Prof. Sadoway Advises Frosh to Talk to Faculty

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Donald R. Sadoway, popular professor of Introduction to Solid State Chemistry (3.091), talked with The Tech about his background and how MIT has changed since he has arrived.
Eric D. Schmiedl—The Tech

This is the third interview in a seven-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews Donald R. Sadoway, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who discusses his first impressions of MIT and how the Institute has changed and gives advice to freshmen for their first year.

The Tech: What is your role at MIT?

Donald Sadoway: Educator. … There’s a class called Introduction to Solid State Chemistry (3.091), and I’ve been teaching it for about 12 years now.

TT: You’re a professor in the Department of Materials Science?

DS: Correct.

TT: How did you become involved with the department?

DS: I came here 30 years ago. I just finished my PhD at the University of Toronto, and I had a postdoctoral fellowship that allowed me to come to anywhere in the NATO alliance, and I chose to come to MIT. The plan was to come here for a year or two as a postdoc and go back to Canada. I guess I lost track of time.

TT: What were your first impressions of MIT? How has MIT changed?

DS: When I was a postdoc in 1977, it was a different world then. The makeup of the student body was quite different. … It’s still very much an engineering culture, and the thing that struck me most about MIT was the lack of pretense. I felt that it was a much more honest academic environment than the University [of Toronto]. Little things — people answered their own phones. You call other places, a secretary answers and puts you on hold. I answer my own phones, I always have. There were times when I was a young faculty member, if I phoned the Office of the Dean of Engineering, sometimes the dean would answer the phone. So that kind of shirtsleeves rolled up, can-do culture was very refreshing to me.

It’s changed a lot. I think we’ve lost some of that. I think MIT has become a little more institutionalized. But there are still many pockets of that kind. You walk into somebody’s office, and they get interested in the problem. The next thing you know they’ve got you by the hand and they’re taking you down the hall to a laboratory or an office where there’s a colleague saying, “Hey, what about this problem? If we could just do this and this and this.” People are very much intrigued by good problems, and they help each other. That’s my first impression of MIT. There’s still a lot of that, but I think we’ve lost some.

TT: How was it lost?

DS: It was lost because people are far busier today with other administrative chores. There was more time in those days. It was easier to get and hang on to research funds than it is now. The reporting requirements were much less demanding. You wrote a letter once a year to your contract monitor, you got multi-year grants.

Nowadays, with the Internet, people want quarterly reports, they want elaborate PowerPoint presentations done in certain formats, there are review meetings that require you to go to Washington or sometimes halfway across the country to make a 30 minute presentation and you have to sit and spend two days of your life listening to everybody else’s talks and program. … I just find that people spend much more time on securing the resources to keep their research going. That means that they tend to work with their doors closed, and the only way you can see people more and more so is by appointment.

You know, 25 years ago, I had an office on the Infinite Corridor where the undergraduate laboratory is now for Materials Science. Imagine, I was on the Infinite Corridor, I would sit it my office and the door was open. From time to time, somebody would just pop in and sit down and chat for 15 minutes and sometimes an idea emerged. … The Materials Science Department is in [Building] 8 and in 4, which are contiguous, but then there’s a bunch of us in 13, there’s some over in 56. The chances of running into somebody are greatly reduced, so I lament that. If I could change one thing to turn this into the dream place to work, it would be to use a magic wand to eliminate the need to chase after money, and that would mean that people would spend almost zero time writing proposals and zero time writing reports. Then, they can focus with their students on ideas — developing the ideas, testing them in the laboratory, or however — and focusing on writing the papers. We don’t do that. We spend far too much time chasing after money.

TT: What advice do you have for incoming freshmen based on your experience here?

DS: I would advise freshmen to explore, try things that they haven’t tried before, try to learn as much as they can about themselves in terms of latent interests that may have not expressed themselves through high school. I think we all come to college with certain expectations in what we might like to major in, and after we spend some time on campus, there can be major changes in plans … MIT has a rich variety of options. … There’s enough flexibility in the schedule to allow people to sample different classes, and they should avail themselves of everything else on campus. Go to seminars and just keep their eyes and ears open and ultimately discover what their passion is and pursue it.

TT: What do you think will be major challenges that freshmen will face?

DS: Above all, it’s going to be time management. The metaphor is getting at education at MIT is like drinking from the fire hose, and the students who come here are high achievers, used to being top of their class in high school and now they’re no longer the big fish in the small pond. …

The thing about MIT is that in the freshman year, if I take a look at 3.091 for example, any individual topic is perfectly accessible to the incoming freshman. The difference is that the rate at which we deliver material is much, much faster than people are used to getting in high school. So they sit and they nod their heads approvingly, but when it comes around for tests, the large amount of material covered is quite different from what people have experienced up until now. I think that people need to devote some time to their studies and also leave time for recreation, for social interactions.

It’s like the proverbial kid in the candy store, you’ve got to make choices. From my experience, it’s very, very rare that a student in 3.091 is having difficulty because he or she cannot master the material. It’s because they haven’t been able to manage their time, and they’re falling behind in their studies because they’re using their time doing other things.

TT: What should every freshmen try to do in their first semester?

DS: I would say avail themselves of the rich cultural heritage that Boston offers. Go to the symphony, go to the Museum of Fine Art, go to the Kennedy Presidential Library and take a look at what we’ve got here. …

They should try to have a one-on-one conversation with a faculty member. I think that students are sometimes made to feel — and I don’t know whether it’s self-imposed or somehow the faculty inadvertently through their body language conveys this impression — but the students somehow feel as though the faculty are way up there and you can ask them a quick question or something but really don’t bother them because they’re very busy.

It’s true, we’re very busy, but those of us who choose to teach freshman classes care very much about the mentoring role we have to play, and I can tell you I consider nothing more important than mentoring the students I teach. That goes for the 500 people in 3.091 just as it goes for the dozen people in my research group. …

TT: A little bit about yourself — how do you enjoy spending your spare time?

DS: I enjoy music. I have season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so I go down to New York to enjoy opera from time to time. I enjoy cooking and cinema. I’ve got a constant stream of Netflix coming in and out of the house. And I also enjoy traveling, so when I can, for vacation, I prefer to go some place and really get a sense of the culture there.