We celebrate this National Women’s History Month by remembering Ellen Richards. MIT has come a long way since the day it opened doors to Ellen, while achievements of generations of MIT alumnae continue to pave the way.
Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and notably the first woman in America accepted by any school of science and technology. With a bachelor of science degree, she established a women’s laboratory at MIT and was the first female instructor teaching at the institute.
But she didn’t stop there.
Ellen became a pioneer in sanitary engineering while dedicating her experimental research in domestic science–that which helped her lay the groundwork for home economics. Not only did she contribute to the founding of a new science, Ellen started the home economics movement by applying science to the home. Here’s something we can all relate to: nutrition. Nutrition is a part of our daily vocabulary–in all walks of life around the world. We speak it in the context of healthy life, growing infants, adolescence, athletic performance, developing countries, aging. Ellen was the first to discover and apply chemistry to the study of nutrition.
So, what was it like to be the “first woman”–a trailblazer–in the 19th century? Not easy.
Ellen’s admission into MIT was couched as an experiment. As she later learned, the institute waived her tuition so then president “J. D. Runkle could say that she wasn’t a student if any trustees or students objected. It also freed MIT from any obligation should the experiment fail.”
What other career and life obstacles did Ellen have to overcome, to accomplish as much as she did? What gave her the drive to break from the traditional path? How was a woman with such ambition and drive being perceived by her peers at the time?
Throughout the 150+ years of the MIT history, many, many alumnae have shattered the glass ceiling again and again, making their way to becoming celebrated scientists and technologists, entrepreneurs, leaders of global enterprises, academia and the United States government.
Megan Smith (‘86): the third Chief Technology Officer of the United States (U.S. CTO) and Assistant to President Barack Obama.
Ilene Gordon (‘75): studied mathematics and became a highly accomplished business leader who was named one of the top 50 most powerful women by Fortune Magazine in 2012.
Shirley Ann Jackson (‘73): the first African-American woman graduated from MIT with a doctorate degree in nuclear physics. During the Clinton administration, she served as the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Five of the 10 most successful MIT graduates named by QS World University Rankings® are women.
Fast forward to 2018, Bridget Brett, an MIT alumna and president of MITCNC, along with the club volunteers are hard at work to expand the participation of women and girls in science, technology and business. Bridget has shared her thoughts on the club’s upcoming programs and how they will empower women and girls.
ANNA: How does MITCNC celebrate the accomplishments of our alumnae and their contributions to the communities, to the nation, and in many cases, to the world?
BRIDGET: One great upcoming example is by inviting them to showcase their knowledge and experience as speakers for the upcoming Artificial Intelligence (AI) tech conference on April 20 – 21. During planning, we approached key industry women early. Many of the alumnae are now in the 2018 speaker lineup. You’ll see that they have a wide range of experience from startup CEOs, scientists, AI engineers, VCs to corporate management.
ANNA: These women speakers make excellent role models for the younger generation. Would you share with us club initiatives that are helping young girls develop interest in science & tech?
BRIDGET: Yes, not only are we focusing on girls, and boys (from Kindergarten to 12 grade), we open this event and its AI technology demonstrations to underprivileged kids, so they too have the opportunity to learn and explore these technologies first-hand. “The Future of AI–Kids Day” will be held during the third day of the AI conference. MIT Club’s K12 STEM outreach event will feature 20 of the most interactive technologies of intelligent machines, AR, VR for the youngest generation–of course, including girls and underserved girls.
ANNA: How do you envision leadership-building for our alumnae?
BRIDGET: We are also planning an MITCNC alumnae mentorship program to connect young professional alumnae with experienced alumnae. We will soon launch MIT Connect, a tool that first debuted in Cambridge with MIT’s campus. With an MIT Alumni Association login, alumni are algorithmically matched on key interests, location, and preference for time to connect over lunch or coffee. Ron Koo (‘89) and his team are helping to launch that for our alumnae in the Bay Area.
ANNA: And the next step?
BRIDGET: Start with alumnae. Be on the lookout for details on this in a weekly MITCNC newsletter. We appreciate all the MITCNC volunteers for their energy, time and enthusiasm. On this special occasion, we are especially thankful for the dedication of alumnae to the MITCNC: Catherine Calarco, Sandra Chen, Patricia Cheng, Serena Chung, Nayela Keen, Anjuli Mehrotra, Pui-wa Li, Anna Luo, Ting Ting Luo, Elizabeth Ng, Elizabeth Seifel, Judith Selvidge, Joanne Spetz, Pamela Tang, Anne Westbrook, Wendi Zhang.
Ellen Richards blazed the trail for so many women who, like her, have since received an education from MIT and made significant contributions in science and technology, mathematics, business, education, government and many more.
But we don’t stop here.
Ellen went on to change lives through her new inventions. She dedicated her career to expanding women’s boundaries. Now, it’s our turn.