Mark Somerville is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics at Olin College, where he also serves as Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Research. He has been a member of the faculty at Olin since 2001 (before the College had any students!), and has played a significant role in the creation of the curriculum and the development of Olin’s strategy. He completed his PhD at MIT in EECS under the supervision of Prof. Jesús del Alamo in 1998.
My decision to come to MIT, and to work with Jesús, were very much about the people: I remember visiting as a prospective graduate student, and being blown away by the energy and inventiveness of the individuals that I met. I had certainly interacted with plenty of smart people before visiting MIT; I don’t think I had seen quite so much initiative and passion as I found during that weekend. This impression was very much borne out by my experience at MIT – the people I worked with (and particularly Jesús) were both intense and intensely committed to their work and their colleagues. I will never forget the way Jesús would rub his hands together in excitement over new experimental results – and I must admit, I find myself doing the same thing with my own students almost twenty years later.
As a graduate student, I had the chance to work with some brilliant undergrads – both UROPs in our lab, and through my role as a Graduate Resident Tutor at East Campus. I particularly remember one undergrad who taught himself a number of advanced statistical techniques, and then (largely on his own) applied them in very powerful ways to our experimental results. Seeing undergraduates learning on their own, and contributing in substantive ways to our research group, changed my perspectives about what college students are capable of given appropriate opportunities, support, and trust. This perspective has strongly influenced my own educational philosophy – and I (as well as a number of other ex-MIT folks at Olin) have worked to make this an integral part of what Olin is about.
My experiences as a mentor to undergraduates were supplemented by equally important classroom experiences. I was very fortunate to work closely with Terry Orlando to do a major revision and development project for 6.730 (Physics for Solid State Applications). Just as the UROP program provides undergraduates with real opportunities to stretch themselves, Terry gave me the space to explore teaching in a substantive way: I got to design some of the core materials for the course and to put together and deliver some of the lectures. I loved the challenge of scaffolding an educational experience for students, and the reward of seeing them master challenging concepts. This opportunity to explore teaching led to my decision to pursue a career in education, and also, I think, played a pretty critical role in helping me get my first academic job.
For me, these themes – intensity and commitment, the virtue of trusting students to go further than the ‘ought to’ be able to, and the rewards of working with students and seeing them develop as thinkers, as doers, and most of all as people – have formed the foundation for my work in helping to build Olin College from a hubristic idea to a place that is influencing the conversation about how engineering education should change, and that is sending graduates to top companies and schools (including, of course, MIT). And while Olin is not, and does not aspire to be, MIT, Olin’s DNA carries more than a few markers from the Institute.