On Tuesday, President Shirley Ann Jackson presented an IdeasLab titled “From Concept to Commerce” in the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. Along with Director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center Richard Siegel, Director of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Jonathan Dordick, and the Director of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center Boleslaw Szymanski, Jackson described how the “transformation” of RPI can be implemented on a local, national, and global scale.
The presentation is a repeat of the one Jackson and company gave in January at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ecovative, a company created by RPI alumnus Eben Bayer, also signed a contract with Sealed Air Corp.
Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations William Walker began the talk, introducing Jackson, describing the purpose of the presentation, and explaining the format of the presentation—specifically, that each speaker would have five minutes to provide the audience with the information they wished to give.
During her portion of the presentation, Jackson explained that the Rensselaer Plan was “the backbone” of RPI’s changes over the last decade. She stated that the Institute’s researchers were pursuing “high achievement” in five core areas: biotechnology and the life sciences, nanotechnology, information technology and networks, media technology, and energy and environmental science. These researchers work at approximately 30 research centers, including the Biotech Center, EMPAC, and the Nanotech Center. One of the primary goals of the research, Jackson stated, is to “bring transformation ideas into society.”
Jackson also works on boards such as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which provides President Barack Obama with advice on many of the areas which the RPI community is researching. She emphasizes that the research done by Rensselaer researchers “is impactful.”
Siegel then gave his portion of the talk. He began by describing the history of various materials, eventually speaking on the topic of the nanotechnology-based research currently being conducted at RPI. Siegel mentioned that biology has “contributed in unprecedented ways” to the development of new materials. Although properties of substances change on a nano-scale and can cause complications, he emphasized that nanotechnology is not something of the future and that many instances exist in modern society. Siegel also focused on how this information will be passed to future generations. The approach he suggests involves “combining entertainment and education.” Part of this process involves education through the use of websites, as younger generations become more prevalent on the internet.
Dordick’s presentation delved deeper into nanotechnology, as well as its association with biotechnology. He mentioned that “nature is extraordinarily diverse” and that it can be combined with nanotechnology to manipulate commonly occurring chemicals, such as that which causes reactions to poison ivy. This concept can also be applied to other molecules and polymers to “solve today’s problems.” The example Dordick cited was the increasing occurrence of “super-bugs.” One approach to eliminating these bacteria is to incorporate nanotechnology in paint to kill them on contact without causing any harm to humans. Other potential uses for the manipulation of substances, he mentioned, include turning diseased cells into healthy ones, as with cancerous cells, and creating gels to absorb oil, which could be used to clean oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
Szymanski focused on human interactions and networks. The concept in his research is that humans act as nodes, and connections between people create networks. These networks can lead to interaction in the form of social events, rallies, or even global connections. He also covered the advent of social networks, such as Facebook, which has allowed for “a totally new level of social interactions.” Because of this type of site—as well as the internet, in general—connections can still exist over large distances; this was not the case several decades ago. Another area of interest was Szymanski’s study of the value of commitment and how it affects individuals in a group. He came to the conclusion that “the value of commitment is more important in out technologically driven world than ever before.”
After the presentation, Jackson opened the floor to questions from the audience. Acting Provost Prabhat Hajela asked whether, in the field of nanotechnology, researchers currently have the tools to answer the “What if?” questions. Dordick replied, stating that although research has allowed for the exploitation of materials, “we don’t know all the details.”
When pressed with the question of how to bring the social sciences and technology together, Szymanski stated that the understanding of social interactions has been supplemented by technology created because of sociological research. He added that Moore’s law is the result of interaction between social and technological fields.
Szymanski also spoke on cultural differences, how they’re measured, and how interactions between cultures affects them. He said that two trends exist: technology has allowed for a unification in regard to governance and society, but it has also led to an increase in subcultures.
Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Mary Simoni asked about what can be learned from the social sciences to assist with monitoring and measuring. Szymanski emphasized that the social sciences have given rise to different implementations of research. Jackson added that social science research provides other scientists with experience regarding large test groups and dealing with cultural nuance.
Walker posed the question of what obstacles existed when translating research to a commercial environment. Siegel stated that the main issues are scaling up the research and finding a ready market. He acknowledges that this “can be very difficult.”
Jackson asked the three researchers about how they were able to successfully bring individuals of different specialties together. Each presenter agreed that the researchers in their centers have realized that collaboration is productive. They each said that an eagerness to learn, a comfortability with other disciplines, and respect for colleagues are crucial to successful cooperation.