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Old Girls’ Network
Alumnae share their personal and professional stories during a first-time conference on campus
By Sally Atwood
Elisabeth drake ‘58, ScD ‘66, was one of 16 women who entered MIT as freshmen in 1954. About half of them lived in a dorm on Bay State Road in Boston; the others stayed at home. Living in the dorm and spending time together in the Margaret Cheney Room (a suite in Building 3 for the use of women students only) gave the women a sense of community that helped compensate for the alienation they felt at the predominantly male Institute, Drake told 200 alumnae and students at Hotel@MIT in April. Drake’s talk was part of the first MIT Women’s Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Alumni Association. Katharine Dexter McCormick, Class of 1904, also lent Drake and her fellow women undergraduates a hand, Drake said. A leader in the women’s-suffrage movement and one of the earliest financial supporters of the research that led to the development of the birth-control pill, McCormick was a significant presence in Drake’s day. “We loved her,” Drake said. “She provided a taxi fund.” It was a small gesture, but on rainy or snowy days, the MIT women appreciated being able to hail a cab and get a ride from campus to their dorm in Back Bay.
McCormick also tried to prod the women out of the typical mid-1950s mind-set. “She invited us to tea at her Commonwealth Avenue home,” Drake recalled. “We had to wear hats and gloves, and a butler let us into her home.” The women were nervous, but McCormick immediately put them at ease. “Well, young ladies, I assume you all know about birth control,’” Drake recalled her saying. “Have you given thought to how you will manage your career and reproductive life?’”
The women who gathered at the MIT conference came to share stories about how they have done exactly that, to describe some of the obstacles they have faced and overcome, and to network with MIT alumnae from classes spanning more than five decades. The event offered panels featuring three dozen alumnae who talked about their experiences in such fields as city planning, finance, media, medicine and health care, education, corporate leadership, and corporate marketing. Irene Greif ‘69, an IBM fellow, gave the keynote address, and current women faculty members and President Hockfield also spoke.
“There was tremendous energy that was palpable in all of the sessions,” said Linda Sharpe ‘69, Alumni Association past president. “We were way oversubscribed, an indication of unmet demand.”
A number of common themes emerged throughout the day. Perhaps the most dominant were that MIT taught the alumnae how to prioritize their work and that it gave them intellectual confidence. “I loved being here because it was a challenge,” said Lauren Seeley Aguirre ‘86, executive editor for Nova Online at WGBH public television in Boston. “It gave me incredible confidence intellectually in my career.”
A common criticism was that MIT did not teach women students how to achieve balance in their lives. Drake, who is retired but remains associated with MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, admitted that she learned too well how to be competitive, and became essentially addicted to working. Her obsessiveness was devastating in her early career. “I ended up an alcoholic and being fired from a top vice president position at Arthur D. Little,” she told the group.
Selling themselves and their ideas was another skill many alumni said they had to learn on the job. “Here [at MIT] we’re all about the value of the idea,” said Terry Sutton ‘83, director of customer satisfaction at L. L. Bean in Portland, ME. “If you have the right answer, then what else do you need?” Sutton discovered that to be successful in business, however, she needed more than the right answer. “You have to push your agenda forward, package your ideas,” she said. Sarah Schott ‘83, president of Weston, MA-based Leapfrog Marketing, agreed. “The business world is all about selling yourself, which doesn’t seem to be a trait you learn at MIT.”
The women had plenty of advice to offer: listen before you make decisions, delegate work so others can grow, be sure there is someone in your group who is able to synthesize information, never say you work part time, and have a plan for your life and work to fulfill it.
Julianne Malveaux, PhD ‘80, economist, author, and commentator, provided some advice on how to help close the salary gap between men and women: use “the three most powerful words in the English language–is that all?–when a salary offer is made.”
Aliki Collins, PhD ‘87, a member of the organizing committee, hopes that the conference was just the foundation on which to build an active program regionally and nationally. “It’s important for us to maintain relationships later in life,” she said. “MIT alums don’t do that well. For us, it’s a waste of time to go to meetings like this or go play golf. We’re busy going on to the next thing.” But it was clear from the enthusiasm of these MIT alumnae that they have discovered the power and value of sharing their stories with women of all ages.
Clocky becomes a hit overnight
By Katharine Dunn
Clocky may not be pretty, but it’s the belle of the ball. Since Media Lab graduate student Gauri Nanda built Clocky as part of an industrial-design course last fall and posted photos on the Web, the shag carpet-covered alarm clock on wheels has become a media sensation. The device was featured on Good Morning America (“I demoed Clocky on a set that they built especially for him,” says Nanda), on the front page of the Boston Globe, and in dozens of publications worldwide. Nanda has filed for a patent and says she expects that Clockys will be available within a year for about $30 each.
Clocky is designed to make oversleeping nearly impossible. When the alarm goes off and its owner presses the snooze button, Clocky rolls off the bedside table and wheels over to a different spot, where it waits to sound the alarm anew. “The idea is that he plays a sort of hide-and-seek game with you to ensure you wake up,” says Nanda. Clocky isn’t cutting-edge technology–it’s a microprocessor, motors, an axle, and a battery inside a foam-and-wood skeleton covered in brown shag carpet.
But Nanda attributes its popularity to its simplicity, and to its attempt to solve a common problem.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka
MIT helps tsunami survivors return home and start anew
By Katharine Dunn
In the first days after a monstrous tsunami hit countries in Southeast Asia last December, aid agencies and volunteers scrambled to provide urgent short-term assistance to survivors. MIT Buddhist chaplain Tenzin Priyadarshi, however, got to work on longer-term plans; he set out to rebuild permanent housing near Sri Lanka’s shores, where about half a million people lost their homes. Priyadarshi, who once lived in Sri Lanka, is raising funds to support the effort through the Prajnopaya Foundation, the Carlisle, MA-based nonprofit he directs, and with the collaboration of the Sri Bodhiraja Foundation in Sri Lanka, a group he met through friends there. He also has the help of MIT students and faculty in designing the new houses.
But Priyadarshi will need all this support to surmount some looming obstacles. In January, the government of Sri Lanka announced it wanted to relocate much of the population away from the coastline. “Is the government [threatening relocation] for fear of another tsunami, or for tourism?” asks Priyadarshi, pointing out that it would be more profitable to sell prime seaside land to businesses rather than give it back to the people who have always lived there.
Priyadarshi and his colleagues used their connections in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-friendly government (about 70 percent of the country’s population is Buddhist) to secure some land for new housing. Volunteers began building prototype houses last January; eventually, Priyadarshi hopes to build 1,000 single-family homes in a dozen communities along the coast.
To reach that goal, the groups will negotiate with the Sri Lankan government for more land–an effort that should be easier with the promise that many of the new houses will be designed to be more resistant to ocean storms. Researchers and students in the departments of architecture and urban studies and planning, as well as students from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, have designed houses that will probably be made of wood and concrete blocks and raised a meter or so off the ground on pillars, creating space for water to flow under the buildings if a large wave hits. According to a simulation by engineers at Buro Happold, a design consultancy in London, in the case of a tsunami, the structures should be more than five times more resistant than existing houses along the Sri Lankan coast. The houses would cost about $1,200 each and would be built by volunteers, including the people who would live in them.
Chemist by Day, Poet by Night
Her research is also her muse
when chemistry grad student Mala L. Radhakrishnan isn’t busy figuring out how to design drug molecules that are specific to their targets, she’s using her work as inspiration for poetry. Radhakrishnan is working on assembling her comic, chemistry-themed poems into a book. Although Radhakrishnan didn’t start writing poetry about chemistry until she came to MIT, she says she first got the idea from her experience teaching high-school chemistry. “I would teach through analogy,” she says. “For example, a valence electron is just like a person in the last row of a crowded movie theater. He can’t really see that well and he doesn’t feel part of the action, and if he could get closer seats elsewhere, he’d go somewhere else.” Radhakrishnan hopes that nonscientists who read her poems enjoy her sense of humor and “maybe even learn something,” while the scientific-minded can appreciate “the more subtle inside jokes” in her work. She says the poem “Amalgam in the Middle” was inspired by the “somewhat arbitrary dividing line between metals and nonmetals.”
Amalgam in the Middle By Mala L. Radhakrishnan
Silicon was faithfully teased each day
In school when atoms would line up to play:
Metals in one line, nons in the next,
But which line should it join? All were perplexed.
Like a metal, it was shiny,
But its conductivity was tiny.
Its band gap was too far from little,
And unlike metals ‘twas rather brittle.
It clutched electrons way too tightly,
So metals teased it daily and nightly.
Yet nons would also jeer and nettle,
“You dress and look just like a metal!”
What pain since it did not conform!
No box for it to check on forms.
Few atoms could know the lonely void
That it knew as a “metalloid.”
But sili did not yet know ‘twas able
To be popular with the rest of the table.
Its half-filled shell did place it where
It had some four electrons to share.
While greedy nonmetals weren’t willing to spare
And metals were willing to give anywhere,
Sili’s electrons were things to be earned,
But they bonded with skill that couldn’t be learned.
Once other elements saw this fact,
Moles of them came ‘round to react.
O2 was the first to ask it on dates,
And others joined in to make silicates.
The former outcast whose hopes had been bust
Now was key in forming Earth’s crust!
The pariah that had been given the hand
Was now in every grain of sand.
Soon, silicon was lionized;
Its band gap was of perfect size
To dope with nearby brothers and sisters
And make computers from transistors.
As if its utility has not yet impressed us,
It’s also in quartz and glass and asbestos!
And silicon’s used in chemical plants
To make lubricants and breast implants.
Sili, its fourteen electrons so strong,
Proved all of its doubtful peers to be wrong
When it managed to move all the way out to Cali
And founded its very own aptly named valley.
The ugly duckling of the table,
Silicon simply couldn’t be labeled.
So if you feel you don’t fit in,
Think of silicon and don’t give in.
Director Drawn to MIT
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michel Gondry visits campus
By Katharine Dunn
When french film director Michel Gondry was a child, his father told him that great art comes from inspiration, not effort. He later decided that his father was wrong, and he began to work hard, very hard, at his craft.
“I always try to go in an area where I feel unsafe. I make difficulties that I have to overcome,” Gondry said in a public talk at MIT in April, the first of several appearances scheduled during a residency supported by the Ida Ely Rubin Artists-in-Residence Fund. Gondry won an Oscar for cowriting the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which he also directed. He was, however, nominated for the residency on the basis of the innovative music videos he’s made for such artists as Björk and Kylie Minogue.
Gondry comes from a techie family–his dad was a programmer, and his grandfather invented an early synthesizer–but arguably his best work involves few camera tricks or computer effects. In a recent video for the alternative-rock band Steriogram, Gondry presents a world made almost completely out of yarn. He says he liked the “contrast of violent music and the sweetness of knitting.”
While on campus, Gondry attended a class on media and theatrical performance, met with film students, and visited groups in the Media Lab, including the Physical Language Workshop and the Robotic Life and Smart Cities groups. He plans to return to campus this fall, when his latest film project permits, for the balance of the residency.
A Bird Brain Idea
Researchers reveal the creative source of song in the zebra finch
By Tracy Staedter
Many animals vocalize, but most of them seem to do it by instinct. Only a few–humans and songbirds among them–learn their languages by imitation. How human babies go from babble to chatter has been poorly understood. But recently Michale Fee, associate professor of neuroscience and investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, reported that he discovered a region of the zebra finch’s brain that is responsible for the experimental babble of nestlings that eventually leads to their signature mating song.
Not only does this work reveal much about the finch’s talent for mimicking vocalizations, but it could also shed some light on how humans do the same thing. The bird brain circuit involved is analogous to the human brain’s mysterious basal-ganglia circuit, which could have something to do with learned speech.
From previous work on the zebra finch–a good songbird to study because it sticks to one mating song–Fee knew that a different section of the finch’s brain, one that controls motor function, was able to produce a stereotypically patterned song, like a repetitious baseline. But that didn’t explain the early talent for creative riffing that the bird displayed.
When zebra finches are about 40 days old, they begin singing random notes. At around 50 days, they start refining their song, and by the 90th day, they have it nailed. Using a drug that inhibits neural activity, Fee blocked the part of the brain that he suspected governed the creative experiments in birds about 55 to 80 days old. Usually finches that age sing capriciously, but after the injection, their songs became significantly less variable. The team concluded that the neural noisemaker was essentially feeding random notes to the previously identified motor-function part of the brain, which over time eventually found the right combination.
What’s more, Fee’s team found that random bursts from neurons in the noisemakers of normally developing birds coincided with new riffs in the birds’ song. “The young birds are actually learning their song by trial-and-error exploration,” says Fee.
“It’s beautiful behavior and very relevant to speech development in people,” says behavioral neuroscientist Ofer Tchernichovski of City College of New York, an expert on vocal learning in zebra finches who is familiar with Fee’s work.
Now scientists have to figure out how the brain rewards the creative fluctuations that turn baby birds’ babble into come-hither melodies.
A Superior Scoopful
Researchers invent an energy-efficient way to make ice cream
By Lisa Scanlon
Ice cream makers, who are forever dreaming up new flavors, are far less creative when it comes to the machines that actually produce the dessert. The manufacturing devices in today’s plants aren’t that different from the hand-cranked churn Grandma used, says mechanical-engineering professor Joseph L. Smith Jr., ScD ‘59. But now, Smith, his colleague John G. Brisson II, and mechanical-engineering graduate student Teresa Baker ‘03 are creating a process that uses liquid carbon dioxide, saves energy, and results in a creamier-tasting treat.
Ice cream making typically involves two steps: the mix is sent through an externally chilled tube, and then blades within the tube scrape frozen ice cream off the sides, churning it back into the mix. This method, Baker says, is “probably double-processing things” and, therefore, wasting energy. Next, the ice cream, which is partially frozen during this stage, is poured into containers and blast frozen–another energy-intensive process.
The new method proposed by the MIT team blends the liquid ice cream mix into liquid carbon dioxide, a refrigerant. This mixture is sprayed as a fine mist into a metal container, where the carbon dioxide evaporates, freezing the ice cream within milliseconds. Because the process results in a product with very small ice crystals, even low-fat ice cream has a creamy taste. The team completed a prototype ice cream machine last fall and is conducting experiments to gauge the effects of changing variables such as how long the ice cream ingredients and liquid carbon dioxide stay mixed together. There’s a long way to go before the method is ready for commercial use, but the rewards of the researchers’ hard work will be sweet indeed.
Simmons Hall learns to adapt
By Catherine Nichols
Since the walls of Simmons Hall are made of concrete, glass, and steel, it would seem that the one thing residents aren’t supposed to do with the building is drill holes in it. But in April, students had a unique opportunity to modify this major work of modern architecture in a competition called Drill a Hole in Simmons Hall. Students from MIT and Harvard University were encouraged to submit designs for improvements to the building. The winners would win money and have their plans implemented.
The competition was the idea of Carlo Ratti, a current resident of Simmons Hall and a visiting scholar in architecture. The Simmons Hall housemasters–Ellen Essigmann, PhD ‘80, and John Essigmann, SM ‘72, PhD ‘76–asked Rotti to design improvements for the building. Ratti suggested that, instead, the community should propose changes. Steven Holl, who designed the building, approved the groundbreaking competition.
The entries reflected the different perspectives of the contestants, from the students who call Simmons Hall home to the more distant Harvard students, who know it as a textbook lesson in modern architecture. Their designs ranged from the humorous (Simmons should have its own cloud to transport students) to the practical (Simmons should have more furniture) to the ethereal (study spaces should be pierced with colored glass rods that would light up from within when the rooms were in use).
A panel of architecture experts and Simmons residents selected three finalists. Residents then voted online, ultimately selecting the design of mathematics major and Simmons resident Thom Covert ‘05, architecture major Stephen Form ‘05, and architecture grad student Coryn Kempster. Since the winning team suggested the transportation cloud, among other additions, its full vision will not be realized. At the moment, only its plans for an outdoor terrace seating area and a glowing electronic-communication system are under review for implementation.
Simmons Hall was built in part as a metaphor for the ingenuity and creativity of the MIT mind; the metaphor stands as the building adapts.
Fresh Air for Office Dwellers
Researchers study naturally ventilated buildings
By Lisa Scanlon
As the cocooned cubicle dweller knows all too well, sealed-off modern office buildings do not offer ideal work environments. “There’s poor indoor air quality, and people seem much happier if they have access to outside air,” says Leon Glicksman ‘59, PhD ‘64, professor of architecture and mechanical engineering. What’s more, air-conditioning an office building takes an enormous amount of energy. So Glicksman, along with colleagues at MIT and the University of Cambridge, set out to find better ways to design buildings cooled by natural ventilation–where to locate windows, atriums, and fans so as to better draw fresh air through a building’s interior.
Although the concept of natural ventilation seems simple, architects and engineers actually know little about it. “A lot of architects and designers have shied away from [natural ventilation] because they don’t understand how it works,” says Glicksman. “It’s more complicated, because when the wind changes direction, you’re going to get different conditions, and you have to be able to design [a building] to accommodate those conditions.” To better understand what happens in a naturally ventilated building, the researchers began in May 2003 to monitor a new, successful building of that type in Luton, England. They measured temperature and energy usage throughout the building and took detailed measurements of airflow by, for example, videotaping helium-filled balloons as they floated through the building and its individual offices.
Back in Cambridge, MA, the MIT researchers built a one-twelfth-scale, 1.2-meter-tall model of the building. They used the temperature and airflow data they gathered in England to guide the placement of fans and heaters to replicate those ventilation conditions. The researchers hope that, once they analyze the data, they will be able to show that their scale model can be used to predict what would happen in the English building if, say, certain windows or vents were closed, or if the wind changed direction. If the simulation works, then architects and engineers can use similar models to evaluate designs for naturally ventilated buildings before construction, says Christine Walker, an architecture grad student who is working on the project.
The researchers are also creating simple, easy-to-use digital-simulation tools to encourage architects to try designing natural-ventilation buildings. Their software allows architects to check the energy efficiency of and airflow through their buildings before construction starts. The program will use certain information–the percentage of the exterior comprising windows, and the location of the building and the direction it faces–to determine approximate temperature and airflow throughout the building and to predict how much energy will be needed to heat, cool, and light it. “In many cases, [architects] don’t have the budget to bring in mechanical engineers with high-powered computer-aided-design simulations,” Glicksman explains. “This is something that allows people to very simply try out different designs.”
The Cambridge-MIT Institute–an alliance between MIT and the University of Cambridge sponsored by the British government–is funding the project, which will continue for another year. After that, says Glicksman, perhaps his team will “even convince MIT to do a naturally ventilated building.”