by Aria Socratous
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) established in the 1861 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has the mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world. MIT adopted a European polytechnic university model and stressed laboratory instruction in applied science and engineering. The Institute is traditionally known for its research and education in the physical sciences and engineering, and more recently in biology, economics, linguistics, and management as well. In August 2012, Forbes named the Institute the second-most-entrepreneurial college in the country, and that same month, after taking into account such factors as the potential earnings of graduates, Newsweek’s the Daily Beast named it the nation’s most affordable college. 85 Nobel laureates, 56 National Medal of Science winners, 28 National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners, 65 Marshall Scholars, 45 Rhodes Scholars, 44 MacArthur Fellows, 34 astronauts, and 2 Fields Medalists have been affiliated with MIT. Twenty five MIT students, researchers and alumni honored in the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 lists showcasing America’s most important young entrepreneurs, thinkers, and leaders. It is also notable to mention that between 2000 and 2006, MIT graduates started more than 5,800 companies, and the numbers have only been rising since. The distinguished professor at MIT Sabine Iatridou, Professor of Linguistics, Syntax and Semantics, who has served as Director of the MIT Linguistics PHD Program for many years, talked to THN about her academic career and her great scientific accomplishments which have contributed to a worldwide recognition.
Can you elaborate a little about you? Where you were raised and how you came about creating this niche for yourself?
I was born in Thessaloniki but spent my childhood in Holland, before going back to Greece and finishing high-school and University there. I did not like what I was studying (dentistry), and was constantly looking for other things that I might find exciting and inspiring. I did not want to quit my studies, though, because I felt I would always have to explain that I could have, but did not want to finish. After I graduated with a DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) I left for the University of Chicago, to study Anthropology. After a little over a year there, I saw a job advertised for a Research Assistant at an NSF project on Creole Languages at the University of Hawaii. Having been raised in Europe, I had not realized that Hawaii is mostly a vacation resort and I thought that I would find all sorts of adventures there. I did not find any adventures but I did discover linguistics. While I found anthropology, the study of cultures, interesting, I preferred the scientific methodology of linguistics, its formulation of working hypotheses, falsifiability, predictive power. The possibility of making language the object of scientific inquiry spoke to me. I found the notion of Universal Grammar in particular intriguing. This is the hypothesis that humans are born with an innate capacity for language and that languages are not consciously learned, the way we learn chess, for example. Universal Grammar in combination with exposure to the linguistic environment in which a child is raised together deveop to the final language state that we call the child’s native language. Universal Grammar is responsible for the many deep commonalities between languages and also determines the space of possible languages. The specialization of linguistics called “theoretical linguistics” aims to explore, model, and understand Universal Grammar, as well as the parameters along which languages can differ.So finally it seemed that I had found what I was looking for as a profession. After 2 years in Hawaii, I worked for a year at the University of Amsterdam, again as research assistant, and then went to MIT to do a PhD in Linguistics. After getting my PhD in 1991, I got my first job, which was as Assistant Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Pennsylvania. This was an excellent department but when I was offered the position at MIT, the pull to go back to my alma mater was irresistible and I came to back, as faculty this time, in January of 1997. I have been here ever since.
You served as Director of the MIT Linguistics PHD Program for many years and you are the author and co-author of innovative papers that have opened up whole new domains of research for the field. Is hard work the only secret key to your success?
Well, I guess linguistics is like many things in life, in that it requires a combination of hard work and talent. What is not like that? But the secret to what you call my success, and it is actually not a secret at all, is that I am in one of the top linguistic programs in the world. My colleagues are the very best in their specializations. As a result, if I need to learn something, I have the opportunity to learn from the very best. If my colleagues were not what they are, or if I were in a smaller department, or isolated somewhere and forced to work on my own, my work would have been much, much poorer. So the short answer is that I have benefitted tremendously from the constant access I have to the top people in the field. We interact a lot, co-teach a lot, and co-author a lot. Also, our students (and when I say “students”, I mean our PhD students) are also among the best. They keep us on our toes and just the very fact that we are supposed to help them with their papers and theses and work overall, pushes us facilitates us to get better. So in short, the answer to your question is: the people around me and the interactive atmosphere in the department”.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
I go to MIT between 8 and 9 in the morning, get home around 6pm for family dinner and then work in the evening at home.
This semester I teach 6 hours a week, in 4 intervals of one and a half hours each. Each class takes many hours to prepare, which I mostly do at home in the evenings.
During he day, at MIT, I am mostly in appointments with our PhD students, about 5 hours a day, one hour per student. Sometimes I go to a colleagues class or a talk. I also have certain administrative duties as program director but they can vary a lot, depending on te ime of the semester. The rest of the time, is devoted to my research.
What is your biggest aspiration?
My biggest aspiration is not work-related! I hope for a better world with social justice, equal opportunities for everybody, no wars, no unhappiness.