Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush.
Question: When did science spark your interest?
Vest: Well you’ll hear a similar story from many people my age, I suspect. I had a very early interest in science and sort of things physical. And frankly a lot of it came from the fact that at the end of World War II, there was suddenly on the market all of this amazing army surplus equipment – microphones, and head phones, and radio components. And very early on I got interested in playing with things like that; with working with them with my hands; reading all the typical magazines of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science and so forth. The interesting thing however is that I never really developed any affection at all for mathematics until somewhat later. And so it really wasn’t until about the time that I was in high school and college that I started liking the more abstract-analytical part of science. But a lot of it went really back to playing with surplus equipment. I have to tell you one other story because it’s a little amusing. One of my schoolmates in grade school . . . One of my schoolmate’s father was commander of the local state police post. And one of the things he had to do was raid places that were using slot machines. And he’d have to smash the front of the slot machine, and then his son and I got to tear it apart and get all the relays and components out of it. So I had a lot of fun like that – building model airplanes, all the usual things.I studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at West Virginia University. I actually lived at home and went to school to save money. And immediately upon graduation I was married and we moved to Ann Arbor, and I started graduate school at the University of Michigan. And after that for almost 20 years was a very straightforward kind of academic experience and career. I did my thesis work under a quite extraordinary professor from Turkey named Veda Arpiche, and we worked in what I would really call “applied science” today. We worked on something called Hydrodynamic Stability Theory. But it was a lot of work in fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, heat transfer – which at that time were very exciting fields because they had advanced quite dramatically an association with the . . . with the space program. But I worked in a more sort of theoretical part of that. Then when I graduated I ended up having several opportunities to join good faculties around the country, but I ended up staying at the University of Michigan. And when I did that I decided well I should do something really different. The last thing I wanted to do was stay on and continue the kind of work my thesis advisor did. So at that time the field of holography – three dimensional photography, if you will, based on the use of then very new lasers – was being developed largely at Michigan because in its modern form it was really invented by two faculty members there – Emmitt Leath and ___________. So I decided to go over and start working in their laboratory which was an entirely different field populated by physicists, and electrical engineers, and optics experts. I was the only mechanical engineer. And I got very interested in how this technique of forming these amazing three dimensional images of things could be used to measure properties of importance in the kind of engineering I did. So together with my graduate students, we developed a number of techniques for taking these sort of qualitative images and making them quantitative measurement tools; and in particular became the nth group . . . Or “N” is a very large number to sort of independently discover the principles of computer tomography, which most people know from medical applications getting three dimensional measurements such as look inside of the brain structure and so forth. We did this for things like wind tunnels, and flames, and chemical experiments. And so I did a lot of things all around the theme of taking classical engineering problems and applying this sort of radical new measurement technique to it and moving that technique from something that was qualitative to something that could make quantitative measurements. That sort of in a nutshell is what I did. I planned at that point nothing other than a straightforward academic career because I loved teaching. That’s really why I became a professor even more than the research side. I love teaching, working with my graduate students, doing research, and figured I’d probably do that ‘til I retired. But things turned a corner later. Recorded on: 12/5/07