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New SDM cohort to target complex engineering, management challenges

Members of the SDM class that entered in January 2010.
Members of the SDM class that entered in January 2010.
Photo: L. Barry Hetherington

Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, once said, “We need diversity of thought to face new challenges.” MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program addresses this philosophy by weaving diversity of thought throughout the program — in its systems-based approach to leadership and addressing complex, interdisciplinary challenges, in its team-oriented, project-based engineering and management curriculum, and most importantly, in the composition of its student cohort.

Each year, SDM deliberately selects a cohort whose members reflect the diversity of thought necessary to addressing the world’s most pressing challenges. In addition to meeting the Institute’s highest standards of admissions and academic excellence, every SDM class brings a wide range of experience and expertise to MIT.

The cohort that entered in January 2010 is no exception. Students range from an advisor to the prime minister of Kazakhstan to a former senior VP at Mars, Inc. They hail from a wide array of industries, including aerospace, high tech, consulting, finance, defense, the military, oil, film, state government and more. They come from countries around the world, among them Canada, China, Chile, India, Israel, Spain, and the U.S.

“Because SDM is about complex technical, managerial and social challenges, diversity is critical to teaching our students how to be inclusive in the midst of uncertainty and how to lead and engage others in innovation, teamwork and systems thinking,” said John M. Grace, SDM’s industry codirector.  

Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program, noted that the program consistently seeks to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities to enhance this diversity. “SDM recently held a special information evening for mid-career members of the local chapters of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and we actively participated in the national conferences of SWE, SHPE, and the National Society for Black Engineers for several years,” he said.

Among the 50-plus students comprising the new class, almost 30 have already earned a master’s degree and several hold two or more. Four hold MBAs; two hold doctorates; and a third is working toward an interdisciplinary PhD at MIT in parallel with his SDM studies. Three students who recently earned SDM’s graduate certificate in systems and product development are now pursuing the SDM master’s.

The diversity of the cohort goes beyond academic and professional backgrounds, extending into students’ outside interests too. They include a Formula 1 race car driver, a bagpiper, an “artistic roller skater,” a cellist who once played with Yo Yo Ma, and a member of an a capella singing group called Tonehenge.

Like the 14 SDM cohorts that preceded them since the program’s inception in 1996, students are experienced professionals ranging in age from their early 30s to mid 50s. Like their predecessors, they intend to enhance and strengthen their technical expertise and acquire the management skills that will enable them to provide value to their workplaces that goes beyond a traditional master’s degree in engineering or an MBA. In essence, for technical professionals SDM offers the best of both worlds in engineering and management.

Rutu Manchiganti, a former senior staff systems engineer at Motorola whose hobby is artistic roller skating, explained why she chose SDM. “I want to get a management education without losing the engineer in me,” she said.

Matt Harper, a product manager at Prudent Energy International who plays bagpipes in his spare time, said he applied to SDM because he wanted a formal business education "without having to learn to think only like a finance guy.”

The senior member of the cohort is John Helferich, a retired senior vice president at Mars, Inc. who oversaw research and development for pet care, candy and rice products. ”I want to learn to lead change through societal means,” he said. While at SDM, he plans to focus on food safety and sustainability and continue to teach as an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University.

For most members of SDM’s new cohort, like Swope Fleming, the program offers new ways of thinking, engineering and managing that will help them address the world’s new challenges. “SDM’s emphasis on systems will give me a broad technical skill set that I can use beyond my prior work in semiconductors,” said Fleming, who aims to branch out from that field into clean energy. “SDM will help me bridge the gap between my engineering background and the business world.”

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