Letter from the Dean
I am writing to you in difficult times. Who could have imagined, a few short months ago, that today all of us would be living through a terrible pandemic? Here at MIT, the campus is almost completely empty. Most students have returned to their families. Faculty and staff are staying home. The infinite corridor, usually a hubbub of activity day and night, is quiet.
But, remarkably, the MIT spirit lives on. Classes are conducted online, and much of our research continues remotely. Collaboration thrives virtually. I am proud and thankful to see our community pull together, overcome obstacles, and regain our footing despite the present challenges. We are all working hard to continue our mission to advance knowledge, educate our students, and serve the world.
In the School of Science, many have refocused their research priorities to address COVID-19 investigations and have actively sought out collaborations to develop innovative solutions, as sampled on pages 9–13. Our faculty includes several medical personnel in local hospitals, and from them, we learn where we can help. Our laboratories have joined others at MIT to donate supplies to local health centers. Our mathematicians recently launched a new class on data science, AI, and modeling to study COVID-19. Our neuroscientists are developing tests using CRISPR tools. Our biologists are developing drugs to help treat those suffering from the new virus. To learn about these and other efforts to confront the crisis, visit science.mit.edu.
Before COVID-19, biology professor Amy Keating was employing a mix of computation and laboratory synthesis to develop mini-proteins and peptides that could disrupt and potentially treat diseases like cancer. Keating’s lab has shifted toward computation during social distancing and she finds that teaching virtually has new and interesting hurdles that MIT students are willing to overcome. You can read about her research and dedication to her students on page 4.
In other ongoing work, I’m a big enthusiast for research on the human brain. It is constantly absorbing information through our senses, analyzing that input, and coding a response. Neuroscience professor Ila Fiete has made extraordinary progress in decoding how brains store information. She has analyzed a large amount of neural data to determine that the head’s direction is tracked by an internal code that can be interpreted as a ring in multidimensional space – acting as an internal compass. On page 6, she explains how tracking this neurological process is like watching a school of fish.
See pages 14–21 for additional activities across the School of Science. On the planetary front, our graduate students are using telescopes to observe space, models to predict how glaciers move and melt, and chemicals to degrade plastic pollution. A fund in the memory of former Professor Frank Peterson and his wife, Marilyn Peterson, provides mathematics students the opportunity to pursue their own curiosity-driven research, while former faculty and alumni describe life in Physics in the 1900s on page 22.
As you know, I plan to step down this summer from my position as Dean of Science. I will return full time to my role as a regular faculty member to focus on advancing my own research and devoting more time to education. Serving as Dean has been a great privilege, and I’ve enjoyed working with my colleagues and with many of you. I thank you for your readership and support. The generosity of our alumni and friends enables us to work together to advance our knowledge of the world and to pursue answers to questions both immediate and immemorial. Over these last six years of service, I am proud to have led the School of Science through extraordinary achievements as well as challenges. The current crisis gives us even more reason to invest in scientific research, because furthering our understanding of our world is crucial to finding a solution. I believe that science, in addition to its value as a source of inspiration and wonder, is the key to improving our lives.
On behalf of the School of Science, I wish you all the best, now and in the future.
Dean of Science
This letter appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Science@MIT