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First $30K Lemelson Student Prize For Inventiveness Awarded at MIT

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--A second-year Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student in mechanical engineering has won $30,000 for showing exceptional creativity and inventiveness during his student career at MIT.

Thomas H. Massie, recipient of the first annual Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness, has convincingly demonstrated his talents in such diverse areas as solar cars, robotics, computer interfaces, a plant watering device, and a weaving machine. He has even started his own company to further develop one of his inventions.

The Prize was established with funding from Jerome Lemelson, the nation's most prolific living inventor, and his wife Dorothy, to encourage more students to pursue careers in science and engineering by rewarding star student inventors. Mr. Lemelson, an engineer by training, holds more than 500 patents.

"It's the intellectual equivalent of a football scholarship," said Lester C. Thurow, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professor of Management and Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and overseer of the Prize. "In our society, the athletes typically get all the big awards and the attention. We need to create role models for people involved in creative intellectual pursuits."

By all accounts, Mr. Massie fills the bill.

"Thomas Massie is one of the most inventive and productive students I have encountered in my 12 years at MIT," said Dr. Kenneth Salisbury, principal research scientist at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and one of the three people who nominated Mr. Massie for the Prize. "He has an uncanny knack for asking all the important questions, and then he goes ahead and answers them." Perhaps Mr. Massie's most intriguing invention, created in collaboration with Salisbury, is an ingenious desktop "touch interface" for a computer. By inserting fingers into special swiveling thimbles mounted at the end of small computer-controlled mechanical arms, a person can "feel" and "manipulate" objects on the screen of different shapes, sizes, and textures, ranging from bouncing rubber balls to virtual keyboards.

The device showed such promise that Mr. Massie started a company called SensAble Devices in his on-campus apartment over 18 months ago to develop and market it. Potential early applications range from surgical training to computer-aided design programs that allow designers to touch or interact with their designs. Eventually, the device may lead to an entirely new generation of video games.

A native of Kentucky, Mr. Massie showed promise long before he came to MIT. "As long as I can remember, I was always taking things apart," he recalls. "I was in the fourth grade before I started putting them back together again."

But when he did, he would make something new. In seventh grade, for example, he built his first robot arm from materials scrounged from appliances and other items around the house. He also built an automatic plant-watering device triggered by sensing the conductivity of the soil.

As a ninth grader, he saw MIT's well-known undergraduate design contest on television and decided he wanted to come to MIT to win it. With his characteristic resolve, he applied to MIT when he was a senior, got accepted, took the class, and won.

While an undergraduate in electrical engineering, he worked on problems in mechanical design, electronic interfacing, computer control, and sensor development at the Artificial Intelligence Lab under the auspices of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. He also joined MIT's solar car club, and became so intrigued with a hand weaving technique from the Andes he read about in one of his classes that he designed and built a machine that simulated the process. He even found the time to "hack" (MIT slang for a prank) the electronically controlled blackboards in MIT's main science lecture hall, programming them to move at 1:45 pm every day.

"I'm just amazed that there's an award for doing something that is so much fun and so rewarding in itself," Massie said, reflecting on his winnings. He plans to donate a portion of it to his high school to support math and science activities.

MIT seniors graduating in June and MIT graduate students were eligible for the Prize. Candidates were evaluated for their track record for inventing, the creativity of their solutions, the diversity of their talents, the potential for societal benefit of their work, the potential for commercial success of their inventions, and the enthusiasm of their nominators.

The Prize jury consisted of five MIT alumni/ae Leslie M. Compton, materials engineer at Altran Materials Engineering; Matthew K. Haggerty, President and CEO of Product Genesis, Inc.; Richard E. Heitman, President of Venture Support Associates; Krisztina Holly, Vice President for Product Development, Stylus Innovation; and Neil Pappalardo, Chairman and CEO, Medical Information Technologies.

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is part of the Lemelson National Program in Invention, Innovation, and Creativity, which promotes American invention and innovation through a number of activities at MIT, Hampshire College, the University of Nevada at Reno, and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

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