Freshman Convocation 2007

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Good morning, and welcome, MIT class of 2011. And welcome also to the families and friends who have come to help launch a new chapter in our students’ lives.

Each academic year begins with the excitement of formally welcoming our new students into the MIT community at this Freshman Convocation. Convocation – a calling together – is a chance to offer words of introduction, and also some – but I hope not too many – words of advice.

I am joined here on the platform by a group of people who will play key roles in your lives over the next few years. You will hear shortly from our Chancellor, Professor Phillip Clay, and then from our Dean for Undergraduate Education, Professor Daniel Hastings. Also joining us are the Provost and Associate Provosts, the Secretary and Vice President for Institute Affairs, the Deans of the Institute’s five Schools, the Dean for Student Life, the Chair of the Faculty, and the housemasters of the undergraduate residence halls. The president of the Undergraduate Association, Martin Holmes, is also here to greet you. We come together here to celebrate your arrival at MIT.

Your MIT chapter begins on the shoulders of history. Look above, at the names etched in stone along the frieze of Killian Court, and you will see in those names the story not simply of one school, nor even of science and engineering alone, but of knowledge itself. Our predecessors were pioneers of discovery who led humanity’s progress from the ancient to the modern world. Today, as we welcome you to MIT, we welcome you as the heirs of history and the inventors of the future.

And we welcome you as heirs to a motto: Mens et manus, Mind and hand – the MIT motto that we live every day. At MIT, we value brilliance. That’s why you’re here. But along with the mind that reaches over the horizon, we value the hand that reaches out – that helps, that collaborates, that makes the world a better place.

Not a single name on this frieze got there on brains or brilliance alone. They were dreamers, and they were discoverers, and they were diligent.

This morning, you take your place in their tradition. You take your place in a time of great challenge and even greater opportunity. You take it in the shadow of names like Aristotle and Newton, DaVinci and Descartes, Franklin and Faraday.

No problem. No pressure. Right?

Well, that’s easy for me to say. But I say it with confidence. We selected you for the class of 2011 because we know that each of you has the intelligence and the character not just to “survive” at MIT, but to truly thrive here. You arrive with several distinctions already under your belts.

Only the brightest even apply to MIT – and your applications, with a good many others, formed the largest and most competitive pool of applicants in our history. Many other distinctions mark this class. Among you are science and math Olympians, winners of the nation’s most prestigious academic prizes, circus performers, varsity athletes, at least one cow breeder, world-class musicians, and entrepreneurs. Simply put, you have extraordinary credentials in every way they could be measured.

But beyond these not inconsiderable accomplishments of your own, another distinction singles out this class. MIT was founded in 1861. The class of 2011 – your class – will graduate in MIT’s 150th year. Your names will be recorded in our history as MIT’s sesquicentennial class. And over the course of your senior year you will join in the celebration of this important milestone.

But each of you knows already that MIT is far more than its past, that our real task here is to invent the future. The study of the history you inherit only sets the foundation for the history you will make.

MIT was founded to apply knowledge and its advance to making the world a better place. This institution stands at the intersection of the abstract and the applied – of science and society – of discovery that ennobles our understanding and discovery that transforms our lives.

MIT is part of one of the greatest stories of humankind: the story of discovery turned to human good. Let me give you just one example: The voyage to the moon and the lunar landing were made possible by guidance, navigation, and control systems developed by MIT's Instrumentation Lab. Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, who received his PhD from MIT's Aero/Astro department, was the second man to set foot on the moon and one of four Course 16 graduates to walk on the moon.

MIT’s tradition of putting great theories into action transcends science and engineering, reaching into other disciplines, and bringing forth other world-changing discoveries and inventions. They include the humanities and the arts, entrepreneurship and urban planning: MIT faculty and students were on the ground in New Orleans two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, working with local groups and institutions to address housing, sustainable development, and alternative energy.

MIT’s leadership also includes marketing, linguistics and economics. In fact, today, the heads of five central banks – Stanley Fischer in Israel; Mario Draghi in Italy; Athanasios Orphanides in Cyprus; Vittorio Corbo in Chile and, of course, Ben Bernanke here in the United States – all have degrees in Economics from MIT.

Today we travel on a trail blazed by the discoverers whose names ring Killian Court. Each name bears a remarkable story. Let me today tell the story of just one – a story of science and technology, but also a story of business and society, of tenacity, of discovery, and of impact – the story of Louis Pasteur.

Pasteur was born in 1822. He worked in France, in the same era that another brilliant scientist – this one named William Barton Rogers – began an extraordinary project here in America: creating an institution of learning to serve an industrialized age. MIT began in 1861 on Boylston Street in Boston, where it was known as Boston Tech before moving to this site in 1916. You can read our founding mission ringing the lobby of Building 7: ”Established for advancement and development of science, its application to industry, the arts, agriculture, and commerce.”

Pasteur, in like mind, made extraordinary scientific discoveries that he turned to practical use. He used the technology of his day – a microscope that seems quite simple to us today – to established the field of stereochemistry, discovering that only the dextro rotary form of tartaric acid was taken up by the microorganism responsible for the fermentation of wine. As dean of the new science faculty at the University of Lille, he established a relationship between the university and local industry so that theory could be turned into practice. (You know,) in grade school we all learned about Pasteur debunking the mythology of spontaneous generation, but less commonly known is his extension of that seminal discovery to understanding the cause and determining the cure for animal and human diseases.

Pasteur did all this not simply through intelligence, but intelligence amplified by diligence. “Chance favors only those minds which are prepared,” he famously said. Less famously, his favorite motto “Travailler, travailler, travailler toujours,” directs one to work, work, work always.

Pasteur understood that we cannot realize the full promise of science, if we do not open avenues for its application to people’s lives. “There is no greater charm for the investigator,” Pasteur said, “than to make new discoveries; but his pleasure is heightened when he sees that they have a direct application to practical life.”

And by that measure, your time at MIT – and your careers that lie ahead – will be pleasurable indeed.

MIT walks – as you do – in Pasteur’s footsteps. That’s true in a very practical sense – because the work he began continues here.

Pasteur's discovery that yeast was responsible for the fermentation process and that contamination by other microorganisms turned beer sour advanced the beverage industry of 19th century France, but it also laid the foundation for experimental work with yeast that continues at MIT today. Professor Susan Lindquist of the Department of Biology and the Whitehead Institute uses yeast to study the proteins that give rise to Parkinson’s Disease, a debilitating degenerative neurological disorder. The yeast strains carrying the protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease also provide a platform to search for preventive and therapeutic drugs.

Pasteur’s breakthroughs during the infancy of experimental biomedicine gave rise to the vast engine of biomedical research and products we enjoy today. But biomedical breakthroughs now provide tools for other disciplines. The convergence of the life sciences with engineering reaches well past biomedicine to batteries, to biofuels, and beyond.

But we stand in Pasteur’s footsteps in another sense too. We embody what he taught – the importance of attention to the finest detail, the value of diligence, the promise of science that transforms people’s lives. These are the lessons you will learn from us, your faculty, – and from each other.

Look around you. Your classmates are extraordinarily accomplished. And you have an advantage Pasteur lacked: This, the most diverse class in MIT’s history, arrives on our campus with a range of perspectives Pasteur could hardly have imagined. Your class comes from 49 states, three American territories and the District of Columbia, and from 58 other countries. We come together on this campus from a variety of backgrounds, united in our pursuit of truth. Pasteur observed that, “Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Indeed, talent, brilliance and tenacity transcend geographic, ethnic and racial boundaries. Your class, your generation, will push the frontiers further precisely because your perspectives are broader.

The rich mix of students and faculty on this campus will expand your horizons, inside and outside the classroom. I hope that all of you will take advantage of one of MIT’s signature offerings, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, in which our students work in research groups in every discipline on the campus. I know that you’ll also embrace the wide variety of living groups, athletics and activities that demand in a different way the same passion and engagement as your academic pursuits.

Opportunities begin here on campus but reach across the globe. I further hope that most of you will have an international experience some time during your years at MIT. Many students take on an international internship through MISTI, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives. As part of a project to help improve education standards in China’s western provinces, MIT students traveled to the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau to introduce Qinghai University faculty and students to MIT-OCW subjects in biotechnology, computer science, and environmental engineering. Others apply their problem solving skills in the developing world through D-lab, designing locally-sensitive solutions to water purification. One of MIT’s great internationalists, Professor Dick Samuels from the Department of Political Science and director of our Center for International Studies, has joined us on the platform this morning. I have invited Professor Samuels to deliver your first academic lecture Tuesday in Kresge Auditorium, to share with you some of the excitement of MIT’s global reach.

As you consider which subjects to take, activities to take up, living groups to join, know that what brought you here – and what you will learn here – are the same qualities for which MIT graduates are known around the world. At MIT, we are intensely analytical. Through the seemingly endless problem sets, you will learn a way of thinking and a way of solving problems that arise not just in classroom assignments, but in life. You will learn by doing – through hands-on experience.

That much you know. But you will learn other critical lessons that we discuss less often but that matter just as much. These lessons transcend the laboratory and classroom. They are lessons in leadership, and they are lessons in life. MIT students have transformed lives through their work in the Cambridge public schools and with communities in developing countries. And beyond the great good they have done for others, they have also learned how to maximize the work of teams, how to lead, how to engage with people and cultures different from their own, and they have also learned the important art of persuasive rhetoric.

Your experiences at MIT will expand and amplify the remarkable accomplishments you bring with you today. We hope, no – we expect – that you will use the full sum of your talents to make the world a better place.

I’ve welcomed you today in the context of history. But the most interesting history lies before us: the history you will make, the future you will invent.

I cannot tell you what that future will be. Besides, that would spoil the fun – mine as much as yours. The thrill of serving as MIT’s president is finding myself every day in a future I had not yet imagined. It’s a future of your making. If you want to see the history that has been, look up – at the names above Killian Court. If you want to see the history yet to come, look around – at the MIT class of 2011. Welcome to the epicenter of science and engineering – of economics and entrepreneurship and global studies and urban planning and more. MIT is where science and society converge.

We’re counting on you to make our world a better place. So: work hard – and you must. Reach broadly – and you can. Embrace our history and invent our future – and this, I know, you will. Welcome to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.