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MIT Better World

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor

So said Fariborz Maseeh ScD ’90 in 2011, recounting how those dreams were postponed. At last, when he decided to pursue a doctorate in civil engineering, “MIT was the only school I wanted to apply to.”

Maseeh was sharing this story at an event celebrating the dedication of Fariborz Maseeh Hall, thus named to honor his pivotal gift toward renovating the new undergraduate residence. That project, which allowed the Institute to increase undergrad enrollment, was achieved through the gifts of numerous donors—several of whom were, like Maseeh, once MIT students themselves.

Through the years, in ways both monumental and cumulative, MIT’s alumni community has united in generosity to enhance the lives of current students outside the classroom. Often, alumni giving reveals a direct connection to the elements that improved their own campus experience—setting a place for others at the table where they themselves were made welcome. In recent years, for example, donor Nancy Lukitsh ’78, who made lifelong friendships in the welcoming, all-female living community of McCormick Hall, created a fund to support special dorm activities. Lou Odette SM ’78, EE ’78, PhD ’81, for whom hockey was a fortification against the demands of academics, is spearheading an effort to ensure the sport’s permanence on campus. And John Helferich ’79, SM ’11, who embraced the Institute’s hands-on culture, is helping to put the tools of MIT’s growing network of makerspaces into the hands of the current generation of students.

A supportive community

The first student Nancy Lukitsh met upon arriving at her new home in McCormick Hall in 1974 remains one of her closest friends today—and that’s just one of several dorm mates still in her life. She remembers McCormick as a place of support and mutual respect. “Whether it was conscious or unconscious, I really liked being in a women’s dorm at an institution that at the time had fewer than 20% female undergraduates,” Lukitsh says.

When Lukitsh, a regular annual donor, thought about increasing her MIT giving, she realized that she wanted to bolster something that had been so integral to her own life there. She went back to McCormick to meet then heads of house Charles Stewart III and Kathryn Hess, and found it “a bit like stepping back in time,” she marvels. Lukitsh is a member of the Council for the Arts at MIT, and serves on the Visiting Committee for the Division of Student Life (one of 30-plus committees that advise the MIT Corporation and administration on Institute departments and programs). Observing the landscape for today’s students, she sees a continued need for support networks like the one she found at McCormick: “The academic pressures were intense then, and they’re intense now. A lot of the things that we discuss on the Visiting Committee have to do with building community.”

By endowing a discretionary fund for McCormick’s heads of house, Lukitsh says, she aimed to enrich life there in ways that would match student need at any point in time. Stewart, who is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, used the fund to take the house government on retreats. It’s a tradition that McCormick’s current heads of house—Raul Radovitzky, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Flavia Cardarelli, a staff member at the MIT Portugal Program—have continued each semester.

When Lukitsh reflects on her time at MIT, she recalls the rigor of her coursework in meteorology, from which she pivoted to business school and an investment management career. But just as vivid are her memories of McCormick camaraderie, along with her involvement in the student TV station and a theater group. “The academic skillset with which I came away from MIT, the problem solving and the analysis, the discipline of the science and math, made me a stronger professional,” she says. “But what I did outside the classroom made me a more well-rounded person.”

Balance on the ice

Perhaps not surprisingly for a native Canadian, Lou Odette felt right at home on MIT’s outdoor ice hockey rink, joining the varsity team soon after he began his graduate degree. “All that time in the lab and the classroom could get to be too much after a while. I would skate for two hours a day, six days a week, except for the days we had a game. Then we’d get one day off, and keep going. It was always a shock when we got to the end of February and had to stop,” he recalls.

Despite the enormous investment of time the team required, Odette believes it was a critical ingredient in the academic success that started him on the path to founding seven companies during his four decades in the Boston area, followed by his “encore career” in Toronto at Deloitte Advanced Analytics. Embarking on a PhD in the electrical engineering department with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology, he found he had to pour extra effort into picking up the fundamentals underlying his coursework. “Hockey made it easier to balance everything. Sometimes when you’re stuck thinking something through, it helps to take a break and go do something completely different for a while and let the old subconscious work on the problem. That was one of the roles that hockey played for me when I was at MIT.”

Now, hockey is one of the things that keep Odette connected to MIT. He is a frequent player in annual East and West Coast alumni games. When the men’s ice hockey team switched from varsity to club level in 2009, Odette and fellow alums set up a group called The Friends of MIT Hockey, Inc., and he has led the way in endowing funding to ensure the team’s future. “I think we all want to see hockey available to as many people as want to play it at MIT,” Odette says, and to “support the students to go as far as they could possibly go, not just in the lab, but also on the playing fields.”

Before the construction in the 1980s of the indoor ice rink in the Johnson Athletic Center, MIT had an outdoor ice rink adjacent to Briggs Field, where Odette and his hockey teammates played. Photo: Courtesy of MIT DAPER
The renovation of the oldest building on campus, rededicated as undergraduate residence Maseeh Hall in 2011, allowed MIT to expand its undergrad enrollment. Photo: Bruce Myren

A yen for building

John Helferich has an unusual perspective on then-and-now MIT. In 1979, he earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Now he is an MIT student once again, close to wrapping up his PhD in systems engineering with a focus on food safety through the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. Then, he was a member of Theta Chi fraternity. Now, he is VP of its Alumni Corporation. “I’ve not only returned to my educational base but my living base,” he remarks, “which is interesting after 40 years.”

With a long career in R&D at the Mars candy company under his belt, Helferich will be looking for a way to apply his doctoral expertise to continued research in the food industry. But he is also about to open a brewery in Andover, Massachusetts. “So I’m splitting my days between research and teaching, and dumping malt in the tanks and brewing and cleaning equipment,” he explains. For someone steeped in MIT’s “mind and hand” philosophy, that feels about right. Helferich arrived on campus already well versed in carpentry and plumbing, thanks to his grandfather and father. Realizing he enjoyed tinkering with the equipment for high school biology experiments more than actually performing them was an “aha” moment in his decision to become an engineer, and MIT fulfilled that yen for building. “We didn’t really have a thing called maker culture” in the ’70s, he notes, “but a lot of what we did as researchers was actually maker culture. You made things, and ran them, and saw what happened.”

Today, Helferich worries that while the urge to design and create remains strong on campus, too much of the execution is migrating to keyboards and screens. He is encouraged by the Institute’s commitment—through Project Manus, led by “maker czar” Martin Culpepper SM ’97, PhD ’00—to expand MIT’s network of makerspaces and improve student access to them. A gift from Helferich and his wife, Lynn, helped to establish MIT’s new Maker Lodge, where incoming students are trained on the equipment they will find throughout campus, and to put “Maker Bucks” in students’ hands so they have the resources to put those skills to use. “You can model your ideas,” Helferich says, “but I think there’s still an innate need to use your hands and make physical prototypes.”

Because there was a spot

Every MIT journey is different. And Fariborz Maseeh’s journey, as he told his audience six years ago, almost ended before it began. Having deferred his start date, he arrived in Cambridge uncertain if he would still have a place on campus. Fortunately, his department agreed to readmit him, and the housing office found him a room in Ashdown House, the oldest building on campus—the same edifice later reborn as Maseeh Hall.

Maseeh went on to become a pioneer in the custom design, development, and manufacturing of microelectromechanical systems devices. Today, his philanthropic investments, through the Massiah Foundation, are driven by a vision for long-term social impact. In Maseeh’s view, supporting the MIT student body can have powerful returns: “This institution is one of the best economic drivers of our nation and the world. There is no better place to invest with such high economic multipliers.”

Maseeh closed his remarks at the 2011 dedication with a statement of gratitude that may well resonate with other alumni supporters of today’s students: “I am here tonight because there was a spot open for me,” he said. “I am here because others built the physical and intellectual infrastructure that gave me and others a chance to succeed.”