Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Different First Female President

Last evening I was in heady company - the MIT club of Baltimore had a reception for Dr. Susan Hockfield, President of the Institute. As the 16th president in its almost 150 years, Dr. Hockfield broke several barriers including being the first female as well as the first to come from the life sciences. As head of an institution that boasts 72 Nobel Prize winners, you might expect a woman more comfortable in a laboratory than a cocktail party.

In person, though, Dr. Hockfield (or "Susan" as her name tag proclaimed) is both approachable and eloquent. Like many others there, my husband - the MIT alum - and I waited to have a few words with her, and she greeted us as warmly as if we had just pledged several million dollars to the endowment. (We didn't.) Turns out this highly accomplished neuroscientist loves the meet-n-greet part of her job. Later during her remarks she talked about what MIT is doing and where they are focusing research and cooperative efforts with industry. These days there is an increasing emphasis on life sciences and the space where biology meets physics and engineering, as well as energy projects around combating global warming.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of recent years started before her Presidency - placing every bit of MIT courseware online - free - and available to anyone, anywhere in the world. Not only does OpenCourseWare have lecture videos, notes, exams, and other resources for more than 1,800 courses online, but many are available in languages other than English. No other advanced learning institution has made such a commitment to sharing knowledge.

The reach of MIT's influence touched close to home. We sat with a high school Physics teacher from Columbia, MD who was recognized as an inspirational teacher by MIT. His enthusiasm for his work and his students was contagious.

They say that a tennis player improves competing against a better player. It wasn't competition, but being in the company of all those intelligent and dedicated people gave me the same kind of energy boost that I get from other kinds of creativity. Besides, I just love seeing a woman as the respected and successful leader of one of the finest science and engineering institutes in the world!

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