A Fine Balance of Forces
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.
She had this gift for simplification even as a student, says USC chemical engineer Victor Chang one of Gasts 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 Gasts career. Ask her about the post-Sept. 11 role of universities, and the concept comes into play. Gast co-chairs MITs 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. Thats 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 Gasts 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.
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