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Student's lost folder begets e-mail mania

After an unexpected flutter of papers caused Brian Hubert to lose two years' worth of doctoral research data, a flurry of urgent e-mails around the MIT community brought the lost papers back to him.

The Media Lab graduate student was cycling home to Ashdown House last Thursday night when unbeknownst to him, the folder containing his only copy of his thesis data fell out of his open backpack, landing in the street near the corner of Ames and Amherst streets. When Mr. Hubert arrived home, he pulled off his backpack and panicked.

In what must have been a moment of desperation, he sent an e-mail to President Charles Vest asking for help.

"Dear President Vest: I am a PhD student in the MIT Mechanical Engineering Department. During a three-minute bike ride from the Media Lab to Ashdown House tonight, I lost a folder that contained about two years' worth of doctoral research. Upon reaching Ashdown House I discovered that my backpack was wide open. I immediately retraced my complete path within about three to six minutes. No folder was seen on the ground...

"It contained about 120 sheets of paper tucked inside... and may have contained a letter that was addressed to me. This may be the only contact information in the folder. Yes, the data contained with the folder is absolutely irreplaceable. The grand irony is that I was bringing this folder home so that I could transfer the information to my computer so that I would have a digital copy."

By 8am on Friday, that message began its rounds. It was forwarded to the administrative officers e-mail list, a list of communications people on campus, support staff, athletics staff, all mail personnel, the custodial staff, housemasters and tutors, and the entire mechanical engineering department, among others.

Blowing in the wind

Meanwhile Thursday evening, Fran Osseo-Assare and her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor Kwadwo Osseo-Assare of materials science and engineering, were walking back to their apartment at 100 Memorial Drive when they noticed papers fluttering in the street. Dr. Osseo-Assare urged her husband to help her rescue the papers that were blowing about.

"I'm a writer," said Dr. Osseo-Assare, a sociologist and author of A Good Soup Attracts Chairs, a cookbook of African recipes, "and whenever I see pages that are written on, I feel like there might be a story there that ought to be saved." She and her husband grabbed the folder from the street and chased flying papers that were lodging in the nearby bushes.

"I owe it to my wife who encouraged us to pick them up," said Professor Osseo-Assare, who is on sabbatical from Pennsylvania State University. "She wanted to be sure we picked up every page." Several people stopped to help.

Mr. Hubert's folder contained a business card from Draper Lab and the Osseo-Assares planned to call that number the next day.

Friday morning, Dr. Osseo-Assare insisted that her husband make the call first thing. "I'm very much an activist," she said. Instead, he gave the folder and portfolio to his assistant, Hilary Sheldon, who put it aside to read her e-mail.

When she read Mr. Hubert's message, which had been forwarded to the support staff list, she felt certain the folder was his and called him. "She called at about 10:50 and I was in her office within 20 minutes," said Mr. Hubert, who said his first reaction to her call was disbelief. "You kind of write it off because you don't expect that kind of quick turnaround.

"As far as I can tell, nothing is missing, which is amazing because these were all loose pages gathered form different notebooks and binders I was taking to digitize. I'm still in shock that I recovered it. It's kind of like being in a car wreck and it's only later you can take it all in."

That settled, there was still one mystery to solve.

In the street near Mr. Hubert's paper folder bearing the MIT insignia, the Osseo-Assares also found a portfolio that they assumed belonged to the same person. Not wanting to be nosy, the Osseo-Assares didn't search the documents.

"I didn't look very carefully because it was somebody's stuff and it's their own business," said Professor Osseo-Assare, who has two chlidren studying at Harvard and a third who graduated from there recently.

But the portfolio wasn't Mr. Hubert's; it belonged to a woman who had attended a conference at MIT the same day. When Ms. Sheldon called the owner in Rhode Island to tell her the portfolio had been found, she was "overjoyed. Although it didn't represent two years of doctoral research, she said it was invaluable," said Ms. Sheldon.

This wasn't the first time Dr. Osseo-Assare had rescued valuable papers on a roadway.

While taking a walk in Oregon several years ago after a rain, she spotted something in the bushes along the highway. It was a 19th-century diary written in pencil by a young soldier heading off to the Spanish-American War. "It was amazing to hear him talking about going to Alaska. The only name in it was Nellie, his girlfriend. He wrote about saying goodbye to Nellie and her father," she said. The diary prompted her to write a National Public Radio commentary about journal-keeping.

"You never know what you're going to find when you're walking down the road," she said. "We're so inundated with papers and it's such a disposable society, yet you never know what could be written on them."

And so, because a writer values the words people put on paper, and an e-mail-happy lot pushed the "forward" button several times in quick succession one Friday morning, a doctoral student's career was saved, a campus visitor's property restored and a mother vindicated.

"Now when my children roll their eyes and say, 'Oh Mom, why do you do these things?'" said Dr. Osseo-Assare, "I'll tell them this is why."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 8, 2000.

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