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MIT welcomes 8 MLK visiting professors and scholars

Scholars’ diverse backgrounds enhance MIT community, research and teaching.
The new MLK scholars: Top row: Sylvester James Gates Jr., Donna J. Nelson, Donal Fox, Juana Mendenhall. Bottom row: Hector Hugo Hernandez, Isaac Mbiti, William Yslas Velez and Reuben A. Buford May
The new MLK scholars: Top row: Sylvester James Gates Jr., Donna J. Nelson, Donal Fox, Juana Mendenhall. Bottom row: Hector Hugo Hernandez, Isaac Mbiti, William Yslas Velez and Reuben A. Buford May

A theoretical physicist, a development economist, a jazz musician and an expert in carbon nanotubes are among the eight Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professors and scholars being welcomed to campus this academic year.

Since its creation in 1991, MIT’s Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professors and Scholars Program has honored the late civil-rights leader’s legacy by inviting scholars of diverse backgrounds to campus. While here, MLK visiting professors and scholars are deeply engaged in the life of the Institute through teaching and research; they enrich the Institute’s intellectual life and community while enhancing their own scholarship. To date, 60 visiting professors and 18 visiting scholars have come to MIT through the program.

“The Martin Luther King Visiting Professor and Scholar Program continues to bring to MIT outstanding talent of interest to all components of our academic community,” said Wesley Harris, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and associate provost for faculty equity. “Our MLK visitors have had an impact on our teaching, on our service, on our research and on generally strengthening the robustness of our community. Likewise, I believe MIT has shared its wonderful strengths and resources very freely with our MLK visitors.”

Harris credits former MIT Provost Mark S. Wrighton, now chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, for launching the MLK program two decades ago. The MLK visiting professors and scholars are chosen for their contributions to their professions, as well as for their potential contributions to the intellectual life of MIT. The program is open to individuals of any minority group. Appointments are for no less than one academic term and no longer than two academic years.

“We are especially pleased with the 2010-2011 visitors,” Harris said. “They hold visiting positions ranging from physics to classical music to economics to sports and culture.”

2010-2011 MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars
  • Donal Fox is an internationally acclaimed classical and jazz composer, improviser and pianist. Born in Boston, he trained at the New England Conservatory of Music and then at Berklee College of Music. Fox received a scholarship to study at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1969. While there,  he wrote classical music and performed jazz and classical piano in the presence of Leonard Bernstein and Gunther Schuller. As an MLK visiting scholar whose appointment has been renewed for a second year, his faculty host is Professor of Music Peter Child. Fox’s goal is “to revive the tradition of improvisation that characterized the performance of great composers of the past, Bach, Mozart, Liszt and many others, but that is rare today.” At MIT, he will continue to teach 21M.335 – Musical Improvisation in the Department of Music and Theatre Arts.
  • Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77, is a world-renowned theoretical physicist who serves as the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. A member of President Obama’s Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Gates is one of the country’s leading scientists and engineers chosen by the president to represent the highest level of scientific achievement in the country. As an MLK visiting professor, Gates will collaborate with members of the Center for Theoretical Physics in the Department of Physics, where he will continue his work on string theory, supersymmetry and supergravity. His official hosts are Edmund Bertschinger, head of the Department of Physics, and Edward Farhi, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics.
  • Hector Hugo Hernandez is an MLK visiting scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where he has worked as a postdoctoral research associate since completing his PhD in the Department of Chemistry in 2008. He will continue to work on his innovative postdoctoral research on aqueous microbial growth within a supercritical CO2 atmosphere. This research will contribute significantly to understanding the biochemical reactions associated with subsurface injection and storage of CO2. His host will be Janelle Thompson, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
  • Reuben A. Buford May is currently a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University and is the winner of numerous research and teaching awards. His research areas include urban ethnography, race and culture and the sociology of sport. As an MLK visiting professor, May’s current research project is a nuanced look at how African Americans negotiate the public spaces of downtown Athens, Ga. His goal is to elaborate theoretically the kinds of social forces that influence African Americans’ interactions with non-minorities. While at MIT, May will teach two courses, “Urban Cultures” and “Sport and Culture.” His faculty host is Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities.
  • Isaac Mbiti is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Southern Methodist University. He specializes in development economics and has an interest in randomized experiments in development economics. As an MLK visiting assistant professor in the Department of Economics, he will work closely with his host, Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, in the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. He will work on two ongoing projects, “Experimental Evidence on the Returns to Vocational Education in Kenya” and “The Impact of Monitoring Technology on the Impact of Remittances in Kenya.”
  • Juana Mendenhall is currently an assistant professor of chemistry at Morehouse College. As an MLK visiting assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, she plans to develop cohesive, long-term collaborations between Morehouse and MIT’s research laboratories in chemistry, electrical engineering, materials science and biomedical engineering. Her faculty host is Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry.
  • Donna J. Nelson is currently a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. As an MLK visiting professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, her research will focus on functionalizing and characterizing single-walled carbon nanotubes, especially by nuclear magnetic resonance. Nelson will also perform research on scientific workforce development with a special interest on diversity. Her faculty host is Michael Strano, the Charles (1951) and Hilda Roddey Career Development Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering.
  • William Yslas Velez is currently a professor and associate head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Arizona. His research specializes in number theory and algebraic coding theory. As an MLK visiting professor in the Department of Mathematics, Velez will continue his recruitment efforts and his commitment to the academic development of underrepresented minority students. His faculty host is Professor of Applied Mathematics Michael Sipser, who is also head of the Department of Mathematics.

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