Alumni & Friends Profile

HOWARD (’73) and Colleen Messing,
Patrons of Physics Fellows

Howard and Colleen Messing at the Patrons of Physics Fellows reception.Howard (’73) and Colleen Messing at the Patrons of Physics Fellows reception.

Fascinated by astronomy throughout his childhood, Howard spent weekends as a teenager at the American Museum of Natural History Planetarium, where he became President of their Junior Astronomy Club. He had his own 3” refractor and free access to the Rutherford Observatory at Columbia University when he heard that the downtown NYU campus had an underutilized IBM computer and a Director who liked working with high school kids. Howard remembers, “I thought it would be great to use the computer on astronomy projects. Before I knew it, the second great intellectual passion of my life, computer science, was born.”

Howard Messing entered MIT in 1969 at age 16. He wanted to concentrate in both physics and computer science and although he did take the full physics sequence, computer science narrowly edged out physics and he graduated with a degree in Course 6. He then began a Ph.D. program in computer science but ended up back in Boston to get a job and save money before returning to graduate school. Howard went for an interview at a hospital software company called MEDITECH. “Neil Pappalardo, then president, conducted a Socraticstyle interview with me, leading me through some basics of programming language theory. I was fascinated, for now I could do what I loved and get paid for it!” Thirty-three years later, Howard is President and Chief Operating Officer of MEDITECH, and while much of his responsibility revolves around the non-technical side of the business, he keeps his hand in programming and still loves it.

"Unlike departments in Engineering, the Physics Department has far less ability to secure funds from outside sources and industry. We saw that if we contributed, our gift really could make a difference, especially in the lives of these young and energetic graduate students."

Howard recognized what a central role MIT had played not only in his own life but in the science and technology life of the world, so he and his wife Colleen had always made modest contributions to MIT. They were, however, somewhat put-off by the large size of MIT’s endowment and the amount of money it collects annually. “We weren’t sure,” commented the Messings, “how our contribution could make a real difference.”

Then about six years ago, the Messings attended a Physics Department event held in honor of Neil Pappalardo. “We became hooked! There was, and is, so much passion and enthusiasm. It’s inspiring to see people being able to accomplish their dreams.” Colleen continues, “With so much negativity in the world, the pursuit of this kind of knowledge for its own sake strikes me as grounding for all, connecting us to the world we live in.”

When the Department asked Howard and Colleen to join the newly-formed Patrons of Physics Fellows, their answer was an immediate and enthusiastic “Yes!” They point out that, “Unlike departments in Engineering, the Physics Department has far less ability to secure funds from outside sources and industry. We saw that if we contributed, our gift really could make a difference, especially in the lives of these young and energetic graduate students.”

Howard and Colleen look forward to attending department-sponsored talks and chatting with faculty, postdocs, and students. “Even if we can only understand part of what is being said, it still gives us some insight and makes us feel in some small way a part of the ‘voyage of discovery.’ ”