Letter from the Dean
Letter from Dean Nergis Mavalvala, which appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Science@MIT
My fellow alumni and friends,
I write to you having taken up the mantle as dean just a scant four months ago in one of the most tumultuous times the Institute, the nation, and the world has seen. How lucky, then, that I have stepped into this role when the MIT School of Science is so well-positioned — with community members who can guide us, with scientific acumen and adherence to facts, through these times.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Sipser, the Donner Professor of Mathematics, who has so ably led us here to this moment. Thank you, Mike, from me and from all of us here at MIT and beyond.
One of the most exciting parts of being Dean is seeing the whole breadth of mind-blowing science being done by our brilliant and passionate faculty, staff, and students. It’s also been wonderful to meet — albeit virtually — with you, the many friends and benefactors whose generosity enables the beautiful science we do.
Some of these are old friends, such as Curt Marble whose eponymous professorship I hold in astrophysics. Others, I am just getting to know like Victor Menezes who has created a challenge fund in the Department of Mathematics to support our recruitment and retention efforts. Read more about Victor and his wife Tara’s philanthropic motivations here.
Students and faculty alike have benefited from fellowships and professorships created in partnership with MathWorks. More than 100 student researchers from across MIT are supported by MathWorks fellowships, including brain and cognitive sciences graduate student Gurrein Madan and physics graduate student Nick Demos, who along with advisor, Professor Matthew Evans, the MIT MathWorks Professor of Physics, work within our LIGO research group to make our instruments even more sensitive to the detection of gravitational waves from distant astrophysical sources. Read more about these up-and-coming young scientists here and here, respectively.
Our cover story details the work of Tanja Bosak, a professor and geobiologist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Some of you might have gotten a chance to hear Tanja speak with her EAPS colleagues Professors Roger Summons and Ben Weiss at our virtual MIT Better World event in November. If you missed it, I encourage you to tune in to the recorded sessions on the Mars2020 mission, CRISPR, and other School of Science topics.
This year, three of our faculty and one alumna received awards from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation for their early-career achievements in the fields of physics and mathematics. You can read more about each of their research areas beginning here. Even as we celebrate the many achievements of our faculty and students, we also mark with a heavy heart the passing of a giant in the life sciences: our dear colleague Professor Angelika Amon. Angelika was the recipient of many awards — including the Breakthrough Prize — for her research that determined aneuploidy’s effects on cells’ ability to survive and proliferate. She was a valued colleague and dear friend to so many of us, and for me personally also a moral beacon.
Despite this loss, you can read in these pages that science at MIT is strong. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be strengthened — particularly when it comes to ensuring that we are recruiting the best and most diverse talent to address the challenges the world faces: the climate crisis, a global pandemic, rampant racial injustice and wealth inequality, and the continued attacks on the value of fundamental research.
At MIT, we have programs such as the Institute-wide Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor program that invites top talent, including Professor Thomas Searles, to the School of Science. Read more about Professor Searles here. Within the school and our departments, we have fellowships supported by friends and benefactors who seek to ensure we are making space for underrepresented minorities in all the areas of science.
But we can always do better when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This work is vital to our mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, society, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. Now, more than ever, we need the best scientists who will partner with engineers, educators, economists, thought leaders, policy makers, and sustainability advocates — making connections across MIT’s schools and college to make a better world.
I can think of no better place and no better colleagues to work on these seemingly intractable problems. I hope you are as motivated as I am to continue reading about and supporting our scientific enterprise.
With my very best wishes,
Dean Nergis Mavalvala PhD ‘97
Read more of the Winter 2021 issue of Science@MIT.