Science & Engineering

Dr. Charles M. Vest

Leader, Visionary, Engineer, Professor, Artist, Photographer, and Writer

Dr. Charles M. Vest
Donna Coveney/MIT Science & Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award

By Staff
January 13, 2009 is pleased to honor Dr. Charles M. Vest with the Science & Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award for his creativity and innovations in education and research.

Dr. Charles M. Vest is currently the President of the National Academy of Engineering. Previously, Dr. Vest served as the 15th President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 142-year old Cambridge institution, for 14 years, between 1990 and 2004. He is a passionate and powerful advocate and champion for science, technology, research, diversity and openness in education. Dr. Vest is an exceptional leader, innovative visionary, and a great listener with an extraordinary commitment to service.

Bridging Education, Industry, and Government

As President of MIT, Dr. Vest emphasized enhancement of undergraduate education, building a stronger international dimension into education and research programs, developing stronger relations with industry, and fostering racial and cultural diversity at MIT. He was also devoted to bringing issues concerning education and research to public attention and awareness of national policy on science, engineering and education. During his years at MIT, Dr. Vest won the respect of people around the world. His appointment as President of the National Academy of Engineering in 2007 enables Dr. Vest to affect raise the cause of cultivating engineering excellence internationally by the Academy's impact on this nation.

A Young Boy's Creative Instincts Lead to a Path of Increasing Knowledge for Generations

Dr. Vest was born on Sept. 9, 1941 in Morgantown, W.Va. He earned his B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and both his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan in 1964 and 1967, respectively. He is also the recipient of ten honorary doctoral degrees.

Dr. Vest's creativity was developed as a young boy – spending most of his waking hours drawing with a pencil and paper. He loved to draw and found it very enjoyable and relaxing. In junior high school, he took up oil painting, pottery-making and air-brushing, spending his summers indulging in his creative endeavors. He was also involved in photography, taking photos during his travels and developing and printing his own photos.

Dr. Vest believes that creativity is important in our lives. He stated, "Involvement in the arts broadens one's perspective and opens the mind to new possibilities—it's like looking at an image upside down, to see it for what it is and not just as the image your eye is "trained" to see. When we develop our ability to think creatively, we are able to find new solutions to the problems on which we are working, both in our labs and in our lives. I've read many times that scientists who have had truly original ideas almost always think about their mathematics or their science in some sort of nebulous, undefined visual way. I can't help but think that that's closely related to the way artists think and work."

Art and Science Harmonize to Nurture Soul and Improve Mind

Dr. Vest has stated that good scientists and engineers tend to be very creative, many with an interest in music. He goes on to state, "Of the colleagues and students I've come to respect the most over the years, many have had a love and appreciation for the visual and/or performing arts. But involvement in the arts not only helps us in our professions as scientists and engineers. It is simply good for our souls, giving us a different kind of connection with the world. We must participate in the world in more than one way in order to be "complete" as individuals."

Dr. Vest has done much more than preside over one of the world's premier institutions of higher learning, but has advocated the contributions of all educational institutions as a foundation for preserving the progress of engineering knowledge, research and application by our future generations. He is well-known for frequent visits to Washington DC and the Congress not only to garner support for these ideas, but also to serve on various boards. Dr. Vest has promoted partnerships with government, industry, and universities.

Art as a means to Communicate, to Enhance, and to Experience Knowledge

"The arts allow people from very different perspectives and backgrounds to communicate and interact with an almost built-in degree of mutual respect. More broadly, I think that the arts are very important in making us whole. They broaden our worlds, and enable us to participate in and appreciate life more fully and in different ways."

This creative energy inspired him to support a revolutionary idea which stands as one of his greatest accomplishments. That idea is called MIT OpenCourseWare. Unlike conventional thinking which considers teaching materials and coursework proprietary, MIT decided to put teaching material for all 2,000 courses in 33 academic disciplines taught at MIT on the internet, where it can be accessed at no cost worldwide. Dr. Vest believed that this program "would serve to empower and democratize the world and would also serve as a model to inspire other universities to share information, creating a worldwide web of knowledge to benefit mankind." Today, the MIT OpenCourseWare website receives around 1.5 million visits a month from virtually every country in the world. Visitors to the site include students (32 percent), educators (17 percent) and self-learners (49 percent).

As a result of Dr. Vest's vision, there are presently more than 200 higher education institutions and associated organizations from around the world creating a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model.

An Ongoing, Un-selfish Commitment to Service

Dr. Vest has worked to bring issues concerning education and research to public attention and awareness of national policy on science, engineering and education. He chaired the President's Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station and serves on the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.He chaired the U.S. Department of Energy Task force on the Future of DOE Science Programs, was vice chair of the Council on Competitiveness for 8 years, and is a past chair of the Association of American Universities. Dr. Vest recently completed service as member of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction and of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. He also serves on the Department of State Secretary's Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy and the Rice-Chertoff Secure Borders, Open Doors Advisory Board Subcommittee.

Dr. Vest is the author of two books on higher education and research policy: Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of the Research University (MIT Press 2004), and The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web (University of California Press 2007).

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