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Alumni Connection

Aiming for Diversity

As president of the MIT Alumni Association, I have the privilege of learning firsthand about many challenges facing MIT and the opportunity to help address some of them. Diversity is one such challenge.

Recently, MIT has taken many “first” steps in diversity. Professor Phillip Clay, PhD ‘75, is the first (2001) African-American chancellor. Professor Maria Zuber of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences is the first (2003) female department head in the School of Science. Professor Wesley Harris of Aeronautics and Astronautics is the first (2003) African-American department head in the School of Engineering. Professor Rafael Bras ‘72 of Civil and Environmental Engineering is the first Hispanic chair of the faculty. Dean Adele Santos of the School of Architecture and Planning is the first (2004) female dean of that school.

In 1999, MIT released the groundbreaking report “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT.” The report demonstrated that women faculty had been marginalized by inequities in resources, limited access to leadership roles, and exclusion from decision-making, resulting in less respect and influence compared to men of comparable accomplishment. The findings were acknowledged by the dean, the president, and the provost, which in itself sent a strong message to research universities around the country that this wasn’t a problem to be ignored. Since then, MIT has collected and analyzed the data on the status of women faculty in the four other schools, taking corrective actions on individual and systemic concerns. Today, women make up 17 percent of the faculty, 29 percent of the graduate students, and 42 percent of the undergraduate students, in sharp contrast to 1974, when women made up less than 5 percent of the faculty and 12 percent of the students!

The situation with underrepresented minorities is not as rosy. While MIT has made great strides at the undergraduate level (20 percent of the students are underrepresented minorities-African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, and Native American), there has been little progress at the graduate or faculty levels. Today, only 4.5 percent of the MIT graduate students and 4 percent of the faculty are underrepresented minorities, not much change since I was a student at MIT in the ’70s.

I was astounded by the data-little or no progress in more than 25 years? I started asking questions. Why weren’t we making progress? Do we have trouble attracting qualified applicants? Do we have trouble retaining them once they get here? Many people at MIT shared their data, strategies, and stories, including senior officers, deans, faculty, students, MIT staff such as dean for graduate students Ike Colbert and his staff, and alumni, including members of the corporation and BAMIT leaders. However, I could not find any central repository for information on racial diversity at MIT. I felt as if I had become a one-person visiting committee on the subject. I discovered some bright spots.

In the past six years, the School of Engineering has hired six African-American or Puerto Rican faculty members, two of whom will be coming next year-bringing the total to 20 underrepresented minorities on that faculty.

In a conscious outreach effort, Brain and Cognitive Sciences chair Mriganka Sur and two other faculty members travel to conferences featuring the research of minority students and to colleges for historically underrepresented minorities. This year, 31 percent (5/16) of the entering class of graduate students in that department consists of underrepresented minorities.

Chemistry chair Steve Lippard, PhD ‘65, supports outreach by students and faculty and conducts mentoring sessions. Currently, 5.5 percent (14/254) of the graduate students in the chemistry department are underrepresented minorities.

MIT’s Summer Research Program provides opportunities for underrepresented-minority undergraduates from other institutions to live on campus and to conduct research at MIT under the guidance of our faculty. The majority of the 365 students who have participated since the program started in 1986 have chosen to pursue graduate degrees-45 of them at MIT!

The Graduate Student Council and the Black Graduate Students Association, in their precious little free time, created a compelling Diversity Initiative to increase the yield from among admitted students, to encourage talented undergraduate applicants to the graduate school, and to enhance the sense of community among current minority graduate students.

I took a group of five graduate students to lunch to learn what brought them to MIT. Four had participated in programs encouraging minority students to conduct research. Moreover, each had been asked by a member of the MIT community to consider applying to MIT. When I reflected on the pathway that led me to pursue a PhD in chemistry at MIT, I realized that I too was encouraged by members of the MIT community-alumni. (Thank you, Harry Wasserman ‘41, Jack Faller, PhD ‘67, and Charlie Deber, PhD ‘67.)

I have only scratched the surface regarding current strategies, plans, and activities for increasing the number of underrepresented graduate students and faculty at MIT, but it is clear we need to do better. With innovative leadership, hard work, and an Institute-wide concerted plan, MIT will make progress in diversity at all levels. I urge the MIT alumni community to help by identifying prospective students-especially those from underrepresented minority groups-encouraging them to consider MIT, and mentoring them once they join the community. -Paula J. Olsiewski, PhD ‘79

Robots of the Future

After 10 hours of watching more than 100 robots the size of milk cartons navigate their way through an empty building, two things were eminently clear: everyone was exhausted, and the experiment was a tremendous success.

The senior lead research scientist for iRobot, James McLurkin ‘91, his collection of swarm robots, and a team of engineers were taking part in the Software for Distributed Robots Experiment at Fort AP Hill in Virginia this past January, an event organized by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which conducts research and development for the Department of Defense.

“They got into the building very effectively, made maps, navigated, and directed themselves around extremely well,” said McLurkin of his inventions. While the swarm robots finished the experiment in 10 hours, two other teams using much larger designs opted to complete the tasks over the course of a week. While the results were not immediately available, it was clear to McLurkin that his machines performed extremely well.

But to those familiar with the 2003 Lemelson-MIT Award winner’s work, this should come as no surprise. These days, thanks to projects like the DARPA experiment, McLurkin is looking for ways to make his software even smarter.

“The DARPA experiment was very exciting, and we got some great feedback,” said McLurkin. “We let the robots find walls by running into them, but could they find all of the rooms in the building, and was there any way to guarantee that in the future? That’s what I’m working on right now.”

McLurkin said that once results are in from the experiment, DARPA will most likely spin off the technology into new practices. The agency is looking to use robots to help save human lives in dangerous places like land-mine fields.

When he’s not conducting experiments for the government or research for iRobot, McLurkin is studying for his PhD in computer science at MIT, while teaching classes at the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery Academy (SEED). His current work involves the development of frontier-guided exploration software, which would teach robots to lead each other into new, unexplored areas, spreading throughout a building in a controlled fashion and finding the closest rooms first. Once all options are exhausted, they would look for intruders and collect sensor data.

While he’s working to improve the designs of future robots, McLurkin is reluctant to try to pinpoint the future of the industry. When asked what products consumers might be more apt to purchase, he quickly responds, “If I answered that question, I’d be working there.”

Perhaps he already is. Recently, iRobot, the Burlington, MA-based mobile-robotics company, developed Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner the size of a Frisbee that cleans just about any home floor surface.

“Robots are so profoundly stupid that it’s difficult to get them to do anything of intelligence,” said McLurkin. “The vacuum cleaner is a very sophisticated product. The biggest insight was to let it bounce around the room. That’s what we do.”

The company also designed PackBot, an unmanned tactical robot used in Afghanistan and Iraq to search through tunnels and caves for enemy soldiers and to examine equipment left behind that was thought to have been booby trapped. The software for this robot allows it to constantly upgrade its performance capabilities so that arms, fiber-optic spoolers, heads, and sniper detection equipment, for example, can be added.

What’s next for the swarm robots? McLurkin is still writing assembly language to further their exploration and navigation capabilities, research that is being funded by the federal government. He says this research should take him another year and a half to complete, but it’s a process that he hopes will give him some insight into writing more-complex software for his robots, so that exploration and navigation happen automatically.

He also hopes to mimic the centralized control mechanisms that can be seen in ants and bees and, in the process, create software to aid biologists like Cornell Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior Thomas Seeley, whose work with honey bees has been an inspiration to McLurkin.

“Robots are similar in design to insects. But bees don’t draw maps like people do, and there’s no one in charge like in a military system,” McLurkin said.

Robotics is still in its infancy, however, according to McLurkin. In the future, robots will be able to perform numerous tasks in virtually all settings. “As the technology becomes more sophisticated, it’s inevitable that the world will be more roboticized. People have already accepted robots without thinking about them. They exist in devices like cell phones, microwaves, and televisions.”

Shifting Gears: Tech Day 2004

On June 5, 2004, Technology Day will offer a provocative program entitled Shifting Gears. Held at Kresge Auditorium, Shifting Gears takes an in-depth look at one of the most beloved inventions of all time, and one that poses some of the greatest problems: the automobile.

Beginning its second century of existence, the automobile is considered by many to be the source of significant global problems, such as congestion, demands on natural resources, and environmental pollution. Yet just 100 years ago it was perceived as the answer to the transportation problems that had plagued the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Technology Day’s morning session will address the major challenges associated with automobiles, including mobility, environmental concerns, limited resources, impact on urban environments, and issues facing an aging population. The afternoon session will look to the future and challenge those in attendance to think in different ways about solutions to these problems. The speakers and panelists for Technology Day 2004 are a who’s who of technology and transportation experts:

MORNING PROGRAM 9:00 a.m.12:00 p.m.

Moderator
Charles M. Vest HM
President, MIT
Panelists
Daniel Roos ‘61
Associate dean for engineering systems, MIT; codirector, Engineering Systems Division; Japan Steel Industry Professor
John B. Heywood, ME ‘62
Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical
Engineering, MIT; director, Center for 21st Century Energy and Sloan Automotive Laboratory, MIT
Ralph A. Gakenheimer
Professor of urban planning, MIT
Joseph F. Coughlin
Director, MIT AgeLab

AFTERNOON PROGRAM (2:305:00 p.m.)

Moderator
Norman R. Augustine
Retired chairman and CEO,
Lockheed Martin
Panelists
Ernest J. Moniz
Professor of physics, MIT; director of Energy Studies, Laboratory for Energy and the Environment
William Mitchell
Academic head, Program in Media Arts and Sciences, MIT; professor of architecture and media arts and sciences
Dean Kamen
President, Deka Research and
Development; chairman, Segway; founder, FIRST

Tech Night at the Pops

For 107 years now, Tech Night at the Pops has been one of the most beloved traditions at the Institute. Generations of MIT alumni, guests, graduating students, and their families come together for a private MIT concert, including a rousing rendition of the alma mater’s school song, “In Praise of MIT.”

This year conductor Keith Lockhart, with his trademark charm and good humor, will lead the Boston Pops in another sensational concert just for MIT alumni. The concert will take place at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Thursday, June 3, 2004, at 8:00 p.m. Tech Night at the Pops is a stellar evening you definitely won’t want to miss.

Important note: be sure to register early to reserve seats with your classmates, as this is a popular event and often sells out.

Coop Offers Discount Honoring June Reunions

Buy MIT logo gear and gifts at the COOP online during the month of June and receive a 10 percent discount off clothing and merchandise and 15 percent off on chairs, Chelsea clocks, and custom jewelry (Tiffany products not included). To receive your online only discount, simply enter this code when the order form requests a membership ID number: 300604.

This offer is for MIT goods only, is not to be combined with other Coop discounts, and is valid from June 1 to June 30, 2004. If you have any questions, call the MIT mail order coordinator at 800-368-1882. To order or browse the Coop, go to alum.mit.edu/shopping/.

Registration Deadline for Tech Reunions 2004

People considering attending Tech Reunions this June should be advised that the registration deadline is May 14. There’s still time to sign up, and tickets are available for many programs, but interested alumni are encouraged to sign up now. To find out more about this event, or to sign up online, visit alum.mit.edu/reunions/.

MIT Alumni Travel Trip

This fall the MIT alumni travel program offers two intriguing trips certain to captivate your imagination. From September 22 to October 2, 2004, MIT professor emeritus John Southard ‘60 will lead alumni on a fascinating trip through Italy, Sicily, and Malta. Entitled Treasures of the Western Mediterranean, this trip will take place on a 98-passenger ship whose intimate size allows for visits to smaller, remote ports inaccessible to large cruise ships.

In October, University of California professor Donald A. Gibbs will share his extensive knowledge of China and take you off the beaten path on a special 16-day trip to some of China’s most beautiful and exotic cities, including Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Suzhou, and Shanghai. A highlight of this trip is the Dunhuang caves, with their world-famous Buddhist sculpture and wall paintings. An optional post-trip extension to the Huang Mountains is available.

To learn more about these and other MIT Alumni Travel Program trips, visit the website at alum.mit.edu/travel.

Save the Date: Alumni Leadership Conference

Alumni volunteers should mark their calendars. The Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC) is scheduled for October 12, 2004. The annual ALC event is a two-day conference of volunteer workshops, networking events, and the annual Alumni Awards Luncheon, which pays homage to alumni volunteers who by their collective efforts help MIT maintain its position of leadership in education and research around the world. Last year, more than 400 alumni attended the two-day event. Additional information can be found online at alum.mit.edu/alc/.

Class Officer Voting Under Way for 4s and 9s

Tired of the presidential primaries? Then turn your attention to the real thing. Nominations are in, and this year’s reunion classes-ending in 4s and 9s-are ready to select a new slate of class officers. Classes conduct elections in a variety of manners, some online and others during reunions. To find out more, visit the class elections website, which can be found at alum.mit.edu/classes/volunteers/class-elections/index.html. Class officers serve five-year terms, which begin in July, following the reunion.

“Voting is a great way to be involved in the direction of your class,” says Christine Tempesta, director of alumni activities. “Class officers play an important role and have significant influence of where the class will direct its energies, so voting is important.”

A Volunteer for Life

Like many retired alumni, bob Warshawer ‘54 is a very busy guy. The former engineering manager jokes that he retired early from GTE to “get on with my life,” so now he is a full-time picture framer (“full-time’ being a relative term,” he is quick to note). He also teaches picture framing, does some consulting, and has been involved for many years with the Lexington (MA) Arts and Crafts Society and the New England Professional Picture Framer’s Association. But he still carves out time to volunteer for MIT as his class’s treasurer and reunion chair.

“I volunteer because I enjoy it. I enjoy the relationship that one has with other volunteers. I enjoy giving back some small amount. It’s easy to write a check, for some people. It’s more meaningful to give back of your time and productivity,” he says.

Warshawer initially got involved as a volunteer in the late 1950s, after he had completed a three-year stint as an air force pilot. He had returned to the Boston area to begin work as an engineer and began attending a few class meetings and events at MIT. By the time his fifth reunion came around, he was hooked. Since that time, he has served in a myriad of roles in addition to those he holds now-among them, fund-raiser, class president, and member of the Technology Day committee.

“Bob is a terrific volunteer, not only because of his dedication and hard work, but because he has such a broad experience base as a volunteer. He understands how the Alumni Association works and is truly a partner in helping us meet our mission to serve not only his class but all alumni,” says Peter Muise, director of reunions and events.

Warshawer’s classmates agree. In fact, they have so much faith in him that at the 25th reunion they appointed him reunion chairman for life. He was also named class treasurer, a role he has held ever since. “From a management perspective, it’s bothered me for 25 years, because you don’t put the fox in charge of the henhouse!” Warshawer quips. But years of working on government contracts taught him to spend other’s money as he would spend his own, and at each reunion the class has either broken even or garnered a small profit.

This year has been a particularly busy one for Warshawer, as he and his classmates plan for their 50th reunion in June. Warshawer’s strengths as reunion chair are many, says Robert Dimmick, associate director of reunions and events. “Bob has always been a delight to work with. He consistently brings good humor to the table, while thoughtfully analyzing the planning process. He’s constantly looking out for the bottom line, as class treasurer. And he and the committee have worked together to combine traditional events with innovative ones for their 50th.”

In the spirit of innovation, so prevalent at MIT, Warshawer and the reunion committee decided to try something different for their 50th. Typically, 50th-reunion classes convene at MIT and then venture off to resorts to relax and spend more time together. Warshawer and the committee felt it was more important to give the class additional time to spend together at MIT and in the Cambridge and Boston area, to experience firsthand the phenomenal changes that have taken place-not only since they graduated, but since their last reunion five years ago.

The result, dubbed an “extended urban reunion,” includes a presentation on the Big Dig, a tour of the conservation labs at the Museum of Fine Arts, and a presentation on how the MIT campus has evolved in recent years. After the reunion, Warshawer and the reunion committee will analyze and document “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” one of their time-honored traditions, to capitalize on their successes and learn from their mistakes.

Volunteering over the years has had a few pitfalls, but Warshawer’s sense of humor has seen him through. Before he retired, he got some good-natured flak from his coworkers about the amount of time he spent planning reunions and attending Technology Day. “They would ask, Why do you keep going to that?’ and I’d say, Well, it’s my one opportunity to be around other people of competence!’” Warshawer says with a chuckle.

In the final analysis, though, it’s the thank-you that makes it all worthwhile, says Warshawer. And getting involved has continued a love of learning and of new experiences that was kindled while he was at MIT more than half a century ago. “Quite frankly,” he says, “every time you end up volunteeringit opens up some other doors, some other vistas, some other areas to learn.” -Elizabeth Durant

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