Vanessa Wood, MIT PhD ‘11


Vanessa Wood, MIT PhD '11When I first visited EECS at MIT in March 2005 during the preview days for admitted students, I immediately knew where I’d be heading to graduate school in the fall.  The professors, students, and staff were all incredibly enthusiastic about MIT and their research, and I wanted to be part of this vibrant scientific community.  I hoped to work at the intersection of materials science and engineering so I was keen to interview with Prof. Vladimir Bulović to see if he had an opening in his group.  Unfortunately, his schedule during the visit days was entirely booked. However, he agreed to meet with me at 7:30 Saturday morning before his other appointments and gave me a fascinating tour of his lab. I remember thinking that I hoped I could one day be a professor and radiate such enthusiasm about my research.

As I look back on my years at MIT, I remember feeling part of a team, the thrill of discovery, and the enjoyment that comes from everyone around you finding science to be ‘fun’. From the outside, MIT has a reputation of competition; however, as a student in EECS, I found the opposite to be true. Whether it was studying for an exam with fellow students or replacing tubing for a water-cooling system in lab, there was always willingness to share knowledge and lend a hand.  A group of five of us, who met in classes during our first year, but worked in different research areas, continued to meet weekly throughout our PhDs. Before any of us gave a conference presentation, RQE, or thesis defense, our little group would meet, listen to the presenter, and give feedback on everything from allocution to power point color schemes to ways of explaining a measurement setup more clearly. The spirit of collaboration also ran strong in the lab.  In fact, one of my labmates and I organized ourselves into 12 hour shifts so that experiments could run 24 hours a day. We would monitor and tweak each other’s experiments if needed.  We never saw this as a question of hours or credit – the only bonus was helping each other and learning more in the process.   
The thrill of discovery around MIT was palpable and contagious – someone was always excited about his or her latest achievement and their enthusiasm made me want to head directly to lab. Whether it was my officemate using a Lego Technic kit from his time as an EECS undergrad in 6.270 to quickly build a precision rotational stage for an optical measurement, or another labmate using a creme brulee torch to prepare single crystal gold, the “let’s get it done” creativity of my colleagues was an inspiration. After hearing me present a part of my PhD research at a conference, inquiring where the idea had come from, and hearing my explanation that involved a tale of some ‘failed’ chemistry, an epic thirty hour lab session to fabricate the device, and scouring around the basement of Building 13 for some electronics from the 1960s that had been advertised on the Reuse listserve, a professor in my field told me “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!” I took this as a compliment. However it underscored for me how out-of the-box thinking—a part of daily life at MIT—was not necessarily the norm in the world outside. 
Around EECS, it was clear from the quality of the teaching and commitment to students in the program that professors were genuinely having ‘fun’ with science and wanted others to as well. In my first year, I was fortunate to take two classes from the late Prof. Jin Au Kong, who kept the attention of a packed Stata hall with histories of the greats in electricity and magnetism such as Maxwell, Green, Ampere interspersed in his lectures. And I still refer to my notes from quantum mechanics (Prof. Hagelstein) and solid state physics (Prof. Ram), when deciding how to present a topic. Many programs organized by the department were also a terrific benefit to my career. The TA requirement, which I fulfilled with 6.012 taught by Prof. Antoniadis, gave me my first taste for handling and planning a large lecture—invaluable insights as I faced my lecture hall full of students this past year.  The student organized MTL Annual Research Conference was a fantastic opportunity for many of us to become acquainted with professional obligations. When Prof. Palacios began organizing mock interviews (2008) to pair students and postdocs interested in a faculty career with a mentor, I was paired with Prof. Millie Dressellhaus. Not only did she provide a valuable critique of my research proposal talk, but a few months after I had started my faculty position, she also made a detour through Zurich on one of her trips to Europe to check how things were going for me on the tenure track.
Now that I’m a professor, I try to bring the same level of enthusiasm, creativity, and team spirit I experienced at MIT to my teaching and research group. I look to my mentors in EECS, in particular, Vladimir Bulović, Leslie Kolodziejski, and Terry Orlando, who could always be relied on for insights and advice – and hope I can contribute to the development of my students in similar ways.


Alumni in EECS Connector 2012
Ten EECS alumni were featured in the 2012 MIT EECS Connector. Read about: Pawan Deshpande, MIT ‘06, MEng ‘07; Ted Tewksbury, MIT ‘83, SM ‘87 and PhD; Todd Coleman, MIT SM ‘02, PhD ‘05; Wendi Heinzelman, MIT SM ‘97, PhD ‘00; Sachin Katti, MIT PhD ‘09; Yehia Massoud, MIT PhD '99; Sridevi Sarma MIT PhD '06; Mark Somerville, MIT PhD ‘98; David Wentzlaff, MIT PhD ‘11; and Vanessa Wood, MIT PhD ‘11.
Read the latest issue of the MIT EECS Connector — the annual publication of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.