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President Vest Welcomes Freshmen

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Executive Editor

President Charles M. Vest, incoming Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Rosalind H. Williams, and Undergraduate Association President Carrie R. Muh '96 were on hand to welcome the freshmen to MITat the annual freshman convocation yesterday.

The speakers - including Professor of Biology Eric Lander as keynote - had motivational words of introduction and advice for the Class of 1999. Above all they urged that students learn actively, both from faculty and from each other, appreciate their cultural diversity, and enjoy the intellectual adventure they take part in here.

Vest began by impressing on the freshmen that their real lives have definitely begun. "[You may think] the next four years will prepare you for the real world," he said. "It's time to get yourself out of this preparation mindset. Real life begins today, right here at the Institute."

Success in that life - and in the world beyond - will take teamwork, Vest told the audience of more than 1,100. "Leadership and teamwork are very closely interdependent - they feed on each other," he said. Moreover, despite the "perceived tension between individual achievement and group accomplishment" and the natural sense of competition in academia, modern organizations deal with problems so complex that teamwork is essential, he said.

Vest and the others urged the freshmen to take advantage of the faculty, not only as teachers, but as friends. "Make contact with them and keep up those contacts over the coming years," he said. "Don't assume they're all too preoccupied with their loftier godlike enterprises to be bothered by the likes of you. You're a central part of their mission here." In fact, nine times out of ten, professors cite the student as their reason for coming to MIT, he said.

To this end, Vest encouraged students to involve themselves in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, although he noted that most students do not hold UROPprojects during their first term here.

Williams echoed Vest's greeting, welcoming students "not only to MIT, but to adulthood," and also also put her new office at their service. "I'm welcoming you not only as a faculty member, but also as a dean - your dean," said Williams, who officially takes office next Friday.

"And Istress the your,' because while there are many administrative people who share responsibility for undergraduate education, the office of the dean for undergraduate education and student affairs is the one administrative entity where your welfare is the sole concern."

"You are here first and foremost to develop your intellect to its highest potential. But doing this also involves developing your character.... and your cultural awareness. Doing so is just as intellectually demanding as anything else in the curriculum," Williams said.

Lander stresses revolution

In an entertaining address, Lander used the example of the rapid recent progress in genetics to underscore the "breathtakingly" fast pace of scientific discovery - and to impress on the new class how much that discovery is a part of MIT.

Lander likened the approaching completion of the human genome project - all one billion or so letters of DNA that make up the the human genetic code should be sequenced within the next decade - to Mendeleev's 1897 discovery of the chemical periodic table, saying that students today are living through a similar period of scientific revolution.

And that revolution has come unbelievably fast, Lander said, considering that now Nobel laureates James Watson andFrancis Crick discovered what DNA was only fifty years ago - and are still alive to enjoy today's progress.

"A scientific life spans the [period] from figuring out what DNAis to working out the complete set of instructions for the human being," Lander said. "In your scientific lives whatever we teach you today will get outmoded fast. I invite you while you're here to measure that rate - see that pace," he said. "That's why we're all here. That's what intellectual life is about."

"This is an extraordinary community, it's one of the most extraordinary communities of people on the planet," Lander said. "People are devoted to trying to understand everything, to question everything, to push the frontier, to build the future, to think the unthinkable, to design the impossible. They're extraordinary people and you should get to know them."