Professor Dava Newman named new director of MIT Media Lab

Newman is the first female director of the lab and succeeds Ito, who resigned over Epstein connections

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Astronautics professor Dava Newman was named the first woman director of the Media Lab December 2020.
Joanna Lin — The Tech

Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics Dava Newman SM ‘89, SM ‘89, PhD ‘92 was named director of the MIT Media Lab Dec. 22. The selection was made by the MIT Media Lab Director Search Committee following the resignation of former director Joi Ito 15 months ago, with the appointment effective July 1, 2021. 

Newman is a faculty member in the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. Her research focuses on the intersection of biomedical and aerospace engineering, specifically human performance across the spectrum of gravity. Previously, she served as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Deputy Administrator from 2015 to 2017 and has directed various programs at MIT, including the Technology and Policy Program.

The Tech spoke with Newman over a Zoom call to discuss her new role, as well as her past contributions to the MIT community. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The Tech: What most excites you about leading the Media Lab? Did you have any reservations about taking on the role during the selection process?

Dava Newman: Leading the legendary Media Lab — that's a dream job, I think, for anyone. So I actually just consider myself very, very fortunate. I think it's the most creative place: to have the melting pot at MIT, to bring together work from science and engineering, arts and design. That’s always been my passion. 

All the interactions I've had with the students, staff, and the faculty at the Media Lab create an environment that helps me be better: what are those big, crazy ideas? Just about every conversation you have is also very optimistic: what can we invent; what technologies, what experiences can we give people? It’s really embedded in them to have an impact on society. There was a great news article from MIT News on the Media Lab’s new Center for Constructive Communication. It couldn't be better timing. 

So no, no reservations, no misgivings. A lot of work to do? Absolutely. But I just can't think of a better community to be able to join and help lead.

TT: Most of your educational background is related to aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering, and technology policy. Did your interest in art and design originate elsewhere, or was it a natural consequence of your research interests?

Newman: It was kind of serendipitous in terms of the fact that I have always been an admirer of the arts and of all kinds, from music to painting. Of course, it hasn't been my career. But being a teacher, I was thinking, how can I teach? How can I communicate the best to my students? 

When you teach, you want to capture students' imaginations, right? You need to be completely active. You need to have great storytelling. You need to have demonstrations and teach engineering, life support, and leadership. I like to teach seminars where I'm facilitating more than lectures where I’m up in front filling boards and boards with chalk. I give a lot of responsibility to students to do the reading ahead and to do the material. It’s more a kind of coaching studio, where we design and build things, from my freshman classes all the way up to graduate work. 

It's fun for me to have more of that studio project-based design courses — that part was very natural. I was really trying to think about how to become the best educator that I could, and I think you have to do it across the disciplines. The arts and design are so important to my technical engineering work. That's the only way I could really, I think, convey that message to my students.

TT: Your motto — “Love, Act, Discover, Innovate” —how do you interpret and implement this as an educator and mentor, in the classroom and out?

Newman: I formulated that motto when I became a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, which was a while ago, but it was one of my proudest achievements at MIT because it’s all about impacting undergraduate education. 

First, love. I think we don't talk about love enough: love of people and of each other; having that human element in my teaching, research, leadership — anything I'm involved in now. Let's just meet and have some compassion and some love. I think that's the basic starting point.

Action. I’m a very action-oriented person. This definitely relates to the Media Lab too: we want to act, we want to be those visionaries of the future.

D can be for discovery or design. It’s the hands-on making element. 

Then, innovation. Let's not do the same thing we've always done. No incremental design, if you will. What haven't we thought of? I think a lot of innovation comes from asking, “How else could we attack this problem?” How can we innovate everyday and come to work or school with our A-game, asking “What’s really important? What could we be working on together?” 

To me it goes full circle, because it's always going to go back to the people. As a technologist and designer myself, what am I doing to impact society? Sure, the philosophy of engineering is to create technologies and experiences, but we have to be very grounded in doing that for societal benefit.

TT: It is July 1, 2021. What's on your immediate ‘Media Lab Director To-do List’? How about for the next sixth months? Next two years?

Newman: That's a great question. Right now, I'm listening. I call it sense-making: getting a lot of briefings and updates, and of course, meeting people as personally and safely as we can.

July 1 is a kind of official launch. Hopefully, I'll really be up to speed and won't be the one asking all the questions. Then it's just hitting the ground running. There are wonderful things in July. There’ll be focus and thinking, working with the members of the consortium, celebrating the research that everyone's doing — it’s going to be incredible. I'll be there as the cheerleader and then learning as well.

There will be a new graduate student cohort that will be coming in September. We’ll be welcoming a whole bunch of undergraduates too, because the Media Lab has so many UROPs. It’s going to be awesome welcoming everyone, celebrating what we're doing, and then planning for the future the next few years. 

The mission and vision of the Media Lab is grounded in these breakthrough technologies and experiences, and we want to make sure it is for the people. As I mentioned, the new Center for Constructive Communication is coming out today. There’s also the Schwarzmann College of Computing and MIT’s Climate Initiative. We're working in those spaces and are really excited about these future opportunities.

TT: I snooped around the Media Lab website and found an incredible number of groups working on space research, from the Space Enabled Research Group to the Space Exploration Initiative. Could you expand on these initiatives, as well as any future opportunities for collaboration between the Media Lab and MIT AeroAstro?

Newman: That's right. There’s the Space Exploration Initiative, of which I've been an advising faculty member. As director, I'll have my eye on everything. The space initiative has gained a lot of traction and it's uniquely the Media Lab bringing in the arts and the design with the technologies and experiences. That brings in a whole other community, which is amazing.

We say everyone has a place in space and helps us envision the future. It’s really nice being housed in the Media Lab but having connections with the AeroAstro department and with the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department. There’s the Sloan School with some of the ‘astro-preneurs’ as we call them. Students and faculty from any of the five schools are always invited and welcome to participate in the Space Exploration Initiative. In March, there's usually a space week, which is an outreach event where, again, all students are invited to participate. There’s great speakers and astronaut friends and colleagues, and even some MIT alums.

TT: How did your experience serving as NASA Deputy Administrator shape your values on leadership and STEM education?

Newman: [Serving as Deputy] was a phenomenal experience — a dream job. I definitely learned a lot about leadership because NASA is close to an 18,000 person organization. When you're the number two in charge, I also learned a lot about teamwork. 

Of course, it's about people. It's about teaming and about trust. Some of my main responsibilities at NASA were envisioning and articulating our human exploration plans to Mars and the moon, as well as a framework for innovation and assets. It’s an amazing portfolio; you really learn how to multitask, because a lot of it was interacting with the White House and Congress. It was policy, it was leadership, it was budgets. 

STEM education was actually one of the main things for myself and administrator Charles Bolden. We say that we're a $20 billion agency for STEM. NASA is such a great brand for all girls and boys around the world. We really were champions for STEM because we wanted everyone out there watching any launch and watching any of our speeches. Anything that we did and said, we wanted every girl and boy out there to think, “Hey, [NASA] needs you.” The world needs you. 

TT: Is that a picture of you in Antarctica on your personal website?

Newman: Absolutely. That was on the bucket list. The first week we [the NASA science mission team] flew over Western Antarctica to measure the rate of glaciers melting. Those were more for earth science missions and climate-related work. Then, I got to go with the National Science Foundation to the McMurdo base and also to the South Pole. I could talk for another whole hour about the amazing science I learned on the South Pole.