Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. is the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. A theoretical physicist, Dr. Jackson has had a distinguished career that includes senior leadership positions in academia, government, industry, and research. She holds an S.B. in Physics, and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics–both from MIT. She is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT—in any field—and has been a trailblazer throughout her career, including as the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research university.
America’s Research Universities As Vitally Important As Ever
by Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
As the leader of a university that has been educating brilliant young scientists and engineers for nearly 200 years, I can assure you that in the year 2034 universities will continue to play a crucial role in scientific discovery and technological innovation. To paraphrase Mark Twain, predictions of our demise will prove to be greatly exaggerated.
Of course, the tools we use to teach and research are sure to be very different in 20 years—with more classes and collaborations taking place on-line, and advances in visualization and immersive technologies altering both the classroom experience and the ways research results are explored, achieved, and understood. However, the necessity of universities as a physical crossroads where creative people interact across the disciplines and great ideas emerge from these connections—that will endure.
As to the subjects for research and study— the rapid advances now in data science, and in high-performance and cognitive computing required to manage the flood of data being generated , are already altering all aspects of curriculum and research at universities such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That trend is sure to continue and bear fruit. For example, just as earlier advances in genomics are transforming both medicine and bioengineering, advances in materials genomics will transform the field of materials science and lead to vast improvements in the products and processes used in manufacturing, medicine, and more.
As a society, we must make the investments that support potential, but not predictable, transformations. There will be other new thrusts in education and research that are less easily foreseen, because revolutionary developments generally take time to infiltrate our culture. The Internet, now fundamental to our lives, can be traced back to federal research investments in the 1960s. Medical breakthroughs now making headlines on a daily basis are the result of federal investments in the Human Genome Project in the 1990s. No doubt, ideas researchers are investigating today will have a significant impact by 2034.
We also must support the human capital that enables great ideas. Babies born today will be Rensselaer students in 2034. It is crucial that we invest in their education at every step of the way, so that 20 years from now, when studying at Rensselaer, they are prepared and inspired to take on the great global challenges, and to change the world.