Numerous alumni kicked off their participation in late May’s MIT Tech Reunions as returning alums often do: by wandering the campus to see what’s changed. This year, however—as the group soared above Killian Court amid the blocky clouds of a perpetual noonday sky, scaled the Dome to view the legendary police car hack reinstalled in its original location, and squeezed past a herd of llamas roaming the Z Center—it was clear that the changes have been profound.
Of course, this was Virtual Tech Reunions, which was held entirely online May 29–31 because of the Covid-19 pandemic and welcomed more than 4,800 registered alumni and friends from around the globe. The Saturday morning tour explored a replica of MIT constructed collaboratively by hundreds of students within the game Minecraft after the pandemic required their departure from campus.
Digital llamas aside, Virtual Tech Reunions examined the ways the Institute is wrestling with change, even as the event underlined how core aspects of MIT identity and community remain as strong as ever.
Just as its own senior year was disrupted five decades ago, the Class of 1970’s milestone reunion was remolded by historic events. Despite the impossibility of handshakes and hugs, according to class president and 50th reunion programming committee chair Karen Arenson ’70, “It all worked marvelously, and classmates have said they would like to do it again!” More than 200 of that cohort, donning their customary red jackets, united on screen to review the results of the class survey and discuss old times and new. “The chat window was full of ‘HI!’ messages,” says Hilarie Orman ’70. “That bottle of champagne we’d been saving for a celebration of some kind, it was perfect for an online toast. And Alan Chapman”—another ’70 member, who performed new songs he’d composed for the group—“was just the kind of musical supernerd we needed to make us remember why MIT was special.”
Phil Byer ’70, SM ’72, PhD ’75, who served on the reunion planning committee with Arenson and Orman, notes certain advantages of the online format, such as the ease of seeing and hearing all participants—suggesting “that when in-person reunions start again, there can still be a very useful role for virtual class activities.”
It all worked marvelously, and classmates have said they would like to do it again!
Putting purpose to passion
The upheaval that caused Tech Reunions to be celebrated from a distance was the first topic addressed during Saturday’s signature Tech Day symposium, with MIT Alumni Association president R. Erich Caulfield SM ’01, PhD ’06 leading a conversation with Institute president L. Rafael Reif; Maria Zuber, vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics; and Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning and Fred Fort Flowers (1941) and Daniel Fort Flowers (1941) Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Each discussed how the Institute is responding to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and shared with attendees a few of the ways that members of the campus and alumni community are working to respond to the virus, as well as the Institute’s evolving approach to research and education during a time of social distancing. “We’re learning a lot from this forced experiment,” Reif said. While all three leaders expressed eagerness to resume in-person campus life as soon as it’s safe to do so, those lessons, they explained, will be used by Task Force 2021 to shape how MIT pursues its mission in the 21st century.
Tech Day then transitioned into sessions on the theme of Geniuses and Game Changers, with MIT faculty sharing details of their research in the areas of food safety, nanomedicine, reverse-engineering artificial intelligence, and treating Alzheimer’s disease with sensory stimulation.
The Technology Day programming set the stage for an afternoon of Explore MIT presentations, allowing participants to dip into other aspects of MIT research, including the “longevity economy” spurred by aging world demographics and the “age of living machines” ushered in by the convergence of biology and engineering. Sessions looked back at the campus during the 1918 flu pandemic and forward at how the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) will operate during Covid-19. Others touched on aspects of career growth such as challenge-driven leadership and the future of work.
During the previous day’s Virtual Commencement ceremonies, Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo PhD ’99 had urged graduates to “pick your issue, and go for it with all your heart, all your mind, and all your knowledge.” The many ways alumni are doing just that was the impetus for a series of TIMtalks held by classes celebrating milestone reunion years. Numerous alums—including such recognizable names as astronaut John Grunsfeld ’80, environmentalist Peggy Liu ’90, and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston ’05—shared with classmates the ideas and motivations that drive their professional and personal endeavors. Their talks illustrated the point made by MITAA president Caulfield in his own Commencement speech: “Your MIT degree means more than just an academic accomplishment. What it actually means is permission to put purpose to your passion.”
Your MIT degree means more than just an academic accomplishment.
Social, though at a distance
Classic Tech Reunions social events necessarily took on a new form this year. Parties were BYOB—but still lasted into the night (with the Class of 1985 finally closing things down just before midnight). A honeycomb of virtual rooms hosted affinity and shared interest group meetups and FSILG open houses. Tech Night at the Pops was replaced by Pops at Home content. The annual Tech Challenge Games featured an online Alumni Quiz Bowl, with teams racing to be the first to answer questions related to MIT lore and long-ago classwork. And in lieu of stomp rockets at the Family Maker Fair, Lockheed Martin engineer Anna Maria Tomassini Porter ’95, SM ’97 hosted an origami tutorial on constructing paper satellites.
Although there was no traditional bestowal of scarves at the annual meeting of the Association of MIT Alumnae (AMITA), a Sunday morning event marked the organization’s 120th anniversary. The meeting’s keynote was delivered by Melanie Ivarsson MBA ’19, who spoke from her vantage point as chief development officer at Moderna Therapeutics on the company’s well-publicized quest to create a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, now in early trials.
Ivarsson noted that not only does she use the knowledge she acquired at MIT, but the network she gained there as well: “They haven’t just sent me out into the world. Pretty much every week, one of my professors gets in touch with me and says, ‘How can we help?’ … I’m incredibly grateful for the support I continue to get from MIT as we work on this very challenging, thorny problem.”
Alums may not have been able to gather this year in Cambridge, but the participation of thousands across time zones and generations has added another link in the connection they have with the Institute and with each other. “For the many alumni who found a home at MIT, that means far more than a place on the map,” says Alumni Association CEO Whitney T. Espich. “Virtual Tech Reunions welcomed alumni home to their MIT community.”
Want to catch up on what you missed at Virtual Tech Reunions? Those who registered previously may log on at techreunions.mit.edu and review video of select sessions. The full broadcast from Technology Day is available to all, and more video will be released on the MITAA YouTube channel in the coming days.
The opening image of MIT in Minecraft is a screenshot from a video by Stephanie Tran/MIT Department of Student Life.