Memorable Mentors

Four alumni share memories of professors who influenced their lives.

Professors are the soul of a university. Their scholarship is the cornerstone of its reputation, their skill in the classroom the key to its success. Professors impart their knowledge and wisdom, of course, but they also inspire their students, sometimes opening doors on possibilities that would otherwise have gone unrecognized. These are the stories of four alumni who became writers and editors and the memorable professors who helped shape their lives. We would like to hear stories about your most memorable mentors. Please e-mail us at MITNews@technologyreview.com.

Robin Becker
Voice Maker

Sometimes, when I visit a bookstore that’s new to me, I’ll stop by the poetry section. If I find one of Robin Becker’s books, I’ll know the store is serious about good writers.
I can imagine her tweed jacket and jeans, her satchel full of books and notes, her mischievous grin, her occasional use of the “F” word in public. I can still see Robin, moving around a circle of students, encouraging us to be honest and write about the things we know.

In 1982, I was a freshman at MIT. Even though I planned to become a computer engineer, I had always loved to write. And so, in my first semester, I took a class that Robin taught on reading and writing the short story.

We read our drafts aloud. We revealed our struggles. We talked about what worked and what didn’t. We learned about plot, theme, and character, and the use of metaphors and telling details. Through warm praise and gentle criticism, Robin made it safe for us to develop our own voices.

I will always remember how hard that first semester was. I was far from home, and the Cambridge winter was harsh, and I was failing 8.012, a class that students called “physics for masochists.” The corridors at the Institute seemed to grow longer and more confusing.

But writing gave me a sense of direction. I enrolled in MIT’s Writing Program and studied fiction; I became a reporter at the Tech. And early on, Robin planted in me the idea that I could make a life as a writer. Or maybe what she offered was something more fundamental: a challenge to tune out other competing voices and follow my heart.

I have been a journalist for the past 17 years. I have gotten to meet people at their best and at their worst and have traveled to places I once only imagined. Whether I’m writing or editing, I push for deeper, more human stories that get beyond the news of the day. I encourage the writers on my staff to find their own voices. Because of Robin’s influence, I see the poetry in ordinary things.

Robin is now a professor of English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University. The last time I saw her was in 1993. She gave a public reading in Norfolk, VA, where I worked as a reporter. Afterwards, she and I drove to the beach. In the dark of night, we stood by the water. I wanted to thank her for helping me find my voice and my calling. But in that quiet moment, it seemed enough to watch the surf and listen to the ocean.

By Thomas Huang ’86, SM ’88, editor of “Texas Living,” the lifestyle section of the Dallas Morning News.

Edwin Diamond
News Critic

Throughout my career, people have asked, “How did an MIT graduate end up as a journalist?” My stock response: “I majored in the Tech.” Of course, that’s not what my transcript says. Decode the class numbers and my transcript shows that really I majored in Ed Diamond.

Edwin Diamond (1925–1997) came to MIT as a visiting lecturer in political science in 1969. MIT was the foundation for his second career. A science writer and editor, he had just turned down the editorship of Newsweek. Quitting the magazine, he landed a part-time spot in Course XVII. When I fell into his orbit in 1973, Ed was shuttling in from his home in New York for the academic life every Thursday and Friday.

Ed was the first real journalist I ever met. He embodied both the zest of a wire service newshound and the world-weary omniscience of a news magazine pundit. In those years of Vietnam and Watergate, he opened a window on the interaction between the press and politics at an institution largely indifferent to both.

On and off campus, Ed was a pioneering media critic. Today, analysis of the maneuvers behind the news appears in the second paragraph of practically every political story. But back then, Ed’s column in New York magazine and his TV commentaries were eyeopeners. He taught his MIT students how to find our own insights as we dissected newspaper stories, TV coverage, and politi­cal commercials.

Ed’s weekly 30-hour stint in Cambridge was a whirl. Thursday night was politics and television, in which Ed and his guests—from a young Dan Rather to a rising state legislator named Barney Frank—would expose the blossoming business of message management. Most weeks, the guest would venture up to Ed’s Eastgate apartment, trailed by 20 or 30 students, to talk well past midnight.

Ed and his acolytes would reconvene at 8:00 a.m. Friday for the media seminar. There, Ed would lead us in ripping apart the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Tech with equal zeal. Ed never hid his opinion that the Tech’s pallid news columns and quavering editorials were out of step with our tabloid format. But the standards he set spurred us to become real journalists.

Ed’s courses were the un-MIT: there were no problem sets or statistical analyses. The Thursday night scene seemed more like a mixer than a class. Whenever Ed felt obliged to lecture, we could puncture his pomposity by calling on “Professor Diamond.” Only later did I discover how cruel that needling was: despite his teaching skills, his many books, and the attention and funding he brought, Ed could never prove himself to MIT’s “real” academics. In 1984, New York University made him an offer—with tenure—that got him off the LaGuardia-to-Logan shuttle for good.

Fortunately for me, that was long after I’d graduated. Being the math genius of Frankton High School in Indiana got me to MIT and opened up the world. Connecting with Ed opened up another world—the juncture of politics, economics, and communications where I’ve made my life. No, MIT will never have a journalism school. But for a while, we had Ed.

By Mike McNamee ’76, editor in chief of volume 95 of the Tech and now deputy Washington bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

David Botstein
Deep Reader

My first encounter with David Botstein made a formidable impression. I was a new graduate student, listening with rapt attention as he lectured weekly in genetics. I learned the proper respect for what biologists call the “awesome power of yeast genetics,” and along the way I absorbed the principles that underpin modern molecular biology. However, my second course with Botstein—7.50: Method and Logic in Molecular Biology—had the most influence on my future.

In 7.50, my classmates and I did nothing but read research papers, from the “classics” that founded entire fields to contemporary papers that either broke new ground or went down in flames trying. The class met twice a week—the first time without the faculty, in order for the students to discuss the reading and get our story straight in anticipation of the grilling we would soon receive. At the second meeting, the faculty, including Botstein, would pick the papers apart piece by piece.

The first task was to understand the background behind each paper. What was the state of knowledge at the time? What questions did the researchers wish to ask? Then we would dissect the thinking behind the experiments. Finally, we had to summarize the authors’ conclusions, decide whether they were justified, and predict where the work might lead. Week after week, we pondered these questions as we pored over the literature, and Botstein cajoled, badgered, and encouraged us at each step.

The class profoundly shaped how I read papers and think about science. We were urged to see the bigger picture: How did the paper advance the field? How did it shape what came after? Could these consequences have been foreseen when the paper first appeared? Dr. Botstein invoked the “retrospectroscope” for this last function.

I especially remember reading Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl’s classic 1958 paper on DNA replication (“The Replication of DNA in Escherichia coli”). They used heavy isotopes to show that during cell division, each of the two new copies of the cell’s DNA receives half of the original material. Termed by some “the most beautiful experiment in biology,” the work was an elegant verification of DNA’s double-stranded nature. Our dissection of the original paper brought us close to the sense of discovery and wonder contemporary scientists must have felt.

Now, every day I bring the analytical skills Botstein taught me to my job as a scientific-journal editor. As I read papers, I apply the retrospectroscope by asking how much influence the findings are likely to have years down the road. Will students read these papers as 7.50 case examples 10 years hence? And each time I ask myself this question, I remember how indebted I am to Botstein and his enthusiastic tutelage.

By Charlotte Wang, PhD ’95, editor of Cell Metabolism, a journal based in Cambridge, MA.

Merton Kahne
Renaissance Man

Consider the image of a teacher and a student, sitting under a tree, perhaps, talking. That kind of learning may seem a far cry from giant lectures in halls like 26-100 and 10-250. But it was just that kind of direct, wide-ranging, one-on-one conversation with Merton Kahne that was one of the most important parts of my MIT education.

Like all MIT students, I had my share of lecture courses. I learned an enormous amount about poverty, labor economics, public finance, and comparative economic systems by sitting in traditional classes and reading articles and textbooks. But I also spent many hours chatting with professors and administrators individually, about coursework, about MIT, about the Vietnam War, about life. As a Course XIV major, I dropped by the offices of economics professors to talk about issues that interested me and about their research. As a student representative to the faculty committee on educational policy, I chatted with professors about how the Institute shaped its policy and how it could improve it. As a reporter for the Tech and a student activist, I spent hours talking to deans and other administrators about MIT’s role in society and the nature of protest.

Many professors were hospitable. Sometimes they invited me and my classmates to continue our conversations at their homes in Cambridge or Belmont or at their summer homes. There were no problem sets or final exams, but it was education, too.

But the professor who stood out most was Merton, then MIT’s chief of psychiatry, who also taught an undergraduate research seminar about education. Merton—we called him by his first name, even then—was the quintessential renaissance man: wise, thoughtful, well read in many fields. He always had an air of cynicism, but underneath, he was deeply concerned about students, MIT, America, and the world. I quickly fell under his spell and grew attached to him and his wife, Hilda Kahne, an economist who also became a role model for me.

It was Merton who first pointed me to the work of novelist and short story writer Doris Lessing, Merton who showed me that just because an institution like MIT had a policy in place did not mean that it worked well, Merton who came to rescue me from my nearly empty dorm one intersession as I unhappily tried to finish several overdue term papers.

Today, I am fascinated that someone so erudite was able to take 20-year-olds so seriously. Merton was the ultimate teacher, one who cared about his students and made time for them. He provided the personal guidance as well as the intellectual.

Merton is now professor emeritus and assistant program director at MIT’s Clinical Research Center. I remain friends with him and his family. And to this day, I still think of him as a master teacher. I am no longer across campus from him. But when I am stumped, I call him.

By Karen Arenson ’70, a reporter for the New York Times.

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