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Speakers give students glimpse of the future

At the convocation for the Class of 1999, speakers welcomed freshmen to MIT, offering encouragement and a taste of what lies ahead.

"Don't think of yourself as a container to be filled with information and skills by faculty lectures. MIT is an active place and learning at MIT is active," President Charles M. Vest said in outlining the Institute's educational philosophy. Learning at MIT means "learning by formal study and teaching, learning by disciplined research, learning by doing and by working on real problems, and above all, learning from each other."

President Vest urged students to make contact with faculty and research staff ("don't assume they are too preoccupied with their loftier, godlike enterprises to be bothered with the likes of you") and to take advantage of educational opportunities such as the freshman advisor program and UROP. Faculty members enjoy working with students because MIT undergraduates are "bright, interesting, creative, challenging and fun to work with," he said. "We are, indeed, privileged to have you here."

President Vest noted that the new freshman class sitting before him in Kresge represented an important milestone, being the first-ever MIT class with more than 40 percent women. "It's about time," he said to vigorous applause. The new students are also a geographically and ethnically diverse group, something he urged the students to use to their advantage. "Diversity is most valuable when we weave its various threads together to achieve a coherent whole," he said.

As an introduction to the scientific accomplishments that regularly occur at MIT, Professor of Biology Eric Lander sketched out a brief history of advances in genetics and biology, many of which have occurred at MIT. Those advances are happening very rapidly, he emphasized. "It's a breathtaking pace. Things that were considered impossible-not just impossible but unthinkable only a short time ago-we do routinely every day in the lab." Milestones in the 20th century have gone from the discovery of chromosomes and the structure of DNA, to the identification of markers for Huntington's disease and other ailments, to the Human Genome Project, which is expected to result in a complete map of the human genome by 2002 or 2003, he said.

In a few more years, "you'll look back on us living in a barbaric era like the Wild West, hunting for genes," Professor Lander said. "I hope this gives you a taste of what excites me about being a member of this intellectual community and I hope it will excite you."

Carrie Muh, president of the Undergraduate Association, also spoke of the challenges and pleasures of being an MIT student. "You're probably all used to getting A's all the time. Well, you're not all going to get A's any more. But you have to remember just being here means you're intelligent," she said. Ms. Muh urged her new fellow undergraduates to get involved in social and extracurricular activities as well as academics. "The key to doing well here is not to get stressed out," she said.

Rosalind Williams, the incoming dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, also had a few words of counsel. Although intellectual development is a primary goal of MIT students, "you're also going to have to develop your character and your cultural awareness. Doing so is just as intellectually demanding as anything else on the curriculum," she said.

Making intelligent choices is part of being an MIT student with new adult responsibilities, Dean Williams said. "Thinking always involves judgment. You have to make decisions when you don't have all the facts, you have to evaluate other people's characters, you have to weigh complex elements. Learning how to think involves learning to function in a community."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 30, 1995.

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