Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Mount Sinai Commencement

May, 2022
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

It is a very great honor to join the Class of 2022 today, as you receive your degrees from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I am very proud of the longstanding, and fruitful, partnership between our two great institutions.

I wish to congratulate the graduates, and their families and friends, who made this achievement possible.
Graduates, the people who have supported you on your journey to this day believe strongly in the vision of the Icahn School — “to transform the practice of medicine and reinvent medical research to produce radically better outcomes for patients.”

When I look back on my own successes, I too had great support from my family. My wonderful parents inspired a love of learning in my siblings and me, and clearly are at the root of all that I have been able to accomplish, and they encouraged my early interests in science. 

I believe that in our lives a special window in time can open to create unique opportunities to serve one’s fellow human beings. A window in time opened for me with the confluence of two historical events. The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C., public schools — in the year following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend school, in my own neighborhood, with more competition, with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives.

Two years later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which launched the Space Race, and sparked a rigorous emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools, which dovetailed with my own interests and abilities. 

It was at MIT that I truly appreciated the opportunities that life had occasioned for me.
My father always said, “Aim for the stars, so that you can reach the treetops — and at least, you will get off the ground.” 

I knew that I had been presented with a great opportunity because MIT was then, as it is today, a challenging and thrilling place to receive an education.

After I received my PhD, I focused on my research — at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, and at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. After I had launched my research career at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Governor Thomas Kean appointed me to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which promoted innovation at the major public and private universities in the state.

Another window opened. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed me as Chairman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the NRC — which regulates the civilian use of nuclear materials and technology. 

My tenure as Chairman of the NRC coincided with the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, with the weapons-grade uranium of the Soviet nuclear programs needing better control in the newly independent states. My tenure also came nine years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in 1986, in Ukraine. 

I visited Chernobyl, and under my leadership, the NRC worked to create a strong nuclear safety and regulatory framework in Ukraine, which is being upended by the current conflict. Interestingly, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest Memorandum, in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the United States, and Great Britain.  

Early in my tenure at the NRC, I saw the need for greater international cooperation to avoid future disasters such as Chernobyl. So, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) as a high-level forum for chief nuclear regulators. The INRA remains in existence today, with membership from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S.

Four years into my NRC tenure, I was asked, in 1999, to assume the presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first technological research university in the nation. At that point, my experience in research, national and international leadership roles, and in fostering international cooperation, led the Board of Trustees to believe that I could guide Rensselaer through a needed transformation — which we have achieved. 

Now, one could ask: How does one whose degrees are in theoretical elementary particle physics, and who did research in condensed matter theory, end up speaking with PhD and MD graduates of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai?

I could tell you that it is because as a child, I would capture live bees and keep them in Mason jars under our back porch. I observed how they behaved under different conditions — such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to. I was doing experiments in circadian biology.

I could tell you that it is because I am a theoretical physicist by training, with an inherent interest in modeling natural phenomena, including in the biological realm. 

I could tell you that it is because I was Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, and became very interested in radiation health effects.

I could tell you that it is because I am President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first technological research university in the United States. 

The perspectives I have gained from all of these stages of my career are important, but my role at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is particularly relevant because, not unlike the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, we focus on the greatest of challenges in both research and education, recognizing that they are too complex and too intertwined to be addressed by a single person, discipline, or nation acting alone. Within our paradigm of The New Polytechnic, we serve as a crossroads for collaborations among brilliant and motivated people from all disciplines, sectors, geographies, cultures, and generations, using the most advanced tools and technologies to address hard problems. 

Addressing great challenges requires new perspectives, social consciousness and care, empathy, leadership, and service — attributes that you have been imbued with here at the Icahn School of Medicine. So, the world needs you, graduates. And, it needs you, whether PhDs or MDs, to know that the future requires stronger coupling and reciprocity between translational medicine, and engineering and engineering science.  

That is why our two institutions are jointly strengthening our focus on disease mitigation and improvements to human health through precision medicine. This is predicated on engineering being fundamental to the understanding of basic biomedical phenomena, and associated therapeutic interventions—spanning the molecular to human dimensions. Our institutions have a shared history of success in research and education, including SARS-COV2 drug target identification, and over $70 million in joint research funding since 2013. 

With the rise of new pathogens, there is a race to understand how they arise and evolve. The SARS COV-2 virus has surprised us, with its ability to quickly develop new variants, as we struggle to understand how the mutations in the virus spike protein’s structure evolve to allow it to do immune escape. This problem requires knowledge of structural biology, coupled with knowledge of genomics, data science, and computational biology. With the current mRNA vaccines, materials science and engineering has been critical to developing the lipid nanoparticles that simultaneously protect mRNA, and deliver it to the relevant cells in the human body. Biologically and chemically developed nanoparticles already are being used to deliver therapeutics to cells in a precise way. 

Can we predict how and where disease-causing pathogens will arise? As the current pandemic has shown, less infective and less fatal organisms can evolve quickly to become very infective and more fatal, and spread around the world. 

Do we understand how gene acquisition or change confers such destructive capability to such organisms? What are the drivers? Surveillance techniques and genomic sequencing technologies are becoming more affordable and available. But they must be married with model building to create more predictive, as well as correlative, capability, using data analytics, AI, and high performance computation. 
When the Icahn School of Medicine’s doors first opened in 1968, your founding trustees envisioned a new and enlightened institution, set within the real-world environment of a working hospital. They called for the levels of passion, inquiry, dedication, knowledge, leadership, and innovation for which the school is renowned.

The Icahn School’s focus on groundbreaking medical and scientific inquiry, discovery, and development is more important than ever. While the world still struggles with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and issues such as food safety and security, opioid addiction, heart disease and stroke, mental health, cancer, and diabetes, among others, there has never been a greater need for visionary and dedicated practitioners like yourselves.

As physicians and scientists, all of you have embraced lives of great purpose. You are about to embark on the next step on your important pathway to helping improve the health of humanity. You are well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities of practicing medicine and biomedical research. You are equipped to be caring, empathetic individuals who will make a difference in many lives. 

I am so honored to share this monumental day with you. I thank the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai for the great honor of bestowing upon me an honorary degree, alongside all of you — who, I am quite sure, are poised to change the world.

As you go about your lives and careers, let ethics guide your ambitions, and not have your ambitions drive your ethics.

I wish you all a lifetime of happiness, good health, amazing accomplishments, and much success. 

Thank you and Godspeed!