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5 Questions: RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will deliver the inaugural Pauline Newman ’47 Distinguished Lecture in Science, Technology, and Society at 5 pm April 2. Her talk is titled The New Polytechnic: Addressing Global Challenges, Transforming the World.

Shirley Ann Jackson

Jackson, the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been awarded 52 honorary degrees, and was inducted into the U.S. News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. 

Jackson has served on numerous boards in the past 20 years. Most recently, in 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Jackson co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and from 2009-2014, she served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Jackson is the recipient of many awards, including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Ralph Coats Roe Medal, the New Jersey Governor’s Award in Science (the Thomas Alva Edison Award), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Philip Hauge Abelson Award.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I’ve always loved math and science; that was built into my makeup from the beginning. There were two defining moments, a confluence of two historic events, which inspired me. The first was the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools and offered the opportunity to attend different schools. The second was the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the creation of the Space Race, leading to a greater focus on science and mathematics, particularly in public schools. I ended up in an accelerated program with a focus on math, science, and language arts.

How do we best educate young people for this new era of interconnected challenges and great tools of connection?

We have to teach our students to use new approaches, to use new advanced technologies in new ways, and to collaborate in new ways. It crosses fields from data analytics to the use of mixed-reality immersive environments to using gamification in learning—but also to fold technology into a truly interdisciplinary approach. Our folks will always start from a disciplinary route, but we create the opportunity and requirement that they work across disciplines in science and technology and also with the arts and social sciences. At the same time, they also need to think about global challenges. In doing that, we create graduates who are intellectually agile and who then possess the kind of multicultural sophistication and global view that will allow them to do anything and to change the world.

Vassar, as a liberal arts college, has done some very interesting things in that regard—you are the alma mater of the great Grace Hopper.

Can you provide an example of “The New Polytechnic” in action?

We have something called the Jefferson Project at Lake George. In doing this project, we’re developing a new model for environmental stewardship. It is data driven and interdisciplinary. First, we are turning Lake George into what we dubbed “The Smartest Lake in the World,” using new technologies that have either been invented or adapted for our use. We’re putting in weather stations at key points in the lake: tributary sensors, vertical profilers that measure a panoply of factors that can influence the lake, we’re doing bathymetry studies, and imaging of the lake to develop circulation models. It’s an interesting lake in terms of how the water flows and turns over underground streams. We want to understand the chemistry of the lake, develop food-web models, look at the biota—both vegetative and other living species—and see how various environmental stressors affect or don’t affect the lake.

One part of it has to do with using the new tools and technologies. The other part is that it really is a collaboration across sectors. Our other partners are IBM and the nonprofit Fund for Lake George, so you’re bringing an NGO, a university, and a major multinational corporation together, and it’s a collaboration across disciplines. Our biologists and environmental ecologists have joined forces with our experts in data science and visualization. The project even involves visual artists who are helping to do a rendering of life in the lake. Since we are looking at environmental stresses, you’re propagating this into the area of public policy in terms of how this plays into decision-making and the regulations that govern the lake.

You’ve placed great emphasis on the arts at a technological research university. Why?

It’s important to teach our students about the arts in technology and science and the technology and science in the arts. Look at the Brooklyn Bridge; it was finished 150 years ago. It’s as aesthetically pleasing as it is an engineering marvel of its time. If you understood how it was built, being the first real suspension bridge here, the art of it is part of the engineering of its design. In the end, you end up with something that is pleasing and beautiful. The science and technology is inherent in the artistry and aesthetics of the bridge, and why it’s lasted so long.

In addition, you can look at something as interesting as leaf structure and how the leaf is made that causes water to be collected. People have tried to understand it and develop simultaneous photovoltaic arrays that also happen to collect and channel water in ways that save it and give you potable water sources. You are using the science and the art of the leaf to engineer something that actually helps you think of new water and energy sources.

What are some of the more exciting discoveries and innovations being developed at Rensselaer?

There are two things in healthcare—one that involves social networks and one that involves astrophysics.

We have researchers who have developed a new strategy for dealing with antibiotic resistant bacteria (such as MRSA). What they have done is marry nanotechnology and lytic enzymes, which rupture cell walls. They use this to make coatings for things that kill MRSA on contact.

The second thing in the biological area (being done by a multi-university team led by Rensselaer) is for clinical trials for a closed-loop artificial pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes.

More about Pauline Newman ’47

The Honorable Pauline Newman, who endowed the Distinguished Lecture in Science, Technology, and Society, graduated from Vassar in 1947, and went on to earn a PhD in chemistry from Yale University and an LL.B. from New York University School of Law. Her early career involved work in research, patent law, and policy work. Since 1984 Judge Newman has served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Her distinguished career as a jurist has included authoring many important opinions in the field of intellectual property and patent law, and more broadly, she has been involved in many decisions that have bridged issues of importance for the practice and application of science and technology, for government, business and academia.

 -Photo by Michael Hart

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, March 31, 2015