Invention and Reinvention: forward-looking MIT goes to the ends of universe for science and fun

October 7, 2005

The entrepreneurial scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have invented wonders from the alcove hologram to artificial skin, writes Jon Marcus in Boston. But MIT also continues to reinvent itself.

It has a new president, Susan Hockfield - the first woman ever to hold the post at the traditionally male-dominated scientific institution.

It is adding landmark buildings, including the Frank Gehry-designed Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences, on a campus that already boasts architecture by Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen and alumnus I. M. Pei.

Its executive vice-president has just left to head the higher education practice at one of the nation's fastest-growing consulting companies.

The connection between the university and the private sector has always been strong. MIT graduates have founded more than 4,000 companies that employ more than a million people and generate $250 billion (£142 billion) worldwide.

A study by a major bank calculated that if the companies founded by MIT graduates and faculty formed an independent country, it would have the 24th-largest economy in the world.

MIT leads all US universities in the number of patents granted, and in each of the past five years it has signed between 60 and 75 option and licence agreements for technology developed on the campus.

The university conducts some $530 million worth a year of research, involving 3,000 scientists and 2,500 graduate research assistants, along with faculty and students. Fifty-nine present and former members of the MIT community have won Nobel prizes, including eight current faculty members.

MIT research teams have located the gene defect responsible for the most common form of muscular dystrophy, built a single-electron transistor, invented a way to measure galactic distances accurately and developed a microchip that releases chemicals on demand from tiny reservoirs.

The university is also quick to involve itself in issues of global concern.

A leading partner with the Government during the space race, it established an interdisciplinary "energy research council" this summer to address the world's energy problems, just as the hurricanes in the US South made clear how delicate is the supply of fuel. Dr Hockfield has asked the council to come up with recommendations by February to ease looming shortages.

MIT is typically ranked first among US universities for its programmes in aeronautics and astronautics, chemical engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and mechanical engineering.

It is also a national leader in biomedical engineering, civil engineering, engineering science and environmental health.

But the school also has an outstanding reputation for fields outside engineering.

Its Sloan School of Business, for example, is often ranked second in the country to the Harvard Business School, which is less than a mile away up the Charles River.

Last year, MIT launched a graduate programme in computational and systems biology, the first of its kind in the US. This year, it became the nation's first university to combine molecular and cellular bioscience with engineering to create the discipline of biological engineering.

Despite increasing visa restrictions, MIT enrols undergraduates and graduates from 64 countries. There are 2,724 international students registered at MIT -348 undergraduates and 2,376 in graduate programmes.

For all its seriousness, MIT has a legacy of pranks - known on campus as "hacks" -some against its neighbour and rival, Harvard.

The "Great Dome" that sits atop Harvard's main administration building has been transformed into both a giant sound meter and the Star Wars character R2D2.

To aggravate the campus police, MIT student hackers one night transported a police car to the top of the 45m-high dome.

On another occasion, when Dr Hockfield's predecessor, Charles Vest, showed up for his first day of work, he could not find his office - the door had been plastered over.

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