Embracing the Unusual: MIT's Secret Sauce for Excellence

Over the years, 62 graduates of MIT have gone on to win the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

It should come as no surprise that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is known worldwide as an acclaimed scientific powerhouse.

The Cambridge-based private research university simply “vibrates science and technology,” according to Ian Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering. Of the entire undergraduate student population, more than 90 percent are studying engineering or science, he says, noting that the institution takes pride in celebrating those fields.

It’s perhaps that warm embrace for science and technology that has attracted some of the best and brightest students. Over the last several decades, 62 graduates of MIT – including Shirley Ann Jackson and Cato Laurencin – have gone on to win the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation – the second most of any university in the country. Of those medals, about one-third were awarded for work in engineering.

Dr. Jackson accepting her National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama

The school as a whole has an intense focus on and appreciation for science and technology, Waitz says, noting that the event that sells out the school’s largest venue the fastest each year is a senior year project presentation for mechanical engineering students.

“It’s not a sporting event, or a musical show, or something like that,” Waitz says. “There’s a strong flavor to a lot of the work that relates to science and technology. Part of it is the culture of MIT.”

But one thing that sets MIT’s engineering school apart, according to Waitz, is its spectrum of focuses, from applied science to research and inventions that have very practical implications. That value is reflected in MIT’s motto: “Mens et Manus,” which is Latin for “Mind in Hand.”

“There’s always been not just a willingness, but a strong desire to work on things that have a practical impact,” he says. “We combine scholarship with having a real, tangible impact in the world.”

Take the work of electrical engineer and mathematician Rudolf Kalman, for example. Kalman earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT, and went on to receive the National Medal of Science in 2008. Among his contributions was the invention of the “Kalman filter,” an algorithm that has been instrumental in directing moon landings and has been used in navigation systems for military submarines,  and was used in creating the Global Positioning System.

Dr. Kálmán receiving the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama

Robert Langer, who earned his doctoral degree from MIT, is one of just a handful of individuals who have won both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Langer received the National Medal of Science in 2006 for his work in developing a way to control the release of drugs to patients, and in tissue engineering.

“If people have something interesting and special and unique to offer, then they can thrive at MIT,” says Michael Sipser, dean of MIT’s School of Science. “I think we have kind of a reputation of that – of allowing people who are a little different to be different, and to have their differences in a way kind of recognized and celebrated. People who are very talented … do tend to be a little unusual.”

To Sipser, MIT is a place that “not only tolerates” people’s differences, but is “actively very accepting” of those from a variety of different backgrounds.

In part, it’s that kind of diversity and culture that attracts not only great students, but great faculty, he says.

“I think students see the amazing things that get accomplished at MIT, both in science – in trying to understand the world – and in technology – trying to build things that are going to help people,” Sipser says. “MIT is famous for that, and I think that does attract students to come here.”

Dr. Robert Langer receiving the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush

While MIT gives students opportunities to develop and explore new skills – such as through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program – there are a select few who are inherently exceptional, Waitz says.

“There is this question: Are people born that way, or how much do you really help them along with their experiences?” Waitz says. “I would hope those kinds of experiences [at MIT] would also instill in them the kinds of skills and attitudes that allow people to solve problems that no one has solved before.”