Star Simpson: Part of the MIT Family

If we were President Susan Hockfield, here’s the letter that we would write concerning Star A. Simpson ’10:

On September 21, 2007, Star A. Simpson ’10, one of our students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a student researcher in the Media Lab, went to Logan Airport to meet an arriving passenger. She was wearing a sweatshirt with a device made of plastic circuit board with green blinking light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in the shape of a star — the same sweatshirt that she had worn the day before at the MIT Career Fair. She was carrying clay shaped into a rose. The circuit board on her sweatshirt was similar to those created in a popular class: “6.002 Circuits & Electronics.”

At the airport, Ms. Simpson’s MIT Career Fair apparel was mistaken for a bomb; she was arrested by state troopers with MP5 submachine guns and charged with possessing a “hoax device.” After three court appearances, she still faces a court trial on May 23.

I remind the community and the greater public that our legal system assumes, as a bedrock principle, that anyone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. I apologize for any statement by my administration that may have caused damage or distress to Ms. Simpson, her family and friends, or anyone else in the extended MIT community.

The Institute should have acted faster to provide the media with a reasonable understanding of the kind of engineering and electronic art that are part of our research and teaching, some of which interfaces with the world of design and fashion. In that regard, we thank Professor Rosalind W. Picard ScD ’91 of the Media Lab for her efforts with the press and in court. As Professor Picard pointed out in an affidavit, Ms. Simpson’s sweatshirt falls in the category of “wearable electronics” that are “harmless, safe and commonplace in society.” I myself would add that similar clothing is available in many retail outlets, including some airport terminal shops. According to an interview in the Boston Globe, Professor Picard’s own wardrobe includes wearable electronics such as blouses with LEDs, circuit boards, wires and batteries, and she expects colleagues in her field to wear their electronic designs. In court, Professor Picard has further stated that Ms. Simpson’s sweatshirt can be reasonably considered “a method of self expression, fusing art and engineering” and that such artifacts constitute one mode of “encourag[ing] young women to create clothing-worn electronic technologies,” thus inspiring them to “develop creative electronic skills.”

MIT highly values the creative endeavors of its students and faculty. The Institute is committed to supporting such creative work in its classrooms and laboratories, and to its appropriate dissemination beyond MIT. We expect it to provide nothing less for Star Simpson, a valued member of our community.

Two years ago, in April 2006 after Campus Preview Weekend, Mr. Bryan G. Nance, Director of Minority Recruitment in the Admissions Office, described Star Simpson as “a perfect fit for MIT,” and he wrote: “Star, Welcome to the MIT family!”

Star Simpson is still part of the “MIT Family.” As such, we stand by her.


Michel DeGraff

Associate Professor, Linguistics and Philosophy

Dorothy Hosler

Professor, Materials Science and Engineering

Heather Lechtman

Professor, Materials Science and Engineering

Seth Teller

Professor, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

Alex Paul Pentland

Professor, Media Arts & Science

For more information on Star A. Simpson ’10 in her own words: please see http://stars.mit.edu. Also see http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/203/manning.html and http://people.csail.mit.edu/phw/star.html for related commentary by other MIT faculty. Professor Picard’s affidavit is downloadable at http://www-tech.mit.edu/V128/N1/simpson/