From Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) : Women in STEM-Mandana Sassanfar “Profile: Mandana Sassanfar”

From Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)

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Two decades of biology outreach

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A lifelong interest in teaching brought Mandana Sassanfar to MIT, where she has established programs to engage diverse students and forged partnerships with institutes across the country.

6.24.21
Raleigh McElvery

Of all the offices in Building 68, Mandana Sassanfar’s is perhaps the most colorful. Her walls are lined with photos of students past and present, each of whom completed one or more of the six outreach programs she heads as the Department of Biology’s director of outreach. Over the last two decades, Sassanfar has forged partnerships with communities across the country, in an effort to engage historically underrepresented groups in science — and increase access to MIT’s on-site and online resources.

Although she was born in Switzerland, Sassanfar spent most of her childhood moving between France and Iran for her father’s job. No matter where her family lived, she always attended French-speaking schools. As early as fourth grade, she remembers analyzing her instructors’ teaching strategies, and practicing how she would explain the same concepts to make them clearer. While this interest in education continued to percolate, she also discovered that her favorite subjects were chemistry and math.

By 1983, she’d earned a master’s in biochemistry from Pierre and Marie Curie University [Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie] (FR) in Paris, and moved to the US to start a PhD at Cornell University (US). Although she nearly switched tracks to study plant science, she ultimately stuck with biochemistry in the hopes of studying under well-known scientist Jeffery Roberts. Although Roberts was not taking new students at the time, Sassanfar convinced him to let her complete an eight-week rotation in his lab.

“I scheduled that rotation as my last, so I would have made every mistake before working with Jeff’s group,” she says. “At the end of the eight weeks, I literally told him, ‘If you don’t take me, I’m going back to France.’ And he took me in.”

While everyone else was probing various aspects of transcription antitermination, Sassanfar was an outlier investigating the role of DNA replication in the bacterial SOS repair pathway following DNA damage. She was among the first researchers to design a quantitative western blot assay to measure the level of LexA and RecA proteins in vivo. “Jeff’s lab was a wonderful place to work and I received a rigorous scientific training,” she recalls. “He was an excellent mentor.”

After graduating from Cornell in 1988, Sassanfar completed two postdocs: one with Leona Samson at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (US), and another with Jack Szostak at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Szostak later went on to earn a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and telomerase enzymes. While Sassanfar was in his lab, she overlapped with many prominent scientists, including David Bartel, Jennifer Doudna, Rachel Green, and John Lorsch.

As Sassanfar’s time at MGH drew to a close, Szostak introduced her to Paul Schimmel, a long-time faculty member at the MIT Department of Biology, who was hiring research scientists for his new biotech startup, Cubist, which he had co-founded with chemistry professor Julius Rebek. The company intended to explore aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases as potential antibiotic targets. Sassanfar already knew Schimmel as the co-author of one of her favorite books, Biophysical Chemistry. But working with him for nearly four years taught her additional skills that she couldn’t have gleaned from a book.

“I came to understand a tremendous amount about the biotech culture while I was at Cubist,” she says. “Paul was a great mentor, and I learned a lot from him about writing papers, and watching the even-keeled way he interacts with people.”

When Schimmel eventually moved to The Scripps Research Institute (US), Sassanfar joined Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology as a teaching fellow. There, professor Stephen Harrison, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHIM) (US) Investigator, offered her a chance to become involved in her first outreach program — a week-long workshop for high school teachers that she continues to run today from MIT. She was also charged with coordinating a summer program that placed non-Harvard undergraduates in campus labs each summer. But, in 2002, just a couple months before a student cohort was slated to arrive, the program was abruptly canceled and Sassanfar resigned.

“I had to transfer six undergraduates to other summer programs and find a space for the teacher’s summer workshop,” she remembers. “I just needed some lab space for two weeks.”

She called the MIT Department of Biology, and within a few days she not only had lab spaces for the teachers workshop, but a job offer as well. She accepted, and teamed up with professor Graham Walker. Together, they worked to expand the department’s pre-college and undergraduate outreach programs, creating a pipeline to graduate school in the process.

While many graduate institutions are quick to recruit students from Ivy League schools, Sassanfar saw an opportunity to widen the applicant pool. “If you decide that all the top students are from the Ivies — which is not true — then you’re missing out on many phenomenal applicants,” she says. “So I started reaching out to undergraduate institutions with limited research resources that serve diverse student bodies. Graham and I wanted to offer these students a comprehensive summer research experience, which would inspire them to apply to rigorous PhD programs like MIT Biology.”

MIT already offered some programs in this vein — such as the MIT Summer Research Program (now called “MSRP General”) — but none of them focused specifically on the life sciences. And, MSRP General was not specifically designed to be a recruiting tool for the Department of Biology. As a result, Walker and Sassanfar decided to establish the MIT Summer Research Program in Biology (MSRP-Bio), which would offer additional, biology-specific programming to help these trainees succeed and prepare them for the next stage of their careers.

Walker was the long-time program director of the HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Program at MIT, and was also named an HHMI professor the year Sassanfar arrived. He and Sassanfar used some of the accompanying funds to establish synergetic programs focused on education outreach and diversity. These included MSRP-Bio, the Quantitative Biology Workshop, the HHMI special seminar series, and a summer mini-sabbatical for faculty at institutions serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority groups.

“When Mandana began at MIT, she realized that to compete for the most talented students we needed to strengthen the biology component of MIT’s summer research programs, by increasing our outreach efforts and developing an enriched summer experience,” Walker recalls. “Since then, her leadership, energy, enthusiasm, and humanity have helped MSRP-Bio develop into the strikingly successful, high-impact program that it is today.”

At first, Sassanfar says, she didn’t know much about the MIT Biology philosophy or the graduate program. “I spent a lot of time just talking to the grad students. And I realized that if we were going to use MSRP-Bio as a recruiting tool, then we had to set admission standards similar to those of the graduate program.”

She began by tweaking the admissions process, raising the minimum GPA and requiring additional letters of recommendation. That first summer, Sassanfar and Walker had only a few months to prepare, so the inaugural 2003 cohort was just 11 students.

Today, the program is known as the Bernard S. and Sophie G. Gould MIT Summer Research Program in Biology (BSG-MSRP-Bio), and hosts up to 20 students. Participants perform full-time research for 10 weeks between June and August. They also attend academic seminars and weekly meetings with faculty. They visit biotech labs, take tours of Boston, learn about the grad school application process, practice their presentation skills, and share their research projects at the MSRP poster session and other conferences around the country.

In order to attract applicants from across the country, Sassanfar began traveling annually to schools with large populations of under-represented minority students, such as historically black colleges and universities; Hispanic-serving institutions; and large state schools in Texas, Florida, New York, Maryland, and Puerto Rico. She often relied on MSRP-Bio alumni to introduce her to science faculty during her campus visits.

At first it was difficult to connect with administrators and meet students. But Sassanfar slowly built sturdy relationships, and even started inviting faculty to join their students at MIT for seminars and summer sabbaticals. In 2004, the biotechnology program at the University Puerto Rico at Mayagüez honored Sassanfar with an award to celebrate her work.

“It’s really important to create opportunities that allow diverse students and faculty to benefit from MIT, rather than the other way around,” she says. “You have to show that you are doing this because you care, and not because you want something in return.”

Since 2003, over 400 students from 39 countries have participated in MSRP-Bio. Over 75% have gone on to graduate school (including 87 at MIT), 12 have become professors, and many others are leading successful careers in industry or medicine. One alumnus from the 2005 cohort, Eliezer Calo, is now a faculty member in the Department of Biology, and another from the 2007 cohort, Francisco Sánchez-Rivera, will start his own lab at the MIT(US) David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in 2022. Many of the MSRP-Bio alumni who complete their PhDs and postdocs at MIT stay actively engaged in outreach programs until they graduate, and help Sassanfar with many of the programs she coordinates.

Mary Lee, a member of MSRP-Bio’s inaugural cohort who later completed her PhD at MIT, says she applied to the program in hopes of experiencing cutting-edge biology research in a new city. “Mandana was an integral part of my experience in MSRP-Bio,” she explains. “From my first encounter with her to even now, 20 years later, it is clear how committed she is to connecting students like myself to MIT and the research community. It was a short summer but the experience unlocked opportunities for me that I would not have had otherwise.”

Sassanfar also serves as the director of diversity and science outreach for the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, as well as the diversity coordinator for the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines. These additional roles have allowed her to expand MSRP-Bio and the Quantitative Biology Workshop, now known as the Quantitative Methods Workshop. In addition, she’s spearheaded programs for local high school students, including field trips and the LEAH Knox Scholars Program.

Beyond her outreach work, each winter during MIT’s Independent Activities Period she teaches a class for first-year MIT undergraduates to introduce them to biology lab techniques. “My favorite thing is seeing the looks on students’ faces when they have been working so hard to learn and apply techniques, and they finally can see and interpret the results of their experiments,” she says. “That’s what I love.”

Although Sassanfar has mentored hundreds of students over the past 20 years, she works hard to connect with each while they’re on campus, and has stayed in touch with many of them. She enjoys getting visits and emails from summer program alums who share their successes and thank her for the role she’s played.

“The fact that we have so many students who have finished their PhDs and gone on to become postdocs, faculty, doctors and important players in industry is, I think, truly where the success lies,” she says. “My hope is to build a strong network of alums who are excited to meet current students and create a community.”

Most recently, Sassanfar has teamed up with students, staff, and faculty from the Department of Biology to begin a new initiative, which provides research training opportunities to local community college students.

“What has really worked for me is that the Biology Department gives me free rein,” she says. “They provide their full support, and let me take it from there.”

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MIT Campus

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) is a private land-grant research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The institute has an urban campus that extends more than a mile (1.6 km) alongside the Charles River. The institute also encompasses a number of major off-campus facilities such as the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the Bates Center, and the Haystack Observatory, as well as affiliated laboratories such as the Broad and Whitehead Institutes.

Founded in 1861 in response to the increasing industrialization of the United States, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) adopted a European polytechnic university model and stressed laboratory instruction in applied science and engineering. It has since played a key role in the development of many aspects of modern science, engineering, mathematics, and technology, and is widely known for its innovation and academic strength. It is frequently regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

As of December 2020, 97 Nobel laureates, 26 Turing Award winners, and 8 Fields Medalists have been affiliated with MIT as alumni, faculty members, or researchers. In addition, 58 National Medal of Science recipients, 29 National Medals of Technology and Innovation recipients, 50 MacArthur Fellows, 80 Marshall Scholars, 3 Mitchell Scholars, 22 Schwarzman Scholars, 41 astronauts, and 16 Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force have been affiliated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) . The university also has a strong entrepreneurial culture and MIT alumni have founded or co-founded many notable companies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

Foundation and vision

In 1859, a proposal was submitted to the Massachusetts General Court to use newly filled lands in Back Bay, Boston for a “Conservatory of Art and Science”, but the proposal failed. A charter for the incorporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed by William Barton Rogers, was signed by John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, on April 10, 1861.

Rogers, a professor from the University of Virginia (US), wanted to establish an institution to address rapid scientific and technological advances. He did not wish to found a professional school, but a combination with elements of both professional and liberal education, proposing that:

“The true and only practicable object of a polytechnic school is, as I conceive, the teaching, not of the minute details and manipulations of the arts, which can be done only in the workshop, but the inculcation of those scientific principles which form the basis and explanation of them, and along with this, a full and methodical review of all their leading processes and operations in connection with physical laws.”

The Rogers Plan reflected the German research university model, emphasizing an independent faculty engaged in research, as well as instruction oriented around seminars and laboratories.

Early developments

Two days after Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) was chartered, the first battle of the Civil War broke out. After a long delay through the war years, MIT’s first classes were held in the Mercantile Building in Boston in 1865. The new institute was founded as part of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to fund institutions “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” and was a land-grant school. In 1863 under the same act, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts founded the Massachusetts Agricultural College, which developed as the University of Massachusetts Amherst (US)). In 1866, the proceeds from land sales went toward new buildings in the Back Bay.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) was informally called “Boston Tech”. The institute adopted the European polytechnic university model and emphasized laboratory instruction from an early date. Despite chronic financial problems, the institute saw growth in the last two decades of the 19th century under President Francis Amasa Walker. Programs in electrical, chemical, marine, and sanitary engineering were introduced, new buildings were built, and the size of the student body increased to more than one thousand.

The curriculum drifted to a vocational emphasis, with less focus on theoretical science. The fledgling school still suffered from chronic financial shortages which diverted the attention of the MIT leadership. During these “Boston Tech” years, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) faculty and alumni rebuffed Harvard University (US) president (and former MIT faculty) Charles W. Eliot’s repeated attempts to merge MIT with Harvard College’s Lawrence Scientific School. There would be at least six attempts to absorb MIT into Harvard. In its cramped Back Bay location, MIT could not afford to expand its overcrowded facilities, driving a desperate search for a new campus and funding. Eventually, the MIT Corporation approved a formal agreement to merge with Harvard, over the vehement objections of MIT faculty, students, and alumni. However, a 1917 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court effectively put an end to the merger scheme.

In 1916, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) administration and the MIT charter crossed the Charles River on the ceremonial barge Bucentaur built for the occasion, to signify MIT’s move to a spacious new campus largely consisting of filled land on a one-mile-long (1.6 km) tract along the Cambridge side of the Charles River. The neoclassical “New Technology” campus was designed by William W. Bosworth and had been funded largely by anonymous donations from a mysterious “Mr. Smith”, starting in 1912. In January 1920, the donor was revealed to be the industrialist George Eastman of Rochester, New York, who had invented methods of film production and processing, and founded Eastman Kodak. Between 1912 and 1920, Eastman donated $20 million ($236.6 million in 2015 dollars) in cash and Kodak stock to MIT.

Curricular reforms

In the 1930s, President Karl Taylor Compton and Vice-President (effectively Provost) Vannevar Bush emphasized the importance of pure sciences like physics and chemistry and reduced the vocational practice required in shops and drafting studios. The Compton reforms “renewed confidence in the ability of the Institute to develop leadership in science as well as in engineering”. Unlike Ivy League schools, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) catered more to middle-class families, and depended more on tuition than on endowments or grants for its funding. The school was elected to the Association of American Universities (US)in 1934.

Still, as late as 1949, the Lewis Committee lamented in its report on the state of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) that “the Institute is widely conceived as basically a vocational school”, a “partly unjustified” perception the committee sought to change. The report comprehensively reviewed the undergraduate curriculum, recommended offering a broader education, and warned against letting engineering and government-sponsored research detract from the sciences and humanities. The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the MIT Sloan School of Management were formed in 1950 to compete with the powerful Schools of Science and Engineering. Previously marginalized faculties in the areas of economics, management, political science, and linguistics emerged into cohesive and assertive departments by attracting respected professors and launching competitive graduate programs. The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences continued to develop under the successive terms of the more humanistically oriented presidents Howard W. Johnson and Jerome Wiesner between 1966 and 1980.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)‘s involvement in military science surged during World War II. In 1941, Vannevar Bush was appointed head of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development and directed funding to only a select group of universities, including MIT. Engineers and scientists from across the country gathered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)’s Radiation Laboratory, established in 1940 to assist the British military in developing microwave radar. The work done there significantly affected both the war and subsequent research in the area. Other defense projects included gyroscope-based and other complex control systems for gunsight, bombsight, and inertial navigation under Charles Stark Draper’s Instrumentation Laboratory; the development of a digital computer for flight simulations under Project Whirlwind; and high-speed and high-altitude photography under Harold Edgerton. By the end of the war, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) became the nation’s largest wartime R&D contractor (attracting some criticism of Bush), employing nearly 4000 in the Radiation Laboratory alone and receiving in excess of $100 million ($1.2 billion in 2015 dollars) before 1946. Work on defense projects continued even after then. Post-war government-sponsored research at MIT included SAGE and guidance systems for ballistic missiles and Project Apollo.

These activities affected Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) profoundly. A 1949 report noted the lack of “any great slackening in the pace of life at the Institute” to match the return to peacetime, remembering the “academic tranquility of the prewar years”, though acknowledging the significant contributions of military research to the increased emphasis on graduate education and rapid growth of personnel and facilities. The faculty doubled and the graduate student body quintupled during the terms of Karl Taylor Compton, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) between 1930 and 1948; James Rhyne Killian, president from 1948 to 1957; and Julius Adams Stratton, chancellor from 1952 to 1957, whose institution-building strategies shaped the expanding university. By the 1950s, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) no longer simply benefited the industries with which it had worked for three decades, and it had developed closer working relationships with new patrons, philanthropic foundations and the federal government.

In late 1960s and early 1970s, student and faculty activists protested against the Vietnam War and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)’s defense research. In this period Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)’s various departments were researching helicopters, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the war in Vietnam as well as guidance systems for nuclear missiles. The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded on March 4, 1969 during a meeting of faculty members and students seeking to shift the emphasis on military research toward environmental and social problems. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) ultimately divested itself from the Instrumentation Laboratory and moved all classified research off-campus to the MIT (US) Lincoln Laboratory facility in 1973 in response to the protests. The student body, faculty, and administration remained comparatively unpolarized during what was a tumultuous time for many other universities. Johnson was seen to be highly successful in leading his institution to “greater strength and unity” after these times of turmoil. However six Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) students were sentenced to prison terms at this time and some former student leaders, such as Michael Albert and George Katsiaficas, are still indignant about MIT’s role in military research and its suppression of these protests. (Richard Leacock’s film, November Actions, records some of these tumultuous events.)

In the 1980s, there was more controversy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) over its involvement in SDI (space weaponry) and CBW (chemical and biological warfare) research. More recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)’s research for the military has included work on robots, drones and ‘battle suits’.

Recent history

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) has kept pace with and helped to advance the digital age. In addition to developing the predecessors to modern computing and networking technologies, students, staff, and faculty members at Project MAC, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and the Tech Model Railroad Club wrote some of the earliest interactive computer video games like Spacewar! and created much of modern hacker slang and culture. Several major computer-related organizations have originated at MIT since the 1980s: Richard Stallman’s GNU Project and the subsequent Free Software Foundation were founded in the mid-1980s at the AI Lab; the MIT Media Lab was founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner to promote research into novel uses of computer technology; the World Wide Web Consortium standards organization was founded at the Laboratory for Computer Science in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee; the MIT OpenCourseWare project has made course materials for over 2,000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) classes available online free of charge since 2002; and the One Laptop per Child initiative to expand computer education and connectivity to children worldwide was launched in 2005.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) was named a sea-grant college in 1976 to support its programs in oceanography and marine sciences and was named a space-grant college in 1989 to support its aeronautics and astronautics programs. Despite diminishing government financial support over the past quarter century, MIT launched several successful development campaigns to significantly expand the campus: new dormitories and athletics buildings on west campus; the Tang Center for Management Education; several buildings in the northeast corner of campus supporting research into biology, brain and cognitive sciences, genomics, biotechnology, and cancer research; and a number of new “backlot” buildings on Vassar Street including the Stata Center. Construction on campus in the 2000s included expansions of the Media Lab, the Sloan School’s eastern campus, and graduate residences in the northwest. In 2006, President Hockfield launched the MIT Energy Research Council to investigate the interdisciplinary challenges posed by increasing global energy consumption.

In 2001, inspired by the open source and open access movements, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) launched OpenCourseWare to make the lecture notes, problem sets, syllabi, exams, and lectures from the great majority of its courses available online for no charge, though without any formal accreditation for coursework completed. While the cost of supporting and hosting the project is high, OCW expanded in 2005 to include other universities as a part of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which currently includes more than 250 academic institutions with content available in at least six languages. In 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) announced it would offer formal certification (but not credits or degrees) to online participants completing coursework in its “MITx” program, for a modest fee. The “edX” online platform supporting MITx was initially developed in partnership with Harvard and its analogous “Harvardx” initiative. The courseware platform is open source, and other universities have already joined and added their own course content. In March 2009 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) faculty adopted an open-access policy to make its scholarship publicly accessible online.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) has its own police force. Three days after the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013, MIT Police patrol officer Sean Collier was fatally shot by the suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, setting off a violent manhunt that shut down the campus and much of the Boston metropolitan area for a day. One week later, Collier’s memorial service was attended by more than 10,000 people, in a ceremony hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) community with thousands of police officers from the New England region and Canada. On November 25, 2013, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) announced the creation of the Collier Medal, to be awarded annually to “an individual or group that embodies the character and qualities that Officer Collier exhibited as a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) community and in all aspects of his life”. The announcement further stated that “Future recipients of the award will include those whose contributions exceed the boundaries of their profession, those who have contributed to building bridges across the community, and those who consistently and selflessly perform acts of kindness”.

In September 2017, the school announced the creation of an artificial intelligence research lab called the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. IBM will spend $240 million over the next decade, and the lab will be staffed by MIT and IBM scientists. In October 2018 MIT announced that it would open a new Schwarzman College of Computing dedicated to the study of artificial intelligence, named after lead donor and The Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman. The focus of the new college is to study not just AI, but interdisciplinary AI education, and how AI can be used in fields as diverse as history and biology. The cost of buildings and new faculty for the new college is expected to be $1 billion upon completion.

The Caltech/MIT Advanced aLIGO (US) was designed and constructed by a team of scientists from California Institute of Technology (US), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), and industrial contractors, and funded by the National Science Foundation (US) .

MIT/Caltech Advanced aLigo .

It was designed to open the field of gravitational-wave astronomy through the detection of gravitational waves predicted by general relativity. Gravitational waves were detected for the first time by the LIGO detector in 2015. For contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves, two Caltech physicists, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) physicist Rainer Weiss won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2017. Weiss, who is also an Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) graduate, designed the laser interferometric technique, which served as the essential blueprint for the LIGO.

The mission of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century. We seek to develop in each member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.