Our Community

April 3, 2020
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, Professor of Engineering Sciences

Dear Members of the Rensselaer Community,

I hope that all of you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. Unfortunately, because of the current public health crisis, I am unable to hold our traditional Spring Town Meeting. I must commend, however, everyone in the Rensselaer family — our students, our faculty, our Cabinet and staff, our trustees, our alumni and alumnae, and our friends — for enabling Rensselaer to accomplish its essential missions during a time of global crisis. 

The historians among us tell us that daily life in the United States has not been so disrupted since the nation entered World War II, almost 80 years ago. Nonetheless, thanks to all of your efforts, Rensselaer continues to teach the next generation of scientific and technological leaders. We continue to conduct research to address the greatest challenges of humanity, including those posed by infectious diseases. We continue to keep our operations running, albeit largely remotely.

At the same time, we have made the difficult decisions required to keep our community safe, and we made them with alacrity. Several Rensselaer-specific qualities have helped us during this time. We have benefited from excellent planning for a variety of scenarios — including specifically for respiratory-track viruses — with business continuity plans developed for all portfolios. Throughout the stresses of the past month, we have seen a great deal of the resourcefulness and ingenuity that have characterized Rensselaer since its founding. 

I must praise our remarkable faculty, who have been able to pivot with great speed to completely remote instruction. Our entire curriculum, undergraduate and graduate programs, is now being offered remotely. I especially congratulate our faculty faced with the challenge of teaching lab courses remotely — and succeeding using demonstrations and simulations. Given the current level of experimentation surrounding the challenge of delivering a Rensselaer-quality education in this environment, our faculty are developing innovations in teaching that will enhance our already innovative pedagogy. 

This is a moment at which our students’ intellectual agility, amid shifting circumstances, is much appreciated. I must especially congratulate both our juniors and their employers and advisers, who have made the Arch away experience this semester a true learning experience, despite the need for social distancing.

For our rising juniors, we are planning actively for the Arch summer session, which will be delivered remotely. Outreach efforts for Arch away opportunities in the fall or spring continue apace, through outreach to alumni and alumnae, faculty, staff, and parents, as well as to a growing list of leading employers, in order to create, when public health allows, internships and co-ops. 

For all of our students and their families, the agility required at this moment is not merely intellectual, but also emotional. Our soon-to-be graduates have been forced to say goodbyes to dear friends and mentors, much sooner than they expected. We share your disappointment in our inability to conduct our traditional Commencement exercises on campus, but we will convey our deep appreciation and admiration for all you have accomplished in an online ceremony on Saturday, May 23.  As soon as public health permits, we will gather in person to celebrate you, and to thank you for the sacrifices you have made, for our collective well-being.

For both our faculty and our students, the sacrifices being made to slow the course of coronavirus infection include the closing of our on-campus laboratories. Given the Institute’s strength in all things digital, many of our faculty and graduate students have been able to continue their research remotely. For those with wet laboratories, we have ensured that there is essential staff to preserve samples, to care for laboratory animals, and to protect the ability to continue research. 

We also have joined forces with IBM, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, MIT, Department of Energy National Laboratories, NASA and the NSF, and others, to create the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium and to offer our research infrastructure to help in vanquishing this virus. Through the consortium, researchers around the globe will be able to employ our new supercomputer AiMOS — short for Artificial Intelligence Multiprocessing Optimized System. 

With AiMOS, researchers can explore the interconnectedness of biological systems and epidemiological data, as society works to protect our courageous health care workers and those most vulnerable to severe forms of COVID-19. With AiMOS, researchers will develop the most effective interventions possible, both therapeutic and social, and will address gaps in our knowledge. We will come out the other side strengthened in our preparedness for the next global scourge, and to restart our economy. In his White House press briefing on March 22, President Trump thanked Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and its partners for the “tremendous help” we are offering.

We also are making available the expertise of our faculty in critical areas, including data science, artificial intelligence, networking, therapeutic interventions, advanced materials, and public health, as we all join forces to address COVID-19. We have a particular focus on epidemiological data analytics, interventional therapeutics, and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).

Like all universities, Rensselaer has the good fortune of being refreshed every year by wonderful incoming students. We always make a point of greeting our accepted students very warmly, and I delight in the opportunity to introduce Rensselaer to them personally. Unfortunately, we cannot do that this spring. Tomorrow, April 4, we have set up webinars for potential members of our freshman class with all of our schools, to ensure that, even in a time of social distancing, we are able to convey what an extraordinary place Rensselaer is. I look forward to greeting the newest members of the Rensselaer community in late August, and hope that it may be in person. 

I am very much looking forward to seeing all of you again in person, the members of the Rensselaer family, all of whom excel at collaboration, connection, and friendship. It is a privilege to steward Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute alongside you. We have faced many crises throughout our nearly 200-year history. In every case, the Institute has emerged stronger. We will do no less in this instance.

I thank all of you, and each of you, for your efforts. Please stay safe, and keep your loved ones safe. We will come through this together as One Rensselaer. 

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