Letter from the Dean

Dear Friends,
Last spring I wrote about the importance of supporting basic research in the upcoming campaign. I left out an important argument. One might ask, why should science be supported at MIT in particular? After all, whereas there are only three or four outstanding schools of engineering in the United States, there are many more universities that have excellent schools of science. In physics for example, Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Tech, Chicago, and the Ivy League schools all are competitive with MIT. Why should a donor not simply support engineering, where MIT has a bigger lead? I gave one reason in the last newsletter – that we are unusually good at identifying young scientists before they become famous. A large fraction of our faculty Nobel Laureates came to MIT before tenure and did their prizewinning work here. The fact that we have to spend so much money and work so hard to keep our young faculty members from being poached by our competitors testifies to our ability to identify talent earlier than our competition.

But there is another reason. Our culture, which emerges from our history as an engineering school deeply connected with industry, makes it easier for the discoveries of science to enter the marketplace than at our peer science institutions. At most universities, the ivory tower culture makes it difficult for a biologist to start a company based on his or her discovery of fundamental molecular biological phenomena. But at MIT our biologists have turned Kendall Square into the biotech and pharmaceutical capital of the world. The public knows that MIT faculty members frequently start companies, but they think it is only the engineers who do so. In fact, most of the biotech companies in Kendall Square have founders from the Biology Department, although often in collaboration with engineers.

I have been visiting venture capitalists who have invested in these biotech startups and CEOs who have led them to learn what they think has made MIT successful in this arena. They invariably mention two things. First, our Technology Licensing Office is the best in the business. Our TLO makes the process of patenting easy for faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and students, and it makes the process of licensing easy for the CEOs and VCs. Second, MIT’s culture values and supports collaboration, often between engineers and scientists. Several of the biotech leaders told me they view MIT as the new Bell Labs, because of this collaborative environment.

In this issue of our newsletter, you will learn about some exciting efforts to support basic science, as well as some research directed toward improving people’s lives. You will learn about our efforts to renovate Building 2 for the Math Department. Building 2 is unchanged since the Main Group of MIT buildings was constructed in 1916, and its renovation will set an example for the entire Main Group. Our Math Department is among the best in the world in research, and its faculty members are unusually talented and dedicated teachers. You can read about a talk Gil Strang gave to our alumni recently; Gil’s teaching is legendary both on campus and in OpenCourseWare. This year we hired a young Math Professor, who is an outstanding teacher, Larry Guth the son of Alan Guth, our Physics Professor who recently won one of the $3 million Milner prizes. Our math alumni often go on to academia, but Ted Kelly, who earned a Ph.D. in math at MIT, became CEO of Liberty Mutual and recently recounted the story of his career to our community.

Most of our math faculty members work on problems that are very abstract, and applications can be decades away. On the other hand, our faculty members in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) are trying to understand how the brain makes the mind and how it malfunctions to cause brain disorders, information that may directly improve the lives of millions of people. In this issue we have an interview with the new Head of BCS, Jim DiCarlo, and articles about Professor Li-Huei Tsai’s research on Alzheimer’s disease and graduate student Danielle Feldman’s on autism, in the new Simons Center for the Social Brain.

I ask you to consider making the School of Science a high priority for your charity. Giving to science at MIT supports the very best students and faculty in an environment where useful discoveries will benefit the world faster than anywhere else.

Marc Kastner

Dean, MIT School of Science