This year I made a move from my faculty position at MIT to one at UC San Diego. While there were many wonderful and positive things I was leaving behind in the process (good friends, brilliant students, phenomenal staff and a supportive and scientifically engaging department), the one thing that my backside will miss the most is my Eames lounge chair. I purchased this design icon as a “thinking chair”, but it was a frequent hit with visitors, students and of course the other junior faculty. Indeed, not long after I had made public my decision to head out to San Diego, I received emails like the following from my colleagues:
“If you are not taking it with you right away, can I keep your Eames Chair for “safeguarding” in my office? I promise to give it back whenever you either come back or take it with you..”
Unfortunately, this was not an item that could leave MIT, so it was clear that it had to be passed on to a deserving recipient. But how to pick one person in a department of superstars? Thus was born:
The Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair of Astrophysics
For those who aren’t faculty-nerds, endowed chairs are sort of like “honorariums”, where you get a pot of money to support students, postdocs, research, etc., plus a fancy title that you can add to your curriculum vitae. Well, I had the chair, why not endow it and pass it on to a deserving junior faculty person?
So began the contest, and here were the rules:
- The Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair in Astrophysics is only available for untenured, junior faculty (Assistant or Associate Professor) affiliated with the astrophysics division and the MIT Kavli Institute.
- The recipient of the Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair in Astrophysics is entitled to the installment of said chair in her/his office, and will be awarded a modest grant that may be used for any purpose, research or otherwise (this turned out to be $100).
- The recipient of the Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair in Astrophysics is entitled to indicate this honorific in their publications and/or curriculum vitae (this was more of a dare than a requirement).
- Should the recipient of the Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair in Astrophysics leave MIT or receive tenure while holding the chair, she/he must pass the chair on to another untenured junior faculty and provide an endowment double that originally received. The method by which to select the next recipient is at the discretion of the current chair holder. The name associated with the chair may not be changed (got to keep my legacy in place after all!).
The four eligible applicants – Enectali Figueroa, Scott Hughes, Rob Simcoe & Josh Winn – had to submit one paragraph describing how they would use the chair to further their research career at MIT, with the submissions judged on the basis of originality, elements of humor, font choice, and degree to which they praised and/or made fun of me.
Remarkably, with only one week’s notice, I had 100% participation rate (ha, beat that Packard!). Here were the contestants’ applications (PDF format):
As you can see, the proposals were phenomenal: humorous, deeply introspective, refreshingly creative and (importantly) grammatically accurate – reflecting of course the high quality of the MIT astrophysics junior faculty.
The choice was, as you can expect, difficult.
Rob provided the best justification as to how the chair would further his research career, making a poignant and rather pathetic plea on the grounds that his current seating situation contributes to the “perception that astronomers surround themselves in squalor” (see photo included in his submission). He hoped the chair would “lure unwitting students and collaborators into his office so that they can be enticed into working with him.”
Tali was the champion on originality, with an application written in a 19th century literary formalism, complete with profuse capitalization, abundant use of polysyllabic adjectives and the most beautiful signature I have ever seen.
Scott won hands down on humor, making a clear connection between the chair and his research specialty, gravitation, noting that the chair is the essential tool for preventing one’s natural trajectory in spacetime (i.e., falling).
Josh won on the “most pleasing to read” criterion, with a nicely laid out and clearly legible proposal pleasing to view both on printed page and computer screen, probably reflecting his experience working with copy editors at the Economist (Josh was the first to submit his application, almost immediately after the call for proposals, begging the question as to whether he had anticipated the competition).
The tie-breaker was how the proposer either praised or made fun of me, and all four applications made excellent efforts to this end: Josh equating brown dwarf research to the “Holy Grail of observational astronomy” (without exaggeration of course); Rob discerning my plans for beach lounge chairs and a “desk constructed of surfboards” at UCSD (I do work in the SERF building after all); and Tali’s pointing out the “beloved Gluteus Maximus of the incomparable Professor Adam J. Burgasser”.
But Scott made the best linkage to the chair endower, managing to actually track down the number of my citations since I got the chair (subtly mocked my obsession with the h-index). More importantly he made a committment to include an acknowledgement to the Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair in Astrophysics in every paper he publishes while holding the chair (indeed, he already includes it on his home page).
So congratulations to Scott Hughes, the first recipient of the Adam J. Burgasser Endowed Chair in Astrophysics!