Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New SDM cohort reflects diversity needed for complex challenges - SDM Pulse Spring 2010

By Lois Slavin, SDM Communications Director

Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, once said “We need diversity of thought to face new challenges.” MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM), addresses this philosophy by weaving diversity of thought throughout the program—in its systems-based approach to leadership and addressing complex, interdisciplinary challenges, in its team-oriented, project-based engineering and management curriculum, and most importantly, in the composition of its student cohort.

Each year, SDM deliberately selects a cohort whose members reflect the diversity of thought necessary to address the world’s most pressing challenges. In addition to meeting the Institute’s highest standards of admissions and academic excellence, every SDM class brings a wide range of experience and expertise to MIT.

The cohort that entered in January 2010 is no exception. Students range from an advisor to the prime minister of Kazakhstan to a former senior VP at Mars, Inc. They hail from a wide array of industries, including aerospace, high-tech, consulting, finance, defense, the military, oil, film, state government and more. They come from countries around the world, among them Canada, China, India, Israel, Spain, and the United States.

The SDM 2010 cohort poses with SDM Industry
Codirector John M. Grace, back row left, and
SDM Fellows Program Director Pat Hale, back row right.
“Because SDM is about complex technical, managerial and social challenges, diversity is critical to teaching our students how to be inclusive in the midst of uncertainty and how to lead and engage others in innovation, teamwork, and systems thinking,” said John M. Grace, SDM’s industry codirector.

Among the 50 students comprising the new class, almost 30 have already earned a master’s degree and several hold two or more. Four hold MBAs; two hold doctorates; and a third is working towards an interdisciplinary PhD at MIT in parallel with his SDM studies. Three students who recently earned SDM’s graduate certificate in systems and product development are now pursuing the SDM master’s. The diversity of the cohort goes beyond academic and professional backgrounds, extending into students’ outside interests too. They include a Formula 1 race car driver, a bagpiper, an “artistic roller skater,” a cellist who once played with Yo Yo Ma, and a member of an a capella singing group called Tonehenge.

Like the 14 SDM cohorts that preceded them since the program’s inception in 1996, the 2010 cohort is made up of experienced professionals ranging in age from their early 30s to mid 50s. Like their predecessors, they intend to enhance and strengthen their technical expertise and acquire the management skills that will enable them to provide value to their workplaces that goes beyond a traditional master’s degree in engineering or an MBA.

“The SDM master’s is not an MBA” said Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program and senior lecturer in engineering systems. “For technical professionals it goes well beyond a traditional MBA because it enables students to cultivate the best skills in both management and engineering.

Albert Po Chia Chen, a product support manager at Entegris in Taiwan prior to joining SDM, is a case in point. “After the financial tsunami, more and more people are questioning the traditional MBA,” he said. “I believe that SDM can equip me with enhanced technical skills, in addition to those in business, that I can apply in different arenas.”

For Rutu Manchiganti, a former senior staff systems engineer at Motorola whose hobby is artistic roller skating, SDM offers the best of both worlds. “I want to get a management education without losing the engineer in me,” she said.

Matt Harper, a product manager at Prudent Energy International who plays bagpipes in his spare time, said he applied to SDM because he wanted a formal business education “without having to learn to think like a finance guy.”

The senior member of the cohort is John Helferich, a retired senior vice president at Mars, Inc. who oversaw R&D for pet care, candy, and rice products. “I want to learn to lead change through societal means,” he said. While at SDM, he plans to focus on food safety and sustainability and continue to teach as an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University.

For most members of SDM’s new cohort, the program offers new ways of thinking, engineering, and managing that will help the address the world’s new challenges. “SDM’s emphasis on systems will give me a broad technical skill set that I can use beyond just semiconductors,” said Swope Fleming, who aims to branch out from that field into clean energy. “SDM will help me bridge the gap between my engineering background and the business world.”

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