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Alumnae, grads look back at MIT

Alumnae celebrating their 25th reunion year on Friday did problem sets in a different world from those graduating today. The Class of 1980 was 16 percent women; in 2005, the graduating class is 42.5 percent women, and Susan Hockfield is MIT's president.

The Class of 2009 is expected to be 49 percent women. As this new generation of MIT women prepares to walk the Infinite Corridor for the first time, current and former women students offered some highlights from their experiences.

Most often, they focused on an inspiring and thoughtful advisor or the help of labmates or teammates.

Katherine C. Lin, a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering, said Jenny Jay, her supervisor in the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory, was both the "listening ear I really needed" and the scientific guide who helped her see how "what I studied in the classroom and the laboratory could be relevant to the world outside," she said.

Joan Griffin (S.B. 1980) majored in civil engineering and is now a senior vice president at the Royal Bank of Scotland in New York City. She credits her advisor, the late Professor Frank Perkins, with being the "greatest influence on me while at MIT and afterward; he suggested I think about business school."

A mother of three, Griffin also noted, "One of the first things I taught my 10-year old daughter to say was, 'Girls are good in math!' "

Like Griffin, Catherine White (S.B. 1980) recalls her mentor, Pat Melaragno, who was coach of the MIT Varsity Pistol Team, as especially helpful. She has also stayed in contact with her teammates.

"Joining the pistol team was the best thing I did at MIT. A sport that I had never previously tried became a lifelong avocation. My pistol team friends have pretty much remained friends. We get together once a year in April at the varsity vs. alumni match," said White, a tax accountant.

For California native Sandhya Sitaraman, a brain and cognitive sciences major graduating this week, life at MIT was all about the women's dorm, McCormick Hall, where she was a resident academic advisor for three years.

"McCormick was a great experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. The dorm creates an atmosphere that encourages women at MIT to pursue the toughest challenges and to be the best at whatever they choose," she said.

"When I was accepted to MIT, many boys were surprised that a girl could get accepted to this institution. Many even said that the reason I got in was because I was a girl," she said.

But Sitaraman found encouragement to "excel in any field," she said. "My four years here have been absolutely wonderful in terms of helping me grow as an individual, and I leave this place with many fond memories."

Women critical of aspects of MIT credited the courage and tenacity of faculty women who spoke up to improve things.

For Karen Sachs, graduate student in biological engineering, the MIT faculty who inspired her are the "brave awesome women who worked hard and took the flak" for the 1999 report on the status of women in science. Their work "caused a ripple effect in the science world and tangibly improved things for women," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 1, 2005 (download PDF).

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