It’s no secret that MIT’s reputation as a world-class leader in breakthrough education is a major draw for prospective students. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that many graduates return to the MIT community to serve as members of the faculty or staff, or to engage in ongoing learning, to fill in gaps as technology advances and careers grow.
In research labs and classrooms across the MIT campus — which is quickly developing into one of the most technologically influential square miles on the planet — dozens of alumni are now leading programs and research aimed at helping to train the next generation of innovators and leaders. A number of alumni are also taking part in knowledge enhancement programs offered through MIT Professional Education, as students and facilitators. While each has followed a different path, all share an MIT connection that is second-to-none.
The boomerang effect
Gergely "Greg" Sirokman’s first exposure to MIT was in 8th grade, when he attended the Splash program, an annual event where 7th and 8th grade students get to take a variety of STEM-related classes taught by MIT students and community members. Years later, he came back to the Cambridge campus to earn his PhD in inorganic chemistry. Today, Sirokman PhD '07 is a full-time professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, but his learning experience at MIT continues.
“Wentworth offers a very generous education reimbursement package, which means they fund a significant amount of classwork. I decided to take advantage of those benefits and enroll in MIT Professional Education courses,” Sirokman says.
Sirokman is among the 84 Institute alumni who have taken advantage of the MIT Professional Education Short Programs over the past five years to actively seek out learning and grow as a member of the MIT community. Since 2007, he has completed a total of seven summer courses, including courses on biofuels, solar energy, and carbon sequestration.
“These courses allowed me to acquire skills and knowledge I didn’t possess yet as a graduate of MIT, and helped fill holes in my education profile,” Sirokman says. “I immediately turned back around and applied the things I learned to the work I was doing at Wentworth.”
Today, Sirokman runs a biodiesel lab at Wentworth and is ramping up a project aimed at mitigating the impending energy crisis. The goal is to produce biodiesel fuel from the waste vegetable oil that comes out of the campus cafeteria, and use it to run the fleet of campus vehicles.
“My mission is to make renewable energy more accessible and train students to have a better understanding and appreciation for renewable energy. Those two things are things I can do better because of the professional education courses I took at MIT,” he says.
Sirokman shares this piece of advice for the Class of 2019: “The accelerated growth of the technological universe is like a run-away train. Actively seek out learning opportunities to keep up with what is happening in science, technology and engineering. Otherwise, you will get left behind.”
Familiar faces carry on MIT’s mission
Another reason alumni feel compelled to return to campus is their desire to carry on MIT’s mission to advance knowledge and effect positive change. That was the case for Kristala Prather '94, the Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.
“Everyone at MIT is looking to do something special and have an impact by solving some of the world’s biggest challenges,” she says.
Prather first arrived on campus in 1990, back when there was no internet to share real-time updates on research and network with colleagues. After earning her bachelor of science degree, she went on to earn her PhD at the University of California at Berkley. She subsequently worked at Merck Research Labs for several years, and then decided to return home to her alma mater.
“I realized what I liked best about my job in industry had to do with mentoring young scientists and training them to be independent researchers,” she says.
Prather returned as an assistant professor in 2004. Today, her research efforts are centered on the design and assembly of recombinant microorganisms for the production of small molecules, with additional efforts in novel bioprocess design approaches. She also directs an MIT Professional Education course on Fermentation Technology inherited from mentor, Professor Daniel Wang.
“One of the impacts I found I can make is to provide professionals with more of a foundation to help them understand the theory behind the work they are doing in industry,” Prather says.
Her advice to the Class of 2019 is to stay connected to MIT: “MIT is such a strong community," she says. "When I first graduated, I didn’t have a sufficient appreciation for just how many opportunities there are to engage with that community – from MIT Professional Education to seminars and symposiums to the Industrial Liason Program. Graduates should think about what brought them to here to begin with, then ask if there’s a way to remain involved, so they can continue to learn and be at the forefront.”
Online avenues to lifelong learning
Technology has made the world a smaller place and as a result, it is now even easier for alumni to stay connected to campus — even when they live far away. Take Sarah Moran '95 as an example. She graduated from MIT with a BS in mathematics, and now lives in China, where she serves as head of innovation and product at Fidelity Investments.
She recently enrolled in MIT Professional Education Digital Plus Programs so that she could learn more about innovation and leadership from seasoned professionals who could help support her transition to a new role at Fidelity.
“I had been working in quality assurance for the majority of my career and was looking for a new challenge,” she says. “Engaging in the online learning programs helped open my eyes to other viewpoints and helped position me for long-term success.” Moran says she is not only taking classes for herself, but also to share the experience with colleagues and meet new friends virtually around the world.
“We’re proud so many accomplished alums return home to MIT to refuel their knowledge, or to serve as members of faculty in our programs, sharing their research-based knowledge with fellow alums and industry professionals worldwide,” says Bhaskar Pant, executive director at MIT Professional Education. “MIT is after all, a family: an enduring community dedicated to sharing knowledge and giving back for the betterment of humankind.”