Reunion and Homecoming Virtual State of the Institute

October, 2021

Reunion and Homecoming Virtual State of the Institute

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

Welcome, everyone, to our second virtual State of the Institute event — and thank you for joining us online. While we look forward to hosting Reunion and Homecoming again in person — the wonder of this medium is that it allows us to reach beyond the classes we are celebrating — the great Rensselaer classes ending in 0, 1, 5, and 6 — and to invite all of our alumni, alumnae, parents, and friends to hear about our accomplishments, challenges, and plans. 

As you know, and as the current pandemic has reinforced, my first obligation as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is keeping our students, faculty, and staff safe. 

Thanks to our risk-informed planning, and our comprehensive Testing, Tracing, Tracking, Surveillance, Quarantine, and Isolation (T3SQI) health and safety protocols, we have managed to keep the COVID-19 case rate on our Troy campus extremely low. With over 270,000 tests conducted since we reopened our de-densified campus last fall, we have had a positive case rate of just over 0.1%. This past summer and this fall, our positivity rate is even lower, since we instituted our vaccine mandate, while continuing our other stringent health and safety protocols. Currently, our students are overjoyed to be fully back on campus and learning in person, and our low case rate has allowed that.

Without question, this has been a challenging year and a half for all of us. However, I am very proud of the way the Rensselaer community has risen to the occasion — including our students, who have been almost uniformly wonderful about following our protocol. We clearly educate young people highly attuned to scientific and medical developments, who not only understand the gravity of this public health emergency, but who also see themselves as active participants in the great experiment of learning to control SARS-CoV-2. 

This includes the students in our maker club The Forge, who, early in the pandemic, enlisted volunteers with 3-D printers to help to address a terrible shortage of personal protective equipment for hospital workers, by printing face shields and ear savers for hospitals along the East Coast.

The newest members of our Rensselaer community — the members of the Class of 2025 and architects of 2026 — are just as remarkable. I am proud to report that this is the strongest freshman class in Rensselaer history in terms of academics, with an average SAT score of 1427. They also are among the most civic-minded. Despite the restrictions of the pandemic, a majority of our incoming students included volunteer experience on their applications. One student delivered food to the immunocompromised. Another raised $27,000 for two hospitals. Another opened a bakery with her family and donated the earnings to a nonprofit working to address food insecurity in northern New Jersey.

We truly cannot wait to see what these students will do, once they are armed with a Rensselaer education. In a study of the factors that turn young people into innovators, the Opportunity Insights group of economists at Harvard University has found that Rensselaer is at the very top of the nation’s colleges, in terms of the rate at which its recent alumni and alumnae have become inventors—number three on the list nationwide. Our current students promise to carry on this tradition.

Over the past year and a half, our faculty and staff also truly rose to the occasion. Abruptly thrust into remote teaching in the spring of 2020 — by the fall of that year, many of our faculty were accommodating the needs of both remote and on-campus students by teaching in multiple modes at once: in person, online, and a hybrid of the two. A number of pedagogical innovations arose out of the experience, including in our School of Architecture, where a whiteboard application was used to duplicate the Rensselaer studio experience in which architecture students share their drawings, so that their fellow students and teachers can offer feedback. The digital whiteboard even has enhanced the studio experience in some ways, allowing comments to be preserved, and prominent architects from around the world to participate in reviews of student work.

Among our pandemic-inspired pedagogical innovations are more flexible learning options, including E-terms, or week-long enrichment focused programs across all 5 schools, some of which will offer course credits.

We also are giving high-achieving students the flexibility of an accelerated path to their degrees. With ACCEL, students who enter Rensselaer as freshmen with at least 12 advanced placement or transfer credits in STEM fields have the option of a plan of study that allows them to achieve their Bachelor of Science degree in just three years. With ACCEL+, they can complete B.S. and M.S. degrees in four years, while maintaining their financial aid for the fourth year graduate degree program.

The urgent demands of this pandemic also have inspired remarkable research, in many different fields. Please allow me to offer just one example: 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 Delta variant.

In considering the remarkable contributions of the Rensselaer community during this pandemic, I also must thank our alumni and alumnae, for their generosity in supporting the exigencies of our health and safety protocols. In particular, the Rensselaer COVID-19 Testing Initiative Fund helped us to convert our laboratory capable of doing “gold-standard” PCR testing — an unusual resource at a university without a medical school — into a CLIA-approved facility able to conduct COVID-19 testing with rapid results on a large scale. 

I must thank our alumni and alumnae, also, for supporting the student experience during this difficult time.  During the 2020-2021 academic year, our health and safety protocols meant that we could not allow our students to live in their Greek houses. Our Greek chapters faced financial hardships and deferred maintenance as a result. Yet, many of our Greek Life alumni and alumnae helped to ease that hardship for their chapters with their philanthropy, with efforts that will continue through the end of the year. They contributed in other ways, as well, including by helping students in their fraternities and sororities find internships and other pre-professional experiences. 

I thank all of you for what you have done during these challenging times, and I urge you to stay involved, particularly in identifying Arch “away semester” experiences for our rising juniors. The Arch semester off-campus during the traditional junior year is a critical opportunity for intellectual growth for our students — but also a great opportunity for any organization that has the benefit of welcoming a Rensselaer student for a semester, or more.

As you may know, I announced this past spring that I will be retiring on July 1. It is somewhat paradoxical that, reaching the end of my 23-year tenure — having led Rensselaer during the greatest public health crisis in a century, with a climate crisis bearing down upon the world — I am so optimistic about the future of the Institute — and its ability to convert even extreme disruptions into opportunities. It is because of Rensselaer, its people. And its bright future ahead.

Since my tenure began in 1999, under The Rensselaer Plan and The Rensselaer Plan 2024, we have put in place the people, programs, platforms, and partnerships that have allowed Rensselaer to thrive.

Now, we are looking forward in ways that will allow Rensselaer to have an even greater impact globally. I often have spoken about the fact that in a highly interconnected world, we all are subject to intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences — when there is a triggering event.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic is such a triggering event — with enormous public health, social, economic, and geopolitical consequences. It has revealed intersecting vulnerabilities in our healthcare system, supply chains, employment policies — even in our government and its ability to mount coherent, unified responses. All of this has led to cascading consequences: lost lives, the resurgent outbreaks of COVID-19 disease, overloaded ICUs unable to take on non-COVID patients, economic weakness coupled in some sectors with surging demand, and shortages of key materials and products we depend upon in our daily lives. 

Anticipating and preventing such triggering events and their potential domino effects require collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations. Rensselaer, as The New Polytechnic, excels at catalyzing such collaborations.

Now, we have identified four areas of global vulnerability that align with our signature thrusts in research and education. For each of these areas, we are focusing on the establishment of new centers or institutes that will encompass expertise across Rensselaer and important partnerships around the globe.

The first institute is one I had the pleasure of announcing last spring at the White House Leaders Summit on Climate: the Rensselaer Institute for Energy, the Built Environment and Smart Systems, or EBESS.  EBESS, which is based in Industry City in Brooklyn and in Troy, is bringing together our Schools of Architecture and Engineering with distinguished partners that include industry leaders Siemens and Lutron Electronics; the building engineering consulting firm Thornton Tomasetti; the international architecture firms HKS, OBMI, and Perkins & Will; and the Brooklyn Law School. 

Together, Rensselaer and its partners are addressing the grand challenge of energy security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and urban growth. Much of the population growth expected worldwide over the next three decades will take place in cities. By 2050, the world’s cities will need to grow to accommodate 2.5 billion additional people. 

Yet our built environment already is responsible for nearly 40% of annual global carbon emissions—in building materials and construction, and in building operations, especially heating and cooling. So, as we expand our cities, we also must move with great urgency towards energy efficiency. 

In addition, we must anticipate the effects of climate change on our cities and engineer greater resilience into them. Hurricane Ida recently offered us tragic demonstrations of the ways that our existing urban infrastructure can prove inadequate to the extreme weather we now experience: In New Orleans, people died of oppressive heat after a power outage. In New York City, people drowned in basement apartments.

Today, our cities are not optimized for energy use, for climate resilience, or for the health and well-being of all their citizens. Our built environment does not interact intelligently with the electrical grid, with transportation infrastructure, with supply chains. 

New approaches and new technologies offer the possibility of seamlessness. The opportunity here is to view each city as a system of systems, and to allow sophisticated interactions and exchanges of information among them — in order to achieve a collective, multi-scale intelligence — to the benefit of all. 

EBESS will focus on deep decarbonization and climate resilience—bringing together architects, engineers, and policymakers, to devise responsive new materials and building platforms for net-zero structures; and to model and design cities with integrated emissions-free transportation, communications, and supply chain networks. With our partner the Brooklyn Law School, EBESS also will model the appropriate regulatory and legal considerations—balancing information flow for the seamless operation of a system of systems, with cybersecurity and privacy to protect city-dwellers as they move about — and ensuring that renewable energy resources are equitably shared.

The second great vulnerability Rensselaer is focusing on is that of human disease, and our need to realize the promise of precision medicine, and to improve public health. Like EBESS, our incipient Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine, or CEPM, will be based in New York City.  A partnership in both research and education with our affiliate The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, CEPM will drive advances in 

  • point-of-care and point-of-use devices and diagnostics, 
  • micro-physiological platforms for discovery and diagnosis, 
  • robotic surgery, 
  • biomedical imaging, and 
  • artificial intelligence and machine learning applied to biomedical data. 


It will focus on neuro-engineering for the minimally invasive control and regulation of neural circuitry, immuno-engineering to help our bodies fight cancer and infectious diseases, and regenerative and reparative medicine for personalized tissue repair and regeneration. 

With this center, we will create a doctoral program in Engineering and Precision Medicine that will enable students to earn joint, dual, or individual doctorates from Mount Sinai and Rensselaer. 

The third global challenge we have identified as one where Rensselaer can contribute uniquely is that of making the highest possible use of rapidly advancing digital tools. At Rensselaer, we have built a remarkable computational ecosystem that includes the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, the Rensselaer-IBM Artificial Intelligence Research Collaboration, our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, and our Center for Computational Innovations — which houses AiMOS, the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university and one of the world’s most advanced testbeds for artificial intelligence applications. Now, we are taking our resources and talent and bringing them together in a new Institute for Data, AI, and Computation, or DAIC. DAIC will help to advance new computational paradigms, including those that are a hybrid of conventional, neuromorphic, and quantum computing — combining bits, neurons, and qubits — allowing humanity to address challenges at a new level of complexity. And, with new programs for graduate students, DAIC will help to educate the next generation of leaders for these new paradigms. It will allow us to advance and use quantum computing, edge computing for networks and cyber-physical systems, and quantum communications.

Finally, as we assess the intersection of humanity’s greatest vulnerabilities with Rensselaer expertise, we will focus on fresh water. Climate change, pollution, and overuse are stressing lakes, rivers, aquifers, and wetlands around the world, with potentially cascading consequences.

At Rensselaer, we intend to build upon the knowledge we already have acquired about freshwater ecosystems at our Margaret A. and David M. Darrin '40 Fresh Water Institute and through The Jefferson Project, which uses novel sensor platforms and massive amounts of streaming data to guide experimentation and to help us understand threats to New York State Lakes, including road salt and toxic algae. Now, we envision a Global Fresh Water Institute to better understand stressors on fresh water resources at all scales — from the molecular to the macro scales — and develop strategies to help conserve fresh water around the globe.

It is, indeed, a thrilling moment to be part of the Rensselaer community! I thank you for allowing me to introduce our ambitions going forward. Please stay tuned for details on four upcoming Presidential Global Game Changers panel discussions focusing these four key initiatives, and the challenges that they will address.