If you follow your passion, sometimes you end up in the right place at the right time to have an impact on the world, MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang told the Class of 2012 Tuesday during the freshman faculty keynote address.
That certainly applies to Chiang's own research, which has led him into the field of developing very small but powerful batteries. His batteries have been incorporated into Black & Decker power tools, and General Motors plans to use his battery technology to power its plug-in hybrid car, the Chevrolet Volt.
MIT President Susan Hockfield said she invited Chiang to deliver the keynote address because he personifies several MIT ideals: a passion for pursuing the outer limits of knowledge, a commitment to tackling the most pressing challenges of the day, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
"I couldn't be more excited that he is giving you your first faculty lecture," Hockfield told the freshmen gathered in Kresge Auditorium this afternoon.
Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Ceramics, earned his bachelor's and ScD degrees from MIT. In 1990, he became the youngest person to earn tenure in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
At the beginning of his talk, Chiang, who entered MIT as a freshman in the fall of 1976, had a confession to make: "I can't even remember who my faculty keynote speaker was."
He added, "But I remember the folks I sat with at the freshman picnic in Killian Court. They were some of the most amazing people I had ever met."
To prove his point, Chiang invited two recent MIT graduates onstage.
"These are two guys who literally can leap tall buildings in a single bound," said Chiang as he introduced Nathan Ball and Dan Walker, both 2005 MIT graduates in mechanical engineering.
Ball and Walker won the 2007 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for their Atlas powered rope ascender, which can lift a 500-pound load more than 600 feet in the air at 10 feet per second, on a single battery charge. They used the prize to start a company and are now selling the ascender to the military.
"I had heard about MIT students starting companies, but it didn't really sound like me," Ball told the freshmen. But he found that MIT offers plenty of support and guidance for students with marketable ideas.
"Be glad you're here because it's an amazing place," said Ball, just before making a dramatic exit into the Kresge rafters with Walker, as the freshmen applauded wildly.
Daniel Hastings, dean for undergraduate education, told the freshmen that MIT cannot possibly teach them everything they will ever need to know. Instead, the goal is to give them the skills, passion and values they will need to pursue knowledge for the rest of their lives.
"We want you to be proud MIT graduates, ready to lead in the world," he said.