Meet Two of MIT’s New Institute Professors

Marcus Thompson and Sally 'Penny' Chisholm recently received the school's highest faculty honor. —Paul Albani-Burgio

Last month, MIT announced that it had bestowed the title of Institute Professor, its highest faculty honor, to three longtime professors. The announcement represents the first time MIT has named new Institute Professors in seven years, demonstrating just how exclusive this group is on a campus where you can’t swing an engineer’s square without hitting a renowned researcher or instructor. In fact, the current MIT faculty includes more Macarthur Fellows (20) than it does Institute Professors (14) and nearly as many Noble Laureates (9)—seriously!

We recently caught up with two of the honorees: Marcus Thompson, an acclaimed violist and music instructor, and marine biologist Sallie “Penny” Chisholm, who is credited with discovering prochlorococcus, the world’s most abundant phytoplankton. The MIT professors spoke about their work, what they’ve learned in the classroom, and how it has impacted what they do beyond it.

On their areas of expertise:

Chisholm: [Prochlorococcus] are phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants in the sea, and I have been studying phytoplankton my whole career. I got interested in [phytoplankton] as an undergraduate by random events that brought me to study them in an independent research project. Then, when we were studying ocean phytoplankton, there was a group of us that happened upon this prochlorococcus, which is the smallest and most abundant phytoplankton in the ocean, but it was so small nobody could see it before. I just became fascinated with that species because I saw it as something that you could study both in its natural habitat and in the laboratory, which is a powerful combination. I say that prochlorococcus has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving for me. It’s been a constant source of ideas and inspiration since we started working on it.

Thompson: Music at MIT is one of our very best kept secrets. It’s been publicized, it’s been shouted, we put on scores of concerts of every kind for years and years and years even before I got here 42 years ago, and still, people don’t know. So we consider it a well-kept secret and we would like to change that, but the world is the world and the world doesn’t change when you want it to, you just move on.

[I was brought here] because MIT has always had an orchestra, and we’ve always had choruses and first-class jazz, but they didn’t have chamber music. And anyone who came here with the kinds of amazing backgrounds [some of our students have] couldn’t continue their private lessons, so they were in trouble. They went outside and found their own people to work with, if they did that at all, and most of the time they didn’t. So I think that’s why I was brought here, because they wanted someone who could anchor that kind of individualized instruction for talented, gifted musicians.

On the most rewarding and challenging aspects of their work:

C: I think maybe the most rewarding aspect is working with the extraordinary students that I have in my lab doing research and that I teach in my courses. They’re just a constant source of renewal and excitement and they are incredibly talented.

T: The highlight has always been the people. There are individuals I am still in contact with, students I taught over 40 years ago. [I’m] still on friendly, first-name basis with a number. They come to visit me, I go to visit them, and in many cases the highlight is to see that they are still actively interested in music, or actively playing, or that they’ve risen to prominence in some field, but the music is always lurking there. The highlight is to see I have had some kind of impact on that.

On what they’ve learned through teaching:

C: I think I’ve learned that you can learn as much as you can give when you’re teaching, that it’s a two-way street. I’ve also learned this from working on my children’s books. Figuring out how to condense the important concepts into very simple language and constructs really helps you understand them yourself. That’s what I’ve learned: that it’s through teaching that you can really get command of these kinds of topics.

T: I find that in any setting, but especially at MIT, you learn tremendously from the students you are teaching. I still think at the end of a week of teaching here, I am totally exhausted. I am totally overwhelmed by everything that I have learned and am trying to absorb. It’s not just that you know you can do a bullet list of everything you’ve learned in a week, but then you have to absorb it, and if you really want to grow from it, you have to incorporate it in some way. … They have a saying here that getting an education at MIT is like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose. That describes the student’s experience, but it also has to be the teacher’s experience because in order to teach, you have to be learning yourself.

On time in the classroom and the work they do outside it:

C: I think that the teaching helps me to hold onto the big picture of the Earth and the whole Earth system, and that big picture actually guides our thinking when we are thinking about smaller scale things, and what individual phytoplankton are doing, and what’s the next experiment. It’s the context of the big picture that steers the direction of the lab and helps identify what we think is important. Plus, we always teach about material that is much, much broader than what we are specialists in, and so it forces you to think in an interdisciplinary way, and you always bring that perspective into the kinds of experiments we design and who you might collaborate with, so it’s a very synergistic enterprise. In the years that I don’t teach, when I am on sabbatical, I realize that I get stale faster.

T: On some level, people who go to see a performance want to be entertained. They want to be presented with someone’s convictions. They want you to inhabit the material and that requires study and preparation. So nowadays when these kinds of music are performed there’s a lot of scholarship that tells you about the manuscript, the text, the composer, and we try to know as much of that as we can because it really does affect the decisions we make. In that sense, it’s very interesting that a lot of the pieces I am performing as a player I am teaching to the students, so [for] me it is the beauty of what I do that I come into direct contact with things in all configurations. I’m studying while I’m teaching and so when I go up to play something, I’ve heard it, I’ve studied the score, I’ve seen the score, I’ve helped other people.

I think the real gift of teaching is that there are things that you know that you do not have access to until you have to explain it someone else. So I am not the personal beneficiary of anything until I actually share it with somebody else. Having to explain something to someone is a way of knowing it.

On not carrying a cellphone:

T: It encourages face-to-face contact or writing a letter and is actually pretty common among the professors here. It creates a culture that is actually very different from the futurist culture you think about with MIT. People sit down and talk to each other and enjoy the experience.