Science in Mind

In an area rich with top-notch science, recognition for great mentors

When a scientist from the Boston area wins an award, it is often big news—we are lucky to have Nobel laureates, MacArthur geniuses, and other top minds at local institutions. But an interesting aspect of those awards is that they are often given for research that is relatively obscure to the general public. Discovering a key biological technique or putting forth an influential theory about how the universe began often changes the landscape at a frontier that many people know only from some distance.

That’s why I was delighted to see that four MIT faculty members have been honored as MacVicar Faculty Fellows, for being really great mentors and teachers. It’s the kind of feat that is easy to understand, but can be deceptively difficult to do well—requiring hard work, insight, time, and dedication. It also happens to get relatively short shrift at institutions that are used to competing on a national stage for million-dollar grants, early-morning calls from Sweden, and research papers that gain national attention.

That’s not to say the professors honored are just great teachers. Many have gained significant external honors for their research. For example, Linda Griffith, a professor of biological and mechanical engineering, is best known for her work building organs in a dish that could be used to search for new drugs. She’s also a MacArthur “genius.” Laura Schulz is a leading cognitive scientist who a few years ago was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Emma Teng teaches Chinese history and culture and was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Rob Miller, a computer scientist, works on one of the hottest topics in his field right now—crowd computing.

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But what stands out in this award field are the contributions they make in the classroom and to the students they advise.

Here’s what one student wrote about Miller’s lectures:

“In my six years at MIT, Rob’s course was the only one whose lectures I felt could not be missed. I was absent for exactly one lecture due to travel for a job interview, and I still remember how genuinely disappointed I felt … his lectures always prompted such interesting discussion and the material was presented so well, I felt as though I had missed something.”

In the hyper-productive world of Boston’s academic universe, where grants, patents, spinoff companies, field-altering discoveries, and best-selling books are part of the daily churn, it’s sometimes easy to forget the very real contribution of launching students into the world. International awards often make headlines, but the impact of a wonderful mentor can be just as important. Do you have a professor, adviser, or teacher who made a difference? I’d love to know why.

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