I love a good theme.
I make a big deal over birthdays in my family and celebrations usually last for the entire day and are structured around a central theme, like flight, or pictures, and once even The Sound of Music. (I know, that one is a little out there.) But the point of the theme is to have an organizing principle that helps convey the message you want to get across in a strong and memorable way. And that’s why I am so appreciative of MIT’s theme for the Inauguration of our new President L. Rafael Reif.
One Community: Together in Service.
This theme says a lot about MIT. It says the kind of things about MIT I will be trying to communicate when I travel to Miami next week and talk to students and their families. It says that MIT is community oriented. Truly. The week of symposia that is free and open to the public and organized by many volunteers at MIT, all who hold other fulltime jobs, is testament to that. MIT believes in service; service to the world and service to each other.
During the first Inaugural Symposium Infinite Innovation, one of three this week, I heard from members of our faculty and students who wowed the audience with examples of the work they are doing: Ramesh Raskar, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, creating cameras that can see around corners, Robert Langer, David H Koch Institute Professor, using nanotechnology to target a drug right to the cancer cell, and Kim Gordon, student in the Sloan School of Management who is using an algorithm to help people discover art in an online digital repository.
There were so many of these innovative inventions, I could go on and on. But more remarkable to me than the inventions themselves even, were the attitudes of everyone on the stage.
The prevailing feeling at MIT is that for world-changing innovation to take place, you need the right ecosystem. You need a culture where people help each other. You need labs where 50% of the people are engineers and the other 50% are biologists. You need a place where the myth of the lone genius working alone is turned on its head. A place where students learn from failure as well as success, where teamwork is paramount, where the work is hands on and interdisciplinary, and where diversity is celebrated.
I’m not sure who it was that said this, but it was a statement that almost anyone – faculty, student, Provost, President – could have said. It went something like this:
Smart is just the tip of the iceberg when you are trying to describe MIT students.
So how should we describe them?
Students here are engaged problem solvers but mostly they are optimistic; optimistic about learning and about changing the world. Troy Van Voorhis, Associate Professor of Chemistry, who is working on solar energy and who described the problem of solar cells being too heavy for the backs of donkeys in the developing world, said, “The reason I love working at MIT is because the people who can do this kind of work take an idea and make it work in the world. ”
Now that’s a theme I can really stand behind.