18 May 2024 Science & Technology


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Honors ‘Bridge Builders’ Reid Wiseman and Emily Warren Roebling During Bicentennial Year


May 17, 2024

For Immediate Release  

TROY, N.Y. — During its Bicentennial year, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is celebrating the achievements of two individuals who have built bridges, literal and figurative, to the future: Astronaut and Artemis II Commander Reid Wiseman ’97 and Emily Warren Roebling, who was instrumental in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

While Wiseman and Roebling come from different eras and have overcome different challenges, the two figures share a steadfast dedication to human progress.

As Artemis II commander, Wiseman will lead the first crewed mission to deep space since 1972 and support humanity’s return to the moon. Wiseman embodies the courage and audacity that drives space exploration and expands humankind’s place in the solar system and the universe.

Roebling, an advocate for women’s equality during a period when women could not get a formal engineering education, navigated the worlds of civil engineering and New York City politics to build the Brooklyn Bridge, the engineering marvel of its time. The bridge also represents a remarkable achievement from RPI’s past, as Emily Roebling’s husband, Washington Roebling, who graduated from RPI in 1857, was the Brooklyn Bridge’s chief engineer. When he fell ill during the bridge’s construction, Emily saw the project through to completion.  

Wiseman and Emily Roebling served as beacons of human potential during RPI’s Bicentennial Commencement weekend, which was organized around the theme of “Building Bridges to the Future.”

During Colloquy, a public event held the day before graduation in which the year’s honorands engage with members of the community, Wiseman, the Bicentennial Commencement Speaker, and Roebling, who received a posthumous honorary degree, inspired attendees to pursue dreams that may at first seem unattainable. Roebling was brought to life with the help of generative AI, the RPI Archives, the acting talents of Liz Wisan, and Roebling descendants.

During Commencement, Wiseman will receive an honorary Doctor of Engineering, and Roebling will receive a posthumous honorary Doctor of Engineering, the first awarded in RPI’s 200-year history.

Reid Wiseman ’97

Reid Wiseman ’97, decorated naval aviator, test pilot, and commander of the Artemis II mission, the first crewed mission to deep space since 1972.

Wiseman was selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2009. In 2014, he spent 165 days on the International Space Station, where he and his crewmates conducted more than 300 experiments. He connected with RPI live from the International Space Station, answering questions and doing backflips, during 2014’s Reunion & Homecoming.

“I was eager to return to the RPI campus and to celebrate with the Class of 2024,” Wiseman said. “The entire RPI community is filled with enthusiasm as we honor 200 years of achievements and welcome what the future has in store. RPI shaped who I am today and taught me how to succeed in the toughest situations. RPI graduates are enormously passionate and resilient, and those qualities are going to tackle critical breakthroughs on and off the planet.” 

Wiseman continues RPI’s long and deep connection with the U.S. space program, which includes former RPI President and alumnus George M. Low ’48, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office; Low’s son, astronaut G. David Low ’95; Apollo astronaut John L. Swigert Jr. ’65; and astronaut Richard A. Mastracchio ’87, who conducted nine spacewalks totaling 53 hours.

Emily Warren Roebling

Emily Warren Roebling was the wife of Washington Roebling, RPI Class of 1857, who was chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Washington Roebling treated Emily as a partner in the project, displaying a respect for and trust in his wife that was both unusual and legendary for the time. As his health declined, Emily took on the worlds of civil engineering and construction, operating as the chief project manager and diplomat, and led the bridge construction to successful completion. 

RPI President Martin A. Schmidt ’81, Ph.D., said the university is humbled by the important contributions of Roebling and her family to the Brooklyn Bridge, to Troy, and the world.

“Through her intellect, exceptional diplomatic skills, and tenacity, Emily Warren Roebling is a shining example of the Engineers’ spirit. As we celebrate our past, present, and future during our Bicentennial, we are pleased to honor her lasting contributions to an innovation that changes lives, and to gender diversity in the predominantly male fields of civil engineering and law,” Schmidt said. 

Another first: Generative AI at Commencement and Colloquy

Both Wiseman and Roebling engaged with the RPI community, members of the public, and each other during the Bicentennial Colloquy held in the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center Concert Hall.

The conversation between these two figures — separated by history but united by their passion for engineering and discovery – offered audience members fascinating perspectives on technological progress past and future. Roebling and Wiseman also answered audience questions.

Roebling’s intrepid character was present at Colloquy and Commencement thanks to RPI generative AI experts and the acting talents of Liz Wisan, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, who played the role of Emily Roebling in Season 2 of HBO’s period drama television series The Gilded Age.

Roebling’s AI-assisted participation was carefully planned by a small team including Rensselaer archivist Jenifer Monger; Computer Science scholar Sola Shirai, Ph.D.’24; and Roebling descendant Antoinette Maniatty, Ph.D., who is also the first woman chair of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at RPI. Jim Hendler, Ph.D., director of RPI’s Future of Computing Institute and Tetherless World Chair of Computer, Web, and Cognitive Sciences, led the generative AI work of the team.

As Commencement Speaker, Wiseman drew on his experiences to inspire this year’s graduates to reach for dreams that may seem out of this world. Wisan also delivered Roebling’s brief, generative AI-inspired remarks at Commencement. Roebling descendants Antoinette Maniatty and Kriss Roebling accepted the posthumous honorary degree on Emily Roebling’s behalf.  

“Emily Warren Roebling is a role model for women. Not only did she lead a project from behind the scenes in a man’s world, but as a wife and mother she also engineered her family’s contributions to Troy. It is an honor to help people learn about her legacy,” said Wisan. 

“Our Bicentennial Commencement honorands embody the spirit of RPI, one that builds bridges — literal and figurative — to the new, into the unknown, so that those who come after us can go even further,” said Schmidt. “As we honor our 200-year history of advancing science and technology, Reid Wiseman and Emily Warren Roebling exemplify the ingenuity and determination each RPI graduate takes with them into the world.”


About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:

Founded in 1824 for the application of science to the common purposes of life, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the first technological research university in the United States. Today, it is recognized as a premier university, noted for its robust and holistic learning community that connects creativity with science and technology. RPI is dedicated to inventing for the future, from shaping the scientists, engineers, technologists, architects, and entrepreneurs who will define what’s next for humanity, to research that bridges disciplines to solve the world's toughest problems. Learn more at rpi.edu.


RPI Media Contact:                                                                        

Samantha Murray

Sr. Communication Specialist

(518) 960-4051


For general inquiries: newsmedia@rpi.edu

Visit the Rensselaer research and discovery blog: https://everydaymatters.rpi.edu/

Follow us on Twitter: @RPINews


Troy, NY. May 17 2024

  1. Close up of Navy ROTC hat
  2. Medium shot of Commander Reid Wiseman
  3. Medium shot of Commander Reid Wiseman giving a speech
  4. Medium shot of Commander Reid Wiseman from behind
  5. Shot of ROTC students posing with Commander Reid Wiseman
  6. Shot of ROTC students posing with Commander Reid Wiseman
  7. Navy ROTC hands Commander Reid Wiseman a patch
  8. SOUNDBITE (English) Commander Reid Wiseman [00:00:57]

This weekend it's all about these young men and women who are getting their degrees from the oldest in the finest, engineering school in the United States, and and moving on to do their career. So to me, it's just an honor to get to talk to them for a moment tomorrow. I really just want to see all their smiling faces and to just feel that rush of enthusiasm and excitement that they're going to bring. I think it's really it's it's such a fun event to be a part of a commencement. Think of what what this place has seen in 200 years. It's seen global conflict. It's seen global triumph. And a complete changing of the landscape, the technological revolution that, we're at the at the first step right now of, of an AI transformation. And RPI is going to be here for the next 200 to lead the way. And, I can't wait to hear what they're saying 200 years from now about where this place has been.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Commander Reid Wiseman [00:01:47]

This place taught me to be failure resistant. It taught me how to go through a day lived through life's twists and turns, and get up the next day, dust yourself off and get moving on. And I think if you if I just scraped away everything else at RPI, it really taught me that, like, just persevere.


  1.  SOUNDBITE (English) Commander Reid Wiseman [00:01:59]


For me I ended up in the space industry. It was it was a dream of mine. But I could have ended up anywhere, and I would have been successful because the education that I had here.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Liz Wisan as Emily Warren Roebling [00:02:09]

It has already been so meaningful to represent someone who I am a little ashamed to say I had never heard of. I had never heard of Emily Roebling, before I did the Gilded Age. And so the fact that more people are learning about her and that I am somehow becoming associated with that, even peripherally, is a pretty incredible honor.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Liz Wisan as Emily Warren Roebling  [00:02:37]

I think that she was ahead of her time, just in terms of what a woman was imagined capable of doing. What a woman was allowed to do. She didn't take society's view of women and say, I can't do this, and insisted that she do it. And she had the education, she learned alongside her husband and I just think she was ahead of her time in that way.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Martin A. Schmidt, Ph. [00:03:10]

So welcome everyone. We have a really special colloquy today in honor of our bicentennial year, and I'm sure you're going to enjoy it. Our theme this afternoon is Building Bridges to the future, and we are celebrating two bridges. First, the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most remarkable achievements in its day, enabled by leadership from RPI's past. And second, we are celebrating a bridge being built to manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. This also being enabled by leadership from RPI. Please join me in welcoming the pathbreaking Emily Warren Roebling.

  1. Liz Wisan as Emily Warren Roebling walks onto stage and joins Antoinette Maniatty, Ph.D , Kriss Roebling, and Commander Reid Wiseman
  2. SOUNDBITE (English) Martin A. Schmidt, Ph.D. [00:04:00]

Tomorrow, we will also award and honorary Doctorate of Engineering to Commander Reed Weisman.

  1. B-roll of the audience watching the Colloquy
  2. SOUNDBITE (English) Rebecca Doerge, Ph.D. [00:04:12]

You both have had fascinating lives, but in very, very different eras, very different times, yet incredibly, you've both built bridges to the future. Emily, you is a role model for women engineers. And Reed, you is a role model for space exploration.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Commander Reid Wiseman [00:04:29]

If you've got Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute written over any degree, I know you're going to be successful. You can't float past a window and not grab a camera because this earth is so magnificently beautiful and no picture does that view justice. It doesn't matter what you're looking at. It could be daytime, nighttime. It could be a giant hurricane that you know, is causing kids to be sleepless at their homes and fearing for their safety, but from space looking down on that, it can be the most beautiful sight you've ever laid eyes on. Think what's even more fun that I want you to reflect on from the 1850s is that I had an idea, and 12.5 hours later, this was on my front doorstep, because we can do that sort of stuff now. So here's a book.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Kriss Roebling [00:05:23]

That she was immensely great at working with people and imbuing a sense of the inevitability of a problem being solved, not just not just facing it with an incredible amount by the way of intuition.

  1. SOUNDBITE (English) Antoinette Maniatty, Ph.D. [00:05:37]

Really pushing bounderies, but she was able to bring people around to this is what it really should be. That can change minds. I think she changed the minds of the men in my family as well. So I think I owe Emily a lot.

  1.  SOUNDBITE (English) Liz Wisan as Emily Warren Roebling   [00:05:51]

I hope that the next century will bring greater opportunities for women to engage in all fields of study and work. Breaking free from the constraints of societal norms. May progress in science and engineering continue to flourish. And may humanity strive for peace and understanding. And above all, I wish for a world where every individual, regardless of gender, can contribute their talents and intellect to the betterment of society.

  1.  Shot of all speakers on stage
18 May 2024