When John Hockenberry interviewed MIT neuroscientist Ann Graybiel, PhD ‘71, as part of the Infinite History Project celebrating MIT’s 150th anniversary, the award-winning journalist noted that in Graybiel’s lifetime, scientists have gone from regarding the brain as “utterly opaque” to gaining “the first hints of actually understanding the real structure.”
Graybiel’s interview is one of 102 Infinite History profiles of faculty, alumni, and administrative leaders who have shaped and been shaped by MIT. Viewers can watch the interview videos online and search by keywords thanks to technology developed by MIT alumni at 3Play Media. A team of interviewers including journalist Karen Arenson ‘70 documented the personal reflections and intellectual histories of diverse subjects such as professor emeritus and computer pioneer Jay Forrester, SM ‘45; Institute Professor Robert Langer, ScD ‘74, a leader in biological engineering; and aero-astro professor Dava Newman, SM ‘89, PhD ‘92, an expert on human performance in space.
making the brain work better
The child of a physician, Graybiel grew up loving nature and science. In her small hometown in the Florida panhandle, however, she was not allowed to take science in junior high—girls had to take home economics. Years later, after she earned her undergraduate degree in biology at Harvard-Radcliffe and a doctorate in psychology at MIT, she was still mostly among male scientists. “I was the only female faculty member in my building for many, many years,” she says.
Today, Graybiel works alongside lots of women, whether they’re students or faculty—and she has made a point of mentoring young women throughout her career. She joined the MIT faculty in 1973 and was appointed an investigator at the McGovern Institute in 2001. The same year she received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest science and technology honor, for her pioneering contributions to understanding brain anatomy and physiology, including the pathways underlying thought and movement. In 2008, she was named Institute Professor, MIT’s highest academic award.
As a young scientist, Graybiel says, she entered a field that asked big questions—“What is the nature of thought?”—but had few tools for producing answers. Since then, it’s been transformed by an explosion of techniques that could lead to practical applications. Graybiel and her colleagues have, for example, done research related to functioning of the forebrain that may lead to new treatments for obsessive disorders and addiction.
“I have a feeling, probably shared by many people in brain work, that there may be little adjustments that we need to make in either motivational systems or somewhere in the neurotransmitters that are connecting the cortex with other parts of the brain—just minor little changes that would have the machine work optimally,” she says.
Economics Department Culture
Economist Peter Diamond, PhD ‘63, another Infinite History Project subject, was born in New York City and went to Yale to study mathematics on the advice of a high-school guidance counselor. When he wound up taking more economics courses than math in his first year as an MIT graduate student, the math department sent him down the hall. The graduate registrar handed him his folder “and I walked down and handed it to Bob Solow, who was the graduate registration officer in economics,” he says. “The absence of bureaucracy was one of the real pleasures.”
His new department soon won him over. “The culture of MIT for me was rather narrowly the culture of the economics department,” he says. “And the economics department was and remains a wonderful place to be a graduate student. The faculty were very friendly. The doors were open.”
Years later, that same sense of departmental camaraderie extended to his family life. Diamond’s son Andy, then in the fourth grade, was involved in a school environmental project. The class got a date to appear before the state legislature to make the case for mandating that the plastic rings on drink six-packs be biodegradable. Andy asked his dad if Bob Solow might come along to help make the case, and Solow agreed. With a Nobel laureate in attendance, Diamond recalls, what might have been an obscure hearing was packed. “[It] was on all the TV news stations, and the kids had quite a time,” he says.
Diamond, who was named Institute Professor in 1997, won a Nobel in economics in 2010—following the path of his thesis advisor Solow, who had won in 1987. His work modeling the uncertainties and imperfections (or frictions) of markets has been used to help clarify the needs of individuals and employers in labor markets, among other applications. He has also done significant work on public debt, taxation, and Social Security.
“I like a whole lot of things about MIT,” says Diamond. “The sense of excitement that’s around all the time. The sense that it’s fun to work hard. And the place, MIT, has all sorts of things that affect the country and the world. And then the particular context of the department. We continue to have outstanding students, outstanding colleagues … But one of the glories of teaching economics at MIT is everyone has calculus from day one.”
Building Swarm Robots
The Infinite History Project also includes a conversation with James McLurkin ‘95, SM ‘04, PhD ‘08—a child of the Atari era, when magazines would print Basic code that hobbyists could type into their simple computers to create games. “Programming video games for that class of computer—where you have really serious computational constraints—helped me a lot when I was working on robots,” says McLurkin, who now works on distributed algorithms for multirobot systems as a member of the computer science faculty at Rice University.
During high school, when he was building his first robots, McLurkin resolved to come to MIT after he saw a Nova episode featuring the legendary 2.007 (then 2.70) mechanical-engineering design competition (see “A Champion for Supernerds,” p. M20). He wanted to get his hands on the sophisticated tools and materials those students used. At MIT, a UROP project with Professor Rodney Brooks put them in his hands. “That started the beginning of my entire career with robotics—real robotics, real research, really being in the lab,” he says.
For his senior thesis, McLurkin decided to build one-cubic-inch robots that could act like ants. He designed the project, then recruited people to help build them. “I had ant-day parties,” he recalls. “And I had teams of friends in the machine shop pounding out little handmade gearboxes, and then people soldering circuit boards. It was a lot of fun.”
After graduation, McLurkin worked as an engineering scientist in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, earned a master’s at the University of California, Berkeley, and then returned to the East Coast to take a job at iRobot, which Brooks had cofounded with a group of former students. During his time at iRobot, McLurkin developed swarm microrobots that could carry out coöperative tasks such as detecting land mines. The four-and-a-half-inch-square autonomous robots were the basis for his PhD thesis and won him the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.
At MIT and iRobot, McLurkin served as a mentor for minority students through two summer programs: Interphase, for admitted freshmen, and Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), for high-schoolers. He knew what it was like to be young and intellectually isolated. Although he comes from an African-American family with a long history of earning college degrees, he had few peers interested in technology and science when he was growing up outside New York City. “My high school gave me a peer group of something like three out of 1,600 students,” he says.
Since his Lemelson award, he’s appeared in his own Nova episode and been featured in Time. Although the attention initially made him uncomfortable, he now finds it useful. “In talking to the next generation—especially to minority students—the media is key,” he says. “Getting the voice of technology and science out there, talking about research in robotics … while having brown skin, is something that I think is really important. And it’s something that I take seriously.”