Tracking the ‘Next Big Thing’

Newswise — Must we now accept the notion that information we previously believed was private and secure is suddenly vulnerable, and how will our lives next be influenced by digital technology? Will patients be given new hope by advances in gene therapy? Will Americans accept driverless cars? How will teachers use artificial intelligence to adapt to the learning styles of their students?

On its 250th birthday, November 10, the Rutgers University community statewide will focus on these and many other provocative subjects as it hosts 80 of its alumni, noted for their thought leadership and innovation, for “A Day of Revolutionary Thinking” on the concluding day of activities associated with the university’s yearlong celebration of its rich history.

The university’s special guests – which include a cybersecurity CEO, a biopharmaceutical company founder, a former New Jersey attorney general and an activist-artist – were invited to share their diverse points of view with students and to demonstrate how learning at Rutgers contributed to their successes.

In anticipation of their presentations, Rutgers Today invited these innovators to discuss the “Next Big Thing” they envision occurring in their respective fields.

Thomas Kennedy, ’77, B.S. Electrical and Computer Engineering
Given the increase in cybersecurity and the number of everyday items with network connectivity, securing the “internet of things” is imperative, stresses Kennedy, chair and CEO of Raytheon Company, which specializes in defense, civil government and cybersecurity solutions. “This is expanding exponentially with the number of things connected online,” he says. “Everything – smartphones, cars, industrial controls, ATMs, TVs and security systems to name a few – is suddenly vulnerable.”

Anne Milgram, ’92, B.A., English
As New Jersey’s attorney general from 2007 to 2010, Milgram led investigations into street gangs, public corruption, gun violence and securities and mortgage fraud. Today, a professor of practice at New York University’s School of Law, Milgram focuses on criminal justice reform through smart data and technology. “Integrating crime, health, education and other data to capture the reality of people’s lives can help us identify when, where and how to intervene to prevent crime,” she explains.

Bhairavi Desai, ’94, B.A., Women’s Studies
In 1998, Desai helped to organize the New York Taxi Workers Alliance; today as executive director of the union, she represents 18,000 taxi drivers working under a charter from the AFL-CIO to build a national union. Desai has her eye on two emerging situations: an eventual unionization of drivers and driverless vehicles. “The struggle will be over how much the first workforce on the frontlines of automation in the ‘platform economy’ can stop Wall Street from using the latter to replace workers altogether,” she says.

Walter B. MacDonald, ’74, B.A., General Science and ’83, Ph.D. Ecology
For MacDonald, president and chief executive officer of Educational Testing Service, a top priority is to advance quality and equity in education in a changing world. “In the not-too-distant future, a new generation of classroom assessments will use artificial intelligence [AI] – sophisticated instant scoring engines, machine learning, voice- and facial-recognition, advanced data-mining tools and intuitive dashboards and other feedback mechanisms – to allow a teacher to directly connect with a student’s learning process in real time and to offer tailored supports based on direct evidence,” he says. “Most important, AI will give educators the ability to individualize learning in ways that we have dreamed about for a long time. Instead of students having to adapt to a teacher’s style, teachers will have the tools to adapt to each student’s learning style.”

Karl Gebhardt, ’94, Ph.D., Physics and Astronomy
Since 2006, Gebhardt, professor of astrophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, has been project scientist on the $40-million Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment, which seeks to better understand the formation, evolution and long-term fate of the universe. “The next major step is to use gravitational waves to study properties of the universe that were not observable before and to merge that information with that received from the electromagnetic spectrum,” he says. “This will allow us actually to watch black holes grow and understand their role in galaxy formation and to explore the earliest times in the universe.”

Stephen A. Tullman, ’89, B.S. Accounting
Tullman, managing partner and co-founder of NeXeption and chair and co-founder of Aclaris Therapeutics, has spent more than 25 years in biopharmaceutical global commercialization and drug development. Calling the future of the industry bright for patients, he says, “We should expect to see the acceleration of the health sciences and advancements like those coming from gene therapy, improving treatment and creating cures across a spectrum of diseases.”

Donald C. Clark Jr., ’79 Law
“Navigating the intersection of personal religious freedom and social civil rights likely will be a focus of constitutional jurisprudence in general and religion clause interpretation in particular,” says Clark, an attorney, adjunct professor at Rutgers Law School and entertainment entrepreneur who begins serving as acting president of the Chicago Theological Seminary in January. “Conflicts, perceived or real, between religious liberty interests and nondiscrimination principles will increasingly result in legislative responses and judicial adjudication. And once again, the country will look to its Supreme Court to apply constitutional principles that date from our founding to contemporary social challenges.”

Laurie S. Stelmaski, ’05, B.S. Nursing
Pressure ulcers affect some 2.5 million patients at a cost of up to $11.6 billion annually in the United States alone. Preventing – or even reducing – the impact of pressure ulcers in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices would vastly improve patient care, according to Stelmaski, a Registered nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. The skin and wound care system that she developed is considered a national model. “The ‘next big thing’ in wound care will be devices that are able to detect deep-tissue damage before it can be seen. They will take readings from tissue and predict the formation of pressure ulcers, which will allow for earlier interventions to be put into place to prevent such complications,” she says.

James Oleske, ’71, Doctor of Medicine
During the early 1980s, Oleske was among the first to recognize that the disease that would come to be known as AIDS could be transmitted at birth. He spent his career treating and advocating for children with HIV/AIDS and terminal illness. Today, he says, there is still a challenge in preventing HIV infection in adolescents. “However,” he says, “this can be accomplished by strong public health programs focusing on safe sex, early education and outreach, and, where applicable, needle exchange programs.”

Kagendo Murungi, ’93, B.A., Women’s Studies
Kenyan activist and artist Murungi helped to launch the Africa Program at OutRight Action International, which provides human rights advocacy on behalf of people who experience discrimination or abuse on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. “As a poet, storyteller and visual documentarian, I am a communicator at heart,” she says. “The next big thing in the evolution of communications, gender equality and African human rights is the simultaneous consciousness and realization of freedom as a shared, documented practice.”

Lenny Kaye, ’67, B.A. History
Kaye, the longtime lead guitarist for poet-rocker Patti Smith, record producer and musical historian looks forward to seeing how emerging digital technology will shape how we express ourselves through musical instruments. “I am interested in the sounds yet to be created,” he says. “I look forward to seeing the human capacity to transform emotion into music, whatever form it may take. And though there will always be those who say that music was better ‘then’ – a hindsight colored by one’s placement in time – for me, music will be better as it will be: the soundtrack of tomorrow.”

The lectures are open to the public and alumni, but spaces are limited and guests must register on the Rutgers 250 website. For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 848-932-0551 or

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