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Alumni Letters

Comments from our alumni readers.
September 1, 2005

Number Theories
Your story on the new major in Biological Engineering (“MIT Declares a Major,” MIT News, July 2005) skipped an important piece of information: what number will the new course be?

It might seem like a silly question, but those numbers often tell a story about the Institute and the history of various disciplines within science and engineering.

My own major was Course IX, brain and cognitive sciences. This number had some prior incarnations that were relevant. According to the alumni database, what was originally “General Course” in the 19th century, moving to “General Science” and “General Engineering,” eventually encompassed “Science Teaching” and “Mathematics Teaching” in the mid-20th century. In 1961 it became “Psychology” and finally, in the mid-1980s, the current BCS (although even under that name it migrated from the School of Humanities to the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology to the School of Science). As somebody who studies social sciences, cognition, and science education, I can see the affinities between these disciplines reflected in the history of course numbering at MIT.

Will the new major be seen as primarily an outgrowth of biology and become an appendage to Course VII? Or perhaps get its own number? When I was an undergrad, one of my housemates was one of the last people to graduate from the undergraduate Course XX, applied biology (also known to many as “fruits and nuts”). Or it could focus on the interdisciplinary nature of the work and take up Course XXV, formerly “Interdisciplinary Science.” Will the faculty wage a pitched battle on this in their meetings, or will some official in the registrar’s office assign a number without fanfare? 
                                                                                                                                                                  Chris Hoadley ‘91
                                                                                                                                                                  State College, PA

Linda Griffith responds: The Biological Engineering Division in the School of Engineering was created as an experimental academic structure in 1998 to foster development of educational programs at the interface of biology and engineering. The MIT faculty voted to make BE a permanent academic unit in Spring 2003 and it is now comparable to other departments in the School of Engineering.

An update on the course number status of biological engineering: none yet, but stay tuned this fall for a report after the Committee on Curricula and others consider a pending request from the dean of engineering that BE become Course XX. As the BE SB progressed through MIT committees on the path to approval, several faculty–and students–who served on these committees suggested that BE should be awarded a course number, since the BE SB represents an entirely new course of study at the undergraduate level. The BE faculty enthusiastically seek to become Course XX, as BE continues the intellectual thread developed by the original Course XX faculty and students. We anticipate a fever pitch of excitement when this historic event happens, but no “pitched battles” among the faculty to get there. Fortunately, the BE SB was developed over many years, with open discussion along the way, thus allowing the concerns of other faculty to be addressed early in the process. 
                                                                                                                                                                   Linda G. Griffith
                                                                                        Professor of biological engineering and mechanical engineering

Microbiologist Mentor
The article “Memorable Mentors” (MIT News, May 2005) brought to mind the lasting influence of my advisor, Professor Arnold Demain. Clear thinking precedes clear writing, Professor Demain used to say. That credo permeated his own writing and teaching in industrial microbiology. His motto also proved very helpful to me when I struggled with my first papers and my thesis on microbial toxins. “Arny,” as he liked to be called, taught me how to think through an argument–and how clean writing would follow naturally. I learned to write convincing term papers, saving or improving my grades.

Arny encouraged his students and postdocs to publish, to attend conferences, and not to be afraid to ask questions and talk to senior scientists. He provided a supportive atmosphere at an institution that can be harsh and unforgiving. All of “Arny’s Army” remember fondly the many social gatherings we attended together, always celebrating comings and goings in the lab.

Arny’s mentoring served me well when I later established a career in science writing. For many years I worked as a science correspondent for the German science magazine Bild der Wissenschaft, always keeping in mind that scientific information can and should be conveyed in clear and concise language. When it is, it is satisfying to the writer and fun for the reader.

I often remember a dinner after a scientific conference, when I was a bit tongue-tied, finding myself seated at a table with three Nobel Prize winners. “Don’t be afraid,” said Arny. “They are just people, too.”
                                                                                                                                                             Bruni Kobbe, SM ‘78
                                                                                                                                                                             Ukiah, CA

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