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School of Architecture and Planning announces 2020 Infinite Mile Award winners

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MIT School of Architecture and Planning's 2020 Infinite Mile Award winners
The MIT School of Architecture and Planning's 2020 Infinite Mile Award Winners: (top row, l-r): Ruth Tse Yiu, Jim Harrington, Andrea Porras; (middle row, l-r) Graham Yeager, Kevin McLellan, Thera Webb; (bottom row, l-r) Marissa Friedman, John Steiner, Chelsea Polk

“As one can imagine, it’s never easy to herd eight MIT professors,” according to one of many accolades for Ruth Tse Yiu’s work in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “She is a very organized, proactive, dependable, thorough, and take-charge person … known for digging deep to find answers to complicated questions.”

Yiu was one of nine individuals honored at the School of Architecture and Planning’s annual Infinite Mile Awards in a virtual ceremony on July 2. The awards are given to teams and individuals for significant accomplishments in the departments, labs, and centers.

A financial assistant for Professor Jinhua Zhao, director of MIT’s Transit Lab, Yiu says she enjoys the intricacies involved with keeping the lab’s many grants in compliance and keeping Zhao apprised of his financial accounts.

“I’m happy to be able to help my PI manage his grants from cradle to grave and spend the funds in compliance with sponsor’s requirements,” says Yiu. “Also, I assist him in proposal preparation and submission. Knowing that a proposal I worked on has been funded gives me a sense of satisfaction. It means that my PI will have more funding for his students to work on a few more exciting research projects. I feel very happy about it.”

“The Infinite Mile award is the most prestigious staff award given in the SA+P,” says Dineen Doucette, SA+P’s manager of finance and human resources administration. “We award the best of the best based on nominations received.”

Doucette says the evaluation process is led by a committee of previous awardees who have the “difficult task of deciding who will receive a limited number of awards.”  

“In an ordinary year, the recipients of this award are usually our heroes,” said Dean Hashim Sarkis at the start of the ceremony. “I don’t know what we can call them this year.”

Sarkis, who said that this was his favorite event at MIT, settled on “superheroes,” given the challenges the school faced with the upheaval caused by the pandemic. “This ceremony is an expression of awe for everything you have been doing, especially this year,” he said.

Andrea Porras, recently promoted to administrative support coordinator with the MIT Media Lab, was among the honorees. Repeated in her many nominations was her thoughtful and considerable work during a time of turmoil.

“In the aftermath of the fall crisis at the Media Lab, Andrea played a significant role in the work of getting the lab to a better place,” noted one nomination. “She served as a focus group member, helping to create the lab-specific version of the Improving Lab Culture workshop. Andrea represented the non-research staff of the Media Lab more than capably as we sought to reform and improve upon the governance and accountability structures of the lab. She generated several important recommendations that the working group ultimately put forward, and did significant work to improve others. She managed to do this confidently, effectively, and with empathy.”

Porras says she was grateful to have had a hand in affecting positive change and continues to love her job. “I get to learn something every day, which I know is cliché,” she says.“I love problem-solving with individual admins and research groups. There are so many situations I have to explore, and that makes it really fun.”

Staff in the Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program were also honored, as a team. Marissa Friedman, Kevin McLellan, Chelsea Polk, John Steiner, Thera Webb, and Graham Yeager received more than a dozen individual and group nominations.

Noted one nominator, “Challenging times demand great effort and determination by people and groups, and the ACT staff met the challenges with grace, creativity, and humanity.” Another focused on the needs to adjust quickly that were driven by the pandemic: “I think I can speak on behalf of the faculty and mention that without their commitment to meeting the very diverse needs of all our classes, students, and faculty, and our ACT grad students’ needs, this online experience could have been a disaster.”

Marion Cunningham, ACT’s administrative officer, said nominations came from faculty, lecturers, and students.

“This is a very stressful and fluid time,” said Cunningham. “Our director, Judith Barry, asked if there was someone we could nominate, and I realized the team was stepping up in remarkable ways and we had the opportunity to say ‘thank you’ and ‘your effort is not only valued, but critical to our ability to meet the needs of the organization!’ I’m glad we did not let the opportunity pass. The team is quite amazing and I am delighted that their contributions were recognized by the school.”

Jim Harrington, the school’s director of facilities and a past recipient of the Infinite Mile Award, was distinguished by many for their reliance “on his wisdom and counsel.”

Observed one nomination, “Jim Harrington is as rock-solid as the main group of buildings he oversees for the school. Nothing sways Jim, not even the fast-tracked building renovation he managed with apparent ease, though the challenges were daunting. Jim cuts to the chase and gets things done with seriousness and purpose, but also with a wickedly dry sense of humor that pops out and surprises at random. Jim is a major part of the foundation of our school — and he’s simply the best.”

Harrington said MIT is a “great place to work” and the Infinite Mile Award is a morale booster, adding, “It’s easy to look good when you have such professional, dependable people to call on for help.”  

Usually held in the school’s Stella Room, the small conference room constructed to house a 97-foot-long site-specific artwork by Frank Stella, this year’s ceremony was conducted over Zoom. Hosting the event virtually allowed for a larger gathering of recipients’ families and nearly 70 staff and faculty members.

“Regardless who won, this has been a difficult year,” says Harrington. “I think having the continuity of these awards was important for everyone. It shows that MIT still cares and the recognition goes on, and that’s important.”

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