A two-day symposium at MIT this week celebrated the research accomplishments of some of the top minds in science and engineering. The event, titled “Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT,” brought together “the greatest collection of speakers in science and engineering that I have ever seen at MIT, or anyplace else,” noted Edmund Bertschinger, the symposium chair and head of MIT’s physics department, in the event's closing remarks.
Because of the caliber of the speakers and the range of their work — from studying the tiniest cells to distant black holes, from the workings of the human mind to the prospects for finding alien life — the symposium took on the air of a celebration of these researchers, and of the progress women have made in achieving recognition for their professional accomplishments. The speakers at the event included three winners of the National Medal of Science, two MacArthur “genius” grant winners, and nine members of the National Academy of Science or the National Academy of Engineering, among a host of other honorees.
And there is good reason for celebration, but with a few caveats, said Nancy Hopkins, the Amgen Inc. Professor of Biology. More than a decade ago, Hopkins instigated the most comprehensive study of the status of women in the faculty that any major university had ever attempted. The results at the time were startling, and attracted nationwide attention. There remains a great deal more to do to achieve real parity, Hopkins said, but the progress has been substantial, as outlined in a new MIT study released last week. Over the past 15 years, the number of women faculty members in the School of Engineering has doubled, from 8 to 16 percent, and in the School of Science they have more than doubled, from 8 to 19 percent; in addition, many more are now in senior administrative positions.
Issued in 1999, that first MIT report “woke people up,” said Shirley Ann Jackson ’68 PhD ’73, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who delivered a keynote address at the symposium. Other schools at MIT quickly followed suit in examining their own situations, and a group of nine top universities around the country came together to form a gender equity project, with six of them conducting their own studies of their faculty members — which found similar patterns of under-representation and bias. Many new policies were put in place, based on real research, not assumptions, and have made a great difference, Jackson said.
But “despite aggressive steps taken by universities, the under-representation still exists,” she said. “We need to provide women with bridges” to help alleviate the high percentage who still leave science and engineering after having earned degrees in those fields.
“In the years to come, people who master science will rule the world,” Jackson said, adding that it is essential to continue the work to make sure that women fill their fair share of those roles.
The symposium later turned its focus from such overviews of the roles of women in science and engineering to the details of specific work being carried out by some of MIT’s leading researchers. The descriptions spanned a wide swath through the worlds of science and engineering, and included work by esteemed senior faculty as well as that of younger faculty members.
2010 National Medal of Science winner Susan Lindquist, a professor of biology and former head of the Whitehead Institute, described progress in the understanding of how proteins fold themselves into complex shapes, and the diseases that can result when they fold incorrectly. She described using yeast cells as a “living test tube” to study the folding process that may play a part in Alzheimer’s disease when it goes awry, and progress toward finding specific genes that may help to correct the defects.
JoAnne Stubbe, the Novartis Professor of Biology and professor of chemistry who won the National Medal of Science in 2009, talked about the role of radicals — highly reactive chemicals that can cause rapid oxidation — in triggering some diseases and aging processes. Though usually thought of as destructive agents, radicals can also “be harnessed to do good,” she said, adding that it is “underappreciated how important radicals are in normal metabolic pathways.” In addition, radicals can play important roles in many chemical processes, including the splitting of water to produce potential future renewable fuels.
Sangeeta Bhatia SM ’93, PhD ’97, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, discussed her work using nanotechnology to repair damage in living cells. Manufacturing technology developed for the electronics industry can be “borrowed for biology,” she said, to produce a “lab on a chip” that will automate and greatly speed up the study of living tissues, and might someday make it possible to manufacture entire organs such as livers to replace those damaged by disease.
Angela Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy, described her work on harnessing viruses to produce materials for batteries and solar cells. Christine Ortiz, professor of materials science and engineering and MIT's dean for graduate education, described a different way of harnessing nature, using structural principles derived from armor-plated fish to inspire new ways of creating protective structures for people and vehicles.
Sara Seager, professor of physics and the Ellen Swallow Richards Associate Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), discussed her work developing new, tiny space telescopes to try to take direct images of the planets around other stars — and to look for signs of life in their atmospheres. And Maria Zuber, head of the EAPS department, described a project to search for signs of life much closer to home, just beneath the surface of our neighbor planet Mars, where, she said, an ancient ocean that once covered a third of the planet now lies under the surface, frozen in among the rocks and rubble.
Other faculty members described efforts to teach computers to understand natural spoken language, the search for gravitational waves emanating from some of the most violent collisions in the universe, and how to understand the behavior of microbes using the tools of mathematics and hydrodynamics. Still others described our rapidly advancing understanding of the relationship between the brain and the human mind, and the role of the world’s most ubiquitous organism, a kind of marine microbe, in creating the air that we breathe.
Speakers and session chairs at the symposium also included MIT President Susan Hockfield, former president Charles Vest, MIT professors Ian Waitz, Hazel Sive, David Mindell, Barbara Liskov, Regina Barzilay, Anette Hosoi, Nergis Mavalvala, Sallie Chisholm, Nancy Kanwisher, Cynthia Barnhart, Marc Kastner, and Katrin Wehrheim, and representing other universities and academic organizations, Abigail Stewart, Robert Birgeneau, Heidi Hammel ’82, Lisa Maatz, and Cherry Murray ’73, PhD ’78.
While celebrating the successes of women faculty members and the Institute’s progress in fostering a culture of inclusion, speakers at the symposium also recognized the fact that many challenges remain and more work needs to be done.
Many cultural stereotypes remain, Bertschinger said, and studies have shown that both men and women tend to overvalue work done by men, and undervalue work done by women. It is essential that everyone involved in the hiring process be aware of these biases, he said, and training on these issues is being given to all members of search committees within his department.
Institute Professor Emeritus Mildred Dresselhaus, who said that despite having taken the title of Emeritus “I haven’t changed my hours,” spoke of the important role of mentors — male or female — in fostering the development of women in science and engineering careers. In her case, a chance association with Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, who used to walk the same daily route as she to the University of Chicago when she was a graduate student, helped to provide that early encouragement: “He liked people who did the work,” she said. When she came to MIT, she was delighted with “the collegial spirit” that she found here.
Graduate students have said that rather than the “sink or swim” culture that has prevailed through the years, the Institute should develop a “culture of caring.” In fact, Bertschinger suggested, it might be time to extend the MIT motto, making it mens et manus et cor — mind and hand and heart.