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Opening Talk

President Rafael Reif of MIT introduces the Millie Memorial and shares his memories of Millie.

Published onApr 09, 2018
Opening Talk

Rafael Reif, President of MIT
Opening Talk, MIT Memorial

Photo Credit: Geof Cooper

Good afternoon.

Gene, I’m so glad to see you here, today. I'm certain everyone here knows Gene, but just in case, for those who may not know him, Gene was Millie’s husband, her closest collaborator, and her most devoted fan.  Marianne, Carl, Paul, Eliot, and all the family, we’re so grateful to join you in this celebration of Millie’s remarkable life.  And to all of Millie’s friends and admirers, right here with us and in the overflow rooms and watching around the world, welcome. Today, many speakers will convey the story of Millie’s life, her work, and her service.  So I will simply attempt to capture a few of the qualities that make Millie so important to me, to everyone fortunate enough to have her as a mentor, and to this community she loved so much.  

I first came to know Millie through the loving power of her red pen. In retrospect, I think she reserved that red pen for people like me. I was a brand new faculty member, assigned to the Center for Material Science and Engineering. The director was Millie. She was famous already — but maybe not yet super famous. When I was writing my first grant proposal, Millie offered to look it over. The next day, it was back on my desk, covered with her excellent questions and thoughtful corrections, and showing me, with every stroke of her red pen, that she was someone of rare insight and incredible kindness. I was stunned. I simply couldn't believe that a person of such stature would take the time to help a junior professor, someone just starting out, a stranger from another country. But that was just Millie — driven, incredibly hard-working, but so warm, so generous, aware of her own good fortune, and completely down to earth.  

Photo credit: Geof Cooper

If you ever saw her office (and I'm sure almost everyone here did) you know that every surface, floor included, was covered by mountains of paper — all of which she read, and all of which she annotated, including every page of every tenure case she ever voted on.  So I would say that the first thing Millie taught me was the power of noticing.  Noticing patterns that others don’t see is essential to become and being a great scientist.  And Millie surely had that gift.  But she used her amazing mind and heart to notice people too.  From her own experience, she knew that being noticed by the right person at the right time could change your life.  In college, she was noticed and encouraged by her professor, Rosalind Yalow, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize.  In graduate school, Millie was noticed by another legendary Nobel laureate, Enrico Fermi.  Because they lived in the same Chicago neighborhood, he and Millie would walk to campus, together, every day, talking shop.  

Millie and Rosalyn Yalow, her mentor, at the Herbert Otis Lecture at Lehman College, 1991

So Millie made part of her life's work to notice others, especially women students and faculty. I should be clear: being noticed by Millie didn’t necessarily mean you were a genius (remember, she noticed me).  Millie definitely had an eye for talent.  But she also made a point of reaching out to graduate students who were struggling, to bring them into the wonderful community of her lab.  And when she walked back and forth between Building 13 and Building 38, she always made sure that some younger person walked with her, to give them a chance to talk.  

Many of those Millie noticed have gone on to great success, and many carry on her beautiful tradition of reaching down the ladder to help the next person climb up. To honor her memory, every one of us can do that, too.