• Lore Harp McGovern and Pat McGovern hug on the tracks that run under the brain and cognitive sciences complex, new home of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. 
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    Lore Harp McGovern and Pat McGovern hug on the tracks that run under the brain and cognitive sciences complex, new home of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. Open image gallery

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Celebrating McGovern

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Sen. Kerry, Jane Pauley join in festivities

The McGovern Institute has come home. Celebrating the official Nov. 4 opening of the institute they founded in 2000, Pat and Lore McGovern hosted more than 500 guests in the sun-filled atrium of the largest neuroscience complex in the world -- the brain and cognitive sciences complex at MIT.

An overflow of onlookers lined the tiered balconies to hear the lineup of speakers, which included Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), TV news host Jane Pauley, Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Phillip Sharp, and Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe.

MIT President Susan Hockfield said it was "an incredibly exciting day for all of us as we formally introduce the McGovern Institute into this spectacular building." The best way to thank Pat and Lore McGovern, she said, is to "turn their aspirations into reality."

Pat McGovern, an MIT alumnus, recounted how he and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern, came to see misunderstanding and miscommunication as the basis for conflicts. They founded the institute to promote peace and understanding by improving communication and helping to alleviate the human suffering brought on by mental illness and brain disease, he said.

Theirs is the biggest gift in MIT history, $350 million over 20 years. "Some universities like dead donors," quipped Lore McGovern, "because they're easier to deal with. But we want to participate." She said that she and her husband feel an "awesome responsibility" to make sure the research benefits humanity, and also to promote entrepreneurial research, which she calls "let's-try-it funding."

MIT's Sharp, founding director of the institute, said, "I'm not more proud of anything than what's happened here and what will happen in the future …. This neuroscience complex is creating the future not only of neuroscience but of MIT," by directing efforts into areas of science where they are most desperately needed.

That desperate need to make progress in treating brain disorcers, current McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone said, was the true, sobering reason behind Friday's celebration. He described the themes of the institute's research as perception, cognition and action. To illustrate these concepts, he showed a clip of a train roaring head on toward the camera. "Perception is what happens when you see and hear the train. Action is what happens when you jump to safety. Cognition [fear, recognition, decision] is what happens in between. " Perception, cognition and action are all vulnerable in many brain disorders, and the McGovern Institute brings a "molecules to mind" approach to their understanding, said Desimone.

Metcalfe, also an MIT alumnus and the chairman of the McGovern Institute's Leadership Board, spoke about "why the Internet is like the brain … or not." Both have massive connectivity and many layers and are evolving, but the brain, unlike the Internet, has not yet had its "bubble." "Join us in inflating the brain bubble so we can understand its infrastructure and move forward together," he urged.

Kandel, of Columbia University and a member of the McGovern Institute's scientific advisory board, said the opening was a "historic event, a celebration of neuroscience not only at MIT but worldwide …. The next century will be for the biology of mental illness what the last century was for the biology of genes."

Pauley shared her personal voyage with mental illness and its stigma; bipolar disease nearly devastated her life four years ago. "My goal is to yank mental illness into the realm of all the other bad things that can happen in a normal life," she said.

Kerry called the opening "a celebration of generosity, of vision, and of possibilities in the future" that "couldn't come at a more important time." Kerry, who has promoted scientific research throughout his four terms in the Senate, strongly criticized the "attack on science" by ideologues. "Pat and Lore are doing what the nation should be doing for itself," he said.

When the final ceremony concluded around 1 p.m., a train bearing a McGovern Institute banner entered the building. It was, Desimone told the delighted crowd, a welcome from Amtrak, whose train track runs beneath the third-floor lobby. No one would have known about the train if not for the live video on the huge screen in the lobby, since the building design isolates the structure from the vibrations.

Lore McGovern recalled that on May 19, 2003, she stood on a triangular dirt field with nothing but a railroad track and a vision of a future "functional but fun" building. "This beautiful, stunning, gorgeous building goes beyond my wildest expectations. It brings us closer to work together."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 9, 2005 (download PDF).

Topics: Neuroscience, Campus buildings and architecture, Special events and guest speakers

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