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Alumni Letters

Letters from our Alumni readers
June 1, 2005

Mentors Remembered

It’s hard for me to even begin to list the people at MIT who had a major influence on my life, both as a scientist and as a human being (“Memorable Mentors,” MIT News, May 2005).

First, I would like to comment on how Eyal Ron, a postdoc in Bob Langer’s lab, and Bob Langer, ScD ‘74, himself influenced me. Every undergraduate in the laboratory was treated as an equal; all were peers in the laboratory setting, except some peers had more experience than others. Eyal’s and Bob’s willingness to listen to and accept ideas from an undergrad informs the way I treat undergrads now. To this day, Eyal and I still discuss my professional development, and I cannot thank him enough for guiding my days through graduate school and my entry into the professional world. Bob has also been there every time I needed scientific advice. He is an exceptional resource for a project one of my grad students is undertaking in controlled-release technology. I try hard to carry that level of acceptance, understanding, and patience to my lab students.

Chemistry professor Bob Silbey was one of the best teachers I had. He brought what could have been incredibly boring thermodynamics to life, not necessarily through the subject matter but through the way he delivered it. I’ll never forget one of the first things he said in 54-100. “Don’t try to outshout me in here,” he said, without a microphone. “I’m from Brooklyn, and I can outshout anybody.” I try to bring that command and control to my lectures, where I also never use a microphone; I turn on what I call “lecture voice.” Every time I invoke “lecture voice,” I think of Bob and that cavernous lecture hall that he filled three times a week with clarity.

Barbara Meyer, now at Berkeley, was also an exceptional teacher. The rumor was that 7.08 was a killer class, but Dr. Meyer always explained the most difficult concepts and experiments in the clearest fashion. My hope is that my lectures match the clarity Dr. Meyer brought to the classroom. She was also influential to me personally, because without her pushing me in the direction of applying to Johns Hopkins for grad school, I would not be where I am today.

I know that in this brief treatise I am leaving out many more faculty who profoundly influenced me. There were some exceptional TAs and lab instructors with unlimited patience who guided my shaking hands to complete experiments (Yuval Shoham, PhD ‘88), to find my way through what I originally thought was an impossible problem set (Fay Shamanski, PhD ‘92), and to navigate the minefield of applying to grad school (Tau-Mu Yi, PhD ‘95). There were roommates who taught me how to be a good student and a better person (Tom Bress ‘87, SM ‘90, Eric Reidemeister, SM ‘88). There were support staff, especially in my advisor’s office (Carolyn Beckman!), who helped build my character as a caring, ethical scientist. But most of all, MIT itself helped build me into what I am today. Although a small percentage of my professional training, my MIT education has become a permanent part of who I am, a person ever indebted to these great mentors.

Barry Margulies ‘89
Towson University
Towson, MD

Standout Physics Profs

The article about Robert Van de Graaff (“Spark of Genius,” MIT News, April 2005) brought back happy memories of my first two years at MIT (1949-1951). At the beginning of one semester, a very quiet and distinguished-looking professor entered the classroom and wrote his name on the board–Robert Van de Graaff. With time, I came to realize that this excellent teacher had invented an atom smasher.

Another semester began with the professor writing the name F. W. Sears on the board. I realized Professor Sears ‘21, SM ‘24, was the author of the textbook we were using and felt a strong sense of shock that he would be teaching mere freshmen. Sears would give a complete presentation and discussion of problem solutions entirely from memory. I recall vividly one occasion when a classmate asked a dumb question that caused me to nudge my neighbor, who nudged me back. During the exchange of nudges, Sears looked at both of us, pointed to the door, and said, “Out!” For the rest of the semester I was exceedingly well behaved!

And finally, our physics lectures were given by a professor named M. Stanley Livingston, who, I discovered, had invented the cyclotron.

In later years I came to realize that I had experienced a golden age of physics, where exceedingly well qualified professors helped undergraduates understand the mysteries of the science. This may explain why I so enjoyed my second career, as a high-school physics teacher.

William L. R. Rice ‘53
Fredericksburg, VA

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