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Marilyn Shilkoff '54

Alumna’s career evolves from aeronautical engineering to gerontology

One day in 1968, Marilyn Shilkoff ‘54 was walking through a park in Pelham, NY, with her six-year-old son, William, when he looked up and asked, “How come everybody here is walking so slowly?”

As Shilkoff looked around, she realized that the area was populated completely by older people.

This story is part of the July/August 2009 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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The next day, she took out her Hasselblad and started photographing the elderly residents as they played bocce, sat on benches, and strolled through the parks.

“You can’t take pictures of a person without talking to them, so I started learning a lot about their lives,” says Shilkoff, who also took photos for local schools and families. “I thought there had to be answers to their problems, like how to find work after age 65, what to do when you’re ill, that sort of thing.”

In 1973, Shilkoff–who’d had a successful career as an aeronautical engineer–enrolled in a psychology master’s program at NYU. Next, at Columbia University, she earned a doctorate in applied human development and guidance, with a specialty in gerontology. After completing her degrees, she worked for several city and state departments on aging. She helped place older Russian immigrants in jobs, wrote handbooks for students of gerontology, and gave talks about issues important to older people, such as living alone.

Shilkoff brings a fresh approach to gerontology that she attributes to the Institute. “MIT really opened my mind,” she says. “It allowed me to feel open to many different concepts and different life paths.” Indeed, even as she carved out a career in gerontology, Shilkoff has maintained her initial interests in engineering, physics, and cosmology.

Shilkoff has returned the favor by serving as an MIT educational counselor for 26 years. “I interviewed mostly students from the Bronx School of Science,” she says. “They were so advanced in the kinds of research they were doing. I was happy to work with them, and I was proud I could make a contribution.”

Shilkoff recently retired from the Westchester County Office for the Aging and lives in New Rochelle, NY, with her husband, Paul, a retired real-estate attorney. In addition to their son, William, an internist and nephrologist in Brooklyn, they have one daughter, Jacqueline, a curator at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY.

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