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Letter to MIT community regarding new Institute-wide environment initiative

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The following email was sent this morning to the MIT community by President L. Rafael Reif.

To the members of the MIT community,

On February 18, Provost Marty Schmidt charged a faculty committee to identify a leader for a new Institute-wide initiative on the environment. This morning I am delighted to announce that Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate, has agreed to serve as the initiative’s founding director.

You can find an MIT News story about the initiative here.

Professor Solomon’s leadership

A winner of the National Medal of Science, Professor Solomon has a record of producing superb science that formed the springboard for policies—such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning the use of ozone-depleting CFCs—that have literally changed the world.  Her 30-year career has ranged from hands-on field science in Antarctica to helping shape the seminal 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Recently, she led a team that connected volcanic eruptions with shifting trends in global warming. We were fortunate in 2012 when she joined our faculty, and we could not ask for a better leader in our drive to increase fundamental knowledge and accelerate progress towards solutions around environment, climate, and human society.

One of the most important challenges of our time is the question of how to build a sustainable human society. The intense interest in this subject from our students and faculty reflects a shared sense of urgency and obligation. With Professor Solomon’s leadership, the environment initiative will help focus MIT’s distinctive strengths on advancing science, engineering, management, design and policy solutions to help drive the kind of progress required in time to make a difference.


As we announced Tuesday, a major component of this initiative will be the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Laboratory (J-WAFS), to be headed by Professor John Lienhard. Through an act of inspired vision and generosity, Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ’78 has created a research center that aims to change the global equation on water and food security, and he has provided the enabling gift that will propel MIT’s broader efforts to foster a sustainable society.

Uniting many strengths

From this core, the initiative will build outward to engage a range of connected fields, from cities to oceans, from engineering to economics, from ecosystems to energy. Through an MIT-supported seed fund program, the initiative will solicit ideas from across the Institute for highly original interdisciplinary projects and unexpected collaborations. The initiative will also engage actively with the many centers of environment-related work found at MIT.

A campus-wide conversation on how to tackle climate change

I have also asked Professor Solomon—working with Provost Marty Schmidt, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, and MIT Energy Initiative Director Bob Armstrong—to launch a campus-wide conversation on the challenge of climate change. MIT specializes in achieving breakthroughs by encouraging widely different minds to tackle hard problems together. Built around a range of provocative speakers, such an open conversation will sharpen our thinking and help us choose the best path to real progress against climate change.

Contributions from many quarters

Launching this initiative has required time, patience and creative thinking from many people. The initiative will build on the foundation laid by the Earth System Initiative; I thank current director Dara Entekhabi and founding director Penny Chisholm for assembling a community of faculty dedicated to environmental concerns. And I offer special thanks to all the members of the search committee, chaired by Professor Markus Buehler, which proposed Professor Solomon as the initiative’s founding leader, as well as to Provost Schmidt and Vice President Zuber for their leadership.

I am especially grateful to Professor Solomon for leading this crucial first phase. Once this new venture is up and running, she intends to return her full attention to her research and teaching. Therefore, we will immediately begin a search for a permanent director to lead the initiative to its mature second stage.

                                                            *          *          *

The environment initiative will succeed by tapping the passion, boldness and ingenuity of our community, particularly our students.  They rightly insist on solutions—as our students have been doing at least since MIT bestowed a diploma on Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1873. MIT’s first female graduate, she went on to conduct the groundbreaking science that led to the first US water quality standards. She revolutionized public understanding of the nutrition in food, through concepts like calories and carbohydrates. And she introduced to American science the systems-driven concept of ecology. An entire environmental initiative in one mind!

In a letter to her parents six months before she enrolled at MIT, she wrote, “My life is to be one of active fighting.” Just as she devoted her technical gifts to serving society, I ask that we work together and use our collective intellectual and creative strengths to help achieve a sustainable human future on Earth.


L. Rafael Reif

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