When Anne Mayes departed MIT recently because of health reasons, the pioneering materials science professor left behind more than just a quarter-century history at the Institute: She left an opportunity for future students, in the form of a fellowship named in her honor.
Mayes never expected to come back to MIT after she received her bachelor's degree in 1986. But she did return a few years later as an assistant professor, and was the first woman in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) to rise from that position to become a tenured professor.
She also never imagined that breast cancer — and its treatment — would force her to leave a department filled with "so many bright minds," and where she had spent the better part of the last two decades.
It was October 1994 when Mayes was diagnosed with breast cancer. When three surgeries and intense chemotherapy failed to cure the disease, she underwent a clinical trial in 1997. That treatment eradicated the disease but left her immune system susceptible and with her lung capacity slowly degenerating.
After a close call with pneumonia further damaged her lungs in 2006, she decided it was time to leave the Institute. The polymers expert now lives in her hometown of Mustang, Okla., where she spends time with her husband and family — and has swapped a laboratory for her kitchen.
"I am a glass-is-half-full kind of gal," Mayes said recently. "Though I miss practicing my profession, I am enjoying this chance to spend more time with my mother and other family. I still enjoy conducting experiments, only now the products are edible — usually."
Mayes had more than $300,000 available in discretionary funds received from her endowed chair, various awards and other sources, when she left MIT. With the help of DMSE chair Ned Thomas, the funds became the seed money for the Anne M. Mayes '86 Fellowship.
"I wished to leave the funds to the department to spend in any way they were most needed," Mayes said. "I'm not certain, but I think the fellowship was [Thomas'] idea — what a wonderful way to be remembered."
Mayes' $300,000 was just the beginning, however, and the offices of the provost and the dean of the School of Engineering stepped in, offering to match MIT community members' donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $250,000. A print piece in her honor, titled "An Incredible Blend," was given to donors.
The fund now has enough to support a one-semester fellowship, which was given to incoming graduate student Dahyun Oh. The fund is still accepting donations so that it may award the fellowship for a full year.
Oh, a native of South Korea, recently earned her bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering from Seoul National University. The 22-year-old described being named as the fellowship's first recipient a "great honor."
"It motivates me to do my best at MIT," Oh said of the award. "I want to eventually be able to return this generous gift of Professor Mayes' to this society by working hard to contribute to the advancement of science and technology."
Oh's planned topic of study — energy storage — hits at the heart of many of the problems the world is facing today.
"As oil prices increase rapidly, the world is recognizing the need for alternative sources of energy," she said. "Even though the study of energy ranges over many subjects, I want to build a stepping stone to solve the energy problem through my opportunity at MIT."
Mayes, who conducted research on lithium polymer batteries, was delighted to learn about Oh's selection, calling fellowships a win-win situation for students and faculty.
"Graduate fellowships are essential for attracting the very best students to our graduate program. They give recipients the freedom to "shop around" and become acquainted with the diverse research activities and personalities on campus before committing four or more years of their life to a project," she said. "Fellowships also allow a means for faculty members to take on an eager new student they might not have initially budgeted for but are enthusiastic about having in their group."
Though her final two PhD students are wrapping up their work, Mayes' impact will be felt far beyond, in future students given the opportunity to study at MIT through her fellowship.
"I feel so fortunate to have had a very full and exhilarating career at MIT, despite the intervening health struggles," she said. "What a blessing it was to work 14 years with so many gifted colleagues and students — they are MIT's greatest resource."