MIT President Susan Hockfield invoked the spirit of the intellectually ravenous Leonardo da Vinci as she welcomed the Institute's newest students and challenged them to cultivate their own insatiable desire for knowledge.
Convocation welcomes new students and guests on August 25, 2008.
"Be as curious as Leonardo," Hockfield exhorted members of the class of 2012, their parents and relatives during the President's Convocation, held Sunday, Aug. 25 in Killian Court.
Flanked by MIT's top administrators and housemasters, Hockfield tried to calm the jitters of the freshmen, while throwing down the gauntlet for the next four years.
"It is MIT's very good fortune that you decided to join us," she said, after reminding the new students that MIT admitted less than 12 percent of those who applied last year. "What you bring to MIT is partly individual — your own intellect, energy, ideas and aspirations. Your distinctive life experience and point of view."
"But," she added, "in addition to each of your individual gifts, together you represent the start of a marvelous new chapter in the history of human understanding — and it happens that we've gathered in an unusually interesting place to think about that idea."
Hockfield then noted the scientific giants whose names are inscribed on the friezes of the surrounding Bosworth buildings. Included among them is da Vinci, who is often thought of primarily as a painter but also excelled as a scientist, engineer, city planner, inventor and architect. He had a "complete disregard for the accepted boundaries between different fields of knowledge," Hockfield said.
"Today we dress up that attitude with the awkward phrase 'multidisciplinary thinking,' but for da Vinci, it was nothing more than his ravenous curiosity, his desire to explore everything, to explain everything and to put to use everything he learned," she said.
Hockfield called upon the class of 2012 to embrace such wide-ranging thinking, citing examples of work at MIT that benefited from a broad perspective, such as Associate Professor Larry Sass's modular home designs for devastated areas of New Orleans and materials science and engineering Professor Yet-Ming Chiang's innovative batteries for electric cars. She particularly encouraged students to seek mentors among their professors and to learn from each other.
While the members of the class of 2012 are beginning their college career at an unsettling time, they will find MIT "a place of practical optimism and of passionate engagement with the most important problems of the world," Hockfield said. "It is a place that is not satisfied until we find the deepest answers."
In their remarks, MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay and Steven Lerman, vice chancellor and dean for graduate education, reiterated some of Hockfield's themes. Clay used the "powerful metaphor of a journey" to welcome students, explaining that on this trek, "questions are more important than answers."
"Your journey here will require you to be your (own) agent in your education," he said.
Lerman also strove to reassure students, saying, "Rest assured you can and will succeed here, although you may work harder than you ever have before."
And he reminded students that technological solutions must be designed to fit human needs. Determining which problems to solve is as important as solving them, he said.
This statement struck a chord with Anjali Thakkal, 18, of San Jose, Calif., one of the members of the class of 2012. "Because if you want to solve a problem, you don't have to find a problem that exists - you can find your own problem. That's what defines MIT," she said. Thakkal, who said she had to work hard to promote interest in math and science at her small, all-female Catholic high school, was bubbling with excitement about being in a school where math and science are promoted at an "intense level."
Michael Batista, 18, of Melbourne, Fla., said he remains a bit nervous about the challenges of MIT, but "after hearing the speeches, I'm feeling a little more invigorated. I really want to research and work with professors and I really like how they focused their speeches on that concept."