By Leslie Kolodziejski, Graduate Office – Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
On December 8th, 2022, EECS welcomed Robert and Tracy Aylward, father and mother of Erin M. Aylward, along with Erin’s friend Dr. Melanie Rudoy ’09, to the 9th Annual Erin M. Aylward Graduate Women’s Community Dinner. With the dining room filled to capacity, EECS graduate women, along with faculty, staff and donors of the Erin M. Aylward Memorial Fund, were very happy to be together once again in fellowship and to honor Erin’s memory. The attendees enjoyed a beautiful view of the Boston skyline along with a delicious dinner at the MIT Samberg Center. Department head Professor Asu Ozdaglar marveled at the palpable excitement in the room: evidence of the supportive and friendly community in EECS that has been established and nurtured by the nine annual Erin M. Aylward community dinners. Ozdaglar remarked, “It is heartwarming to see so many beautiful, happy EECS graduate women coming together, enjoying each other’s friendship and camaraderie.”
EECS alumna Erin M. Aylward, SM ’06, was a co-president in the third year of the Graduate Women of Course VI (GW6) graduate student organization. GW6 was originally conceived as a way to bring women graduate students in EECS together for academic, professional and personal support during the PhD journey. In honor of Erin’s memory, EECS alumna Dr. Melanie Rudoy (PhD ’09), along with a number of Erin’s family and friends, established the memorial fund with the mission of supporting graduate women in EECS.
In 2014, the first Erin M. Aylward Graduate Women’s Community Dinner took place at Amelia’s Trattoria, with 43 attendees taking over the entire restaurant. Other venues have included: Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, the Mad Monkfish, Vincent’s, Sulmona and others Cambridge locales. The annual dinners are offered at the start of December prior to finals week, and have adopted a number of traditions, including the passing of the baton from the outgoing to incoming GW6 co-presidents, the opportunity to reflect on the year’s events in GW6, and the awarding of the prized ‘Gurgle Pot’ thank-you gift.
At every community dinner, the attendees enjoy friends of Erin sharing their memories of her time while a student at MIT. For the 9th dinner, attendees were inspired by remarks from Dr. Rudoy and from Erin’s father Robert Aylward.
Dr. Rudoy shared her recollection of Erin’s immense love of learning, running, biking and cooking, and memorialized her friend’s enthusiastic and competitively driven spirit, speaking about the many late nights shared at the library working on a ‘pset’ with Erin desperately trying to get the math correct. A lover of math, Erin thoroughly enjoyed Professor Al Oppenheim’s digital signal processing class (6.341); she was an eager visitor to every office hour and never missed a lecture. A passionate learner, Erin could not get enough of the material being offered in her EECS graduate subjects and truly relished her graduate student experience. Dr. Rudoy shared that although Erin was extremely competitive, she was not competitive with other students—rather, Erin was eager to help her class mates and LIDS lab mates, and worked hard to advance her individual knowledge while supporting all of the others around her. In 2005, Rudoy and Aylward, along with Joyce Kwong ‘10, took the helm of GW6, serving as co-presidents, carrying the organization’s torch, and working to establish legitimacy as a fledgling student organization.
Dr. Rudoy shared, “For us, GW6 was a safe haven where we could gather and be vulnerable, where we could discuss our insecurities and frustrations, confront our imposter syndrome, and dream about life after MIT. For me, GW6 gatherings were an opportunity to channel the strength of my peers and friends, and to find the courage to go back out into the lab and MIT halls and kick butt ‘Erin-style’.” In her final thoughts, Dr. Rudoy offered advice to the attendees- “Being a grad student at MIT is not easy, but like Erin you can find your inner strength to push yourself one step further than you thought you were capable of, and to never stop learning, loving, and living each and every day to its fullest potential. That is Erin Aylward’s legacy.”
Following Dr. Rudoy’s reflection, Erin’s father Robert Aylward offered some comments to the attendees. Mr. Aylward started by expressing his gratitude to Dr. Rudoy for reminding her parents of Erin’s drive, passion, and true love of learning. Mr. Aylward recalled how much Erin loved her graduate student experience at MIT, and shared how happy they (Tracy and Robert) were to be back in Cambridge traveling from Wyoming to attend the community dinner. Mr. Aylward shared his astonishment and joy to learn that the Aylward community dinners attract more and more graduate women attendees each year of its offering. With a full heart, Mr. Aylward shared “we can’t express how much the evening means to us. It is so wonderful to see all the bright young women in the program.” Mr. Aylward shared that Erin would be so very pleased to see how the GW6 has grown and continues to provide community, support and encouragement to the women in the EECS graduate program. As the evening drew to a close, grad student attendees knew how much Erin was loved and missed, and were inspired to channel her spirit to tackle the challenging finals week.
Outgoing GW6 co-president Hyewon Jeong (PhD year 2) shared her thoughts: “We graduate women all celebrated the end of the year in memory of Erin, who has left us with a great legacy—the graduate women’s community. This year we sent out our special invitation to Erin’s parents and friends, and we felt the love of family and friends from their memorial reflections. We will continue building the warm and strong GW6 community that Erin and the founders have established.”
Thriving Stars, in partnership with the co-presidents of GW6, will celebrate the 10th Annual Erin M. Aylward Graduate Women’s Community Dinner on December 7, 2023 (to be held at a large yet delicious establishment) to celebrate graduate women in EECS on their PhD journey. In 2006, the year of Erin’s graduation, the EECS at MIT PhD program had 129 women. Today, January 1, 2023, there are 331 women (103 MEng graduate women and 228 SM/PhD graduate women). EECS Thriving Stars has the goal to achieve greater representation of women and underrepresented genders in the PhD program.
(Photos courtesy of Amanda Beyer-Purvis, Hyewon Jeong, and Asu Ozdaglar.)