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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Looking Back at 2011 at Rensselaer

December 22, 2011

Looking Back at 2011 at Rensselaer

For many of us at Rensselaer, December brings with it an onslaught of year-end reviews, top-10 lists, “best-of” compilations, and a host of other collections of newspaper, magazine, broadcast, and online articles that attempt to capture important events and accomplishments. Looking at these lists has led us to peer back at the year that was at Rensselaer. We created our own inventory of top stories. It certainly does not touch on everything that went on here in 2011, but it’s an attempt to take a moment and reflect on some interesting and important stories, ranging from research to student life to higher education to Institute business.

In addition, Rensselaer experts were quoted around the world on  important topics such as:  the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, using social media while traveling, Mississippi River flooding, the study of light, research on how opinions spread, new research on testing medical procedures, and the job market for college graduates.

In no particular order of importance and drawing upon our roster of hundreds of events, news releases, and internal stories, following is our own “best of” list for 2011:

Rensselaer Alumni Earn National Medals: Three graduates of Rensselaer traveled to the White House to accept National Medals of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama: transistor and semiconductor pioneer B. Jaylant Baliga, digital camera inventor Steve Sasson, and microcomputing leader Marcian E. “Ted” Hoff Jr.

Rensselaer Community Enjoys IBM Jeopardy! Watson Challenge: Thousands of students, staff, faculty, press, and other visitors gathered at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) for three nights in February to watch the live broadcast of IBM’s Watson computer taking on the world’s best Jeopardy! champions. Watson, designed by an IBM team lead by Rensselaer graduate David Ferrucci ’94, handily beat the two Jeopardy! champions, and opened all of our eyes to the fascinating potential of computers like Watson. Attendees each night were also treated to a panel discussion on Watson before each broadcast, including two IBM scientists who studied at Rensselaer: Chris Welty ’85 and Adam Lally ’98. Welty even took the time to meet with Rensselaer students during his visit.

President Shirley Ann Jackson Delivers Keynote Address at Grace Hopper Woman in Computing Celebration : Speaking in Oregon Nov. 11, President Jackson discussed the importance of cultural understanding and trust in a hyper-connected world, and the complexity and resultant technical challenges for those in the professions related to the development and use of the Internet, social media, and social/cognitive networks.

U.S. Surgeon General Addresses Graduates at 205th Commencement: Dr. Regina M. Benjamin emphasized the important of service at the May 28 event, while President Shirley Ann Jackson urged graduates to become “architects of change.” On the afternoon before Commencement, President Jackson led the annual President’s Colloquy with Dr. Benjamin, G. Wayne Clough, 12th Secretary of The Smithsonian Institution, and Samuel F. Heffner Jr. ’56, Board of Trustees Chairman Emeritus.

Setting the Stage for Life: Scientists Make Key Discovery About the Atmosphere of Early Earth: Scientists in the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer used the oldest minerals on Earth to reconstruct the atmospheric conditions present on Earth very soon after its birth. The findings, which appeared in the journal Nature, are the first direct evidence of what the ancient atmosphere of the planet was like soon after its formation and directly challenge years of research on the type of atmosphere out of which life arose on the planet.

Eighth Annual “Gamefest” Held: Augmented Reality, Microsoft Kinect, mobile apps, and so-called “serious games” were all part of GameFest 2011, held at Rensselaer May 6-7. The annual festival, now in its eighth year, was larger than ever, drawing on three collegiate game design programs, an exhibition of more than 30 student games, and appearances by industry leaders including Brian Reynolds, chief game designer at Zynga, developer of FarmVille and FrontierVille.

Co-leadership of Regional Economic Development Proposal: Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson co-chaired a regional economic development team, which worked with an array of organizations and individuals to design a proposal for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s competition for close to $800 million in funding for regional and transformative projects. The Capital Region was awarded more than $62 million for 88 projects in the eight-county region.

Rensselaer Professor of Architecture Awarded “Rome Prize” Fellowship : Professor Lonn Combs was the winner of the 2011 Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome, a recognition that includes a fellowship to explore the architectural resources of Italy, Europe, and the Academy. He will explore the use of modern-day computation to explore the history of innovation in architecture. The Rome Prize is awarded annually to about 30 individuals who represent the highest standard of excellence in the arts and humanities.

“The Ascent” Art Installation/Ride Links EEG Headset and Theatrical Flying Rig : A team of Rensselaer students created a system that pairs an EEG headset with a 3-D theatrical flying harness, allowing users to “fly” by controlling their thoughts. The “Infinity Simulator” made its debut with an art installation in which participants rise into the air – and trigger light, sound, and video effects – by calming their thoughts.

Rensselaer Community Works To Support Area Hurricane Victims:  Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee followed a path along the United States eastern seaboard, through New York City, and inland between the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys onward to Vermont and Canada. In the aftermath, several communities have been trying to pick up the pieces while dealing with the impact of extreme flooding, rainfall, and power outages. To assist several local communities, a band of helpers from Rensselaer engaged in ongoing volunteer efforts.

President Shirley Ann Jackson Receives Three Honorary Degrees: President Jackson traveled to South Korea, St. Louis, and New Jersey to receive honorary degrees at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology ( KAIST), Washington University, and Drew University.

Humboldt Research Award : Professor Wayne Gray was awarded a Humboldt Research Award from the Germany-based Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The honor includes a fellowship that will allow Gray, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science and director of the CogWorks Laboratory at Rensselaer, to pursue research at the Max Planck Institute Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition (ABC) in Berlin. The Humboldt Research Award is granted in recognition of the achievements of a researcher whose fundamental discoveries, new theories, or insights have had a significant impact on their own discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future.

Think Big: Ten Rensselaer Polytechnic Students Recognized for Innovative Ideas to “Change the World”: A system to increase intravenous therapy, a breakthrough in detecting bacteria in water, and an innovation that prevents disease and creates jobs and cogeneration water purification for China are just a few of the winning ideas in the Fall 2011 Change the World Challenge at Rensselaer. Created to support entrepreneurship education and stimulate ideas to improve the human condition, the twice–yearly competition offers a $10,000 cash prize pool that is shared by the winning students and student teams who develop innovative ideas and inventions with the potential to make the world a better place.

Alumni Hall of Fame Grows: In a special ceremony Sept. 23, Rensselaer inducted five new members into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame: Livingston Houston ’13, Peter Bohlin ’58, Steven Sasson ’72, Claire Fraser-Liggett ’77, and Jeffrey Friedman ’77.

Studying “Choice” Moms: Linda Layne, the Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of anthropology at Rensselaer, has been researching choice moms, conducting ethnographic research, monitoring social scientific research, newsletters, blogs, chat rooms, published memoirs, and pop culture portrayals since 2008. This year she began expanding her investigation as a visiting fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Family Research in the United Kingdom.

A Tale of Two Class Rings: Rensselaer is one of only a few schools in the country where the class ring is designed solely by students. In a tradition dating back to the 1960s, students have created rings to reflect the unique history, memories, and shared experiences that are special to the class. The Rensselaer Class of 2012 received their rings on April 6 during the Junior Ring Ceremony. As part of this celebration, Rensselaer graduate Juan Gonzalez, class of 1949, shared the incredible story of being reunited with his class ring after losing it more than 50 years ago on a beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Three Talented Leaders Join Rensselaer as Deans: Laurie Leshin, deputy associate administrator of exploration systems for NASA, joined Rensselaer as dean of the School of Science. Mary Simoni, an associate dean from the University of Michigan, joined Rensselaer as dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. And Thomas Begley, dean of the Business School at University College Dublin, accepted an appointment as dean of the Lally School of Management and Technology.

Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas :  Scientists in the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.

Engineers Launch Bacteria Into Space Aboard the Final Mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis:  There were some interesting passengers on the final mission of the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis: thousands of bacteria. Professor Cynthia Collins led a series of experiments that were aboard the shuttle. The research seeks to understand how microgravity changes the way potentially dangerous bacteria grow.  She collaborated with Director of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Jonathan Dordick and Professor Joel Plawsky of Rensselaer.

Area High School Girls Explore High-Tech Careers as Part of Annual “Design Your Future Day:” More than 200 10th and 11th grade girls from the Capital Region, New York state, and across New England participated in the “Design Your Future Day” program at Rensselaer on April 16. The annual event is designed to engage students in activities to inform and excite them about degree programs and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.

 “Nanoscoops” Could Spark New Generation of Electric Automobile Batteries: An entirely new type of nanomaterial developed by Professor Nikhil Koratkar’s research team could enable the next generation of high-power rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric automobiles, as well as batteries for laptop computers, mobile phones, and other portable devices. The new material, dubbed a “nanoscoop” because its shape resembles a cone with a scoop of ice cream on top, can withstand extremely high rates of charge and discharge that would cause conventional electrodes used in today’s Li-ion batteries to rapidly deteriorate and fail.

Engineering New Weapons in the Fight Against Juvenile Diabetes: Engineers at Rensselaer are combining automation techniques from oil refining and other diverse areas to help create a closed-loop artificial pancreas. The device will automatically monitor blood sugar levels and administer insulin to patients with Type 1 diabetes, and aims to remove much of the guesswork for those living with the chronic disease. For six years, Professor B. Wayne Bequette has been creating progressively more advanced computer control systems for a closed-loop artificial pancreas. His work stands to benefit the 15,000 children and 15,000 adults who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, every year in the United States. For Bequette, the fight against Type 1 diabetes is also personal. His younger sister developed the disease early in life, when the state of diabetes care was not nearly as advanced as today.

Rensselaer Undergraduate Students Open Swing Dance Studio: For dance aficionados, swing dancing is often described as a joyful, high-energy, improvisational street dance. Two Rensselaer undergraduate students, who are also members of the RPI Ballroom student club, have turned their love of swing dancing into a business opportunity.  Founders and dancing partners Orian Breaux and Emily McNeight plan to hit the dance floor with new recruits and seasoned swing dance veterans with the opening of the Swing Syndicate, a dance studio located in the heart of the City of Troy.

Ten Years After 9/11, Infrastructure Interdependence Still a Challenge in United States: Professor Al Wallace was watching the live television news coverage from Manhattan when his phone rang. Only a few hours after the unthinkable terrorist attacks on Sept.11, 2001, a program manager from the National Science Foundation called to ask for Wallace’s help in assuring nothing like this could ever happen again. Wallace, an expert in decision sciences and systems engineering, readily accepted. Within two weeks, he and his team were at Ground Zero. His research since then is helping experts better understand how different components of energy, telecommunications and other infrastructure are interconnected and can present challenges during disasters.

From 9/11 to Fukushima: The Science of Donated Stuff: For years, Professor Jose Holguín-Veras had a ritual. Prior to each and every monthly meeting with colleagues and former students on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center Tower 1, he would stop and buy a hot mocha at a coffee shop on the ground level. Even today, 10 years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shook the world and destroyed the Twin Towers, the smell of hot mocha brings Holguín-Veras back to those meetings with state and city transportation officials. Among the ranks of these officials were a handful of his former students from Rensselaer. On the day of the tragedy, most of escaped with their lives. Beyond the personal impact of the terrorist attacks, Holguín-Veras was one of several Rensselaer professors tasked with studying and learning from the aftermath of the tragedy. His research projects started with air travel, but took an unexpected turn to a topic entirely new to academia: the logistics of donations. His work since then is helping to create a new roadmap for relief policies in the future.

Rensselaer Engineers “Cook” Promising New Heat-Harvesting Nanomaterials in Microwave Oven: Waste heat is a byproduct of nearly all electrical devices and industrial processes, from driving a car to flying an aircraft or operating a power plant. A team of engineering researchers led by Professor Ganpati Ramanath has developed new nanomaterials that could lead to techniques for better capturing and putting this waste heat to work. The key ingredients for making marble-sized pellets of the new material are aluminum and a common, everyday microwave oven.

Uncharted Territory: Scientists Sequence the First Carbohydrate Biopolymer :  One major molecule in the biological triumvirate that includes protein and DNA has remained largely uncharted: carbohydrate biopolymers. This year, for the first time ever, a team of researchers led by Robert Linhardt of Rensselaer announced the sequence of a complete complex carbohydrate biopolymer. The surprising discovery provides the scientific and medical communities with an important and fundamental new view of these vital biomolecules, which play a role in everything from cell structure and development to disease pathology and blood clotting.

Rensselaer Celebrates Cancer Superheroes: More than 1,100 members of the Rensselaer community, along with family and friends participated in the sixth annual Relay For Life event on campus, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. The Relay For Life is a community event that celebrates the lives of cancer survivors and remembers those who have lost their battle with the devastating disease. The theme that Rensselaer selected for 2011 was “Superheroes.” Some donned their favorite superhero cape or costume to fight against their arch nemesis: cancer.

A Unique Place To Call Home : Several members of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity officially moved into a distinctive and historic new home. The fraternity officially took ownership of the former St. Francis DeSales Church and rectory on Congress Street in the City of Troy. The fraternity, which consists of 17 student members and more than 700 alumni, finalized the purchase of the buildings from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany after the sale was approved by the City of Troy Zoning and Planning Boards last fall.

Restoration of Chasan Building and Proctor’s Theater Underway: Rensselaer announced an agreement with Columbia Development Companies to assume ownership of and begin work on Proctor’s Theater and the adjacent Chasan office building in Troy.

Contact: Mark Marchand
Phone: (518) 276-6098