Computational Science and Engineering

The scientific swerve: Changing your research focus

Many scientists alter their research focus, at least slightly, over their career, according to studies by Boleslaw Szymanski, a computer science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Szymanski’s group followed the work of more than 14,000 scientists from 1976 to 2009, using data from American Physical Society journals. The results showed that most researchers tend to stay in their field, but that those who don’t progress along a related path. In describing their findings, Szymanski and colleagues use an analogy inspired by Isaac Newton’s reflection on his own research: They describe a scientific career as a walk along the beach, moving from one interesting shell (in this case a research topic) to another. 

These findings support a similar analysis that Szymanski’s group performed on data from journals and from U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grants in computer science. In this field, scientists tend to shift research focus roughly every 10 years. Some make once-in-a-career moves to substantially different areas. The field itself changes with technological advances, Szymanski says, so even researchers who stay in one area at least change methods over time. 

Hackers converge on RPI campus

Hundreds of students spent their weekend hacking away, competing in the third annual HackRPI marathon. The 24-hour, two-day event drew about 300 students from a wide range of schools to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus. The campus’ Darrin Communications Center served as the central hub — and temporary home — for avid student hackers focused on creating projects in areas of technology that address hardware, web, data, mobile, video game and virtual reality, and the humanitarian fields, among others.

Alexa, What's The Future Of AI?

Once upon a time, we dreamed of artificial intelligence in outer space, in a sci-fi future, far from home. Now, we’re talking with computers in our kitchens.  Asking them anything. “Alexa, what’s the Inaugural Oath?” “How big is a blue whale?” “What’s the square root of seven trillion forty two?” Does this ambient, ask-it-anything-anytime AI give us superpowers? Make us great? Make us lazy? And what comes next? This hour On Point,  talking with Alexa, and humans, about the AI future. — Tom Ashbrook

The Internet of Things Needs a Code of Ethics

In October, when malware called Mirai took over poorly secured webcams and DVRs, and used them to disrupt internet access across the United States, I wondered who was responsible. Not who actually coded the malware, or who unleashed it on an essential piece of the internet’s infrastructure—instead, I wanted to know if anybody could be held legally responsible. Could the unsecure devices’ manufacturers be liable for the damage their products?

Right now, in this early stage of connected devices’ slow invasion into our daily lives, there’s no clear answer to that question. That’s because there’s no real legal framework that would hold manufacturers responsible for critical failures that harm others. As is often the case, the technology has developed far faster than policies and regulations.

But it’s not just the legal system that’s out of touch with the new, connected reality. The Internet of Things, as it’s called, is also lacking a critical ethical framework, argues Francine Berman, a computer-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a longtime expert on computer infrastructure. Together with Vint Cerf, an engineer considered one of the fathers of the internet, Berman wrote an article in the journal Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery about the need for an ethical system.

One room seeks all the answers at RPI

Imagine being in a room to ask questions of one of the world's most powerful computers. An artificial intelligence containing more information than the largest library, it can recognize you, hear you, see what you are pointing at, and even notice if you might be perplexed or inattentive. It knows all of your earlier work and might even anticipate your questions.

The Hidden Dangers of Road Salt

“It has a really widespread number of effects on the whole food web or ecosystem,” says Rick Relyea, a professor of biological sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Relyea has studied how road salt runoff impacts lakes as part of the Jefferson Project at Lake George in New York state. Recently, he found that road salt can reduce the size of rainbow trout hatchlings by about 30 percent, influencing their ability to elude predators and decreasing the number of eggs they lay. One experiment he worked on found that higher levels of salt could change the male-female sex ration of wood frogs.



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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, over 30 research centers, more than 140 academic programs including 25 new programs, and a dynamic community made up of over 6,800 students and 104,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include upwards of 155 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit