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H. Robert Horvitz wins Killian Award

Announcement made at May 17 faculty meeting
H. Robert Horvitz
H. Robert Horvitz

Nobel laureate H. Robert Horvitz, the David H. Koch Professor of Cancer Biology, is MIT's James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award winner for 2005-2006.

Erich P. Ippen, the Elihu Thomson Professor of Electrical Engineering and a professor of physics, announced the Killian Award committee's decision at the faculty meeting on Wednesday, May 17.

Established in 1971 as a tribute to MIT's 10th president, the Killian Award recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishment by an MIT faculty member. The winner is asked to deliver a lecture in the spring term.

Horvitz shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering and characterizing the genes controlling cell death in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic roundworm. Horvitz is an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and for the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and he is a member of the MIT Center for Cancer Research. He also holds appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital in neurology and in medicine.

"Bob is a pioneer in using the simple roundworm as an experimental organism for seminal discoveries in cell differentiation and cell death that have increased our fundamental understanding of all multicellular organisms," Ippen said. "In his 27-year tenure on the faculty, Bob has taught thousands of students the fundamentals of genetics, he has been a mentor to graduate students and postdocs, many of whom are now top-rated faculty around the country. It's an honor for me to present this award to someone so devoted not only to research but also to teaching and service to the entire Institute."

"It's been a great place to be for a long time," Horvitz said as he thanked the committee and the faculty members applauding him.

Advising and mentoring changes

Changes in the student-faculty advising system may include a smoother transition for freshmen as they enter new departments as sophomores, more meetings between advisors and students, more information for students with questions on requirements and other logistics and more information on students' rights and responsibilities.

The Committee on the Undergraduate Program, in collaboration with the Committee on Student Life, has been working on a set of guidelines for advising and mentoring students. In a follow-up to the report they submitted last year, members of the committee said at the May faculty meeting that they have been working with the dean's office on ways to bolster the current system. About half of this year's graduating seniors reported in a survey that they were dissatisfied with the quality of the mentoring they had received as undergraduates, according to Chancellor Phillip L. Clay.

"There is some excellent advising at MIT, but the system should be strengthened," said committee member Hazel L. Sive, professor of biology. "Upperclass mentoring is not a system that is broken -- it has some best practices in many different departments -- but it is in need of strengthening." She likened it to a "threadbare but intact fabric" into which new threads could be woven "to strengthen and change the fabric of the system."

A continuum of advising and mentoring interactions contributes to good advising and ranges from formal classroom time to less formal Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programs to informal discussions and social events, she said. The committee observed that students should have a "network of mentors" that includes deans, athletic coaches, other students and other faculty in addition to their assigned faculty advisors. Sive noted that good advising is an active process, requiring effort by both an advisor and the student advisee.

Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research, said some immediate improvements have been made by the Academic Resource Center on the freshman-sophomore transition by helping students explore career options and connect with their new departments.

Some recent improvements include Independent Activities Period panels on how to choose a major and explore careers; publicity for department open houses; a new sophomore transition web site; and an online questionnaire for freshmen to give their sophomore-year advisors a better idea of who they are and what their first-year experiences were like. "We really want the freshmen to reveal as much to their sophomore advisor as they want to reveal, such as 'Did your first year meet your expectations?' 'What are your hobbies and outside interests?'" Vandiver said.

Sive described a new web-based initiative to help faculty improve their advising and to provide quickly information that students seek, such as departmental requirements. The web sites are UINFO (, the undergraduate information and advising gateway, and two resources to be accessed by e-mail, interact@mit and newadvising@mit.

In addition, some departments, including biology, have developed course information brochures and brochures on how to be a good advisor, while separately, student committees are developing informational materials on "how to be advised."

Next steps may include adding a midterm advising period; opportunities for student-advisor meetings besides the harried registration day meeting; exploring faculty incentives and rewards for added advising duties; seeking institutional resources to support these efforts; and exploring "an articulated set of core values" around advising. "What do we think as a faculty about advising? This will be an interesting challenge for next year," Sive said.

Underrepresented minorities

Provost L. Rafael Reif said MIT is working toward its goal of significantly increasing the participation of underrepresented minority faculty and underrepresented minority graduate students.

In an update on a May 2004 resolution, Reif referred to figures gathered in October 2005. In the future, he said, he would like to present diversity updates in the fall to take advantage of the latest numbers, gathered annually in October.

In the 2006 count, completed in October 2005, 181 of the 992 MIT faculty were women. Since then, MIT has hired 37 new faculty members, 15 of whom are women. Five of those new faculty members -- 4 women and 1 man -- are underrepresented minorities.

"It looks like the preliminary numbers for the present academic year are much better than previous years," Reif said.

Underrepresented minority faculty and graduate students currently make up about 5 percent of the total group, Reif noted.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 24, 2006 (download PDF).

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