Research shows the success of a bacterial community depends on its shape.
Over the course of the spring semester, Tech Talk will be bringing you a series of interviews with each of MIT's five school deans--four of whom have been in their positions for less than 18 months. The first in the series features Dean Marc Kastner, a physicist who took charge of the School of Science last summer. In the following interview with Greg Frost and Anne Trafton of the MIT News Office, Kastner discusses the goals he has set, the challenges he faces and the surprises he has witnessed in his new position.
Q. Coming in as dean, what are some of your long- and short-term goals for the School of Science?
A. Let me take the long term first. I think that the School is spectacular in its depth and breadth, and both the faculty and the students are wonderful.
But we could do better at providing the resources that they need to do their jobs. My long-term goal is to focus more on providing resources for our current faculty. We do quite well in providing resources when we bring new faculty members into MIT, but I think we need to do better for the people who are here. And that means better space, better infrastructure and making it easier for them to do their research. This will make MIT a more attractive place to be, which will help to attract the best faculty, including more women and minorities.
That's very broad and very long term. On the shorter term I think that President Hockfield's initiatives are really the right ones for the Institute as a whole, and for the School of Science, in particular.
The new Koch Cancer Institute, which joins superstars from the School of Science and the School of Engineering to work on cancer, is a great model for bridging biology and engineering. I think we have lots of opportunities to connect biology with other departments in science, as well as with engineering.
For example, faculty in math, physics, chemistry and EAPS [Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences] bring new points of view to biology.
More broadly, President Hockfield has urged all the deans to foster interschool collaborations, and there are particularly exciting opportunities for me to work with the new dean of engineering [Subra Suresh]. There are many universities with great schools of science, but we're almost unique in being a great science school in a great engineering institute. We should be able to take more advantage of that.
Everything I've done in my own research was made possible by capabilities that were here because we're an engineering institute. I'd like to see more of that happen in other areas. Certainly energy and the environment are examples of fields where there are really exciting things happening at the interface of engineering and science, and we should be getting more out of the collaboration between them.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on how to get people in different departments to work together?
A. You know, it's not very hard at MIT. I think that we have very few obstacles to collaboration across departmental or school boundaries. People do it quite naturally. I think there are some examples where faculty need just a little help and a little encouragement. And there are long lists of possible projects that Dean Suresh and I have been discussing. We want to work together to encourage people and help them do things they already want to do. I think that's really the way to do it.
Q. What's the most surprising thing you've run into thus far in your new role?
A. Well, you know, it shouldn't be surprising, but I am still often startled when I meet a new faculty member that I haven't talked to before, and learn about the research he or she is doing. One of the biggest surprises I had was talking to Kerry Emanuel and finding out that he actually climbs into airplanes and flies into hurricanes at the interface between the ocean and the air to measure the energy in the hurricanes. That is amazing!
Another example is Rebecca Saxe telling me how she's discovered a part of the brain that becomes active when you're thinking about what somebody else is thinking; it's absolutely spooky. So every time I talk to one of the science faculty members I get a surprise.
Q. You mentioned before that you're hoping to provide all the resources that people here need. Is it hard to deal with the loss of federal research funding?
A. Yes, it's very difficult. In the physical sciences there's been great difficulty in getting enough resources since the mid-1980s, which reflected the end of the Cold War. In the life sciences during the 1990s there was a doubling in the NIH budgets, and things were pretty good.
But in the last couple of years the NIH budgets have been flat and people are having a very hard time. This is a common challenge for all the universities in the country, but I think it's tougher at MIT because such a large fraction of our faculty members do research that is very expensive. As a result, we are much more sensitive to these variations in government funding.
I think we have to find other sources of support to augment the government funding, and that's why the support of our donors has become more important than ever before.
Q. Are you hoping to focus on fundraising for the School of Science as a whole, and get resources directly into the departments?
A. I think that the way fundraising works best is to connect the donors with faculty and students who are doing things they're interested in. This does not mean that we compete with the other MIT schools. It means that we go out and meet donors and show them what we're doing, and try to get them interested in what we're doing. If they're more interested in engineering than science, for example, that's fine, and we'll let the engineering school know about them.
Resource development works best when everybody is on the same team, because the most important thing is to have the donors feel that they're supporting something that is really satisfying to them. Donors differ in the kind of research and education they are interested in, and they also differ in how they want to support it.
Some like named professorships, others graduate fellowships, or naming buildings or parts of buildings. If you go to the physics department's Green Center you'll see lots of names of people who supported the physics department.
One of the things that's most rewarding to donors is supporting fellowships for graduate students, because then they get to know the students that they're supporting. Supporting undergraduate financial aid is also rewarding to donors. My experience with our donors is that each person is interested in something different. You have to show them what's going on at MIT and let them choose what they're excited about.
Q. You mentioned the Green Center. Are there any plans in the works to renovate other buildings in the School of Science or are you going to take a rest?
A. No, we can't rest. There are several groups of faculty that desperately need better space. One example is the Green Building, which houses the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Their space no longer meets their needs, and the EAPS faculty collaborates with civil and environmental engineering faculty, so it would be great if they could be in one building.
Another example is the chemistry and math space in Building 2; in reality the entire main group needs renovation. I think that the new PDSI project is a great model of how to renovate the whole main group. I would hope that we could move forward on that. The [Bosworth] buildings are going to be 100 years old in 2016, and they should be renovated by then.
Q. What do you think your biggest challenges will be as dean?
A. One of the most important and difficult is to continue to increase the diversity of the faculty in the school. Our associate dean, Hazel Sive, and I have been discussing this issue with the new associate provosts for faculty equity, Barbara Liskov and Wes Harris, as well as with the department heads and faculty.
For both women and minorities, the great challenge is to increase the pool of qualified applicants and then attract them to MIT. For women, the fraction in the applicant pool for postdoctoral and faculty positions is smaller than the fraction of our graduate students, and for minorities the fraction of our graduate students is painfully low. Our focus for both groups will be to make MIT more attractive so that qualified graduate students and postdocs will want to have academic careers at MIT.
We, as a community, have to continue to work hard to increase our diversity and to value the unique contributions that we each make. This is a long-term challenge, but we can only have the best faculty if it is a diverse one.
Another challenge, which I discussed earlier, is finding a way to adequately support the faculty and the students. I don't think it's healthy to have a community that is stretched beyond its means. Some stretch is OK, but too much is not good. And I don't like the fact that faculty are spending so much of their time writing proposals instead of doing research and teaching, which is really what they're good at.
Q. Can MIT apply its scientific know-how and innovation experience to making that easier for faculty across the Institute?
A. So far what has happened is the opposite: The government seems to use technology to make it harder. The growing scarcity of available research funds requires that faculty members submit more proposals to maintain their research programs. At the same time, the reporting and monitoring of grants is becoming more complicated. The agencies require that all proposals have to be submitted electronically, and the programs used by some agencies are not very good, so it is very painful. I doubt that technology is the answer. I think that we need to provide better staff support for faculty and provide management training for faculty so they can use their time more effectively.
Q. What do you do in your spare time, assuming you have any?
A. I play tennis. I started when I was about 50 years old. I had played about once a year when I was younger, and I used to jog, but when I took my first administrative job at MIT I found that, whereas as a professor jogging was relaxing, and I would think about physics, once I took on administrative responsibilities, I would go out jogging, and all I would think about was the problems I couldn't solve. I would come back stressed.
So I decided I needed a sport that was sufficiently life threatening that I couldn't think.