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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

One of those “big picture” days by Melis A. '08

2 hours of inspirational lectures, one from the CDC director and the other from broadcasting legend Tom Brokaw...all while following around the MIT president

A preview, courtesy of today’s MIT homepage:

It was 2:03 pm when I ripped out the carbon record of my experimental results and dashed out of the 5.310 (Experimental Chemistry) lab. Though the lab period is scheduled to end at 5 pm, today was the end of a four-day experiment and we had finished early. I had two minutes to get to Kresge auditorium, where Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), was scheduled to give a talk titled “Health System Transformation: Getting Our Money’s Worth of ‘Healthness.'” What is healthness (not a typo)? I had no idea, but ever since elementary school I have dreamed of working in the Biosafety Level 4 facilities of the CDC, and I wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to hear an infectious disease expert speak, let alone someone who is basically in charge of protecting the health of our country.

President Susan Hockfield gave an introduction to the talk, citing Gerberding’s experience in medicine and public health and that she was named #12 on Forbes Magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women” list in 2005. Gerberding was also apparently involved with setting up the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing (a 10-year partnership between MIT and one of the biggest pharma companies in the world. )

The main problem that Gerberding and the CDC are trying to address is the fact that the U.S. is ranked #37 in the world for its health system (according to the World Health Organization.) This is appalling; we consider ourselves to be a world leader and we spend the most money on healthcare, yet our health outcomes are dismal! The current system spends an inordinate proportion of the money on people who are already sick, instead of preventing sickness from happening in the first place. Gerberding believes that protecting health is a strategic national investment, and that we’re at a tipping point where we can greatly increase the value of the healthcare system if we just invested a little more. Her vision is a “value-based health system.” She also emphasized that we need to find better measures of “healthiness” and we also need to reward good results in the healthcare arena. (If this interests you, consider taking 17.315 (Health Policy) or 17.317 (U.S. Social Policy). I’ve taken them both, they’re great!)

For those of you who think that changing the healthcare system is impossible, she gave the example of Kennedy’s 1961 space challenge. Even though sending men to the moon seemed utterly unattainable to most people, including NASA scientists, the challenge was met eight years and 59 days later. Gerberding hopes that by May 30, 2016 (the same # of days from today), America will become “a healthiest nation” (again, not a typo. She emphasized that all nations need to be healthy, we shouldn’t be the only ones.)

How does this apply to MIT? The end of the talk focused on “translating health discovery to health.” She emphasized that bench research (done at places like MIT) ends up becoming clinical practice. We need to use our knowledge of systems to evaluate the health outcomes of these clinical practices. Finally, we need to combat problems like obesity by examining a person’s environment. Otherwise, Gerberding warns, our children may have shorter life spans than we do (!)

I saw President Hockfield slip out of the auditorium at around 3:00, and the talk ended at about 3:05. A friend and I made the decision to skip the Q&A session and see if we could make it over to Tom Brokaw’s talk, which was scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm in the Stata Center. Off we went to follow Hockfield!

Of course, the line outside of the Stata lecture hall was very long (as opposed to Gerberding’s talk, which had plenty of seats to go around.) The MIT news page introduces the event best:

“An internationally respected journalist, Brokaw served as the NBC anchor for 21 years. He was the NBC White House correspondent during the Watergate scandal, advancing to lead NBC’s coverage of primaries, national conventions and election nights in 1984, 1988 and 1992. Brokaw, 68, is the author of “The Greatest Generation” (1998) and “A Long Way from Home” (2002).

The Karl Taylor Compton Lecture Series was established in 1957 to honor the late Karl Taylor Compton, who served as president of MIT from 1930 to 1948 and chairman of the Corporation from 1948 to 1954. The purpose of the lectureship is to give the MIT community direct contact with the important ideas of our times and with people who have contributed much to modern thought.”

I got fourth row center seats and couldn’t wait to hear his familiar voice bellow from a few feet in front of me. Again, President Hockfield introduced the distinguished guest, and then Brokaw took the stage. He is the most poised speaker I have ever seen. With a pen in his right hand, he delivered his speech in a way that nobody else could. His pauses were perfectly placed, he emphasized just the right words and captivated everyone’s attention. I have to admit that I was so caught up with thinking about his gravitas that my mind wandered and I didn’t pay all that much attention to what he was saying =) I also didn’t take notes because I wanted to focus on watching him…just like on TV but better!

He began by making a joke that giving the Compton lecture was the only circumstance in which he would be admitted to MIT (according to Wikipedia, “Tom Brokaw dropped out of The University of Iowa, where he says he majored in “beer and co-eds” before receiving his B.A. degree in Political Science from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion in 1962.”) He also joked about how he was afraid that he would also have to speak at Harvard (which he referred to as something along the lines of the’ lesser institution up the street’, which drew much applause) and how he has commiserated with Harvard dropouts like Bill Gates over not being accepted to the college. Anyway, he described how he grew up in South Dakota and then talked about some of his experiences as a journalist. He has met every president since Kennedy, conducted the first American TV interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin, and Yevgeny Primakov, reported the collapse of the Berlin Wall, covered the September 11th attacks, and so much more. He’s been in the midst of almost every conflict that you can imagine and he told some heartbreaking and inspiration stories. Basically, he’s the kind of person that you’d die to have dinner with (incidentally, some MIT students got to have lunch with him earlier today. They said it was amazing!)

The directly MIT-relevant part of his talk was about the role of information technology in our lives. He described the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet as a media outlet, and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. He warned us that we have to be careful about where we get our information and that, as consumers, our decisions can affect what is covered (like car chases vs. world conflict.) There was more that he discussed… but I’ll leave it to Bryan to fill in the gaps =)

I still can’t believe that they scheduled these lectures back-to-back. What happened to spreading the love? I should have added this to my “10 reasons why I love MIT”: the lectures! We get to hear some of the most amazing people in the world, it’s really a privilege. Incidentally, our graduation speaker will be Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace prize. I can’t wait!

P.S. Thanks for the Brokaw pict, Bryan!
P.P.S. An example of Brokaw in action:

20 responses to “One of those “big picture” days”

  1. Judy '12 says:


    Wow, totally awesome event.. but somehow, I can’t see the stuff at the bottom of the page

    oh well

  2. Judy '12 says:

    darn my slow Internet

    I wasn’t first… scratch that raspberry

  3. Bassil `12 says:

    Allison – Thoughts of Ebola in elementary school – Either you’re a natural biological researcher or a terrorist! (JK)
    Regardless, I wish I knew of this event – I would totally skip school to attend those events.

  4. Melis says:

    Allison: I was fascinated with Ebola, too! Have you read The Hot Zone? I read it in middle school and got obsessed with viruses. There’s a researcher at the Whitehead Institute (which is affiliated with MIT) named Kate Rubins who splits her time between Boston and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ve met her a couple times, she’s really cool.

    Isshak: I’m not kidding! I’ll try to blog about it, if it will make you happy =)

  5. The news page forgot his latest book, BOOM!
    I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard loads of good.

  6. Burst says:

    It must be cool to have so many leaders and great thinks at one place.

  7. akshita says:

    cool stuff…viruses are fascinating. working in level 4 of cdc…what more can u ask for. except of course one glass of wine in hand….ahhhh…

  8. Steve says:

    Interesting observation – both Dr. Gerberding and Mr. Brokaw are South Dakota natives, as am I. My son, who came to MIT from South Dakota, was actually born in Minnesota (BOOO!). It’s nice to see some Dakotans receive recognition from a premier institution such as MIT!

  9. Isshak says:

    Blog about your own graduation ? Nah, enjoy it ! And ask some other blogger (someone who does not really blog, like…Snively?) to do it !

  10. Isshak says:

    WHAT ??? You are kidding !!!! You are so kidding ! Mohammad Yunus is your graduation speaker ??? Tell ne this is a mean joke just to make me utterly jealous…
    Melis do you realize how lucky your class is ? I wrote articles and essays about this guy ! I WANT TO MEET HIM ! What speaker can be better than him ?? MIT please accept me and, doing that, bring him back in 2012 !

  11. Keith says:

    Wow. What an oppourtunity! There is so much to do and see at MIT. I WILL GET IN!

  12. Allison '12 says:

    Ahah, I have also dreamed of working in a Level 4 Biosafety Hazard room in the CDC since I was in elementary school (specifically with Ebola — I had an odd fascination with the virus back then for some reason, and I suppose I still do). I’m still battling between what exactly I want to major in, although medicine is definitely one of my top choices. But then again, I guess that’s what college is for. smile

    As for the lectures, I was confused about the heading “Tom Brokaw delivers Compton Lecture.” Ahaha, I’ve never heard his name before or of the lecture series, so I thought he was giving a talk about the neighborhood Compton in LA.

  13. Anonymous says:

    code one! code one!

  14. wisdom says:

    Our health care system sucks. Enough said.

  15. I second Isshak! Muhammad Yunus is an absolutely fascinating guy!

    And playing around with viruses has been a childhood dream for me too. Take me in, MIT!

  16. akshita says:

    this has nothing to do with the blog….but can you tell me the meaning of the word ‘biogeneric’…thanks

  17. I googled ‘medically brunette’ to see who else was with me, hooray I’m not alone with this concept! I look forward to getting acquainted with your blog!

  18. Melis says:

    Hi Akshita,

    I’ve never heard of the word “biogeneric.” What context did you hear it used in?

  19. Anjani Kumar says:

    Melis!! Hi, I dont know if you remember me, but you came to my house once to help me study for the SATS in order to get admission at Montgomery Blair high. Its Anjani! Well, although I wasnt accepted into Blair, I am still very passionate about making a difference in this world, and I wanted to say that I was honored to have been in the presence of someone as distinguished as you. You have really inspired me, and let me tell you, I will definetly work harder after reading your very inspirational life story. Even if you dont remember me, I sure do and I am glad to have met someone as smart as you in my life. I hope to meet you one day, hopefully after I accomplish my dreams as well. I wish you best of luck in your future plans and ambitions!!