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More than 665 million people use Facebook every day, and the average user spends nearly seven hours per month on the site. For many, Facebook can hover between daily habit and time-consuming addiction.

When two MIT doctoral students realized their own Facebook habit bordered on compulsion, they developed a way to heavily moderate their usage. The result: the Pavlov Poke, an aversion therapy device that limits Facebook usage via (mild) electric shock.

Created by Media Lab students Robert R. Morris and Dan McDuff, the Poke (named after conditioning researcher Ivan Pavlov) is a keyboard accessory that, when connected to a computer via USB, can monitor online usage. Users set parameters, including time spent and time visited on a specified website. When those limits are exceeded, a quick jolt—“unpleasant, but not dangerous”—is delivered via a custom keyboard rest pad.

According to Morris, the Poke was built with unused materials found in and around the Media Lab. Morris also admits that, while more in-depth scientific research is needed, he did notice a reduction in his own Facebook usage.

Pavlov Poke schematic—click for larger. (Image via

Pavlov Poke schematic—click for larger. (Image via

From A Shocking Solution to Facebook Addiction:

“I did notice a significant, though temporary, reduction in my Facebook usage. Prior to using ‘Pavlov Poke,’ my Facebook habits were so ingrained that I would often find myself visiting the site and logging in well before I noticed any conscious intention to do so. After a few shock exposures, these automatic behaviors seemed completely rewired. I no longer visited the site unless I wanted to.”

The researchers have no intention of commercializing the Pavlov Poke but believe it has important research implications. Digital technology addiction is real and consumers should be aware on how much time they devote to visiting social network sites.

“All too often, people assume they use a given technology because they want to and because it is in their best self-interest…Sites like Facebook are crafted on the basis of something called engagement metrics, which measure the number of daily active users and the time people spend on the site. Unfortunately, these metrics are not designed to assess well-being.”

Morris and McDuff’s Facebook-reduction strategy is not solely limited to electrotherapy. The researchers designed another system that delivers something even more annoying than an electric shock: a prank phone call. When Facebook usage parameters are exceeded, a code built by the researchers automatically hires crowdworkers to call and lambaste a user for their internet overindulgence.

On the other hand, if you’re a devout Facebooker and you’d like to be rewarded for your virtual interactions, Media Lab researchers have developed a device for that, too.


ArtKiveMIT alumni tend to have some pretty distinctive job titles but Leila Pirnia ’99 might have the most unique one yet: chief mom officer.

Pirnia is the chief mom officer (CMO) for Artkive, a mobile application aimed at parents with young children. Users upload photos of their children’s artwork to Artkive and the app stores information like the child’s name and grade, the date, and the title of the artwork. Users can share their children’s gallery online or print them in a customizable book.

“My role as chief mom officer is to speak to our target market—moms,” Pirnia, the mother of two children under six, says. “There are other ways you could save your kids’ work, but Artkive is the fastest and easiest way to do it.  The app is very mom-friendly.”

Leila Pirnia '99

Leila Pirnia ’99

A Sloan course 15 graduate, Pirnia had more traditional job titles before helping launch Artkive in late 2012. She joined Merrill Lynch as an analyst after graduation and later worked for various production and media companies in strategy, operations, brand management, and marketing.

A few months after her second child was born, Pirnia was introduced to Artkive by the company’s cofounders. She was instantly captivated by the idea and its business potential.

“It really resonated with me as a mother,” she says. “We’re helping moms remember when the painting was drawn, which kid drew it, and what it was titled.”

In less than nine months, more than 200,000 users downloaded Artkive and uploaded more than a million photos. Artkive was also featured on the Today Show and named a “Pick of the Year” by Cool Mom Tech.

“It’s a simple solution to a problem—parents can immediately relate,” Pirnia says. “The best part has been how much the children love it. They really feel like accomplished, published artists when they see their books.”

In addition to her mom-focused research and engagement, Pirnia’s additional CMO duties include growing Artkive beyond its mobile platform capabilities.

“We’re really excited about the relationship we’re building with moms’” she says. “We’re looking for additional ways to deliver value.”

And while she’s most likely Sloan’s only chief mom officer alumna, Pirnia credits the school for a quantitative education that helped her navigate such a unique career.

“It’s incredible to think about my career path and where it’s ended up,” she says. “That MIT foundation has opened up so many doors and helped me understand businesses and the models behind them. You just to learn to think in so many different ways.”

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What if you could deliver power to villages after a tsunami or earthquake by shooting lasers from a drone? Or circulate small drones above a festival site so people could recharge their cell phone batteries from them?

View from the Top - Seattle panelists

Panelists react to a question from moderator John Castle, right.

Four MIT alumni posed these questions, and several others, to each other and to over 100 attendees at last week’s View from the Top event, held at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.

The June 13 panel brought together five alumni from different decades and disciplines for “Reinventing the World,” a conversation about their work with technology and its delivery around the world.

Asking those tough questions about lasers was Thomas Nugent SM ’99, founder of LaserMotive, who won a 2009 NASA competition to deliver power wirelessly to robotic vehicles. Margaret Orth SM ’93, PhD ’01, founder of International Fashion Machines, presented some of her work that integrated fashion and wearable technology. Cliff Schmidt ’93 displayed the Talking Book that he developed as founder and head of Literacy Bridge, which delivers basic educational technology to developing communities. Yun-Ling Wong ’04, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, addressed the challenges of mediating the demands of both developed and developing countries in finding solutions to global problems.

John Castle ’61, ScD ’64, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of Washington, moderated the discussion, organized by MIT’s Office of Alumni Education.

The Seattle event gave attendees, who ranged from veteran Puget Sound Club members to young alums to prospective students and friends, a lively discussion among four professionals who are passionate about what they do. It also offered attendees ample time for questions, whether during the cocktail hour beforehand, the panel itself, or the desert reception afterward.

Even the panelists took turns reflecting on each other’s work.

After hearing from Nugent and narrating her own journey through wearable computing  via an IMAX screen in the theater, Maggie Orth described her new ideas on technological minimalism. “I am from MIT, so I am not a Luddite,” she said. “It’s not necessarily less technology that I want, but smarter technology.”

After hearing about Schmidt’s Talking Book, which has improved health and agriculture benchmarks for illiterate populations in Ghana by as much as 100%, Ling Wong explained just how hard such a project is for ambitious non-profits in the United States who want to affect the world.

“All lives have equal value, and technology can help us get there, but how we actually save lives is much more complicated,” said Wong. “Technology [can’t work] without advocacy, without government support, and without understanding a culture…the problems we’re trying to solve are hard ones…and it takes many sorts of people to make this happen.”

Castle, who introduced each panelist, remarked how all four alumni have essentially sought to answer one question through their work: How can technology change people’s behavior?

“For them, it’s not just about the technology, it’s about all of the things technology does and how it affects people in one way or another. Technology influences people’s choices, but in some ways it can push them in directions they may not want to go.”


The Twouija: Retweet Oracle (Image:

The Twouija: Retweet Oracle (Image:

Who’s more influential among their Twitter followers, Barack Obama or Kim Kardashian? You might not want to find out.

While Obama outnumbers Kardashian in total followers, 32.6 million to 17.9 million, research by MIT alumni suggests that Kardashian’s tweets may have a much stronger effect on her social media audience.

A group of researchers that includes MIT Assistant Professor Tauhid Zaman ’04, MEng ’05, PhD ’11 and University of Washington Assistant Professor Emily B. Fox ’04, MEng ’05, EE ’08, PhD ’09 have created a prediction tool that can estimate a person’s rate of being retweeted.

The tool—which the team calls “The Twouija” (rhymes with Ouija)—predicted that an April 15, 2012 Kardashian tweet would generate about 800 retweets in about an hour while an Obama tweet from the same day would generate about 440.

The Twouija predicts the popularity of a tweet shortly after posting. According to the study, most Twitter messages have the same lifespan of newsworthy-ness and a tweet’s popularity can be predicted within the first five minutes.

From “A Bayesian Approach for Predicting the Popularity of Tweets:

We measure the popularity of a tweet by the time-series path of its retweets, which is when people forward the tweet to others. We develop a probabilistic model for the evolution of the retweets using a Bayesian approach, and form predictions using only observations on the retweet times and the local network or ‘graph’ structure of the retweeters.”

Tweets from President Obama, seen here at MIT in 2009, are retweeted hundreds of times within minutes.

Tweets from President Obama, seen here at MIT in 2009, are retweeted hundreds of times within minutes.

The group has showcased their research at a website they call The Twouija: Retweet Oracle, which graphs the timespan of retweets (actual and predicted) from the Twitter messages of 40 well-known personalities such as Seth Meyers, Diddy, and Newt Gingrich. (Hey—where is @mit_alumni?)

Retweets predictions for musicians Will.I.Am and Pitbull were effective, but much like its Ouija namesake, the oracle is not always precise. In one model, it estimated that a tweet from Eva Longoria would be retweeted 254 times within 60 minutes. In reality, it was only retweeted 183 times.While retweet prediction is scientific, it’s also subjective. Much depends on the content of the original tweet.

As Zaman notes in the report, an efficient retweet predictor has serious implications for understanding more about internet virality and how social media revenue models can be better monetized. (In June 2012, Kardashian was paid $10,000 for a tweet about

Despite Kardashian’s online popularity, she did not have the highest prediction of retweets in the Twouija’s sample. That honors goes to The Rock, whose April 15, 2012 tweet, “Good morning! Enjoy your Sunday. #Faith,” had more than 850 retweets within the first sixty minutes. (The Twouija predicted about 1,000.)

Read the heavily scientific 28-page paper, “A Bayesian Approach for Predicting the Popularity of Tweets,” which also includes research from University of Pennsylvania Professor Eric T. Bradlow, at the Cornell University online library.

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The MIT Wind Ensemble performs "Awakening." Photo: Arts at MIT

The MIT Wind Ensemble performs “Awakening.” Photo: Arts at MIT

Since the Arab Spring revolution began in early 2011, four Arab-speaking countries have removed rulers from power and nearly 20 more have had some form of protests, uprisings, or civil wars.

For musician and composer Jamshied Sharifi ’83, the uprisings were personal. Born in Kansas to an Iranian father and American mother, Sharifi was exposed to Middle Eastern music as a child and later watched unsuccessful political protests in Iran. So when MIT Wind Ensemble music director Frederick Harris asked Sharifi to compose music related to the Arab Spring, he welcomed the opportunity.

The resulting work and accompanying documentary, Awakening: Evoking the Arab Spring through Music, will premiere on the Boston PBS affiliate WGBH on Friday, May 31, at 10:30 p.m. The performance, which debuted in March 2012, was composed by Sharifi and performed by the Wind Ensemble.

From Arts at MIT:

“For those of us with Persian heritage who watched the earlier political protests in Iran, initially with hope and then with bitter disappointment, the success of the civil movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were especially gratifying,” Sharifi says. “The labor of developing effective and responsive political systems in those three countries still remains. But something in the Middle East has undeniably changed. And I tried to honor that shift in this piece.”

Jamshied Sharifi '83 Photo: Arts at MIT

Jamshied Sharifi ’83
Photo: Arts at MIT

Awakening is split into three movements. According to Sharifi, the first piece, Maghreb/Bouazizi/The Uprisings, acknowledges the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose suicide served as the catalyst for the Arab Spring. The second, Reflection: Let Each One Hear Her Own Thoughts, serves as a respite to contemplate the uprisings and the third, Ahead: The Real Transformation Has Barely Begun, looks ahead to continued political and social progress.

Sharifi, who is based in New York, led the MIT Jazz Festive Ensemble from 1985-1992. Since leaving MIT, he has helped score the soundtrack of more than 20 televisions shows and feature films and recorded three full-length albums.

Founded by Harris in 1999, the MIT Wind Ensemble is a collection of Institute students and alumni that perform diverse musical styles ranging from the 16th century to present day. The ensemble’s Awakening performance featured 11 alumni, including ensemble president Emily Jackson ’12 and vice president Rachel Clary ’12, and more than 30 current students.

The program was supported in part through a gift by A. Neil ’64 and Jane Pappalardo. The broadcast is the first music-related MIT production to air on PBS.


As Slice of MIT readers know, hacks come and go on MIT’s campus as casually as pickup basketball games might elsewhere. The current issue of Fast Company magazine credits MIT with coining both the first benign and the first pejorative uses of the term.

As for “hack days” and “hackathons,” sources trace these lengthier events—devoted to hacks ranging from frivolous to useful—back a decade.  National Civic Day of Hacking

And at least five years old is the term “civic hacking,” in which individuals or groups apply their love of technology or data to civic issues they are passionate about.

This weekend, the White House intends to put civic hacks and hackers on a national stage with the National Day of Civic Hacking.

Despite President Obama’s statement in March that hacking has become “a big problem” after First Lady Michelle Obama’s financial information was compromised, the White House clearly sees the value in celebrating the word’s positive connotations and getting the most out of crowdsourcing data for public good. In February, it hosted a day-long hackathon, which MIT Center for Civic Media RA Catherine D’Ignazio attended.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and its Office of Digital Strategy are co-sponsoring this week’s event, which, according to its website, will use “publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.”

That’s much in line with how the Tech Model Railroad Club first used the term hacker in the 1950s, to indicate someone “who applies ingenuity to create a clever result.”

Ahead of the weekend event, government agencies have listed dozens of challenges the country faces in the years ahead: affordable housing, safe drinking water, crime, and malnutrition, to name a few. Hackers have uploaded publicly-released data sets to the website as a reference library.

Organizations in 38 states (to date) have listed their hackathon events. On campus, this includes UndocuTech, a collaborative effort between United We Dream and MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Becky Hurwitz, the center’s codesign facilitator and community organizer, is leading the effort to “use media and technology to support immigrant rights.”

“The National Day of Civic Hacking is an excellent opportunity to bring civic hackers and immigrant rights advocates closer together,” says Hurwitz. “The hacker community has historically been a great ally of social movements and a force for change, so this is a good opportunity to connect with more allies!”

If this first annual event takes off, with thousands of hackers cracking patriotic code, will the term finally return to its roots?


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Did you see Jeffrey Lin’s video tutorial on how to navigate the MIT Alumni Directory?

MIT’s Class of 2013 should find it useful next month as they earn their official listing in it, and the thousands of alumni who haven’t yet logged in to the Infinite Connection should check it out as well. You know who you are.Jeffrey Lin shot

Lin didn’t just make the video for the $300 gift card prize offering in the MIT Alumni Association contest. An avid designer, Lin enjoys fooling with film technologies and says he made this video on the night before deadline.

“I saw the listing and figured I had a shot,” he said. “And I thought, ‘what better way to do this quickly than with animation?’ I grabbed a Wacom tablet, which you can hook to your laptop and use for drawing by hand. I used QuickTime screen capturing.”

A big fan of RSA Animate, Lin designed the directory tutorial with its instructional, straightforward style in mind, telling the story of a login through clever animated slides.

“I hadn’t really done something like it before and wanted to see how it would work out,” he recalled.

Whether experimenting with live-action or animation, Lin enjoys storytelling. His short documentary on the MIT lightweight crew team and his moving profile of Emma Nelson ’14 demonstrate his attention to a film’s narrative arc.

Though Lin is a course 4 (architecture) major, he has enjoyed Professor Vivek Bald’s documentary filmmaking course and Angel Nevarez’s intro to video class. In the latter, Lin directed A Proper Meal, which won the undergraduate CMS Media Spectacle Award last year.

Lin has also been active in the Asian American Association and the DynaMIT engineering camp, where he mentors middle school-aged students in math and science.

Whether Lin pursues film or architecture or design or none of the above, he clearly knows how to use the alumni directory for reaching out to fellow beavers. During IAP in 2011, he interned at the Brand Union in New York, working under its North American CEO Robert Scalea ’77, an experience he chronicled on Slice.


Tony Stark, class of 1987 (maybe), proudly sporting his Brass Rat.

Tony Stark, class of 1987 (maybe), proudly sporting his Brass Rat.

It’s been established that Tony Stark is MIT’s greatest (fictional) alumnus. In fact, Stark can be seen wearing his Brass Rat in multiple scenes in the first Iron Man movie. The film’s director, Jon Favreau, once said of Stark, “He’s somebody who created a suit using his own intelligence and sweat of his brow. I would love for that to make being an engineer cool—that  people might want to go to MIT instead of being on MTV.”

A proud affiliation notwithstanding, little is known about Stark’s time at MIT. His academic record is sealed and existing public information is inconsistent. MIT Admissions tentatively lists Stark as receiving his undergraduate degree in 1987 but Marvel Comics claims he received two master’s degrees in engineering by age 19. Confusing matters more, a recently deleted LinkedIn profile for Tony Stark indicated he received doctorates in engineering physics and artificial intelligence.

These contradictory statements lead to one question: Just who was Tony Stark during his time at MIT?’s Radio BDC blog helped answer this question earlier this week. In honor of the release of the third Iron Man film, the blog tracked down real-life Bostonians—including one former MIT director—who shared their encounters with a young Stark during the mid-80s.

A sample of the memories includes:

  • “I saw him a few times at the chess boards near Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. There was this guy down there, a chess master, and you could give him five or ten bucks and he’d play you a game. A couple of times I remember [Tony] breezing in and throwing money on the table, and kind of wiping the floor with the guy.”
  • “No one really knew him, he was just a rich kid. Everyone wanted him around, though, because he’d always bring something fun for the party.”
  • “I remember him at after-parties on Thayer Street. He was up later than anyone else. But you could always get a ride home with him, because he always had a car.”

Perhaps the most poignant recollection comes from Henry Jenkins, the former co-director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies.

From “Bostonians sharing their memories of MIT class of ’87 grad Tony Stark:”

“Some students are larger than life—they leave a trace across the entire campus, and people talk about them well after they have left the building, so to speak. Stark was one of those people.”

“And don’t get me started about the hacks that have been ascribed to Stark through the years. I have heard all kinds of claims about what Stark put on the Great Dome to the ways he rewired the elevators in the Green Building. They can’t all be true, can they?”

Read more about Tony Stark’s (fictional) time at MIT on the Radio BDC blog. Thanks to Harbo Jensen PhD ’74 for contributing to this story.


Just a few blocks from where the Boston Marathon bombing suspects allegedly murdered an MIT police officer, a panel of experts convened on May 1 for a conversation entitled Marathon Bombing: The Global Context.

Who is to blame for the intelligence gap between Russia and the United States before the bombing? Was the bombing an act of religious fundamentalism? Will this event make Boston into a more monitored city, like London, with cameras on every street corner? The panel explored these and other questions on Wednesday.

MIT Security Studies Program senior advisor Jeanne Guillemin discussing the marathon bombing.

MIT Security Studies Program senior advisor Jeanne Guillemin discussing the marathon bombing.

Moderated by Ford International Professor of Political Science and Center for International Studies director Richard Samuels, five MIT professors and scholars provided several contexts surrounding the bombers’ ideology and theorized about the policy impacts the bombing might have in the weeks, months, and years to come.

MIT history professor Elizabeth Wood best summed up the purpose of the Starr Forum talk.

“Unless we understand the perpetrators of violence as individuals situated in history, as individuals situated in causes that are larger than their own biographies, we cannot understand what happened last week at the Boston Marathon,” Wood said.

How much did being natives of the Caucasus region influence the Tsarnaev brothers? Wood and Carol Saivetz, a research affiliate at the MIT Security Studies Program, explored this question, describing the past century of Chechnya’s tensions with Russia, highlighting how the Tsarnaev family lived through each turbulent decade.

Saivetz’s slide, Tsarnaev Chronology: A Tale of Two Brothers, detailed the family’s moves throughout the region since 1944, when Stalin deported thousands of Chechens to work camps. The family’s move to Dhagestan in 2001, when the boys were eight and fifteen years old, was a result of the violence in the second Chechen War, Saivetz said.

Bakyt Beshimov, a visiting scholar at the Security Studies Program and a native of the Caucasus region, certainly links the Tsarnaevs’ mindset to their homeland.

Beshimov watched every video, read every internet post, and listened to every song that inspired Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “His inner search was, in my view, affected by the struggle in his own country, jihadism in the Caucasus and the global Islamic radical ideology,” said Beshimov. “This mindset puts many Chechens into a vicious circle of revenge.”

Several panelists conjectured that the bombing might justify crackdowns and human rights abuses in Russia, particularly ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. Then there were the questions of what precedents the Boston response will set in cities around the globe.

CIS research associate and assistant professor at Boston College Peter Krause PhD ’11 mused, “Is a lockdown something we’re prepared to do again and again? What about domestic drones for national security or the government reading our email?”

“I’m not going to counsel one way or another on the [issue of] over- or under-reaction,” Krause said. “I’m confident about this: that understanding when and why these things happen is going to lead to better answers as a society…and I’m encouraged by the people who are here today.”

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Chunka Mui '84

Chunka Mui ’84

MIT has more than 126,000 alumni and nearly 100,000 live away from the Boston-Cambridge area. And while alumni away from campus can feel separated from Institute happenings, there are many ways to stay connected.

An example of this is View from the Top, an Alumni Association event that brings together Institute alumni and community members for networking and discussion in locations throughout the U.S. The interactive events feature prominent alumni who share their professional journey and provide perspectives on innovation, entrepreneurship, and the role MIT played in their lives and careers.

Smita Shah SM '96

Smita Shah SM ’96

The most recent event, “Innovative Thinking, Chicago Style,” took place on Thursday, April 25, 2013, and focused on a variety of topics, including the future of the automotive industry, innovations in printing technology, hiring strategies, and the perils of building a company from scratch.

The program, which was moderated by Scott Marks ’68, SM ’69, former vice chairman of the First Chicago NBD Corporation, and featured GrubHub co-founder Michael Evans ’99, MNG ’00; author Chunka Mui ’84; and entrepreneur Smita Shah SM ’96 and Gordon Smith SM ’90, ScD ’93, CTO of GSI Technologies.

Mui began the program by sharing one simple business strategy: Start small, think big, and learn fast. He discussed the dichotomy between Google’s innovative self-driving car with the slowly-evolving strategies of traditional vehicle manufacturing—a $35 trillion industry.

“Failure comes from companies that only rely on incremental change—that’s thinking small,” Mui said. “Companies like Google rely on the law of disruption, which is basically making changes based on advances in technology. That’s thinking big.”

Evans, a finalist for the 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, shared the origins of Grub Hub, which began as a side project in 2004 and now has investment funding of more than $84 million. GrubHub is a web-based company that allows users to find takeout restaurants and order online for free.

(From left) Smith, Mui, Evans, Marks, and Shah

(From left) Smith, Mui, Evans, Marks, and Shah

“In true MIT fashion, GrubHub started as an all-nighter,” he says. “It started as a small idea—I was basically sick of ordering pizza from the same place. So I took this problem and tried to write a code to solve it.”

Evans also discussed the company’s rapid evolution, which featured new technology, employees, and strategies.

“Innovation is, to a large degree, identifying problems,” he says. “Sometimes you can break those problems into smaller problems. We tackled questions like ‘How do we make service better?’ and updated technology like switching from fax orders to tablets.”

Shah, the CEO of the SPAAN Tech engineering firm discussed how her MIT education helped prepare her for a successful professional career.

The Chicago alumni host committee: Christopher Resto ’99; Alex Menchaca ’85; Claudia Perry ’81; Aaron Barlow ’86: and Benjamin Hellweg ’97, SM ’00.

The Chicago alumni host committee: Christopher Resto ’99; Alex Menchaca ’85; Claudia Perry ’81; Aaron Barlow ’86: and Benjamin Hellweg ’97, SM ’00.

“MIT is home to the best virtues of education—it’s elite but not elitist,” Shah says. “The school of life can be hard and MIT prepares you for that. You have to be good to be part of the MIT club but you’re encouraged to do well. It takes a very structured approach.”

Smith discussed how his MIT education prepared him for a career beyond his degree in chemical engineering.

“Innovation can take time,” he says. “It doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s important to adapt technologies from sister markets—it’s something our company has been very successful with.”

Other recent View from the Top events include “Global Capital Markets,” which was held in New York and featured Goldman Sachs director Armen Avanessians ’81, and “Exploration: New Frontiers in a New Era,” a Houston event moderated by Emmy-winning meteorologist Gene Norman ’82.

The program, which began in 2008, has also taken place in Boston, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Check the Alumni Association site for information on future events.