Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Kris Willcox

Their paths intersected in 1987 at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), where Caroline was a doctoral student in speech communication, and Mike was a researcher in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). In 2012, they created the Huang Phillips Fellowship for first-year graduate students in EECS to honor their MIT roots and, in Caroline’s words, “support a new generation of MIT scholars.”

In Caroline’s childhood home, MIT was considered “the best engineering and science university in the world.” Her father, Thomas Shi-Tao Huang SM ’60, ScD ’63, was born in Shanghai. While earning his BS in electronics at the National Taiwan University, he wrote to famed MIT electrical engineer Ernst Guillemin ’24 about a math problem he’d encountered in one of Guillemin’s books. Recognizing the young man’s talent, Guillemin encouraged him to apply to MIT. Thomas S. Huang went on to become one of the world’s leading scholars in computer vision, pattern recognition, and human computer interaction. Recently retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he remains active as a researcher and academic advisor. Three of his four children earned MIT degrees, including Caroline, who studied acoustic phonetics with the late Kenneth Stevens ScD ’52, Clarence J. LeBel Professor Emeritus in EECS.

“I remember that time in my life very fondly,” says Caroline. “Our research group, which included people from around the world, forged lifelong friendships and professional relationships.” She credits MIT with helping her acquire invaluable technical and analytical abilities, and essential non-technical skills, like teamwork and collegiality. She remembers Stevens, who died in 2013, as “brilliant, kind, and very generous.” After MIT, she worked on speech recognition in industry, and currently divides her time between consulting, volunteering, and engagement in the lives of her and Mike’s two sons, ages 17 and 21.

Mike came to MIT from Carnegie Mellon, where he completed his undergraduate degree. After seven years as a research scientist in the Spoken Language Systems Group led by Victor W. Zue ScD ’76, Mike founded several successful companies, including SpeechWorks, where he led the development of speech recognition technology for automated call centers (“We apologize for that,” he adds, tongue-in-cheek) and Vlingo, which developed a speech interface for cellular phones used by Samsung, Nokia, and Blackberry. His present company, Sense, applies machine learning techniques to the challenge of home energy efficiency. His experience illustrates MIT’s impact on entrepreneurship: “As a young researcher, I had no clue about starting a company. Then I reached out to one of MIT’s entrepreneurship programs, and began making great connections and learning about licensing MIT technology. That was an amazing experience. It was a natural decision to give back.”

Caroline and Mike hope to provide others with the lasting benefits they have enjoyed through MIT, and to help MIT remain a global beacon of learning and opportunity, as it was for Thomas S. Huang. As Caroline puts it, “This is a way I can honor people like my father, who are entering an exciting new program of study when they come to MIT, and perhaps also a new country and a new life.”