Why We Search

A Message from President Dennis D. Berkey

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
— Galileo

Part detective work, part quest, research speaks to the fundamental human desire to know. For centuries, scholars have set off on the long road to knowing, encountering unexpected detours, blind alleys, and dispiriting U-turns along the way. Theirs has never been a journey for the faint of heart, but it is one that holds the promise of a glorious destination—the discovery of truths that can save lives, drive innovation, and make a better world.

From the old French, recercher, the word research means to search closely. For an appreciation of just how closely a scholar must sometimes search, one need only picture the scientist peering at nanostructures under an atomic force microscope; the historian poring over ancient ledgers in a library archive; or the mathematician parsing the most intricate of equations. The work of such research is difficult and time-consuming—at times all-consuming—demanding an intellectual rigor than shuns shortcuts and shoddy reasoning.

To the question, then, of why we search, the short answer is “because we must.” Human curiosity is simply too powerful to ignore. For those of us in a university, however, the broader answer has to do with the leadership we can offer the world. It has to do with our conscious commitment, every day, to creating an atmosphere in which ideas and inquiry can flourish—to choosing reason over rhetoric, enlightenment over ignorance, progress over repression, and light over darkness.

And, oh, the moment when a new truth is indeed discovered! As the most fortunate scholars can tell you, it is an experience of unparalleled exhilaration.

At WPI, a university that values the education of our undergraduates above all else, research also invigorates every aspect of teaching and learning. WPI faculty share their real-world research with students in real time, adding considerable depth and excitement to the classroom experience. Beyond excitement, however, engaging with research also provides students with an invaluable lesson in what, exactly, constitutes truth. At WPI, students learn to test their ideas against the exacting intellectual standards of science, engineering, and mathematics. They become skilled at asking themselves, “Is this theory borne out by the facts?” These are invaluable lessons at a time when “truthiness” has actually gained a foothold in our vocabulary.

If research is one of the ways WPI can make a difference in the world, then it is also one of our most dynamic means for inviting the world into WPI. Today, research in science and engineering generates significant intellectual property and creates the synergies with industry that take important discoveries straight from the bench to the bedside or wherever they are needed most. I have no doubt that WPI’s new Gateway Park, which will soon house our bioengineering and life sciences departments as well as several private enterprises, will serve as a shining example of this kind of translational research, and I look forward to future issues of this publication highlighting the innovative work taking place there.

In this inaugural issue of Research at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, you will find marvelous examples of WPI faculty and students engaged in the discovery of truths, in the pursuit of innovative research that spans the fields of tissue engineering, fuel cell design, sensor technology, infectious diseases, and interactive game development. Whether in laboratories across our beautiful campus in Worcester or at one of our more than 20 project sites around the globe, these scholars are carrying on a proud and enduring tradition at this university. Since WPI first opened its doors in 1865, research has served as the essential bridge between the two ends of our motto, Lehr und Kunst, or theory and practice. Today, WPI’s thriving research community is pioneering whole new fields and contributing important new knowledge to many of the most pressing issues of our time—and I am delighted that we can share a few of their stories with you.