Don Bender ’79, SM ’83 is an energy technology engineer and principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in California. Freedom Baird SM ’97 is a Massachusetts-based interdisciplinary artist who has exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the Fuller Craft Museum, and the New York Film Festival. The siblings met for the second time ever at Tech Reunions on MIT’s campus in June 2019 (pictured above).
Don Bender: I always knew I’d been adopted but hadn’t thought much about it. Now that DNA testing is commonplace, I figured it would be fun to learn about my genetic traits. So in December of 2018, I collected a saliva sample and mailed it off. Then in March came the stunning result that one Freedom Baird was almost certainly a full sibling. Until that moment we had been entirely unknown to each other. Online I found that, like me, she was born in New York City and had gone to MIT. I emailed her immediately. The trajectory of my life had instantly changed.
Freedom Baird: I’d done a DNA test in the summer of 2016 to confirm a couple of family stories about my heritage. When I got the results three months later, I learned that yes, I’m a bit Hungarian, and yes, I’m a direct descendant of an itinerant Scottish earl who built a summer home in the shape of a pineapple. So when Don contacted me in March, I was really baffled. It was so strange writing that first email back to him—to his MIT alum address! I felt I had to be careful in my choice of words. I wanted to be sensitive, but I also wanted to verify the facts (because it was a complete surprise that I had another brother). So I wrote something like: I’m so moved you reached out to me, what an extraordinary journey you must be on, and, uh, is this some kind of elaborate hack??
I wrote something like: I’m so moved you reached out to me, what an extraordinary journey you must be on, and, uh, is this some kind of elaborate hack??
Bender: Through email and Skype, Freedom and I discovered our vast, overlapping range of traits and interests. We continue to be amazed as we learn more. Perhaps that’s to be expected with siblings. But we both attended MIT—how could that be? That has given us common history, too. Family and MIT had been separate episodes in my life. No longer. It’s been moving and surreal how our fraternal relationship has developed.
Baird: On our parallel paths, Don and I both grew up in families of modest means and were supported academically by public schools—his in a small town in the Hudson River Valley, and mine in Washington Heights in New York City. We both had teachers who were mentors and set us on a path to MIT. Between that and our other common traits, the similarities get almost comical: we both like to climb and hike tall things, we both do landscape photography, we both built electronic instruments for the bands we were in, we both founded a parent organization around a child’s learning needs. After the initial maelstrom of emotions at learning of each other’s existence—shock, anxiety, joy, sadness—discovering we have so much in common has made it easy for us to feel comfortable and connected.
Meeting Don in person for the first time in May of this year put me in a state of profound wonder. Looking at him is like looking at a living amalgam of so many of my relatives. Sometimes he looks like my grandfather Gerald come back to life. When Don arrived at my house and my kids and I greeted him, one of the first things we did was compare feet! It turns out Don is no longer alone in having unusual toes, because he now has a biological sibling, a niece, and a first cousin with a similar foot configuration.
Bender: We had exchanged so much information that by the time Freedom and I first met, we knew each other well and already had a great rapport. But it felt unreal, hard to believe. When we met the second time, over Tech Reunions weekend, we arrived at a new normal, almost. The MIT campus is literally our common ground. Sharing the accomplishment of being accepted to MIT, surviving the challenge of earning our degrees, and being part of the alumni community has been an important part of developing our new relationship.
Baird: When we walked around campus, we showed each other the small circuits we had made from lab to apartment and back again. We traded stories about things we did to socialize and decompress. We talked about having both been athletes, and how MIT was great about getting the nerds out in the fresh air. Don was on the ski team and did ski jumping, and I had trained for a triathlon. We talked about the places we had biked and run. Don had swum across the Charles, and I’d swum a race in Boston Harbor. A shared experience with water quality!
Bender: We’re both MIT-style builders of things, so we’ve now turned to the task of building our sibling relationship. We designed a series of trips between California, New York, and Massachusetts. Each trip has a specific purpose: to show each other our lives as they are now, acquaint our sons and daughter with their new aunt and uncle, and take each other on tours of where we grew up. We have plans to share other new life experiences as well.
We’re both MIT-style builders of things, so we’ve now turned to the task of building our sibling relationship.
Baird: If you’re going to have a new family member dropped suddenly into your life, let it be a sibling. Because what do siblings do: they compete (not a problem—we’re too old, I think?!), they support each other, and they have fun. So it’s with a sense of glee that we’re making these plans. We’re both pretty game and gung-ho, so the interval between proposing an idea for an adventure and purchasing a plane ticket has been pretty short. We both get a little sad when we think about time we missed together as kids, especially because our families were really not that far away. But we both tend to be forward-looking, so we’re enjoying the planning and already have been making up for lost time.
In addition to all the emotions and relationship-building, discovering Don has really underscored a shift in how I think about nature vs. nurture. Before I became a mom myself, I assumed that nurture was dominant. But raising two kids, and now learning about Don, I understand that some aspects of a person are profoundly hardwired. (Yes, it turns out that affinities for the Winter Olympics, chiles rellenos, and Rachel Maddow are hardwired.) But of course what’s so important is the contexts in which that hardwiring gets to play out.
Bender: I had always believed that all of my potential came from my genetic blueprint. The newfound knowledge of Freedom’s and my biological roots has reinforced this. Many of my traits and interests seemed to come out of the blue, unrelated to the farm where I grew up. All of these attributes map to Freedom or my biological family. Every question I’ve ever had about my origin story has been answered.
This process brought into focus what nurture gave me as well: opportunity. From my early life onward, I was free to choose my path and make the most of it. For that path to lead to farm-boy me and my big-city little sister discovering each other decades after both attending MIT—well, we’re both still trying to wrap our heads around that.
This story was originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of MIT Technology Review's MIT News magazine, under the headline "Sibling Surprise."
Photo (top): Ken Richardson