The excitement of the students at two Singapore universities was evident as they posed questions last week directly to Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, 13,000 miles away in MIT's newest high-tech classroom.
The voice responses were almost immediate--without the long delays heard in nightly transcontinental news broadcasts.
The three-way live telecast Nov. 27 was a demonstration of the highest technology in distance education: three-way signals carried by the latest video compression technology over a high-speed broadband Internet 2 link.
The screen at the front of the B.J. Park (Class of 1961) and Chunghi Park Room for Innovative Education in Room 3-370 showed three images: the Powerpoint presentation of Sharp, and the crowd of students and dignitaries who were watching from their individual classrooms--about five miles apart at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University. B.J. Park received the S.M. in 1961.
"Watching them watching Phil was wonderful," said Provost Robert A. Brown. "And what was really fascinating was the question period afterward, which went on for about 35 minutes. A Singapore grad student in shorts and sandals asked Phil a question that showed a deep understanding. Phil said, 'That's a really good question' and you could see the student just glow as a Nobel Prize winner complimented his question. It was really extraordinary."
The occasion was the inaugural seminar series of the Singapore-MIT Alliance and the Industrial Liaison Program. Sharp, an Institute Professor, spoke on "Gene Expression in Mammalian Cells: RNA Splicing and Silencing by siRNAs." More than 200 attended in the three universities.
Larry Gallagher, director of MIT Video Productions and Distance Education Delivery, said, "This 'around the world' lecture was possible due to the recent installation of state-of-the-art distance education facilities at each of the participating universities. The SMA program has funded the renovation of several distance education classrooms, both here and in Singapore.
"The technology worked flawlessly. Each site was connected at a high videoconferencing bandwidth and due to application sharing, each of the Singapore sites had the benefit of the same high resolution PowerPoint graphics as Professor Sharp's MIT audience," said Gallagher.
"It was as close as they could possibly get to having Phil Sharp in a seminar," Brown said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2001.