Alumni Profile

A Fine Balance of Forces

Last fall, Alice Gast '80 assumed one of the highest posts in her profession when she was named vice president for research and associate provostof MIT. “It’s a rarity that a woman gets to an administrative position in which she can influence policy,” says USC chemist Hanna Reisler, putting in perspective the importance of Gast’s leadership role at the nation’s top scientific-technical institute. “In that regard, it is a landmark achievement and [she is] a role model for young women who would like to go to academia and would like to see that they can be full participants in this enterprise,” adds Reisler, who coordinates USC’s Women in Science and Engineering grant program.

The defining moment that steered Gast down this path came while she was still in high school. The daughter of a biochemist, her passions were chemistry, physics and math: “There was a society of women engineers meeting at Long Beach State College, a few blocks from my house. So I went to it and heard women talking about the various disciplines,” she says.

Alice Gast on her students: “I view them
as one of the greatest impacts I have on society.”
That meeting led her to USC, where she graduated as valedictorian in 1980; then on to Princeton for a Ph.D. and to Stanford for a faculty appointment in 1985. There she made remarkable strides in the study of complex fluids and colloids. “When these materials are in a liquid,” she explains for benefit of the scientifically challenged, “they are dispersed and stabilized by a fine balance of forces.” Develop the right mixture, for instance, and you get the shiniest paint for a car.

She had this gift for simplification even as a student, says USC chemical engineer Victor Chang – one of Gast’s early mentors whom she calls a “great influence.”
“What impressed me most was her ability to cut through the complexity of a problem and to formulate a simple approach to find a solution,” he says.

Finding a “fine balance of forces” is the prevailing metaphor for Gast’s career. Ask her about the post-Sept. 11 role of universities, and the concept comes into play. Gast co-chairs MIT’s Committee on the Protection of Human Life and Infrastructures, a group poised to provide valuable technical expertise to the government. But governmental service involves a fine balance between academic freedom and the need for secrecy. “If one starts doing a lot of research that is deemed classified information, then you have difficulties with openness,” Gast
says. “That’s a tradeoff every institution has to think about.” She broaches a related concern, the tension between security and internationalism, which may cause students to be excluded from sensitive research based on their nationality.
Students are the heart of Gast’s career at MIT. “As they go off and have productive lives, I view them as one the greatest impacts I have on society,” she says.

Gast is well on her way to achieving the goal she set out in the speech she gave 20 years ago at her USC graduation ceremony: “I hope we can crawl out of our suburban incubator and make a difference in the world, and live in a society where we give a damn.”

– Nancy Randle

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Alumni Profiles

Joe Crow '39

Alice Gast '80

Mark Monro '83

Matt Vasgersian ’90

In Memoriam

Julie Kohl

Edward Zapanta