century primarily had their students sit and listen to lectures, Rensselaer was one of the first universities in the world to have students conduct their own laboratory experiments; to offer organized instruction in field work; and to send students to the front of the classroom to present their findings to their peers and professors.

That active style of learning and exploration persists here — to this day. When Rensselaer people are presented with even the largest and most complex of challenges, they take them on, forge collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations, and change the world. 

When Rensselaer people are presented with a moment of extreme disruption, such as the COVID crisis, they see opportunities to serve, to expand our knowledge, to invent, and to discover. 

The members of our student maker club The Forge leapt into action when it became clear that the country’s early efforts to contain the SARS-CoV-2 virus were hampered by a severe shortage of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, for health care workers. They recruited volunteer students, as well as alumni and alumnae with 3D printers at home, to produce face shields and ear guards for hospitals along the East Coast.

A collaboration among our manufacturing staff on-campus also began making face shields. Beginning first with 3D printing, and then employing plastic injection molding and laser-cutting machines, they reduced the time required to make a single face shield from one and a half hours to around two minutes, while developing a new design that offers more protection. 

They have supplied thousands of these shields to hospitals to protect health care workers, with thousands more being used on-campus in our laboratories and classrooms.

Another multidisciplinary group rapidly invented a system that uses ultraviolet light to sterilize thousands of protective masks each day.  

Rensselaer also joined in creating the national COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, which volunteers free compute time on world-class supercomputers to researchers around the world addressing the pandemic. AiMOS, our magnificent Artificial Intelligence Multiprocessing Optimized System, is the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university. Through the Consortium, AiMOS and Rensselaer experts in high-performance computing have supported a number of computing-intensive investigations into COVID-19. 

In addition, Rensselaer has been the locus of important work in the realm of therapeutics. A team of Rensselaer researchers, led by Dr. Robert Linhardt, the Broadbent Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, Chemistry, and Chemical Biology; Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Special Adviser to the President For Strategic Initiatives; and Professor Fuming Zhang, discovered that both the blood-thinner heparin and an extract from edible seaweeds can bind to the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2, before the virus can bind to mammalian cells. Now, they are collaborating with researchers at the University of Mississippi to determine if these substances can be used in a protective nasal spray — an early intervention that could help us combat the highly transmissible Delta variant.

This is a community full of remarkable people, remarkable in terms of knowledge and talent, but also remarkable in terms of a commitment to solving problems and improving lives.

I am so delighted that you soon will meet another of them, Dr. Jennifer Hurley, the Richard Baruch M.D. Career Development Professor of Biological Sciences, who will be our faculty speaker today. Professor Hurley’s research focuses on the fundamental mechanisms of circadian rhythms — and the biological clocks inside our cells that measure the 24-hour cycles of our days, synchronizing with daylight and dark to control sleep, our immune systems, and much more. 

This research is so important, because disruptions in circadian rhythms are linked to a wide range of human health disorders. I am not sure whether Professor Hurley will advise you not to use your newfound freedom as college students to stay up until dawn…but I will just add, it is not wise to sleep through your morning classes.

If, on the cusp of your first college classes, you are even minimally concerned about keeping up with the many talented people in this community—please allow me to assure you that all of you truly belong here. You are already Rensselaer people.

You, too, have seen opportunities in disruption, and managed to shine academically despite school closures, the abrupt movement to online classes, and many other forms of pandemic upheaval. So many of you have seized the chance to be of service during a difficult time — a very Rensselaer-like response to a crisis.

Over 900 members of your class put volunteer experience on their applications — including a student who delivered food to the immunocompromised to protect them from COVID-19, and another who raised $27,000 for two hospitals to help them cope with the crush of COVID cases.

This suggests that you already are striving to live up to our informal motto here at Rensselaer: “Why not change the world?”

That is both a challenge to you — our students, and an expression of great confidence in you, because so many Rensselaer people have changed the world. 

I could spend the rest of the day telling you of Rensselaer people who first built the physical infrastructure that helped to create and strengthen our national and global economy, and then built electronic and digital bridges to the future. Take the time to learn about these global game changers, as you go along your journey here. We chose you because we know that each of you has the talent, the focus, and the empathy to do great things. And you are about to receive an education that will lead to your future success, and put astounding accomplishments within reach. You will attain your goals, of course, by working hard, but also by appreciating and learning from your classmates, and all those around you; and seeking help when you need to. 

Again, we are so happy to have you with us — and I wish you a safe, enjoyable, and exciting year.