Chisholm, Rivest, and Thompson appointed as new Institute Professors
MIT News Office
Biologist, computer scientist, and musician awarded MIT’s highest faculty honor.
A marine biologist who studies tiny ocean organisms, a computer scientist who developed a global security standard, and an acclaimed violist who has performed with renowned orchestras have been awarded MIT’s highest faculty honor: the title of Institute Professor.
Sallie “Penny” Chisholm, Ron Rivest, and Marcus Thompson join a small group of Institute Professors at MIT, now numbering 13, along with 10 Institute Professors emeriti. Their new appointments are effective July 1, making them the first faculty members to be named Institute Professors since 2008.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif says, “Although our new Institute Professors were chosen as individuals, it is interesting to consider them together: Penny Chisholm, a pioneering field scientist whose discoveries revolutionized our understanding of the oceans; Ron Rivest, a brilliant theorist and problem-solver who ranks as one of the founding fathers of modern cryptography; and Marcus Thompson, among the most celebrated string performers in the United States today.
“Their fields could not be more different,” Reif says. “Yet each is an explorer, creator, and teacher of the first order. Together they reflect the standard of faculty excellence that is a signature of MIT.”
The appointments of Chisholm, Rivest, and Thompson as Institute Professors were announced today in an email to the faculty from Provost Martin Schmidt and Steven Hall, chair of the MIT faculty and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
“This special position is a unique honor bestowed by the Faculty and Administration of MIT,” Schmidt and Hall wrote. “Such appointments recognize exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment, and service in the scholarly, educational, and general intellectual life of the Institute and wider community.”
Sallie “Penny” Chisholm
The world’s oceans are filled with a tiny bacterium, Prochlorococcus, that produces about 10 percent of the world’s oxygen — making this tiny creature fundamental to life on Earth.
No one knows more about Prochlorococcus than MIT biologist Sallie “Penny” Chisholm, who has been the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor in Environmental Studies at MIT since 2002. Indeed, she was a co-discoverer of Prochlorococcus in the 1980s, and has been heavily focused on it ever since, publishing a series of findings detailing how Prochlorococcusinteracts with other creatures and influences the environment on a planetary scale — work that seems increasingly significant at a time when climate change may be altering the world’s oceans.
Being named an Institute Professor “was really a total surprise and not something I had ever, ever considered,” Chisholm says. She is quick to emphasize the collaborative nature of her research, and credits colleagues and students for propelling her own research forward.
Beyond that, Chisholm quips, “I have two things to thank: MIT and Prochlorococcus.”
Chisholm grew up in Marquette, Michigan. After receiving her BA in biology from Skidmore College and her PhD in biology from the State University of New York at Albany, she arrived at MIT in 1976 as a marine ecologist studying microorganisms in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She soon found it to be a productive setting.
“My career has been shaped by MIT,” Chisholm says. “The combination of science and engineering has been very powerful for my work. In my lab, we’ve always been able to mix the two together. There’s a continuum. Mix them together and watch people interact, and the combination is so much more powerful.”
And while Chisholm’s research had produced significant advances by the 1990s, the advent of large-scale genomics created a new window into the evolution of Prochlorococcus, helping her lab to link the evolutionary, ecological, and molecular aspects of these microorganisms.
“A major change happened about 15 years ago, when genomics entered marine biology,” Chisholm says. “And we were lucky enough to be on the forefront of that. … It’s completely changed the way I think about oceans and ecology and the field. It keeps getting more and more exciting.”
Chisholm says that being named an Institute Professor “is not just about me, but my field, recognizing what I do and my students do as being something of value. That makes me as happy as the honor itself.”
“Penny not only made a paradigm-shifting discovery in the study of oceans, but went on to pioneer a new field,” Hall says. “She’s applied her research to inform the debate about global warming in meaningful ways, and her successes have drawn many younger faculty to MIT.”
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