November 2009

Chris Colombo, Dean for Student Life

I am MIT’s Dean for Student Life, not a writer. But when the Alumni Association asked me to be a regular contributor to this blog—today is my first post—I had an atypical type of writer’s block.

I wasn’t worried about being unable to write. Rather, there was too much to write about. How could I choose a subject from all the astonishing, inspiring, and unique things that happen every day in the Division of Student Life ?

After just over a year here, I realize it’s a problem that’s not likely to go away. So my goal is to share with you, over time, as many great stories as I can from the MIT community. First up: the Hobby Shop.

When I arrived at the Institute, I was tickled to learn that my division was home to an Omax Jet Machining Center, an Oscillating Drum Sander, and two Bridgeport Vertical Milling Machines, among other equipment. They’re just not the sorts of things most university deans have under their purview. The Hobby Shop is certainly an unusual resource in higher education—and by any standard it is having an unusually remarkable year:

Hobby Shop Engagement. Photo courtesy Kate McElwee

Hobby Shop Engagement. Photo courtesy Kate McElwee

The Hobby Shop is a special place, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask Theis Clarke SM ’04, PhD ’08 and Catherine Lee, who works in the MIT investment management office. Theis and Catherine were in the basement of W31 last week with a photographer to take their engagement photos because the Hobby Shop is where they met. At a chisel mortiser.

They’ll be married next summer right around the time of the furniture conference. We wish them well, even though we know we don’t have to: things made in the Hobby Shop are built to last.

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Sommelier Patrick serving champagne at the Restaurant le Grand Vefour, Paris (© Owen Franken).

Sommelier Patrick serving champagne at the Restaurant le Grand Vefour, Paris (© Owen Franken).

Curious about Owen Franken? See more of his work via the Franken Photo of the Week category, learn more in this profile, read a What Matters opinion column he wrote called “Life in Brownian Motion,” or visit his Web site. And, view his exhibition, A Photography Retrospective, through early January 2010 at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Ave. SE, Washington, DC.

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Fotini Christia  interviews Afghanis.

Fotini Christia interviews Afghanis.

Studying war-torn Afghanistan, Fotini Christia, assistant professor of political science, challenges the view that diversity in religion or ethnicity leads inevitably to sharply drawn civil wars. In her field research with Afghanistan warlords, Christia is examining how regional or tribal leaders sometimes flip from warring against neighboring groups to forging alliances with these same neighbors.

Under certain conditions, she finds, groups can overlook longstanding grievances and form new, supportive alliances, according to a recent article in Soundings, published by the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences. Her findings have implications for U.S. policy and for the future of peace in the region.

“Groups are driven by balance-of-power considerations,” says Christia. “That means that, as relative power changes, so do alliances. Groups then come up with narratives and stories about why they make the alliances they do.” Read the article for more on her research.

Christina, a native of Greece and fluent in several languages, learned Farsi and the regional dialect called Dari so she could speak directly with Afghanis. She began her field work in the country in 2004, and she has interviewed war loads, government officials, and other local people. Drinking tea is a very important part of the interview ritual, as she says: “You need to have at least three cups of tea before they start telling you the real stuff.”

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Forbes InnovatorsHere’s something I imagine Professor Yet-Ming Chiang ’80, ScD ’85 is thankful for this year. He was chosen as one of seven World’s Most Powerful Innovators by Lemelson-MIT Program Director and Professor Michael Cima for Forbes magazine. The seven were chosen for their curiosity, empathy, and leadership.

Chiang, who teaches materials science and engineering at MIT, developed an advanced lithium-ion battery that lasts longer than the traditional type and recharges quickly. It’s been hailed as a breakthrough for powering automobiles and power tools. The company he cofounded in 2001, A123 Systems, went public in September and is now worth more than $1 billion. According to Forbes, Chiang himself drives a Toyota Prius outfitted with his invention that can get more than 100 miles per gallon, twice that of a typical Prius. Learn more about Chiang.

And, on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Powerful People, alumnus and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke PhD ’79 ranks fourth, behind President Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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Teresa Huang

Teresa Huang

Teresa Huang ’97 was just helping out a friend in 1998 when she auditioned for a play as part of MIT Dramashop’s Playwrights in Performance event, which showcases student writers and directors. She scored the lead and found her calling. Now, Huang lives in Los Angeles building her acting and writing resume in the television industry.

She’s had numerous roles in shows such as ER, The West Wing, and Cold Case and landed her first recurring role on the 2007-08 FX show The Riches, which starred Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard. Huang played Izzard’s assistant Kimmie in nine episodes. While the show was mostly drama, her scenes often provided some levity, an opportunity she enjoyed. The episodes are available on Hulu.

Developing her character on The Riches provided a welcome break from the auditions and roles (on shows such as Ugly Betty and The Young and the Restless) she often receives as a well-spoken Asian-American—that of reporter or nurse. But any work is fine by Huang, who understands the tenacity required to build a Hollywood career. “If I have to do the nurse role a hundred times before I get a supporting best friend role, I don’t mind,” she says. “I know it’s not very likely I will ever play the romantic lead or villainess, and I’m totally fine with that. I know my personality and my strengths.”

Eddie Izzard and Teresa Huang

Eddie Izzard and Teresa Huang. Huang played Izzard's assistant on The Riches.

And she credits MIT with helping her develop her self-awareness. At the Institute, she felt comfortable being a Star Trek geek and exploring all aspects of her personality. “MIT really helped me discover who I am,” she says. “I embraced my nerdiness.” It’s this nerdiness that in part helped her land a job as a staff writer on the short-lived Knight Rider series remake. She cowrote a pilot about time travel that caught the right person’s eye, as did her MIT degree, something of a novelty in the entertainment industry. “As a writer, I definitely think it’s become one of my commodities,” she says. “Having that background and interest in engineering and that eye for new gadgets and technology became my persona in the writers’ room.” Indeed, Knight Rider colleagues even nicknamed her “MIT.” And Huang, who graduated with a degree in Science, Technology, and Society, delivered, scouring Technology Review for new gadgets and science to pitch, such as recharging K.I.T.T., the show’s tricked-out car, wirelessly and remotely, shooting a GPS dot onto a moving vehicle, or creating a sonar listening shell’s cone of silence around a character. While the ideas were ultimately unused, they did make it up on the writers’ “gack wall” of inspiration. [click to continue…]

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After an initial setback with his suit yesterday—a valve came off his drink bag but was easily re-affixed—alumnus Robert Satcher and one other astronaut set out on the International Space Station for their third and final spacewalk. The astronauts  have been on the space station since November 18th, with the mission of installing an enormous oxygen tank and setting up several experiments. Tomorrow the seven-person crew will wrap up work and depart the station. According to NASA, they are expected to land at Kennedy Space Center on Friday.

Scroll down to see images of Robert Satcher ’86, PhD ’93 as he prepared for and then began carrying out mission STS-129. All images courtesy of NASA.

Mission Specialist Robert L. Satcher Jr. is greeted by Mission Lead Mike Menard at the shuttle landing facility at Kennedy Space Center.

The STS-129 crew (Robert Satcher, far right).

Aboard Atlantis, Mike Foreman, top, and Robert Satcher are dressed in their launch-and-entry suits and strapped to their seats.

Atlantis launched at 2:28 p.m. EST Nov. 16.

A partial view of Atlantis' payload bay, back-dropped by Earth's horizon.

Robert Satcher used a digital still camera to take a self-portrait during the mission’s first spacewalk.

Robert Satcher and Randy Bresnik work outside of the International Space Station during the final spacewalk.

More coverage of alumni astronauts:

Shuttle Mission Twice Postponed for SEAL-Turned-Astronaut

MIT to the Rescue: Institute Astronauts Fix Hubble Troubles—Again

Alums Return to Space for Final Hubble Mission

Guess Which Blog is Read in Space

Obama Calls MIT Alums and Others in Space

Checking In with Our Out-of-This-World Alums

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Mickey & Friends Parking Structure

Mickey & Friends Parking Structure

Parking garages are rarely compared to works of art. Consumers are more likely to think of them as unsightly yet convenient, clunky but inevitable. However a new exhibit at the National Building Museum may flip that thinking, in part, because it showcases the work of architect Harry Wolf  ’60.

House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage, on display through July 11, 2010, features the Walt Disney Arrival Building and Parking Structure in Anaheim, CA (Mickey & Friends Parking Structure). The garage, which holds 10,500 cars, was the world’s largest parking structure when it was constructed in 1998…and may still be.

Wolf’s unusual design for the University of California, San Diego Revelle Parking Structure is an enormous urn, 316 feet in diameter. The circular building, which seems to recede from the viewer, reduces the sense of mass and suggests motion. The green project is naturally ventilated with courts bringing sunlight even to the lowest levels.

Hmmmm…the parking garage as beautiful and green.

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Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Every once in a while, a student group invites me to a free dinner, which pleases me, not only because faculty salaries were frozen last year, but also because I enjoy getting to know students in an informal setting.

This past week, I went to the Hillel Faculty Night Dinner, where the students have a tradition of asking the faculty attending to introduce themselves and answer a surprise question, such as, “What is your favorite building on campus?” This time, it was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I didn’t have a good answer to that question, so I decided to use a trick I learned in humanities classes. I ignored the question asked and answered another one, “What is the strangest incident you have experienced involving a Jewish student?”

“Without a doubt, that would be the amazing case of Louis Lamon,” I said, responding to my own question.

Louis Lamon* was one of my all-time favorite teaching assistants in 6.034, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. One year, when Louis was a teaching assistant, our final examination was on a Monday morning, so on Monday afternoon the staff, about eight or ten of us, were sitting at a big table working away through a stack of 250 examinations. We were just getting started at the time the conflict exam was scheduled over in a distant classroom. We decided to take turns proctoring. I took the first turn.

When I returned from proctoring, I was feeling pretty goofy, it being the end of the term, so I decided to hack the staff.

“Wow, I just had my first experience with quiz rage,” I said as I sat down at the grading table.

“What’s that?” asked Louis.

“It’s a little like road rage, I guess. A student seemed to be having trouble with the exam, and then, about 20 minutes in, he started cursing and swearing loudly. I couldn’t calm him down. I finally had to call the campus police and have him taken away. They told me it happens once or twice each semester.”

“Who was it?” said Louis.

I thought it would add realism to describe one of Louis’s students, an Israeli named Ben Brotsky*, who happened to be taking the conflict exam. “I don’t know,” I pretended, but some of the cursing and swearing was in a language unfamiliar to me, maybe Hebrew.”

“You know,” said Louis. “I think it might be one of mine, is he [physical description]?”

“Yes,” I said “That’s what he looks like.”

Then, a few minutes later, Louis said, “He once told me a scud landed a few doors from where he lived in Israel; maybe it is some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

“Yes, Louis,” I replied, “Maybe it’s post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Then, it came time for Louis to go off to the conflict-exam room for the final shift. About half way through his shift, I decided I should go and make sure he was ok with the hack and not too sore about getting snookered. But, when I arrived, he grabbed my arm and whispered into my ear, “He’s back.”

“Oh my god,” I said, improvising rapidly. “Louis, don’t do anything to upset him. I talked to his advisor, and he has a history of violence. He was a commando in the Israeli army. He could kill you in seconds with a wire…like that power cord attached to his laptop.”

“Ok,” said Louis. “I’ll be careful.”

A little while later, Louis returned to the room where we were all grading, looking highly upset, and said, “I confronted Ben after the exam.”

“Oh, oh,” I thought to myself, “now I’m in trouble.”

So, I started to explain, “Listen, Louis…,” but he interrupted me. “We’ve got to do something,” said Louis with emphasis. “The guy is so psychotic, he didn’t remember a thing about the incident.”

Amazing.

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Villagers in rural Egypt (© Owen Franken).

Villagers in rural Egypt (© Owen Franken).

Curious about Owen Franken? View more of his work via the Franken Photo of the Week category, learn more in this profile, read a What Matters opinion column he wrote called “Life in Brownian Motion,” or visit his Web site.

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On Veterans Day, an Institute holiday, MIT students got the rare opportunity to take a day off in the middle of the week. Some relaxed in their dorms, some explored Boston, and some participated in events on campus such as Katwalk, a fashion show put on by the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.

Katwalk allowed students to strut their stuff on the runway and featured designers such as Marc Jacobs, American Apparel, and Club Monaco. I photographed the event and I must say that I was surprised by the wide range of outfits that the MIT students chose to model. From bright pink cardigans to dresses made out of cardboard, the outfits modeled in Katwalk showcased the creative facet of MIT students. The audience definitely got their money’s worth, whether they were dazzled by fabulous designer dresses to or laughing at bizarre and hilarious outfits.

All proceeds from Katwalk went towards CASA, an organization that advocates for abused and neglected children. Troy Astorino, a freshman at MIT who modeled in Katwalk, says that, “It was fun getting dressed up and walking the runway, and the fact that it benefited charity made the whole experience so much more rewarding.” It just goes to show that the students at MIT know how to have fun and think of others in the process.

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