Faculty living in residence halls with students is a longstanding tradition of the MIT housing system, and heads of house become central figures in their community’s lives as mentors and supporters. In at least one case, a head of house officiated at the wedding of two former residents.
So the announcement of new heads of house marks important moments in both the history and the daily life of an MIT residence hall. This summer, two undergraduate residence halls--Simmons Hall, Maseeh Hall--will welcome new associate heads of house. Additionally, The Warehouse graduate students will welcome interim heads of house for a one-year appointment. All appointments will begin over the summer.
Prof. Danielle Wood and Jonathan Wood, Associate Heads of House in Maseeh Hall
Professor Danielle Wood began her MIT journey in fall 2000 as a first-year student, seeking a college experience that would prepare her to contribute to the space sector while working towards social justice. Nearly 21 years later, Prof. Wood is well on the way to becoming an MIT “lifer,” having earned a bachelor’s degree, dual masters’ degrees, and a PhD at MIT, and returning to MIT as faculty and director of the Space Enabled Research Group in the MIT Media Lab after six years working in the aerospace sector in the Washington, DC, area. As a student, Prof. Wood found a home in McCormick Hall, the No. 6 Club (a coed, international literary fraternity also known as Delta Psi), and Westgate family housing. When she returned to MIT as faculty in 2018, one of her goals was to pursue the role of associate head of house to connect with the next generation of students.
Professor Wood serves as an assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, holds a joint appointment in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and serves as the faculty advisor for students majoring, minoring, or concentrating in African and African Diaspora Studies at MIT. As the first Black woman faculty member in the Media Lab, Prof. Wood combines a passion for space engineering, sustainability, and policy as she leads student researchers and professional staff on the mission of “advancing justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space.” Her projects combine social justice and space engineering by expanding the “benefits that people on earth receive from space technology such as satellite earth observation, communication, positioning and microgravity research.” Taken together with her teaching and community-based collaboration in Benin, Brazil, Ghana, and Indonesia, she is helping students harness their growing expertise and design space-based systems drawing from engineering, design, arts, humanities, and social sciences to address systemic injustice and inequity across society.
Jonathan Wood, the other half of the team, works as an IT program analyst and enjoys community service. He currently volunteers with the Boston Court Appointed Special Advocate organization to advocate for the best interests of children in the foster care system. In their free time, the Woods spend time in nature, especially discovering the many trails and parks in the Boston area.
“When I arrived at MIT in 2000, I was immediately intrigued and welcomed by the residential experience,” Prof. Wood wrote to the search committee. Now, the Woods will be there for students who are likewise beginning their MIT careers.
Prof. Bryan Bryson and Kevin Leiby, Associate Heads of House in Simmons Hall
Through the Bryson Lab, Assistant Professor of Biological Engineering Bryan Bryson’s research focuses on manipulating the immune system to fight Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which infects about a third of the population and kills millions annually. Also an MIT graduate, Prof. Bryan completed his bachelor’s and PhD at MIT and conducted postdoctoral work at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Ragon Institute.
As his research promises to have a significant impact on world health, Prof. Bryson’s interactions with students have had a major impact on him. In his letter to the search committee, Prof. Bryson wrote, “(T)he experiences that have made the biggest mark on me are the ones where I’ve been able to see my students grow, learn, and develop the confidence in themselves to pursue their best version of their envisioned future.”
With partner Kevin Leiby, a management consultant focused on economic development, Prof. Bryson wants to apply their previous experiences feeling like outsiders to create a sense of community and inclusion while channeling their adult experiences to mentor students academically, career-wise, or personally. “One challenge created by the pandemic in our eyes is the lost moments of informal mentorship that occur when you randomly run into someone in the hallway,” they wrote. “Our objective is simple: to make ourselves available for those conversations that unexpectedly happen in a casual residential environment.”
Lastly, they seek to promote wellness to Simmons residents using their own hectic lives as examples. “In our free time, we find balance through running marathons, baking bread, making ice cream, traveling, reading, or just chilling together with Netflix,” they wrote. “Together, we recognize that similar moments of high demands or stress will find the students, graduate resident advisors, and other members of the house team, and we hope to be resources as people find venues for their wellness and share our strategies as appropriate.”
Prof. J. Troy Littleton and Laura Littleton, Interim Heads of House in the Warehouse
This month, Laura and J. Troy Littleton, Menicon Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Biology with appointments in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, will see their child graduate from college. This offered the Littletons an opportunity to increase their level of engagement with students where they live. This led to a one-year appointment to become heads of The Warehouse community for first-year graduate students while Claudia and David Darmofal, Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, take a sabbatical.
This appointment is an extension of the work Prof. Littleton does already with first-year graduate students. “Within the Biology Department, I serve on the Graduate Committee and work as a first-year graduate student advisor to provide counsel and support for students before they join a lab for their thesis work,” he said in a letter of interest to the search committee. “In this role, I help students design their first-year course curriculum, pick labs for research rotations, and deal with any challenges they encounter in moving to Cambridge, handling the course load, or coping with other issues that arise during the first year.”
Laura brings a unique background to the role: she is a Massachusetts-certified preschool teacher and an excellent chef who enjoys sharing the culinary expertise cultivated in her native New Orleans. Laura also served as a residential advisor in college, so she is familiar with some of the challenges that students can face.
In a letter supporting their candidacy, Karen Cunningham, a current graduate student in Prof. Littleton’s lab and a long-time graduate resident advisor at MacGregor House, praised Prof. Littleton’s compassion and generosity, which extended to welcoming Cunningham’s infant daughter into his lab. “I’d be thrilled to see Troy take on this additional mentorship and community role because of his selfless focus on student growth and wellbeing,” Cunningham wrote.
A Central Feature of MIT’s Residential Experience
During the pandemic, heads of house have been at the center of MIT’s residential support program, whether it’s building community through COVID-safe events, collaborating with staff on ever-evolving policies, or being there for students who dealt with the challenges of living on campus but apart from most of their friends. But, long before the pandemic, the heads and associate heads of house worked to make their residence halls welcoming and comfortable spaces where students could relax, learn, and build life-long relationships.
“The heads of house are at the heart of MIT’s student residential experience,” said Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean of student life. “Long after students have graduated and gone on in their lives, they remember their heads of house and the environment their house team promoted in their residence hall. What a pleasure it is to welcome such enthusiastic and highly qualified faculty and their loved ones to join this long, wonderful MIT tradition.”