23 August 2008

Generations of Research ~ Alums & Vintage Innovators as Advisors

I was hanging this past Thursday night at the Muddy with MIT professors Drew Endy and Ed Boyden and the founding director of Fraunhofer-MIT energy center Nol Browne. Fantastic and wide-ranging conversation, of course, about new research themes, the challenges of running a research institution, the promise of both synthetic biology and neuroengineering, and much more. When Ed Boyden brought up his latest Tech Review blog post -- Research as a Community-Building Activity -- I mentioned the still-amazing talk by Edwin Land -- the founder of Polaroid -- who in 1957 (!) spoke about the Generation of Greatness in his Arthur D Little Lecture at MIT. Land intended Generation to be a double-entendre, meaning both a new generation of remarkable young innovators as well as the process of generating. What especially struck me during our Muddy chat is Ed Boyden's welcoming more vintage researchers into his lab and his description of the advisory role they play for the up-and-coming younger students and post-docs. Curiously, Edwin Land is most known in MIT circles for having inspired UROP -- the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program -- something Land called a "Personal Project" for each Freshman. But what's less well remembered, and what I emphasized with my Muddy mates, is that Land also advocated a radically improved form of advising, encouraging all Freshman to be linked with a more vintage researcher -- what Land unfortunately called an "Usher". This is what Ed Boyden is approaching in his own lab with the help of his retiree colleagues. And the powerful advisory role such folks play makes for yet another powerful variation on the "Generations" moniker -- how older generations can assist and advise ever-newer generations of scholars in generating the latest great discoveries!


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing the history of UROP and Edwin Land. I consider UROP one of the core cultural mechanisms of MIT, but I had not been aware of Land's contribution.

Joost Bonsen said...

Land is said to have been inspirational, but it's really important to acknowledge the role of Margaret MacVicar, the Physics Professor who really did the tactical & practical work of starting and running UROP. Check out this vid -- http://techtv.mit.edu/file/1000