Alumni Connection

Rocket Man

Unfortunately, Mike Fincke ‘89 can’t attend his 15th MIT reunion this June. He’s even missing the birth of his second child. He’s got a good excuse, though: he’s traveling around the world-at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour, in fact. Fincke is currently in orbit as flight engineer and NASA science officer on Expedition 9, a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

For Fincke, the mission represents the realization of a lifelong dream. He’s known he wanted to be an astronaut since he was three years old and watched the first Apollo moonwalks on television. “It’s all very exciting, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “It’s my calling for my life and a dream come true, for certain.”

Although he considers himself “very lucky,” Fincke’s career path seems tailor-made for the ISS, a global partnership representing 16 nations. As an air force ROTC student at MIT, he double-majored in aeronautics and astronautics and earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. He also went through the Russian program and spent a summer at the Moscow Aviation Institute.

Fincke completed a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University in 1990 and entered the air force. He served in a variety of flight-test positions in Los Angeles, Florida, and Japan, nurturing his love of languages along the way by learning Japanese. In 1996 he was one of 35 astronaut candidates selected by NASA from 2,400 applicants.

Fincke has spent four of the past eight years at NASA training with his Expedition 9 commander and crewmate, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka. They’ve developed a close relationship during that time, drawing on the same skills that make a marriage successful, Fincke says. For example, you learn what each other’s buttons are, how to compensate for each other, or when to tell a good joke if your partner is having a tough day. “The skills I’ve learned being married to my beautiful and wonderful wife over the past couple of years have matured me so that I have some of those tools in my emotional toolbox,” he says.

Those skills have been put to the test on this mission, as the two astronauts live and work together around the clock. One of the biggest challenges, Fincke says, is that he and Padalka have the workload of about three people. Their biggest task will be completing two space walks this summer to reconfigure the ISS to receive a cargo ship built by the European Space Agency. The ship is bigger and requires different docking equipment than the current Russian cargo ship, Progress.

Fincke and Padalka are conducting several science experiments during their space odyssey as well. Before the April 18 launch in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket, they spent several weeks in Russia completing their training and collecting baseline physiological data. Although studying the impact of long-term space flight on the human body is not new, the Expedition 9 crew will be the first to use an ultrasound onboard the ISS to map changes in their soft-tissue organs during the mission.

The crew will also participate in the Spheres (for “synchronized position hold engage and reorient experimental satellites”) project, developed by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory. Fincke is putting together soccer-ball-sized satellites designed through the project and experimenting with them to determine the basic guidance laws governing them in microgravity conditions. Ultimately, they may be used as robotic assistants to aid astronauts inside and outside the ISS. “One of the things that we’re struggling with right now is that we haven’t really taken a good look at the outside of our space station for about a year and a half now,” explains Fincke. Space shuttles can do a thorough photo survey, but since the Columbia disaster, a survey hasn’t been completed to check for micrometeor impacts or other wear and tear. “Having an autonomous robotic vehicle with camera video capability would really help us out. So this is a really neat experiment.”

Although he misses his wife, Renita, and his two-year-old son, Fincke is able to stay in touch almost daily by phone or videoconference. He is philosophical about being away during the birth of his second child, a girl. “This kind of thing happens to a lot of people who are serving our country right now-soldiers and airmen and folks in the navy. Their folks are having babies back home too. This isn’t much different, except if something goes wrong, I can’t get the next flight back home.”

That kind of humility is Fincke’s stock in trade. “I’ve been very blessed to live in the United States and have the opportunities to-pardon me stealing from the army-be all that I can be,’” he says earnestly. Still, he’s making the most of the experience. “I just hope I don’t enjoy it so much that I don’t want to come back. I say that tongue in cheek, of course.” Elizabeth Durant

Special Presentation of the Bronze Beaver

When the Alumni Association Board of Directors met this past March, it took time out from a busy agenda to present James Lash ‘66 with his Bronze Beaver Award, which is the Association’s highest award, given to alumni volunteers for outstanding service to the Institute. Lash was unable to attend the annual Alumni Leadership Conference in September, where the Bronze Beaver is traditionally awarded.

In presenting the award, the Association cited Lash’s 30 years of service to MIT, including service on the Corporation Development Committee, on the capital campaign committee, as class agent for 15 years, and most recently as president of the Alumni Association, where he served with distinction, tackling a number of key issues, including the Association’s governance and structure.

In addition to James Lash, four distinguished alumni were recognized with Bronze Beaver Awards this year: James A. Champy ‘63, Lois J. Champy, MAR ‘71, Richard P. Simmons ‘53, and Catherine N. Stratton HM.

BGALA Reunion Event

MIT’s Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alumni organization, or BGALA, seeks to advance the cause of LGBT alumni and students through outreach, education, and career assistance. In that spirit, BGALA is hosting its annual Reunion Week event on June 3, 2004.

 Mit’s bisexual, gay, and Lesbian Alumni organization, or BGALA, seeks to advance the cause of LGBT alumni and students through outreach, education, and career assistance. In that spirit, BGALA is hosting its annual Reunion Week event on June 3, 2004.

“We provide a social and professional network for LGBT MIT alums,” says M. Eric Carreno ‘99, membership director. “We recently hosted a successful career panel featuring LGBT executives, who shared their perspectives on being out corporate leaders.”

The event will be held at the Hotel@MIT on Thursday, June 3. To RSVP or to learn more about BGALA, visit Please contact with any questions.

Alumni Gifts Play a Vital Role at the Institute

Though the end of the fiscal year is fast approaching, Alumni Fund director Monica Ellis ‘91 says there’s still time for alumni to make a difference.

“Annual gifts from MIT’s alumni have had an enormous impact on the history of the Institute,” says Ellis. “It is a source of great pride, due in part to generations of generosity from our alumni, that MIT maintains its position as a world leader in education and research.”

Ellis reports that more than 30,000 alumni contributed to the Alumni Fund last year, and she hopes that the number is higher this year. Ellis also reports that more alumni are making their gifts online through the Association’s secure website.

“We’ve noticed an upward trend,” says Ellis, “which alumni tell us is due to convenience and ease of use.”

Ellis also emphasized that the number of alumni making gifts is just as important as the size of their gifts.

“There’s strength in numbers, so obviously the more alumni who participate the better,” says Ellis. “All gifts, regardless of amount, show a commitment to MIT and a desire to be part of its future.” Ellis says that alumni collectively are a vital part of the Institute’s health.

Alumni can designate their gifts for any of a wide range of programs, such as athletics, specific scholarship funds, the endowment, academic programs, or research labs. Says Ellis, “It’s important to many alumni that they have a say in where their dollars are directed, so we like to give a broad range of possibilities, which is why we offer a choice of designations.”

The fiscal year ends June 30, so alumni are encouraged to make their gifts prior to that deadline. For more information on the Alumni Fund, or on how to make your gift online, alumni should visit

How-To Howtoons Appeal to Kids

Give a kid a water rocket and she plays until the thing veers off course and lands with a thud on the neighbor’s roof. Show a kid how to make a water rocket and she plays until her curiosity is satisfied. And if Howtoons cofounders Joost Bonsen ‘90 and Saul Griffith, AR ‘00, have anything to say about it, that means the fun never stops.

Bonsen and Griffith are the creators of Howtoons, a cartoon that provides one-page, easy-to-follow, story-driven instructions on how to build engineering and science projects from readily available materials. Currently the toons are accessible only through the website, but that may change soon: Griffith and Bonsen plan to publish a large-format book and start a television show.

Bonsen and Griffith hope to make Howtoons so intriguing that kids tear themselves away from television and computer screens in order to learn the old-fashioned way-through hands-on experimentation.

A graduate student at the Sloan School of Management with a degree in electrical engineering from MIT, Bonsen brings business savvy to the project. Griffith is pursuing his PhD in programmable cellular assembly at MIT’s Media Laboratory. With a degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of New South Wales, a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Sydney, and a master’s in media arts and sciences from MIT, Griffith knows a thing or two about how to use the materials around him in creative and purposeful ways. Last February he won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student prize for designing a virtual “desktop printer” for low-cost eyeglass lenses for people in developing nations who otherwise could not afford them.

Both Bonsen and Griffith were inspired as kids by the imaginative power of comics and cartoons. Bonsen, born in the Netherlands and raised in Silicon Valley, was weaned on the classic Adventures of Tintin as well as Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. He recalls one episode in which a young boy is inspired to learn trigonometry in order to solve his real-world problem of scaling a castle wall. “I realized right then,” Bonsen explains, “that if you give a kid an inspiring reason to want to know something, he or she will pull out all stops.”

Griffith grew up in Sydney, Australia. Like Bonsen, he too had an early interest in both comics and how-to craft books. “A few years ago, I came across this wonderful series of books called The Boy Mechanic and Handicrafts for Handy Boys. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to reinterpret them in terms of the materials that are available to kids today?”

It turns out Bonsen was having similar ideas. Howtoons began to take shape after the pair met at an entrepreneurial seminar. They employed professional DC Comics artist Nick Dragotta to bring the concept to life. Finished toons already demonstrate the marshmallow shooter, hover hockey, the ice board, the shockwave air cannon, and more. Another two dozen toons are nearing the final illustration stage, and hundreds more exist in drawing-board stages viewable on the website.

“Howtoons parties” serve as a laboratory for testing new projects on kids (and their parents). So far, MIT alumni have been the most visible participants at the parties, Griffith says. “They are a wonderful resource because they are a population of people who grew up making weird stuff.” For instance, you can credit alumnus Brian Hughes ‘71 with perfecting the Howtoons hovercraft project by substituting a CD-which kids have in surplus-for the paper plate of the first iteration. The CD, combined with the clever use of a twist-on bottle cap and a balloon, makes a craft that can hover for nearly two minutes.

“The big challenge is turning an interesting project into a one-page story,” Bonsen says. “It is a very demanding format.” And unlike the how-to books of the early 1900s, Howtoons acknowledge that girls like to build stuff, too. Many Howtoons feature the characters Celine and Tucker, who engage in a little friendly boy-girl rivalry in order to build a better mousetrap. Future toons will describe multicultural projects, including a model of an outrigger canoe from the Marshall Islands, a helicopter toy popularized in Zimbabwe, and a steamboat from India.

“There are one billion kids in our target age group worldwide,” Bonsen points out, a figure that reinforces the tagline at the end of many Howtoons: “The possibilities are endless.” Bonsen sees no reason why Howtoons wouldn’t appeal worldwide (like his beloved Tintin).

And if Griffith and Bonsen have their way, Howtoons will soon be inspiring kids from all nations to see beyond the world as it is…to the future they might build themselves. David M. Enders

A Calm and Strong Voice

One thing you’ll notice upon meeting the Alumni Association’s incoming president-Linda Sharpe ‘69-is the calm in her voice. In typical MIT fashion, she considers questions carefully and composes her thoughts before answering.

According to the Association’s executive vice president and CEO, Beth Garvin, behind that calm voice is a keen intellect. “Linda is remarkable to work with,” says Garvin. “She’s a very careful observer who assimilates information quickly and intuitively recognizes the underlying questions or issues. She’ll be a tremendous asset to the Association, its staff, and the alumni.”

The fifth woman to serve as president of the Association-and the first African American-Sharpe views her new role as a step out from her usual position exerting influence behind the scenes.

“The Association president is a visible representative of alumni,” says Sharpe. “I think it’s important to provide a strong channel of communication for alumni to connect with students, faculty, each other, and the administration.” For the next year, Sharpe will have plenty of influence in this area.

“I want to strengthen the identification of all alumni with the Association by continuing to strengthen communications within the alumni community,” says Sharpe. Another key focus, says Sharpe, will be recognizing that the alumni body has become quite diverse in the past 10 years-in gender, in ethnicity, and even in the extracurricular interests pursued by students. “As our alumni community continues to grow in diversity, I think it’s important that the Association create strategies to encourage involvement in diverse ways.”

One goal in particular, says Sharpe, is to show alumni that they “don’t need to write a big check or volunteer 20-plus hours each week” to stay connected to the Institute. “Nor do you need to live near Cambridge,” she says. “There are lots of ways that alumni can get involved. For instance, I’ve been an educational counselor and found that role quite comfortable with a busy schedule. In fact, it turned out to be very valuable, since it helped me stay current on new academic and extracurricular offerings.”

Sharpe says she was initially surprised by how easy it was to give back-and how good it felt. “When I was a young alumna, I was reluctant to return to reunions or get involved with the Association,” she admits. “The MIT experience was too recent and too raw. In addition, I felt that I didn’t have as much to offer as other alumni, many of whom were farther along in their careers. However, there are as many ways to participate as there are activities, living groups, and affinity groups at the Institute. I helped found the Black Alumni of MIT (BAMIT), and that participation led to my involvement in a wider range of MITAA activities.”

Sharpe advises alumni to start with activities with which they have strong connections. “Be activity specific,” she says. “Don’t view volunteering as being part of a large amorphous body. You could start by targeting your living group, athletic team, favorite student activity, or even the students you hung out with in Pritchett or the old Student Center Library. There are a lot of ways to help the Institute.”

In addition to volunteering for MIT, Sharpe helped organize Black Women for Policy Action, cofounded by the late Dr. Bette Woody ‘75. She also serves as a board member for MAB Community Services (formerly the Massachusetts Association for the Blind) and is a Cambridge school volunteer. In addition, she sits on the MIT Corporation, serves on a number of corporation committees, and is a BAMIT life member.

Sharpe addresses the issue of her race by affirming that she “embraces the future, not only as an African American, but as a global citizen.” Sharpe recalls that Robert Taylor, the first African American to receive a degree from MIT, graduated 112 years ago, so inclusion and diversity are not new concepts at MIT. “But diversity is a fact on campus today, where it was not 30 years ago,” says Sharpe. She recalls that her class of 1969 had only about 50 female students, and she was just one of three American-born blacks.

When asked how she felt about MIT’s ability to prepare her for the working world, Sharpe didn’t hesitate. “MIT taught me a number of invaluable skills, most notably the ability to think analytically and strategically. I also learned not to rush to judgment, but to work through a problem thoroughly.”

Professionally, Sharpe is a senior associate and project manager for Cambridge Systematics. She is located at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, where she works on transportation safety and security. Though her professional life and volunteer activities keep her quite active, she also reserves time for her family. And when she is not working, Sharpe and her husband Frank enjoy getting away for weekend ski trips.

“To people that know me, my middle name is ski,’” says Sharpe with an adventurous smile. “I learned to ski while volunteering for an outdoor recreational program for urban youth-at the time, the only program of its kind in the nation that focused on winter activities. I have been heading up to the slopes for thirty years since.” Erin Hewitt

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Online Only

$19.95/yr US PRICE

You've read of free articles this month.