The first time Gene Stark visited MIT’s campus was the same day he arrived for his first day of Freshman Orientation. He was coming from a working-class background in South Florida, where he learned about MIT the same day he learned about college. He’d been told by his father that attending college was the key to his future, so Stark sought advice from one of two college graduates in his neighborhood – it was there he was given two college catalogs: Notre Dame and, as fate would have it, MIT.
Of his early experiences as an MIT student, Stark shared that “being from south Florida, i.e., south of the Deep South, I knew nothing of the North… I was certainly unprepared for the driven social culture found there – yet I felt it fit me perfectly.” After graduating MIT with four degrees, he carried this drive with him to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where he found the pace a bit slow. This led to him joining a 6 a.m.–8 a.m. daily task force with staff 20–30 years his elder, who were tasked to seek ways the laboratory could contribute in the energy crisis atmosphere of 1973. “This experience exposed me to the huge gap between government R&D results and ideas and the broader marketplace,” Stark noted. This ultimately led to a “Technology Transfer” program at the laboratory, for which Stark was the sole full-time instigator for many years. “The greatest challenges lay in capturing intellectual property for commercially based licensing and/or use by the creators as the basis for a start-up business.”
Stark’s early enthusiasm eventually put him in the right place at the right time. He went on to join and then chair the Federal laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer – “an entirely informal and self-organized group” – where he found himself on the periphery of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to take title to federally sponsored research results. He was also in the thick of the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 and a Patent/Trademark Clarification Act, which between them allowed the same for federally operated R&D organizations. Stark continued to immerse himself in this milieu until 1996, when his father’s death led him back home to join the family business.
Stark traveled all the way from Florida to attend MIT's Brains on Brains. When asked what motivated him to come such a long way, he recounted an event in Miami that took place several years ago, when some top members of the BCS faculty gave a presentation on their research. Stark felt that Institute Professor Ann Graybiel was inspiring and, what’s more, that he and other attendees “felt we were actually learning something at the cutting edge of research without being ‘hairy’.” When he received his invitation to Brains on Brains, he wanted to see more.
The day of the event, Stark had lunch with MIT Professors Tomaso Poggio and Joshua Tenenbaum along with a small group of other attendees, including fellow engineer Jennifer Lu ’90 (VI-1), S.M. ’91 (VI). At their table, themed “Intelligence,” Stark not only learned about the Intelligence Initiative and the large NSF proposal that recently established MIT’s Center for Brains, Minds and Machines – but also learned what support they needed most in continuing their work. “I asked what their highest priorities were and was told: (1) the ability to bring on new faculty members who would be truly interdepartmental… and (2) money for graduate students.”
"[Brain and cognitive science] is a very important field, with huge strides likely over the next couple decades in both basic understanding and practical applications that improve individual lives.” -Gene Stark
That evening, Stark decided to support a fellowship for young scientists doing the incredible work he had witnessed that day. For him, brain and cognitive sciences is “a very important field, with huge strides likely over the next couple decades in both basic understanding and practical applications that will improve individual lives.” Though he jokes that his specific major no longer exists, Stark finds joy supporting programs he feels are “quintessentially MIT”: programs that are cutting edge and reach out to the world, like edX and the brain sciences. It is with support like his that we are able to remain quintessentially MIT.