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Thrust to the Top

Fencer Caroline Purcell ‘02 has cut and thrust her way not only to the top of her sport but also to one of 174 annual National Collegiate Athletic Association Postgraduate Scholarships. Purcell is the 33rd MIT student to win one of the $5,000 awards. The internationally ranked fencer plans to work a few years at a construction management firm in New York before using her scholarship toward a master’s degree in civil engineering at MIT.

Purcell started fencing at age 10 and went on to win the national high-school fencing championship as a senior at New York’s Marymount School. Entering MIT, Purcell found no women’s sabre team, so she joined the men’s team. (MIT started a women’s team the following year.) At one meet, an opposing team’s coach walked away when one of his starters had to fence Purcell, apparently thinking she was no match. “A minute later I was ahead three points,” she says. Purcell has competed in eight World Cup tournaments while at MIT and is eyeing the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Teflon Comes out of the Kitchen

Movie characters fall in swimming pools and seconds later are bone dry. Are their clothes coated with Teflon, courtesy of chemical engineering professor Karen Gleason ‘82, SM ‘82?

Gleason’s patented process can apply any of several different polymers to almost anything-fabric, glass, paper, silicon-that fits inside what she likes to describe as a “vacuum toaster.” Gases are pumped into a vacuum chamber and heated by wire filaments; they react and decompose into smaller molecular units, or monomers. At the bottom of the chamber is a raised, water-cooled base. When the monomers reach a cool surface, they link up into polymer chains, so they coat whatever is resting on the base.

Teflon thus deposited will form microscopic cylinders around the individual fibers of a fabric, so it sticks even without the thick layer of adhesive used in conventional processes. A cotton glove coated with Teflon in Gleason’s lab is indistinguishable from its uncoated mate. But even though your skin is visible through the cloth, water poured onto it beads like mercury and skips off if you tilt your hand. Gleason’s former students have started a company to commercialize the technology, which could stainproof fabrics, waterproof eyeglasses or lubricate razor blades.

Dining la Carte

A complete overhaul of the Institute’s dining services greeted the MIT community this fall. Every dining facility on campus underwent some kind of redesign, ranging from changes in signs and menus to a $3 million renovation of the dining facility in Next House. “In my career, I’ve never come across any institution that’s made as many changes so quickly over one summer,” says Rich Berlin, director of campus dining.

But the changes went well beyond the visible. Ending food service giant Aramark’s 16-year monopoly on MIT dining, a committee of students, faculty and staff recommended that three different vendors operate on campus. Aramark continues to run MIT Catering, the faculty club and the Sloan School satellite caf, but San Francisco-based Bon Appetit now supplies dormitory dining halls, changing menus daily in cooperation with students. Sodexho, a French company that claims to be the world’s largest food service provider, has taken over Lobdell Food Court, Walker Memorial dining hall and the satellite cafs around campus. “Students really wanted competition on campus,” says Berlin. “They thought they were not getting value for their money.”

Two new independent eateries also opened in the student center in August-Arrow Street Crpes and the Alpine Bagel Company, replacing Toscanini’s and Courses. A new caf with coffee and bakery items opened in Lobby 7 in September, and the dining room in Simmons, MIT’s new undergraduate residence hall, is expected to open in November.

Not only have food service options expanded, but they’re also receiving better promotion, through a Web site, ads in campus papers, flyers, special events and giveaways. “Now we can let people know what’s going on,” says Berlin.

MIT Rejects On-Campus Secrecy

MIT professors are encouraged to do classified national-security research, but not on campus. In June a panel of professors recommended that MIT’s long-standing policy against conducting classified research on campus should be strengthened. Classified research, says committee chair and Institute Professor Sheila Widnall ‘60, SM ‘61, ScD ‘64, would split the campus into two parts-one with access to classified material and one without. “The implications are not good for students,” she says. “It’s very important for young people to present their results in an open environment; it facilitates the next step in their careers.”

Provost Robert Brown decided to create the panel in August 2001 to examine questions of open access to data from industry-sponsored and classified research on campus. “It had been 30 years since we looked at these issues,” he says. “Then 9/11 came and the Institute was turned upside down.” By the time the committee was assembled in late October, the issue had gained new currency.

The MIT report was the first to address questions about academic openness and sensitive research raised by new federal measures to combat terrorism. The committee suggested that current research recategorized as classified or sensitive by the USA Patriot Act (or any subsequent legislation) should be discontinued or moved off campus, with the Institute providing appropriate facilities at Lincoln Laboratory or other locations for faculty who wish to pursue such research.

An Award on Her Mind

Ann M. Graybiel, PhD ‘71, Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience, won the 2001 National Medal of Science, the nation’s most prestigious science honor, in May. Graybiel, the only woman among this year’s 14 winners, was recognized for her work on understanding the region of the brain known as the basal ganglia.

Graybiel believes many neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders may stem from communication disruptions between the basal ganglia, which store instructions for habits, and the rest of the brain. She hopes to better understand such disorders in order to find therapies to treat them.

To accomplish these goals, Graybiel sends mice, rats and monkeys to “school” and records the electrical activity in their brains as they learn skills. Graybiel’s newest project is integrating data collected from unrelated experiments into a single computer model that may uncover previously indiscernible information. “No one person is going to solve the problem, but by golly, I’d like to get a stab at it,” she says.

Researcher’s Musical Note

Michael Hawley, director of special projects at MIT’s Media Lab, delights in expressing a nontechnical side. In June, Hawley outplayed more than 70 competitors to become cowinner of the third Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, an offshoot of the prestigious professional piano competition.

Although the computer scientist’s kindergarten piano teacher gave up on him after only four lessons, he started instruction again in middle school and went on to double-major in music and computer science at Yale University. Hawley continued playing while pursuing a PhD in media arts and sciences at MIT but stopped when he joined MIT’s faculty in 1993.”The busier I got, the less creative I became, and the less happy I was,” he says.

In 1998, acquaintance and Van Cliburn Foundation president Richard Rodzinski asked him to enter the foundation’s first amateur competition, for pianists over 35. Hawley loved the idea, so he started practicing again. On his third try, Hawley won the competition, which is held every other year. “My ambition is to keep playing beautiful music from time to time for people who like listening to it,” he says.

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