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MIT News: Feature story

Noteworthy

Reading Class Notes taught me what it means to be an MIT alum.

One of the unique experiences of being an MIT student, especially today, is the strange sensation of being judged. It starts at the time of admission or even application, when friends and family may have ideas about what it means to apply to MIT or what it must be like to be a student. Sometimes these ideas are flattening rather than flattering, like the caricature that the school is full of dark computer labs and students who never leave them. Sometimes even when they are flattering, expectations can feel lofty, unrealistic, maybe even agonizing for those of us just starting our careers. We have Tony Stark and Marvel to thank for that. 

On top of dealing with everyone else’s expectations (realistic or not), MIT students also tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. The vast majority of us arrive on campus as 17- to 20-year-olds, and as undergrads, we expect to transition from adolescence to adulthood, evolving both emotionally and socially while preparing for our careers. These objectives are not necessarily complementary, requiring different kinds of growth. MIT remains, arguably, one of the most difficult places on Earth to do all of that at the same time, and we often form close bonds with our classmates as we go through that experience together. The strong sense of community at MIT can get lost in the press coverage and rarely figures in the popular imagination—but it is essential for weathering the blast of the MIT firehose.

Now that I have graduated myself, I find myself drawn to Class Notes, the section of MIT News magazine, dutifully curated by the class secretaries, where alumni can share small snippets from their lives. Beyond the notes from my own class and other young alumni, I’m fascinated by the stories from older alumni and their accounts of everything they have accomplished. The notes cover all parts of alumni life—both professional and personal. Surveying the spectrum of Class Notes provides a compelling picture of generations of students and their life stories. From a younger alum’s perspective, it feels like looking into your own future. 

Some alumni went on to careers in the technical fields MIT is known for. Others made their way in law, business, or medicine. Some cultivated passions for art, music, or writing, becoming poets and authors and pastry chefs—and many pursued a few of these interests at the same time. 

“I get to enjoy small pieces of the lives of classmates who have carved out very different careers,” says class secretary Karen Arenson ’70. “Like Alan Chapman, a Yale PhD in music, who teaches music and performs cabaret. Or Ron Searls, a published poet.” 

Novelist Gloria Chao ’08 wrote in May 2023 to update classmates on her latest book release. In the same issue, Sam Maurer ’07 wrote that he’d composed two choral works sung by a choir in San Francisco and recently moved for a new job at a pharmaceutical company. Sheeva Azma ’05 described having too many jobs—running a science communications company while helping to elect two US Senate candidates, hoping to volunteer at a local hospital and train to become a barista. 

Ophelia Goatson-James ’00 wrote about moving in August 2020 to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she is a civil engineer for the Coconino National Forest: 

We made the move to be closer to my family on the Navajo Nation. My husband, Jason James ’01, accepted a senior transportation planner position with Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). This past September, I took a temporary job as the tribal liaison for Coconino, working with 13 Native American tribes in Arizona.

The notes from the classes of 1970 to 1990 are some of the most interesting to me—reports from a time of life when full, fascinating careers have been had, and a great deal of life has been lived (at least compared to those of us under 30). They represent something to look forward to—and, sometimes, awe-inspiring accomplishments. Alan Davidson ’89, SM ’93, for example, wrote about being nominated by President Biden to serve as assistant secretary of commerce:

I was confirmed by the Senate in January 2022. My main job is to run a $50 billion infrastructure program with the goal of closing the digital divide and connecting everyone in America with affordable broadband service. Suggestions welcome! It’s challenging and amazing and a privilege to serve.

His classmate George Hu ’89 wrote about organizing a group of volunteers to create tools and bots to increase access to covid vaccine appointments in Washington State. 

Finding a covid vaccination in Washington State was an exercise in futility, clicking on hundreds of links and finding them all unavailable, so I decided this was a problem I could solve by scraping all those sites and showing which ones had appointments. I recruited an MIT sophomore to write up a prototype scraper and quickly grew a team of over 100 volunteers from the Seattle tech scene to create CovidWA.com ... We were so successful that the Washington Department of Health created a website, with 90% of the data coming from us ... I had a successful career at Microsoft and wrote the programming language in Excel, but this was the pinnacle of my career!

Lori Tsuruda ’89 wrote about taking on activities to stay occupied during the pandemic, including transporting more than 1,000 leftover meals from a senior living community to elders in need, coordinating the Quahog Bowl ocean science competition for Rhode Island and Connecticut high schoolers, and working with her dogs: 

In 2021, I geographically expanded my hobby, herding sheep with my border collies, to include western Kentucky … where we stay in private, sanitized cottages at Rough River Dam State Park and work outdoors on spacious farmland for nearly a week, three to four times a year … We enjoyed some Karate Kid–like moments in September, when seemingly basic “exercises” translated to amazing teamwork when we returned home to MA.

I noticed a slight uptick in submissions during the covid years of 2020 and 2021. Less activity than usual was happening in everyone’s lives, but at least there was time to write about it. There was also time to reconnect with the MIT community online, as Vic Christensen ’86 did by collaborating with current students in Minecraft. He wrote: 

I participated in the first annual MIT Minecraft-athon, May 1-2, 2021 (organized by Shayna Ahteck ’23), and built some things on the MIT Minecraft campus, including a representation of the Burton-Conner dorm-room-on-the-frozen-Charles hack; a flaming pumpkin falling from the Green Building; and a simple version of the Citgo sign, which I’m currently building to scale. Nicole Harris ’24 built the stolen (from Caltech) Fleming Cannon, complete with brass rat. Others added to structures already started. It was a lot of fun!

The way we choose to connect and share MIT stories (via Class Notes or Minecraft) has changed over time. When I started my freshman year in the Class of 2018, Facebook groups were still a popular way for incoming students to get to know each other, but the Class of 2028 is more likely to form Discord channels. 

Earlier class years tend to share news through Class Notes much more than recent classes do. “Some months, I get flooded with responses,” says Arenson. “Other times I eke out a column. I don’t think we have missed a column since we started, and my biggest challenge most of the time is to cut down to 1,200 words, our limit.”

“There were [also] classmates who simply seemed interesting, impressive, or amazing in various ways, and sadly, I learned about them and their lives after their deaths,” she continues. “One was Caryl Johnson, who entered MIT as Carl and transitioned later to Caryl. She died November 29, 2019, in Portland, Maine.” 

The obituary that Arenson wrote appeared in the November/December 2021 issue: 

[Caryl] earned an SB in physics and two SMs from MIT, one in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and one in biology.  She also earned a PhD in geophysics at the California Institute of Technology, moving into geophysics after her MIT physics advisor asked if she was ready to drive a cab after graduation, since physics jobs were so scarce.

Caryl thrived in geophysics, working with Professor Frank Press and enjoying the math involved. A seismology expert whose friends called her ‘brilliant,’ she was most widely known for her work in earthquake detection; she developed one of the first computerized seismic processing systems for locating earthquakes in real time. Kay Aikin, Caryl’s life and business partner, said that forms of Caryl’s seismic processing software are now regarded as the global standard and are used worldwide to monitor earthquakes and provide quick disaster response. According to Kay, Caryl’s work inspired a passage in Tom Clancy’s 1984 spy thriller The Hunt for Red October, when a character explains how the Navy’s sonar combat system was based on research in seismology.

I also found thoughtful reflections like those of Toby Carlson ’58, emeritus professor of meteorology at Penn State, who discovered a year’s worth of Tech Review issues after returning to his mail cubby for the first time since the start of the covid pandemic. Though a great deal has changed since he graduated, it was interesting how much of what he wrote still felt relatable to me as an alum from 2018:

I too wondered about the miracle of being admitted and about the searing experience of being a student for four years undergraduate (followed by a couple of less-fraught years as an SM candidate). What a powerful influence those four years had on my life …  

I’ve had a lucky life. Besides being admitted to MIT, I’ve had two other fortuitous windfalls ... My second piece of good luck was meeting and marrying my wife, AraBelle. … I am much better for it—more generous, kinder, more compassionate, and wiser because of her. She remains my wife and moral compass, thankfully not having given up on me after 62 years of marriage. The third lucky break was being offered a post in the department of meteorology, Penn State, almost 50 years ago … I have tried very hard to justify their incredible faith.”

Not surprisingly, the oldest living classes’ columns include many more obituaries. In addition to featuring touching—and often inspiring—descriptions of classmates and the lives they lived, these columns can also contain poignant statements such as this one from the Class of 1952 in the September/October 2021 issue:

It’s hard to report that 10 classmates have left us in these brief two months. Hopefully the rest of us are going forward with strength. Next summer is our 70th class reunion. Think about joining us, we precious few. So far, a band of three brothers plan to attend.

Reading this quiet description, I first thought the confirmed attendees were literal brothers—and then I realized that the secretary, Ed Margulies, likely meant fellow classmates, as close as brothers, holding together in their final years. Class Notes are a reminder that alumni are a community for life. 

Even the MIT10 alumni (those who graduated within the last decade) are beginning to understand this in small ways. Some have started attending weddings of MIT friends, or seeking career advice from older graduates. Life at this stage is often more about what’s to come than what experience has been acquired. 

In the past year, submissions from young alumni have included career updates, moves, sometimes just amusing revelations to reflect the novelty of starting post-college life. Max Haubenstock ’17 was recently voted the funniest standup comedian in Delray Beach, Florida. Jeffrey Lin ’13 is working on creating the most complete global supply-chain database in the world, with the goal of combating human labor violations and deforestation. Micah Gale ’18 was about to start a PhD program in nuclear engineering and engineering physics while continuing to work full time as a nuclear engineer at Idaho National Laboratory. And Daniel Mirny ’18 discovered that, to his surprise, glutinous rice is gluten free.  

News of unions and new pets, like this example from the Class of 2019 column in July/August 2022, typically begins to appear in Class Notes a few years after graduation:

Alexus Jones ’19 and Rene Garcia Franceschini ’19, SM ’21, are now Alexus and Rene Sorina. Rene used his machine-learning skills to create the new last name using a data set of Latine last names. They are living comfortably in their new home with their five cats.

Inevitably, dispatches about growing families soon mix in with job updates and wedding announcements. A recent issue included reports of new offspring (including a baby whose middle name, Athena, “is indeed an homage to the Athena network,” her mother confirmed); a note that Becky Romatoski ’06, a recently tenured associate professor at St. Ambrose University, was spending part of her summer vacation using her 2.007 tools to build a roof for her second grader’s backyard playground; and tales of children heading off to college.

Though the submissions from young alumni are fewer, they show potential too. There is still a lot of uncertainty many of us are dealing with—heavy choices to make as we launch our careers and figure out our personal lives. And we’ll be alumni for a lot longer than we were undergrads. As generations of alumni before us have done, we recognize that through both the difficult and exciting parts of growing older, what’s most important is building a community to share it all with, a network of support. Just as when we faced the firehose of MIT, having those human connections is essential, whether we’re coping or celebrating. 

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More Class Notes classics

Charles Malcolm Taylor [Class of 1893], at the tender age of 64, has spent the past scholastic year as a freshman at the Boston University School of Law … [He] for years held the position of supervising draftsman at the Boston Navy Yard … Taylor was retired on a full pension, thus giving him the opportunity the past winter of gratifying a life-long desire for the law. —July 1934

“I have been working since last fall for the Warner and Swasey Company of this city. My first year is devoted to finding what makes the turret lathe tick, and how they do tick. The company makes ten regular sizes besides numerous special types, so a year is none too much. We are also building an 80-inch telescope for the University of Texas. This is a very interesting venture.” —Warren J. Henderson II ’33, July 1934

“29% of the Class of ’83 uses the snooze button. There is no difference in the amount of sleep reported (p=0.924). However, users of the snooze button tend to make less money (median: $165,000; average: $180,000) than those who don’t (median: $245,000; average: $280,000; p=0.051).” —Eugen Tarnow ’83, January/February 2020

Paul Hertz ’77 is director of astrophysics at NASA and “in charge of—except for one star, eight planets, and a bunch of rocks—everything in the universe.” —May/June 2019

I bought a small home in Dubino, Italy, in December 2020. Dubino is on the Rhaetian Alps side of the Valtellina, about five miles from Lake Como. It is paradise here! I did not invent any vaccine, but I do make sure to drink plenty of Vin Santo, the 15th-century Sienese wine, made by monks that cured the plague. I’m doing some online teaching, sociology and criminology, and some English comp coaching. To get to this place in life, I think I did a lot of careening, with little planning, consistent hard work, and oodles of good luck. —Virginia Merlini ’89, November/December 2021

Wendy Liu-Battalora ’88 planned to don her Mens et Manus Aug. 24 to launch her stint as a high school math teacher [at] UrbanPromise, a private Christian school with the mission to turn around underprivileged urban African-American youth in Wilmington, DE. The students are on average two years below grade level at their public schools when they transfer to UrbanPromise. Poverty, crime, gunfire, drugs, and a messy home life define their norm. UrbanPromise does not just give the students a chance at academic success; it also provides an oasis in which a culture of self-control and mutual support can prevail. —November/December 2021

Janet Jozwiak ’82 started ukulele lessons at the local community college in 2019. Through the lockdowns they did lessons over Zoom, and she became less self-conscious playing remotely. She began singing along with her ukulele when they resumed in-person classes. She’s still a beginner, and sometimes sings off-key, but if you walk by late at night, you may hear her playing and singing to herself. —Nov/Dec ’22

Lynn Schnapp ’82 had an eventful 2020. In March, she [became] the chair of medicine at the School of Medicine and Public Health at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Within days of Lynn moving to Madison everything turned topsy-turvy. “As a critical care physician, I’ve been a firsthand witness to the devastation that covid-19 has inflicted on our communities. At the same time, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing group of faculty, residents, and staff, who have shown amazing teamwork and resilience throughout this crisis.” —May/June 2021

Angus Andrews ’60 and Jeri (Betschick) Andrews ’60 were married at the end of their junior year. Jeri worked many technical jobs in her career, plus volunteer work on the US Olympic Committee and others. Gus worked all but one and a half years of his career for what became Rockwell International, starting with Project Apollo at North American Aviation (NAA) in Downey, CA. “We’ve both had the pleasure of working with many fellow alums along the way and are ever grateful for the start MIT gave us.” —May/June 2023

Eitan Glinert ’05 announced his new video game, Techtonica, that he’s been making all pandemic with Sharat Bhat ’08, Richard Oates ’18, and Robert Butts, SM ’07. Eitan’s trying to figure out a way to sneak Tim the Beaver in as an Easter egg (wouldn’t be the first time he did that). —July/August 2022

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