Holding space for tough topics

Michael Birnbaum (center) with two of his students

Michael Birnbaum has been recognized as Committed to Caring, for his wide-reaching support of students and his departmental leadership.

Daniel Korsun | Office of Graduate Education

December 7, 2022

MIT professor Michael Birnbaum strives to prepare his students for success, from day one of graduate school through embarking on an enriching career path. For the thoughtfulness and depth of his feedback, the variety of different career paths he exposes students to, and his far-reaching inclusiveness within both his lab and his greater department, he was honored as Committed to Caring.

Birnbaum is the Class of 1956 Career Development Professor and an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT. He also holds an affiliation with the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. His group’s research centers on the immune system, particularly on investigating natural immune responses and how to utilize these responses to treat various afflictions, such as infections and cancer.

Encouraging student growth

Graduate school is first and foremost a learning opportunity, and receiving input on their studies from peers, colleagues, and especially advisors is integral for graduate students. Providing valuable guidance is important to Birnbaum: “I try to teach [my students] everything I know about how to be a thoughtful scientist and engineer, and I do my best to be honest in feedback,” Birnbaum wrote, “even if it can lead to difficult conversations.”

When approached by his students, Birnbaum not only gives them careful feedback on their work but also explains in detail his thought processes in an effort to help them better understand how to improve. This insight into the mind of a faculty member proves very valuable.

According to his students, Birnbaum encourages them to connect with others in academia and pursue opportunities to present their research and gather additional input. One nominator described at length how Birnbaum built up their confidence by finding opportunities for them to present their cutting-edge research to peers, both within MIT and at other universities.

Birnbaum doesn’t just care about his students’ successes during graduate school; he also wants them to end up in the career that best suits them. As his nominators described, Birnbaum intentionally exposes his students to multiple career paths, so that they can choose the career that most excites them. One nominator described how Birnbaum helped them “learn about career paths [they] would never have been exposed to otherwise.”

Birnbaum is proud of the efforts he takes to prepare his students for different careers, and makes this preparation a key pillar of his mentorship. In his words, he tries “to be mindful that post-MIT life is not a monolith — there’s a huge diversity of interests and ambitions for all our mentees.” This includes exposing his students to careers in academia, the biotech industry, and even venture capital.

Advocating for diversity initiatives

The past several years have brought to light some serious issues present in academia across the country. This has led to new efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion across campuses. MIT has taken these issues to heart, and recently released new guidelines and a strategic plan to tackle these important issues through three main pillars: belonging, achievement, and composition. According to his students, Professor Birnbaum has been one of the primary drivers for these initiatives in the Department of Biological Engineering.

Multiple students described how Birnbaum acted considerately and constructively in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Birnbaum initiated dedicated time for reflection, conversation, and introspection as a lab, and according to one student, “encouraged [each person] to do so in our own, respective interpersonal channels.”

Birnbaum used this moment to foster discussions within his lab group about how to increase diversity internally, as well as brainstorm how to increase scientific access for diverse and underrepresented populations within the greater scientific community.

According to one of his students, Birnbaum works on translating discussion into action by leading several belonging, achievement, and composition efforts within the Department of Biological Engineering, and also by committing $10,000 of his own unrestricted funds to increase diversity within his laboratory group.

It is clear that Birnbaum’s passion for advising and for improving academia for people of all backgrounds have made a deep and lasting impact on the MIT community. One nominator summed up Birnbaum’s inspirational mentorship thusly: “His social consciousness and concern is infectious, and his scientific prowess is unmatched. Michael is the ideal advisor to undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students alike.”

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